Germantown artist a former aide to jazz legend Miles Davis

by Len Lear
Posted 4/30/21

A Germantown resident for most of his life, Mikel Elam, who refers to his age as “timeless,” is a highly regarded artist whose work has been featured in international publications and media.

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Germantown artist a former aide to jazz legend Miles Davis

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A Germantown resident for most of his life, Mikel Elam, who refers to his age as “timeless,” is a highly regarded artist whose work has been featured in international publications and media. He earned a degree in studio arts painting from the University of the Arts in center city in 1986 and also studied at the School of the Visual Arts in New York City.

Elam's work has been exhibited at Woodmere Art Museum, DaVinci Art Alliance, Old City Jewish American Center, Moody Jones Gallery in Glenside, Cellini Art Gallery in Ambler and Boston Street Gallery in South Philadelphia (upcoming), as well as galleries in New York City and Los Angeles. “My work is about elevating spirit as seen through the eyes of a person of African descent,” he explained.

But as interesting as Elam's art is, equally interesting, if not more so, is the fact that he was a personal assistant to trumpeter, bandleader, composer and jazz legend Miles Davis from October, 1987, until Davis' death from the combined effects of a stroke, pneumonia and respiratory failure at age 65 in September of 1991.

(According to The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, "Miles Davis played a crucial and inevitably controversial role in every major development in jazz since the mid-'40s ... Miles Davis was the most widely recognized jazz musician of his era, an outspoken social critic and an arbiter of style in attitude and fashion, as well as music." His “Kind of Blue” is still the best-selling jazz album of all time.)

Elam, a music lover who is not a musician himself, told us last week, “I got the gig by way of a friend who met Miles Davis at a concert. He told her he was looking for an assistant. We painted together often. We also showed our work together in New York and Germany. The job ended when he passed away. I was there to experience that moment.

“I traveled the world with him. It was very hectic, sometimes as much as 28 days out of 30, all over the globe. Miles Davis was a visionary, creative genius. Emotionally, he was very complicated. I was both an on-the-road personal assistant and a studio assistant to his developing second career as an artist.

“He painted and made drawings every day while traveling the world making music. Both were equally important to him. I did not feel like a teacher with him. I made suggestions about his work, and he would try them. He liked most of my ideas but not all. He got me to focus on art as a necessary part of my existence.”

According to invaluable.com, “Davis created over 100 paintings and drawings and had stacks of filled sketchbooks representing years of work. A book of his art, 'Miles Davis: The Collected Artwork,' was published in 2013. Miles Davis' artwork is prized by collectors worldwide.”)

Elam, who went to the Parkway Program and Dobbins High School before art school, likes living in Germantown because of “its diversity intermixed with great parks and trails. It sometimes feels like the suburbs and sometimes like the inner city within just a short distance of each other.”

In addition to his job with Miles Davis, Elam has had a wide range of jobs including health food stores, art departments of film sets, editorial illustrator, art galleries, personal assistant to musicians, and “I'm sure I've forgotten many others.” He is currently the store manager at Artist & Craftsman in Chestnut Hill. 

How has the pandemic affected Elam's life? “It has been the strangest occurrence in my life. I never thought it would hit us so hard. When the the great lockdown happened last March, time just slowed down. Once I figured out how to survive, I went into my studio and started producing a new volume of work.”

Elam, a figurative mixed-media artist with abstract elements on wood and canvas, wanted to take this opportunity to pay a tribute to his late mother. “She passed away two years ago, and she had the greatest impact on my life. She was like Buddha, totally selfless and giving. Full of love and great strength.”

To see a very moving five-minute video about Elam's work, “Artists in the Time of Pandemic,” with music by Odean Pope (you see Elam with Miles Davis), visit youtu.be/7qM7M9UWBdg. For more information, visit mikel-elam.format.com. Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com

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