We have many reasons to be proud here in St. Louis, from our sports (go Blues!) to our cultural institutions and history. Not to mention our region has produced some of the most legendary and influential musicians of all time. This Sunday, May 26, we celebrate the birthday of one of those music monsters: Miles Davis.
His name needs no explanation to any music fan. His influence, like his swagger and “cool,” could not be contained to just jazz, reaching across genres into R&B, hip hop, and even rock. A legendary trumpet player, innovative visionary, and arguably the greatest jazz trumpeter of all time, Miles Davis was born in Alton, Illinois, spent many of his formative musical years in East Saint Louis, and launched his early career at jazz clubs throughout the city.
Miles Davis’ father, Miles Dewey Davis, Jr., was a dentist and moved the family from Alton to East St. Louis when Miles was a young child. His mother, Cleota, was a music teacher and violinist, and encouraged Miles’ interest in music. Eventually, the family moved to the house on 1701 Kansas Avenue, where it currently stands as a museum, educational center, and teaching garden. Tucked in a stark neighborhood, it is affectionately referred to as “HOME” (an acronym for House of Miles EStL) by its founder and president, Lauren Parks.
It turns out Lauren’s family has history with Miles’ family. Her mother and mother’s siblings grew up with Miles and his siblings, and spent many good times at the old house. Miles’ younger brother, Vernon, lived in the house until his death in 1999. For years, the house sat empty, in danger of being torn down as the Davis family searched for a non-profit to which they could donate the property. Many people and organizations passed up the opportunity until it caught the attention of Ms. Parks, a former teacher and executive assistant to the Mayor of East St. Louis. “I’m not gonna let Miles Davis’ house fall down. We can’t do that!” she exclaimed.
With her long-time friend and fellow educator, Jas Gary Pearson, who serves as the organization’s Vice President, they hatched a plan to renovate the house and turn it in to what it is today. But it wasn’t an easy path. In 2011 when they acquired the house, it was in disrepair, boarded up, and looked to be more of a tear down than a fixer-upper. However, a structural engineer ensured the building was safe to renovate, and so it began.
A true labor of love, most of the work (as well as early funding) was done by Lauren and Gary, and other volunteers who knew the history of the house and believed in the vision Lauren and Gary had for it. Their grand opening in June of 2018 (soft opening in 2016), marked the end of a monumental effort to launch the museum and educational enrichment programming, and the beginning of something truly remarkable.
The interior layout of the house is largely as it was when Miles lived here, with original flooring, windows and doors. You can practically hear him playing in the upstairs bedroom (a tiny space was his preferred “room” for practicing), which is now a classroom where local students come to explore all aspects of their creativity. The house now serves as a repository for all things Miles related and some one-of-a-kind artifacts and history you can only see or learn about here.
“When you Google Miles Davis…you don’t [hear] about the snoots and the jack fish and the fun times and his early years in this house,” a smiling Lauren explains. She goes on to share that students who visit the house enjoy learning about Miles growing up. “Miles had to start somewhere…and we love to share with our young people, ‘He started here, right here in East St. Louis.’ We love to inspire our young people with those types of stories, as well as letting them know Miles also did different things. He liked to box! And there was a period where he didn’t record music and he began sketching…Don’t let people put you in a box and define you. Define yourself!” Such appropriate wisdom to impart at the home of Miles.
Make no mistake, HOME is about Miles Davis. The magic is listening to Lauren talk about Miles’ early years here before his departure to Julliard in 1944. “One of Miles’ biggest influences growing up was Elwood Buchanan, who was the band director at Lincoln High School and well-known here.” says Parks. “He was also a patient of Miles’ father, and they developed a close relationship.” There’s a photo on a shelf that shows an older Miles Davis listening intently to Buchanan. Clearly, he had an impact and his words resonated within Davis. It was Buchanan who encouraged Miles to play without vibrato, which would be his style throughout his career. Miles said he preferred a “round” sound with no attitude.
Throughout the early 1940’s, Miles played in several local bands and continued to play in the high school marching band for his mentor, Buchanan. He took lessons from Joseph Gustat, the principle trumpeter of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, and played with another world-renowned St. Louis trumpeter, Clark Terry, for several years. Eventually, Miles left East St. Louis in September of 1944 to attend the Institute of Musical Arts, which would become The Julliard School. Frustrated by the professors’ lack of knowledge and understanding of his style of playing, Davis left Julliard without finishing, and the rest is history.
Today the House of Miles is a thriving legacy to Miles Davis. Young people who have never heard of him are influenced by the experiences they have had here at HOME, and have the opportunity to transform their own lives. The success stories which Lauren and Gary graciously share are as much a part of the tour as those of Miles’. To have someone of such talent, influence, and fame come from their own backyard instills hope and empowerment. The classes at HOME allow kids ages 10-18 to explore all aspects of their creativity, from music to art to creative writing. And they do it in the room Miles grew up in.
The house also serves as an art gallery and displays artwork from local high school students and local artists. Art showings are scheduled quarterly throughout the year. Interested collectors can purchase some of the works displayed, which currently includes pieces from local artist Mykael Ash.
The House of Miles is now completing phase one of three phases. Phase one was to get the house renovated and the museum operational. The next two phases will expand the footprint of the museum to display more artifacts from Miles Davis’ life, including recordings and other works.
HOME is a fitting way to celebrate a man who has contributed much to our culture. Tours run about one hour long (or longer depending on how much you want to discuss Miles). Be sure and ask about the butterfly in their logo. Lauren and Gary will tell you a wonderful story about transformation and keeping your ears and eyes open. “We think we’re helping transform the kids who come here, but it’s the kids who are the engine that drive us,” Gary tells us. “We’re the ones being transformed.”
After your visit, stop into Joe-Man’s Bar and Grill located at 3800 St. Clair Ave in East St. Louis, where we’re told they serve up some good jack fish that Miles would have enjoyed.
Happy Birthday, Miles! Your HOME is all it should be and more.
Tours are given by appointment only. To schedule a tour, call (618) 213-8120 or email ‘[email protected].’ Visit their website at http://houseofmilesestl.org/. HOME is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.