Bloody police assault on Miles Davis feels like it could have happened yesterday
The 1959 attack outside a jazz club was a rare instance in which police brutality against a Black celebrity was widely covered
famed Black artist is beaten by two police officers in Midtown Manhattan and falsely charged. It sounds like it could be any one of countless news stories from the past year, but in fact we’re talking about 1959. The artist was Miles Davis.
In the eyes of the American public, Davis was an icon.
In the eyes of the New York City Police Department, he was Black.
At the time, New York’s jazz scene was sizzling, especially in Midtown, where night after night more than a dozen clubs showcased the biggest names. Birdland, the self-proclaimed “jazz corner of the world,” sat in the heart of it — on Broadway, just north of 52nd Street. On Aug. 25, Miles Davis’ name stretched across its marquee.
Davis, already an international star, was fresh off his release of the groundbreaking Kind of Blue, which would go on to become the bestselling jazz album of all time. His face was on the Mount Rushmore of Fifties cool, alongside actors Marlon Brando, James Dean, and Paul Newman.
Shortly after midnight, the 33-year-old trumpeter and bandleader stood outside the club between sets. Despite the oppressive summer heat, he was dressed to the nines in a bespoke Italian sports jacket. Puffing on a cigarette, he walked a white, blonde woman to a taxi. Then he stood beneath the marquee, sweating, and signing autographs for a group of fans.
That’s when white patrolman Gerald Kilduff walked up to Davis and told him to move along. Davis explained that he was working at the club. He pointed at the marquee and the photos on the lobby card. Kilduff made it obvious he didn’t care. He called Davis a wise guy and told him to follow orders.
But Davis, having done nothing wrong, refused to obey.
Davis elaborated on the scene in his 1989 autobiography, Miles. “I just looked at his face real straight and hard, and I didn’t move. Then he said, ‘You’re under arrest!’ He reached for his handcuffs, but he was stepping back … I kind of leaned in closer because I wasn’t going to give him no distance so he could hit me on the head … All of a sudden from out of nowhere, this white detective runs in and BAM! hits me on the head. I never saw him coming. Blood was running down the khaki suit I had on.”
The detective swinging the blackjack was Don Rolker, who, as Davis wrote, was “beating on my head like a tom-tom, his breath reeking with liquor.”
Dozens of eyewitnesses called the Amsterdam News. According to the paper, one witness, Elaine Smith, was so outraged, she started hitting Rolker herself.
Within minutes, police cars converged, their sirens drowning out the protesting crowd. Davis was thrown into a squad car and driven to the Midtown North police precinct on West 54th Street, a gaggle of angry fans trailing behind.
The musician was booked for disorderly conduct and assaulting a police officer, and then brought to St. Clare’s Hospital to have the lacerations on his scalp stitched closed. After that, he was taken back to the precinct and locked in a cell.
In the months leading up to Davis’ arrest, incidents of police brutality against Black suspects had sparked protests and inflamed tensions between the police and the Black community. Consider the headlines splashed across the city’s papers that summer:
New York Amsterdam News: NAACP Protests Cop Brutality
Associated Press: Race Riot Feared in New York
New York Times: 4 Negro Areas Get Extra Police Units
The New York Age: Brooklyn Rally Protests New Cop Attacks
Newsday: Mayor Discounts Riot Peril in Harlem
Davis had arrived in New York City in 1944. He’d been raised in an upper-middle-class home in a diverse neighborhood in East St. Louis, Illinois. His father, Miles Dewey Davis Jr., was a dentist and the owner of a 300-acre farm that bred prized hogs. Davis’ family had a maid and a cook, but the young Miles saw his share of racism. As a child, he was chased by a white neighbor wielding a shotgun. Later, when touring the Jim Crow South, he and fellow musician Charles Mingus were forced to get their food from the kitchen entrance of restaurants.
Vincent Wilburn, Davis’ nephew, was both a producer and a sideman with Davis’ band in the 1980s. Wilburn told The Undefeated that despite Davis’ disappointment in New York’s racial politics, he was ready to handle them. “Uncle Miles came from a long line of proud African American men who didn’t take any s— off of anybody. He didn’t like that shuckin’ and jivin’, and bowing down. He liked sports cars and nice clothes, that’s what he was raised around… [His father] was one of the first Black dentists to go to dental school at Northwestern University … [His father] drove a Jaguar in the ’30s when he couldn’t drink out of a water fountain.”
Quincy Troupe, who co-wrote Davis’ autobiography, was a teenager in St. Louis when Davis first came on the scene. “I used to see him in clubs,” Troupe said. “I would watch him like a hawk: the way he stood at the bar; the way he dressed and his style; the way he wore sunglasses and didn’t talk to nobody. The way he held his cigarette… He didn’t take no s— off nobody.”
Davis’ vibe was no accident. He looked up to legendary trumpeters Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie, but wanted no part of what he saw as their pandering. “I always hated the way they used to laugh and grin for the audiences,” he wrote in Miles. “I come from a different social and class background than both of them. We look at white people a little differently.”
Marcus Miller, the bass player and composer who collaborated with Davis on three albums during the 1980s, told us, “I asked him why he didn’t smile onstage. He said, ‘Man, I just can’t. I hate that s—.’ That was a requirement for black entertainers in the era before him, [but] he was determined to be viewed as an artist as opposed to an entertainer.”
The day after Davis’ arrest, his name was plastered in headlines throughout the country — complete with news of his release on $1,000 bail, and photos of him leaving the courthouse, his head in bandages, his clothes smeared with blood.
Davis walked out with his head held high, his wife, Broadway dancer Frances Taylor, and his lawyer, Harold Lovett, at his side.
“Miles is bloodied,” cultural critic Greg Page said, discussing the photos. “But he looks completely unbowed. And he has his incredibly beautiful wife by his side. It has the effect of making the cops look like savages — and Miles the sophisticated, cosmopolitan artiste that he was.”
Upon his arrest, the police revoked Davis’ cabaret card, which meant he was suspended from performing in New York clubs.
“I don’t care,” Davis told reporters. “I don’t want to work at Birdland anymore. I don’t want to work any place where you can’t put a lady in a taxi and you can’t stand on the sidewalk without being pushed around by the police.”
Five months later, after two court hearings — one for each offense — Davis was acquitted of both charges and given his license back.
In the first hearing, held that October, Magistrate Kenneth Phipps ruled that civilians did not have to heed a policeman’s order to move if there was no sound reason for the directive. “A policeman cannot arbitrarily and capriciously order a person to move,” he determined.
In the second, which took place in January 1960, the court ruled that Davis’ arrest was illegal, saying, “It would be a travesty on justice to convict Davis of assaulting the policeman who made such [a bogus] arrest.”
Davis let it rip in his autobiography. “I would have expected this kind of bull about resisting arrest and all back in East St. Louis,” he wrote. “But not here in New York City, which is supposed to be the slickest, hippest city in the world. But then, again, I was surrounded by white folks and I have learned that when that happens, if you’re black, there is no justice. None.”
Davis was prepared to sue the New York police department, but his attorney failed to act before the statute of limitations ran out. “I was madder than a motherf—er,” he wrote in Miles, “but there wasn’t nothing I could do about it.”
Davis’ arrest made him even more popular. His cool had been stress-tested, and he’d passed with flying colors. He was now standing with one foot on a music stage and the other in the civil rights arena.
“I don’t know that there’s any story before then of a Black cultural celebrity being beaten by the police and it actually becoming front-page news,” Page said. “It was so commonplace … [but to] become front-page news [was] kind of unprecedented.”
The incident didn’t only influence how the world thought of Davis. It also changed how Davis viewed the world.
According to Troupe, “He didn’t like policemen anyway, but after that he said he really didn’t like policemen. He said he could never trust the police.”
In Miles, Davis admitted as much. “That incident changed me forever,” he wrote. “[It] made me much more bitter and cynical than I might have been.”
To those around him, it seemed the encounter was always simmering inside Davis, ready to break into a boil without provocation.
It happened that way in 1976 when, in the middle of an interview with Sy Johnson in Jazz Magazine, Davis blurted out, apropos of nothing, “White people don’t like me. I mean a policeman grabbed me around the neck. Why? Cause I was Black.”
Marcus Miller said, “It was always there. We’d be sitting at the microphone, getting ready to add his trumpet to some music I’d recorded, and I’m pointing to the music, indicating where he should play, and all of a sudden, [he’d say], ‘Those f—— cops.’ And then he’d say, ‘OK, let’s record this.’ And there’d be a little sauce on that take.”
In 1985, Davis addressed racism directly on one of his albums for the first time. On the cover of You’re Under Arrest, a glowering Davis, wearing embroidered black leather, his eyes peering out from under a wide-brimmed black fedora, is holding a machine gun as though it’s a musical instrument. In the liner notes, he explained, “The concept for You’re Under Arrest came out of the problems that Black people have with policemen everywhere.”
It was around that time that Davis had “the talk” with his youngest son, Erin, then a high school student. Recalling his father’s words, Erin Davis said, “He was trying to explain to me about how things were, how I could expect things to be when I got older, and what I had to watch out for, because ‘This is what happened to me.’ And then he told me about the incident.”
With the privilege of money and fame, Davis was able to give his son the phone numbers of people to call if he got into trouble — a resource that wasn’t available to many others in the Black community.
As for Davis’ relationship with the police, nothing really changed. Neither Kilduff nor Rolker was disciplined. And police continued to badger Davis well into his 60s, when he was living comfortably in Malibu, California.
Troupe recalled Davis being routinely pulled over by police when he was driving his Ferrari or Lamborghini.
“[One time], we were on Highway 1 outside of Malibu,” Troupe told us. “The cop said he was going too fast. Miles said, ‘No I wasn’t. I was going 45 mph. This is a 60-mile-an-hour speed zone. The reason you stopped me is because I’m driving this car, and this car costs more than you make in a year. And there are two Black guys in this car and you’re mad about that.’”
According to Troupe, the cop had no response.
“Miles said, ‘Are you gonna give me a ticket or what? I got things to do.’
“ ‘Nah,’ [the cop said,] ‘I’m gonna let you go this time.’
“Miles, said, ‘This time?’
“And the cop said, ‘Yeah, yeah, you can go now.’
“Miles pulled away so fast, he sprayed gravel in the guy’s face.
“And we went on down the highway.”