The Hot Bid: Miles Davis’ blue trumpet could hit $100K high note

Courtesy Christie’s Images Ltd. 2019

What you see: A model T3460 “Committee” trumpet with a midnight blue epoxy body and gilt moon and stars decorations, commissioned by jazz legend Miles Davis in the early 1980s. Christie’s estimates it at $70,000 to $100,000.

The expert: Becky MacGuire, director of the Exceptional Sale at Christie’s.

So this trumpet was made by a company called Martin. Is that the same company that makes guitars? It’s not, actually. It’s a brass instrument company. It’s gone through several permutations since its heyday. It’s a funny coincidence. [Its full name was the Martin Band Instrument Co. and it went defunct in 2007.]

This is called a “Committee” trumpet. What does “Committee” mean here? Is it a brand name? It’s a brand that became renowned. The trumpet was supposedly designed by a committee of musicians, and it became a coveted horn for jazz musicians. When Martin was sold in the 1960s, it stopped making the Committee model as a part of its line, but made them on a commission basis for Miles Davis. Dizzy Gillespie played a Martin Committee and he was one of Miles Davis’s heroes. That may have influenced his choice of a Committee trumpet.

This is one of three trumpets Miles Davis commissioned from Martin that have different body colors and the same decorative scheme. Do we know if they were commissioned together, or one at a time? We don’t know exactly if they were finished together. They were designed by Miles Davis and made by the same team, which was led by Larry Ramirez. He was a jazz trumpeter himself, and had a real understanding of instruments and what could be done. Davis was a visual artist as well as a musician. It’s not surprising to people who knew him that he was involved with the design of these trumpets.

How did his visual sense affect the appearance of this trumpet? First of all, the color is not what one usually finds when you think of a trumpet. It’s blue, which is a color associated with Miles. He loved to dress in blue, and it has obvious associations with his music. All three trumpets have the moon and stars [motif], which is a unique design.

Do we know why Miles Davis chose a moon and stars motif for these trumpets? Not exactly. There’s no record of what Miles was really thinking.

This trumpet’s siblings are red and black, respectively. Where are those other two trumpets now? The black one is buried with Miles Davis in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. The red one remains with the family.

Miles Davis holding his black Martin ‘Committee’ trumpet. Courtesy Christie’s Images Ltd. 2019

So this is the first to go to auction? Yes. The other two are not to be sold.

Do we know why Miles Davis commissioned one Committee trumpet each in black, blue and red? Not really. He made comments about color, and he was sensitive to color. It was an aesthetic choice. They were colors he liked, and they moved him.

Do any records or letters survive that documents the trumpet commissions? If they do, I don’t know where they are. It’s unclear where the archives might be, if they were saved. Over the years, Larry Ramirez has given many interviews about it. His stories have been recorded.

What does Ramirez recall about the trumpet commission for Miles Davis? The most notable thing Ramirez talks about is his experience delivering the trumpet to Miles. He revered Miles Davis, and he had the opportunity to deliver the trumpet in person to him in a Denver hotel room. The way he told the story was Cicely Tyson [Davis’s then-wife] was asleep in the hotel room, and he put the trumpet against Ramirez’s belly to try it out without waking her. It was one of the great experiences of his life, Miles Davis trying out the trumpet by playing it against his stomach.

Courtesy Christie’s Images Ltd. 2019

Are there any fittings or details that Miles Davis asked for that wouldn’t necessarily appear on a more standard trumpet? The Committee trumpets, in terms of technical design, are all pretty much the same. There’s a tapered tuning slide, a cone-shaped, cornet-like bell, and some people call the water keys [aka the water valves, or spit valves] quirky. A writer I quote in the lot notes said, “Nobody has deciphered the magic formula for that unique tone … they don’t slot well, so it’s easy to slide into and out of notes a la Miles Davis.” It was a sound that Miles Davis was particularly identified with. On these horns, he was able to create the sound he was after, because of their design.

The lot notes date the Miles Davis trumpet to the early 1980s. Is it possible to date it to a specific year? It’s just circa 1980. The factual information is based on Larry Ramirez presenting the trumpet to Miles Davis. He didn’t remember the exact year. Davis resumed his career at about that time. In the second half of the 1970s, he was more or less underground. He wasn’t performing or recording.

Was Davis’s commissioning of the trumpets part of a plan to return to the limelight? There’s no reason to believe that. There’s no supporting evidence for that. But he was definitely getting back into things, and this was part of the effort.

Among the materials Christie’s is using to promote the sale is a photo of Miles Davis holding the black trumpet, the one he would literally take to his grave. Are there any photos of Miles Davis holding the blue trumpet? We weren’t able to find one.

What do we know about the provenance of the blue trumpet? Do we know when and why Miles Davis gave it to George Benson? We don’t know exactly. Benson and Davis had a lot of mutual friends, a lot of overlap. Benson was a huge musician, a jazz guitarist and on the side he was an active collector of musical instruments. I imagine he had it for 10 years when he auctioned it at Skinner in Boston in 2007.

What condition is the trumpet in? Does it show signs of wear? It’s in good condition, and it’s in working order. There’s a wonderful video of Keyon Harrold playing it.

Have you held the Miles Davis trumpet? I have.

What was that like? It’s really thrilling to be touching something that an incredible musician used to convey his music. What I think is most cool about it is sort of indefinable, in the same walk that looking at a great painting is indefinable. There’s an emotional content. It moves us somehow. It puts us in touch with things that are indefinable.

Courtesy Christie’s Images Ltd. 2019

What’s your favorite detail on the Miles Davis trumpet? I think it’s the entire design – the color, the gilt moon and stars – it’s a beautiful thing anyway. It’s the overall conception, the idea that this great musician was highly sensitive to his environment and to design, that he would even think about adding color. No one would take a violin and add stripes or polka dots. He was highly attuned to the visual as well as to music.

I take it the 2007 Skinner sale informed the estimate? Yes. It’s always difficult to know what something associated with an iconic figure is worth. How much will the extra magic be valued by the market? Obviously, we’ve sold other musical instruments from famous musicians. We had David Gilmour in June, and we had Carole King’s piano last year. It’s a little bit apples and oranges.

Do you always look for a significant musical instrument for The Exceptional Sale? We don’t actively seek them, but we’re always open to iconic pieces of popular culture.

What’s the world auction record for a trumpet? Would it belong to one owned by Dizzy Gillespie? No idea. [Post-interview digging unearthed a reference to a Dizzy Gillespie bent bell trumpet selling at Christie’s New York in April 1995 for $63,000, which might well be the record. Unfortunately, records of that age are not online.]

Why will this Miles Davis trumpet stick in your memory? Miles Davis has to be one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. To be handling something that was his and reflects him so beautifully is really thrilling.

How to bid: The Miles Davis trumpet is lot 1011 in The Exceptional Sale, taking place at Christie’s New York on Tuesday, Oct. 29.

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By SHEILA GIBSON STOODLEY

Sheila Gibson Stoodley is a journalist and the author of The Hot Bid, which features intriguing lots coming up at auction. Follow her on Twitter at @SGSwritereditor.