Quincy Troupe: Always outside of the box
An American poet and journalist, Quincy Troupe has a long, distinguished career. In addition to writing several poems that have been anthologized, Troupe has authored two books about Miles Davis. He penned Davis’s autobiography and also wrote a book about his friendship with the jazz icon. He regularly lectures about the books and recently phoned us from his New York home.
You’re coming to Ohio for a reading. When was the last time you were in Cleveland?
I came to Cleveland this summer for a baseball thing when they rededicated League Park and I read a poem for my father. They brought me in for that. That was a wonderful event. I had a great time. My sister lives there. We had a chance to reunite. I hadn’t seen here in years. I used to come to Cleveland a lot. I used to teach at Ohio University in Athens and Oberlin and Case Western University and all those schools around there. Even after I started teaching at The City University of New York and Columbia’s school of writing I came there a couple of times, but eventually it fell off. The people I knew had moved on or maybe they forgot about me.
You’ll be giving a lecture here. What is the topic?
I’m going to talk about Miles Davis. I wrote two books about him. I co-authored his autobiography with him, which I think is a great book. It’s been translated into 35 languages. I got to be good friends with Miles Davis, who was one of my heroes while I was growing up in St. Louis. He grew up in East St. Louis and the first band he played in as a high school senior was my cousin’s band. We got to be really good friends and we stayed friends until he died. When he did, he said, “I know you’re going to write a memoir about me. But don’t write about me until I’m dead. You have those dirty things you could talk about.”
Did you wait?
He died in 1991 and I waited maybe eight or nine years and then wrote Miles and Me, which came out in 2000. I wrote the screenplay for a movie about it that they’ll shoot later this fall or early in 2015. There are actually going to be two films because Don Cheadle is doing a film too. It’s a long story. Originally when Miles died, they asked his business manager Peter Shukat about doing a movie. HBO wanted to do a six-part series on Miles Davis. It was going to be a theatrical film about his life, and I thought they should do it. Peter Shukat thought they should do it. The family wanted to have a [theatrical] movie. I became a consultant and I said, “If you want a movie, you have to take a slice of his life because it’s 45 years.” That banged around a couple of times and they had three or four writers put together scripts. I turned them down because they didn’t capture Miles. [Eventually] I dropped out. My book was optioned and I talked to Danny Glover because there was a lot of interest in it and I didn’t know anything about Hollywood. Danny is a good friend of mine and I asked him his advice. He told me that if I needed the money, I should take it. But if I didn’t need the money, I should retain the rights. So I didn’t want to option it to major Hollywood studios. This guy came along who I knew and wanted to option it, so I did that and started writing the screenplay. It took about a year to write it. I wanted Don Cheadle too – Wesley Snipes had wanted to do it. They didn’t want Don Cheadle but they gave him a shot and he was going to be an actor. The family decided they would give him producer, director, actor’s credits so he jumped ship on us and went over there. He found the same thing that everybody else found – he couldn’t make a movie in two hours that could cover his life. He decided to do the dark years when he was not playing from 1979 to 1981 when he was holed up in his house snorting cocaine and dropping drugs. He did a film about that period. He shot it this summer in 30 days in Cincinnati. I hope it’s not bad. He has Miles Davis doing car chases and shoot outs with gangsters and stuff like that. Our film is about a friendship between two artists. We’ll move forward with Michael Kenneth Williams, who plays Chalky on Boardwalk Empire. He’s a great actor.
The autobiography begins with Miles’ first memory, which is of the blue flame on the stove. I always thought that would be a great way to start a film about Miles.
I know it would. One of the things I would like to do is that since Don didn’t use most of the book, I want to use some of those scenes. That’s one that I want to use in a flashback.
That cross-fertilizations program you put together in San Diego was really great. Talk about that experience a bit.
When I moved out to teach at UCSD, I went to this party where I met Russell Forester, who was an incredible artist. [A man] walked up to me and said, “You’re Quincy Troupe.” I said, “Yeah. Who are you?” He said, “I’m Hugh Davies and I’m the director of the museum.” I said, “I like art.” He wanted me to do programming like I did in New York. This guy was a white guy. I found out he was a South African who went to Princeton. He used to come over when he was at Princeton. He had this beautiful office overlooking the Pacific and I couldn’t stop looking at the ocean at first. He wanted me to bring in poets and do some music. I went home and thought about it. I wanted to do a program called Cross Fertilization: Artists on the Cutting Edge. I would invite a poet, a novelist and musician. They would be different races and ethnicities. He said it was fabulous. I said there was one thing—I’d be the one to decide who was going come. I told him he had the right to fire me if it didn’t work. He said he liked that. That’s what happened. He wanted to know how long I would do it. I told him 7 or 11 years because in a game of dice, if you throw a 7 you win and if you throw an 11 you win. I had a great time there. We are still good friends to this day.
I can’t think of anything else like that, can you?
No. I can’t. Most Americans don’t think that way. They don’t think outside of the box. They feel better and more comfortable thinking inside the box because they know that. I like things that are outside of the box because it’s invigorating for me. I remember when I brought Allen Ginsberg. I never put myself on any of the programs, but Allen, who was a good friend of mine, wanted me on the program. He said, “If you don’t read, I ain’t going to do it.” I said, “That’s blackmail.” But I read first and then went in the audience and watched him read. We had another night with Joy Harjo, Ntozake Shange and Anne Waldman, the Beat poet. We had an Indian woman, a Black American woman and a Jewish woman. That tore the roof off. For two or three years after that, I had women come up to me saying, “Power to women!” We had some great programs.
Do you still listen to lots of music?
I like progressive music. I like what Miles did, I like what Weather Report did and I like what Chick Corea did with Return to Forever. Now I don’t like the regular run-of-the-mill jazz program music. I can’t deal with it. When Wynton [Marsalis] came – I don’t have anything against him because he could be a great school teacher and teach music and he can play— but he’s not a creative genius. He’s not exciting like that. When they picked him to be the standard bearer, I thought he took jazz back a long way. He wanted to make it standards. I believe art should be trying to evolve whether it’s painting or poetry or music or dance. Last week, I went to see YoussouN’Dourand the other night I went to see Seun Kuti. I like great music. More and more, I listen to contemporary African music. They have some great musicians in Senegal and Mali and Zaire. They’re fabulous. I like some of the hip-hop. I like Coldplay and I like U2. I like some classical. I like a variety. I don’t like Miley Cyrus. She has the right to do what she does, but her music doesn’t do anything for me. I like Cuban and Brazilian music. If it’s authentic and really well done.