Monday, February 13, 2017

Buddy Gist, the Man Behind the Miles Davis Trumpet

The Miles Davis Trumpet is listed on the
UNCG Bucket List
Passing through the atrium of the Music Building, it is easy to overlook the modest exhibit featuring a trumpet. It is in a small case, dwarfed by its surroundings. Even upon reading the plaque, it is difficult to believe that the trumpet belonging to Miles Davis is housed on the campus of The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Although the name of Miles Davis attracts immediate attention to the instrument, the man responsible for its donation is not as commonly remembered by the visitors making pilgrimages to be close to a noted artifact of music history. The Miles Davis Trumpet was donated to UNCG on September 27th, 2001 by “Buddy” Gist.  

Arthur Taswell “Buddy” Gist, Jr. was born in Spartanburg, SC in 1925, but was raised in Greensboro, NC. His father and mother, Arthur and Louise Gist, were the proprietors of the Magnolia House Motel on Gorrell Street. The Gist family hosted an impressive array of entertainers in their establishment, including Ray Charles, Satchel Paige, Jackie Robinson, and Tina Turner. Magnolia House, which is preserved as a historical landmark, accumulated such a remarkable list of patrons because it served as one of the few motels providing quality accommodations for African American travelers prior to desegregation.

In August of 1942, Gist was enlisted in the military, serving in the Navy for the duration of World War II. Into adulthood, Buddy Gist attended North Carolina State A & T University, where he was a member of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity. Upon graduating in 1947, Gist continued the entrepreneurial family tradition, but relocated from Greensboro to Harlem, which provided far greater opportunity than the South during the Jim Crow Era.

Upon taking up residence in Upper Manhattan, Buddy Gist submerged himself in the thriving African American cultural community. During one evening in 1949 at the Birdland Jazz Club, billed as the “Jazz Corner of the World,” Gist was introduced to Miles Davis by US heavyweight boxing champion, Ezzard Charles. This began Buddy Gist’s friendship Miles Davis and his family. Gist met many of Davis’ recording friends and even helped look after his children while Davis was on tour.

Miles Davis performed in concert at UNCG in 1973
Unlike many of his New York circle of friends, Buddy Gist was not a musician or sports hero. In keeping with his family tradition, Gist was a successful business owner through the 1960s and 1970s. He owned several car dealerships in the New York area, and he began two African import coffee companies, after which (Mt. Kilimanjaro Coffee Company), Miles Davis named his album, Filles de Kilimanjaro. For several decades, Gist lived a life of glamour and success, but by the 1980s, he fell upon hard times and returned to Greensboro.

A few years after taking up residence in Greensboro, Buddy Gist allowed the Miles Davis Trumpet to be exhibited on loan to UNCG, beginning in 1996. The trumpet was not officially donated to UNCG until September 27th, 2001. At this time, the value of the trumpet, modestly estimated in the annual report of the School of Music, was $70,000. The jazz program became the Miles Davis Jazz Studies Program, a memorial to Gist’s friendship with the jazz legend. Soon after the donation became public and the instrument was on display, the Missouri Historical Society requested it be loaned for an exhibit on Miles Davis. A more professional appraisal was conducted, and it was discovered that the serial number on the UNCG trumpet matched that of the trumpet featured on the cover of Davis’ Kind of Blue album. This meant the instrument Gist donated was not just any trumpet, but that is was the trumpet used during the recording of a masterwork of 20th century Jazz. This cultural treasure was revalued by appraisers at $1.6 million. In honor of Buddy Gist’s donation, Steve Haines, director of the UNCG Jazz Program, funded the construction of a custom display case in which the trumpet is featured today.
Not a historically accurate photo, but we like to think Dr.
McIver would approve.

Tragically, Buddy Gist’s life took a turn for the worse. After returning from sabbatical in 2008, Steve Haines followed up on rumors that Buddy Gist, 83 years old, was homeless, living in Center City Park. By August of 2008, Haines organized assistance for Gist, moving him into Partnership Village, a program operated by Greensboro Urban Ministries. Essentially, Buddy Gist was adopted into the family of the UNCG music faculty. Chad Eby, jazz professor, invited him to Thanksgiving dinner with his family, and Gist continued to receive a steady stream of visitors who were recipients of the amazing stories Gist would tell about his life. In July 2009, Buddy Gist suffered an incapacitating stroke. John Salmon of the School of Music became Gist’s legal guardian, and he was moved into the Golden Living Nursing Center in Greensboro.         
On April 18th, 2010, Arthur “Buddy” Gist, Jr. died, requesting that all memorial donations be made to UNCG’s Miles Davis Jazz Festival. The UNCG School of Music held a memorial service in the Organ Hall on April 25th, 2010. Gist’s name will be forever connected to Miles Davis through the generosity of his two greatest treasures, the trumpet and his relationship with the faculty of UNCG.    

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