Monday, March 1, 2021

Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool

Miles with Charlie Parker in 1947


Miles with Frances Taylor

Miles with Gil Evans

Miles with John Coltrane

Bill Evans (left to right), Miles, Cannonball Adderley, and Coltrane

Miles with Cicely Tyson

Director Stanley Nelson

MILES DAVIS:  BIRTH OF THE COOL – made for TV               B                                         USA  (114 mi)  2020  d:  Stanley Nelson

Listen.  The greatest feeling I ever had in my life — with my clothes on — was when I first heard Diz and Bird together in St. Louis, Missouri, back in 1944.  I’ve come close to matching the feeling of that night, but I’ve never quite got there.  I’m always looking for it, trying to always feel it in and through the music I play.                                                                       —Miles Davis, opening line from The Autobiography of Miles Davis, with help from Quincy Troupe, 1989

Documentary filmmaker Stanley Nelson makes another PBS American Masters film, moving from one radical piece of black history, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (2015), to another, this time documenting the life of jazz great Miles Davis, one of the most innovative and influential jazz musicians of the twentieth century.  Using much of the narration taken directly from The Autobiography of Miles Davis (421 pages), published in 1989 with help from Quincy Troupe, spoken by longtime TV actor Carl Lumbly in a raspy voice meant to sound like that of Miles, it’s a fairly straightforward documentary style that mainstreams an unconventional artist into a conventional format, easy to digest, wall-to-wall music playing in the background, plenty of vintage photographs, never really delving under the surface, instead standardizing his legacy.  Since the story is told by the artist himself, it has a ring of authenticity, but what’s lacking is material that refutes his greatness or offers any divulging opinions, as it’s basically a puff piece celebrating his status of jazz royalty.  While that was never in dispute, there were quite a few musicians who had their run-ins with Miles, Charles Mingus among them, finding him too egotistic and wrapped up in himself, making too many demands of others, where he refused to play with him after some early sessions, finding his irascible personality too easily provoked, as there was always tension in the room.  Jazz music, on the other hand, usually took the tension out of the air, so at least as a young artist there was an enigma associated with his name (An open letter to miles davis — CHARLES MINGUS).  Yet you won’t find any comments from Mingus in this film, or Monk, who Miles harassed and tried to change or alter his peculiar playing style, wanting the piano to accompany his trumpet in a supporting role, a vision not shared by Monk, to his credit.  So none of the abrasive moments butting heads with other jazz musicians are mentioned here.  Instead it appears that his career was all smooth sailing, where a child prodigy simply took the celebratory Mozartian road to success, where everything he touched was beloved by the public.  Only Stanley Crouch, a black cultural critic known for his jazz criticism, takes issue with the music he’s playing late in his career, wondering out loud why people are drawn to it, as at least in his mind there’s nothing about it that feels the least bit interesting.  And this touches on what’s not mentioned in the film, how jazz as a commercial form was largely directed towards white audiences, as they’re the ones buying the records, while jazz as an art form is a uniquely black cultural expression.  Late in his career, Miles wanted to be a rock star, doing live shows, like Hendrix or the Rolling Stones, selling out venues that appealed to mostly white audiences.  Certainly some purists in the jazz industry would call that selling out to make a buck, yet because he’s Miles Davis, legendary jazz artist, no one questions his motives.  The almighty dollar certainly plays into this as a driving motivation, yet so is success and popularity.  Miles wanted to be as popular as Michael Jackson or Prince.  In that vein, the difference between the unembellished portrayal of Monk in Charlotte Zwerin’s Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser (1988) and Miles in this film couldn’t be more profound, as Monk was never searching for the money or accolades associated with winning over white audiences. 

Something of a contrast to Don Cheadle’s Miles Ahead (2015), showing Davis in one of his dark periods, which veered into the ridiculous and surreal, Nelson’s film may lack flair or originality, but it does provide much of the music that Miles is known for, even if it’s presented in a greatest hits manner.  Davis was born in Alton, Illinois, but soon moved to East St. Louis where his father set up a dental practice, owning 200 acres of land in Arkansas, while his grandfather owned acres of nearby farmland as well, spending his summers there, so he didn’t grow up poor, as his family was among the wealthiest black families in the region, but he witnessed his father physically abuse his mother, a trait he inherited in his own relationships with women, repeating the same mistakes, becoming a major flaw in his character that was often overlooked.  He was gifted a trumpet by his father at age 13, playing in the high school marching band, while also playing in local bands.  While still in high school, he filled a seat on a band called Eddie Randle’s Rhumboogie Orchestra, becoming the musical director, but the most significant event after high school was sitting in on the Billy Eckstine Band on tour in St. Louis, featuring both Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, where the three of them comprise the future of modern jazz, Groovin High - Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie (5:14).  This gave Miles the musical inspiration he needed, knowing his future would lead him to 52nd Street in New York, known as the Mecca of Jazz clubs, with various establishments lining both sides of the street.  His father urged him to attend Juilliard School, learning music theory, but he hit the clubs in the evenings, eventually dropping out to join a bebop quintet with Charlie Parker, who struggled with mental health issues and heroin addiction problems, gaining plenty of weight, going on alcohol binges, where his physical condition just deteriorated.  So he worked with a collection of LA artists, including Gil Evans, who specialized in small orchestra arrangements, both seemingly bringing out the best in one another, giving birth to his first legendary recording session in 1949-50 with Birth of the Cool, but it was a trio of later albums that helped separate Miles from the field, Miles Ahead (1957), Porgy and Bess (1958), and Sketches of Spain (1960), all examples of re-inventing the limits of jazz parameters using non-jazz music, deeply introspective, master of the muted sound, with each showcasing a more lyrical, mournful anguish rarely heard in jazz.  Often overlooked in Miles’ career is the success he had in Europe in the mid 50’s, which embraced American jazz music after the war as a sign of freedom, where black musicians were more appreciated in Europe for their artistry, as opposed to the continued legacy of racism in America, with Miles Davis greeted alongside the likes of Picasso and Jean-Paul Sartre, all celebrated for expanding the realms of consciousness.  During a brief Parisian tour in 1958, film director Louis Malle asked Miles to improvise a musical score for his latest film, Elevator to the Gallows (Ascenseur pour l'échafaud) (1958), an existential film noir starring Jeanne Moreau about distanced lovers who never meet, with Miles improvising on the spot by watching the completed film footage in the recording studio, where his music plays as Moreau wanders the streets endlessly at night, perfectly capturing her loneliness and growing sorrowful detachment, Miles Davis - Générique - YouTube (2:49). 

Among his greatest collaborations is working with John Coltrane in Kind of Blue (1959) prior to Coltrane’s own break-out ascendancy to becoming a legendary star, but also Julian “Cannonball” Adderley and the compositional genius of Bill Evans before they formed their own bands, where the intimate setting allowed each musician their own space, with Miles providing a spare outline of a melody, becoming what is regarded as the greatest jazz album ever recorded and still the best-selling jazz album of all time (Kind of Blue: how Miles Davis made the greatest jazz album in ...), largely due to its accessibility, appealing to audiences that aren’t necessarily jazz devotees, as it perfectly captures the spontaneity of the moment, Miles Davis - So What (Official Video) - YouTube (9:06).  Let’s not forget the recent Barry Jenkins film based on a James Baldwin novel, If Beale Street Could Talk (2018), which prominently features the achingly sad Blue in Green by. Miles Davis - YouTube (5:37) in one of the more harrowing scenes.  As Coltrane demanded his own independence, however, wanting his own spotlight, Miles had to re-invent himself once more in the mid 60’s, creating a quintet with relatively unknown talent, adding Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock to the mix, and a 17-year old drummer extraordinaire in Tony Williams, priding themselves on rehearsing in performance, as they wanted to capture the explosive freshness each time, “Footprints” - The Miles Davis Quintet Live In ... - YouTube (9:08).  And when jazz lost its popularity to the cultural fascination of rock music, Miles re-invented himself again going totally electric in one of his most neglected albums in 1969, In a Silent Way, which is never mentioned, yet rivals his best work, introducing jazz fusion.  The film gushes over one of his more demonstrative phases, using echo and reverberation effects in crafting an experimental new sound, Miles Davis - Bitches Brew (Live In Copenhagen ... - YouTube (15:34).  Miles experienced his own Rodney King-like beating at the hands of the New York Police Department, standing in front of a club where he was the headliner, smoking a cigarette, but was ordered by cops to move along, which he refused to do, leaving his suit splattered with his own blood while his head was battered by nightsticks.  He suffered his own battles with drug dependency, especially in dealing with the constant pain from hip surgery gone wrong, but he had several episodes with drug addiction, which was a contributing factor in ending his marriage to dancer Frances Taylor, who may be the most welcome presence here, where they were the talk of the town, a chic and sophisticated New York City couple, both extremely fashion conscientious and both extremely talented, where her face appears on an album cover for Someday My Prince Will Come.  But drugs and alcohol, a toxic mix, only accentuated his jealousy, not wanting anyone else to show any extra affection to his wife, showing up in rehearsals for West Side Story and taking her home, refusing to allow her to have her own career, then belting her to the floor when she happened to mention she thought Quincy Jones was cute, the first of several instances, eventually walking out the door for good.  Plenty of faces offer commentary throughout, none offering any definitive historical view, so in equal measure they all weigh in during certain stages of his life, including his son Erin Davis and nephew Vince Wilburn, former girlfriends French singer/actor Juliette Gréco, Marguerite Cantú (mother of Erin), and painter Jo Gelbard, with brief appearances from Betty Mabry and Cicely Tyson, but also childhood friends and musical collaborators Gil Evans, Jimmy Heath, Jimmy Cobb, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, and Ron Carter, but also Marcus Miller and Lenny White.  Quincy Jones makes an appearance and Clive Davis, manager Mark Rothbaum, also concert organizer George Wein, who recalls how influential it was for Miles to play at the Newport Jazz Festival, which was like a trial run for signing with Columbia records.  Perhaps most surprising is the adoration expressed by Carlos Santana, but also reflections offered from scholars Farah Jasmine Griffin and Tammy L. Kernodle, which reveal surprisingly little.  However his own dire reflections carry over through the end credits, revealing what could amount to a fitting epitaph, “When God punished you, it’s not that you don’t get what you want.  You get everything you want and there’s no time left.”

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