WHEN HIS health began to fail in the mid-Seventies, Miles Davis put down his trumpet and picked up a paintbrush. By the time he returned to public music-making in the early Eighties, a sketch pad had become his most faithful companion. During a lengthy interview in a London hotel room in 1982, on the eve of his movingly tentative return to the Hammersmith Odeon, he drew constantly, scribbling the outlines of lithe black women in a variety of coloured felt-tipped pens as he reminisced with surprising warmth and humour about his days with Charlie Parker on 52nd Street. The stylistic origin of these ecstatically contorted figures was obvious: the paintings of Abdul Mati Klarwein, whose stylised erotic hallucinations decorated the covers of two significant albums, Davis's landmark Bitches Brew and Santana's popular Abraxas, in 1970. Davis's involvement in visual art deepened during his exile from music. An exhibition titled The Hidden Years, which opens in London this month, contains work veering sharply away into a harsher and more streetwise style, clearly influenced by the graffiti-strewn daubs of Jean-Michel Basquiat, one of the key New York artists of the mid-Eighties. (Basquiat died in 1988, three years before Davis.) Both styles are represented, sometimes combined into a kind of psychedelic hip-hop art, among the 14 paintings and 100 drawings in the exhibition, all of them for sale at prices between £1,000-£20,000. (Roots, shown here, is priced at £16,670.) Although Davis was never the leader in visual art that he had been throughout his life in music, he was something more than a dilettante. And while there is no likelihood that these pieces will overshadow his musical legacy, they illuminate an important aspect of his sensibility and go some way towards repairing the aesthetic damage done by his weirdly awful latter-day wardrobe.
! `The Hidden Years', The Gallery, 74 South Audley Street, London W1, Wed to 3 March, Mon-Sat noon-8pm. Enquiries: 071-495 8637