Miles, Buddy and UNCG’s million-dollar trumpet
In 2002, Buddy Gist gave UNCG the trumpet his friend Miles Davis played on the legendary album Kind of Blue. Soon afterward, it was appraised at $1.6 million. Two years before his death in 2010, Gist was sleeping in Center City Park.
Born in Spartanburg, South Carolina, in 1925, Arthur “Buddy” Gist, Jr. grew up in Greensboro. His parents owned the Magnolia House, where guests included such celebrities as Louis Armstrong, who, according to the historic site’s current owner Sam Pass, loved Mrs. Gist’s biscuits and molasses.
In 1949, Buddy Gist met Miles Davis at the Manhattan jazz club Birdland. They bonded over what Jeri Rowe, who interviewed Gist for the 2009 article “Taking care of Buddy,” called their mutual love of “boxing, business, women, sharp clothes, jazz and the horn.” Twenty years later, Davis gave one of his horns to Gist.
Along with Rowe’s interview and Stacey Krim’s “Spartan Stories” blog post “Buddy Gist, the Man Behind the Miles Davis Trumpet,” this article is based on my conversations with UNCG jazz professor Steve Haines, who helped find housing for Gist after discovering he was homeless.
When Haines described Gist as a man who told wonderful stories but who was cagey about his personal life, I wondered if he was trying to keep departed friends alive in his head.
Buddy Gist served in the US Navy until the end of WWII and graduated from A&T in 1947. His older brother Herman, also an Aggie, would become a major force in the local African-American community, a flamboyant (and highly effective) state representative, until his fatal heart attack on the North Carolina House floor in 1994.
Rather than seeking local success like his brother, Buddy moved to Harlem, where he soon owned several New York-area car dealerships and co-signed the loans on Cannonball Adderley and Paul Chambers’ first automobiles.
Gist’s regularly appeared in Jet Magazine’s gossip column. A September 1955 entry reads “News just leaked out that Inez Weaver, the wealthy Los Angeles socialite, and auto dealer Buddy Gist wed two months ago.” A July 1958 entry called Gist “a prosperous Harlem auto salesman” and claimed he’d recently eloped with “Fisk University coed Faith Berry,” whose father Ted Berry would become Cincinnati’s first African-American mayor. A November 1959 one mentions “Faith Berry Gist, daughter of the Ted Berrys of Cincinnati and the wife of New Yorker Buddy Gist,” attending the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm.
In the 1960s, Gist founded Kilimanjaro African Coffee, in which Miles Davis, Lena Horne and Andrew Mellon heir Peggy Hitchcock were investors. (The title of Davis’s 1968 studio album Filles de Kilimanjaro refers to this.)
In 1974, he was ringside with his friend Sidney Poitier for the historic Rumble in the Jungle in Zaire. Gist is the handsome mustached man in the dark blue suit who hugs Ali from behind (and briefly lifts him) after Ali has knocked out Foreman at around 4:35 of the YouTube video “Muhammad Ali vs. George Foreman – Highlights (Rumble in the Jungle).”
The 1980s hit Gist’s fortune harder than Ali hit Foreman, and Gist was back in Greensboro by 1996. In 2008, Steve Haines, who recently returned from sabbatical, ran into Gist and invited him to coffee. Haines asked where his friend was now living and was shocked when Gist said “Center City Park,” adding “I’m comfortable there, and everybody loves my stories about Miles.”
Before that, Haines said, Gist lived in the home of his late brother’s widow. After they quarreled, Mrs. Gist evicted Buddy.
Haines got Gist into Partnership Village, a program operated by Greensboro Urban Ministries, where visiting music faculty and students brought him CDs, furnishings and supplies, played and cooked for him, and in case of UNCG jazz professor Chad Eby, took him home for Thanksgiving.
In July of 2009, Buddy Gist suffered an incapacitating stroke and was moved into the Golden Living Nursing Center in Greensboro. He died there on April 18, 2010, at the age of 84.
I asked Haines if Gist ever regretted giving away Miles’ million-dollar horn.
“We offered to sell it for him, but he wouldn’t hear of it,” Haines said.
Shortly before his death, Gist told Jeri Rowe the same thing. “Miles was a teacher. He had a love for the music, and he knew I would keep the trumpet as an instrument of learning. That’s what he would have wanted.’’
Haines told me his favorite memory of Buddy Gist was when Buddy reunited with Miles’ children, decades after he used to look after them while Miles was the road. “Chery and Gregory were here for the Miles Davis Memorial Concert. Afterward, Buddy embraced Cheryl outside of what was then Aycock Auditorium. And it started snowing. In April. The look on Buddy’s face was more magical than the snow.”
Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.