Standing tall in Alton

I wrote this week about Alton, Ill., a Mississippi River town that became a flashpoint in the years leading up to the Civil War. It’s a pleasant town in a scenic location, not thriving in the way it once did – it rivaled Chicago at one point in the 19th century – but not desolate like some places we’ve passed through.

My column focused to the 19th century, but there are two 20th century figures who stand tall in Alton.

In the first case, really really tall. Robert Wadlow was born in Alton in 1918 with a pituitary gland disorder that made him grow fast and keep growing. At 8 years old he was six feet tall. When he died of an infection at 22, he stood 8 feet, 11.1 inches tall and weighed 439 pounds. He still holds the Guinness record as world’s tallest man.

In Alton, Wadlow was known as “the gentle giant.” He toured with the circus and made personal appearances for a shoe company, but he always came home to Alton. Almost 10,000 people came out for his funeral. There’s a full-size statue of him in town, and it’s a thing to behold.

The other is a giant in music. Miles Dewey Davis III was born in Alton in 1926, the son of a dental surgeon and a music teacher, and soon the family moved to East St. Louis. His father gave him his first horn at 13, and a few years later he earned admission to the Julliard School of Music in New York. But his real education happened uptown, where he began playing with the likes of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane. The rest is history. Over the next 50 years he was among the most influential figures in American music.

Miles Davis went through several musical reinventions through a trail-blazing career. For awhile he was a singular figure in jazz – the inventor and popularizer of the cool jazz that was the soundtrack for an era. If you didn’t have “Kind of Blue” in your record collection in the ‘50s and ‘60s, you didn’t know music. If you don’t have it now, you’re still missing something.

There’s a statue of Miles Davis in downtown Alton, striking a characteristic pose. It doesn’t exactly fit in. You don’t think of someone so authentically cool – in some ways, the inventor of cool – growing up in an upper middle class house in such an All-American small town. But there it is.