Miles Davis. What he Teaches

Photo by Luana Bento on

Saw a wonderful documentary on Miles Davis, the star African American artist, on Netflix.
The blend of archival footage with interviews of relevant people in his life includes clips of the musician himself describing what he was going through at the time.
As a child his parents wanted him to learn to play an instrument. Mother suggested the violin, father insisted on the trumpet. And that was the start of a long creative period that helped define an era in jazz music. The birth of the cool, some called it.
His talent showed early and kept growing.
Right after high school he left East St Louis where he had grown up and travelled to New York to play with stars like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in clubs along a strip on 52nd street.
He went to Europe and captivated audiences with his sound. He loved Paris. But he always returned to New York.
Music was everything to him, he said. ‘I woke up with it and went to bed with it’.
That’s what dominated his life, what guided him and pushed him relentlessly to do the best he could. And the audiences loved him.
Then drugs started showing up.
When he surrendered to them, he would go into dark periods where he turned paranoid and abusive with the women he loved. They put up with it for a while but then left.
The talent, though, never left him.
The dark periods sometimes lasted for months, sometimes for years. But he kept coming back until the end. He died of a stroke at a hospital in Santa Monica, CA. in 1991 at age 65, in the company of a professional painter with whom he had begun to collaborate. Yes, he did that, too.
Seeing the film I felt the power of his talent, the relentless search for innovative sounds. And I wondered, how come a man with such gifts surrenders to a drug?
Why is the acclaim, the widespread celebration of his abilities, not protective in itself?
Perhaps, I offer, the artist had not cultivated his self knowledge.
And just what does that mean?
It means acquiring the ability to self govern, the ability to put up with the pain of our limitations as human beings. We all have them, regardless of how enormous our talents may be.
Emotional pain visits us all. It does not spare anyone. But learn to square with it, learn to look it in the face, and we will acknowledge our inevitable limitations as individuals.
Processing that pain is crucial for our emotional growth so that slowly, over time, we can say, ‘I’m learning to know who I am. To know where I am strong and where I am vulnerable.’
We thoroughly enjoy our natural highs. The feeling of elation that comes from succeeding at a task or from being with friends. The profound satisfaction to be found with a lover.
Drugs attempt to bypass the work that goes into achieving and enjoying such natural highs.
Talent alone will not give us the protection we need against the pain of living.
But sharing the pain will.
I have no idea of the depth of pain Miles Davis felt throughout his life, but to isolate and invite drugs to our solo parties, is to ask death to join in.
To learn to self govern we must share our pain first. Share our pain second. Share our pain often. And we’ll be ready to put up with it when there’s no one around to share it with.

Guns and The Fragility of Our Egos

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The news flashed across my phone’s screen a few hours ago. 14 children and a teacher were killed in a Texas elementary school.
What? Wasn’t it just 10 days ago that 10 African Americans were killed at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York?
Yes. And still it happened again. And it will keep happening.
Voices in support of the right to bear arms will roar in defense of their freedoms.
Voices in favor of gun control will rise too, with equal conviction.
And then the shootings will die down for a few weeks, only to start again.
It will happen anywhere. There’s no one state, city or town that is immune to it.
No age, sex or race that will be spared.
And so America, our dear nation, will bleed and keep bleeding. Senselessly.
Gun control would help and civil liberties are essential. But there’s something more basic at stake here.
The fragility of our egos. And how we are choosing to hide behind guns.
To address this we must learn to speak in the language of emotions.
Why are we so scared of each other?
Why can’t we pause when we have differences and attempt to dialogue?
What are we missing in our emotional learning that makes us so likely to feel threatened?
Why does discourse on critical issues quickly move to hostile remarks?
Something is festering in us and it has to do with the fragility of our egos.
We mustn’t ignore it because we are bleeding.
Hiding behind guns doesn’t help.
All lives are precious. Our problems on this earth are daunting. We need everybody’s contributions.
And so we must get to work on using the language of emotions.
We should be willing to speak of our fears, our anger, our envy, for they are with us every single day of our lives. We should be able to speak of those emotions without shame.
As we grow more comfortable with acknowledging our feelings we will become less paranoid, more confident and personally secure, more willing to listen to each other, perchance to understand and, soon enough, may not be so quick to hide behind guns.
It will take some time – maybe decades – but we have to get started. It is a matter of national urgency.
Immersing ourselves in the language of emotions is essential to our future wellbeing.
I will send this letter to president Biden in the hope it may spark some initiative, if it is not already afoot.
Ultimately, though, it is up to each and every one of us to make the effort.
Help stop the bleeding. Speak of your emotions. Let us strive to not hide behind guns.

Oscar Valdes is the author of Letters to a Shooter. Available in my website and on youtube.,,, buzzsprout, apple and google podcasts.