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.”

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Blackboard Jungle


BLACKBOARD JUNGLE           B                                                                                            USA  (101 mi)  1955  d:  Richard Brooks

We, in the United States, are fortunate to have a school system that is a tribute to our communities and to our faith in American youth. Today we are concerned with juvenile delinquency--its causes--and its effects. We are especially concerned when this delinquency boils over into our schools. The scenes and incidents depicted here are fictional. However, we believe that public awareness is a first step toward a remedy for any problem. It is in this spirit and with this faith that Blackboard Jungle was produced.                                                              —Introduction prior to opening credits

A contentious film about juvenile delinquency, an outdated term that’s not even used much anymore, changed to juvenile offenders, perhaps due to the proliferation of inner city guns, where murder rates are through the roof, with so many juveniles placed in adult prisons, but the term was all the rage in the conformism of the 1950’s, made just a year after the 1954 landmark Supreme Court decision Brown vs. Board of Education ordering the desegregation of American public schools, sending flocks of white parents out into the safer suburbs to avoid blacks and what they viewed as the inner city riff-raff.  Though heavy handed and overly bombastic, with almost non-existent character development, and glaring contrivances as a substitute for a social message, the film remains one of Hollywood’s most iconic depictions of deviant American youth, with South London screenings provoking vandalism and riots in the theaters by disenchanted teenagers known as the Teddy Boys, thuggish, working class white hoodlums known for making unprovoked attacks on blacks and newly arriving immigrant groups, viewing them as a threat to their already disintegrating communities.  Whatever you may think about it, the film was extremely controversial for its day, shocking contemporary audiences with revelations on teenage violence, sexuality, and racial antagonism, provoking discussions about the need to improve public education in America.  Adapted from the 1954 novel by Evan Hunter, aka Ed McBain, a noted crime fiction writer who embellished his substitute teaching experiences at a Bronx Vocational High School in New York City, claiming none of the depicted incidents actually occurred, but were “within the realm of realistic plausibility.”  Nonetheless, the topic was hailed by Time magazine as “nightmarish but authentic,” while the Saturday Review called it “the most realistic account I have ever read of life in a New York City vocational high school,” creating a moral panic about troubled youth in postwar America, with movie reviews focused on the more sensational aspects of the film, creating tabloid headlines warning us of the coming Apocalypse, where the film was debated, denounced, banned, and scapegoated for its violent content, denounced by teachers and principals, banned in Memphis, Tennessee and Atlanta, Georgia, claiming it was “immoral, obscene, licentious and will adversely affect the peace, health, morals and good order of the city,” screenings in New Jersey included a disclaimer that what’s depicted onscreen does NOT reflect local schools in the area, a Boston theater ran the first reel in silence for fear that the rock ‘n’ roll music on the soundtrack would over-stimulate audiences into violence, while U.S. Ambassador to Italy, Clare Boothe Luce, fearful of potential communist propaganda, prevented the film’s screening at the Venice Film Festival, claiming it was not representative of American values.  The film remains something of a cultural artifact from a forgotten era, literally frozen in time, certainly viewed differently with a modernist lens.  This is the first instance when a movie propelled a rock ‘n’ roll song to the top of the charts, where the jolting music of Bill Haley & the Comets “Rock Around the Clock” became a mainstream cultural phenomenon, Blackboard Jungle/Rock around the clock - YouTube (1:20), the first rock song to ever hit #1, selling 25 million copies, staying in the Top 100 for 38 weeks, specifically targeting a teen audience, with American Bandstand’s Dick Clark calling it “the national anthem of rock ‘n’ roll,” which at the time was blamed for “causing” juvenile delinquency.  There were also debates (particularly overseas) suggesting the film’s promotion of rock ‘n’ roll music was equally responsible for corrupting America’s youth, yet despite an overall tone of melodrama mixed with realism, one immediately senses just from the opening scene that this is a fantasia into public education, (macho guys holding hands and dancing with other macho guys just ain’t macho), a lead-in to the artful lyrics of Stephen Sondheim’s American musical WEST SIDE STORY (1961), originally staged in the summer of 1957,  West Side Story - Gee Officer Krupke! (1961) HD - YouTube (4:05), mockingly suggesting “Juvenile delinquency is purely a social disease.”  The film is also notable for launching the career of actor Sidney Poitier, who at age 28 plays one of the high school teenagers.  Ironically, he played a doctor five years earlier in No Way Out (1950).      

The film is a product of its times, an era when there were hundreds of teen gangs roaming the streets of New York City creating a wide array of vandalism and violence, when nearly 24% of American children ages 14 to 17 were not attending school at all, and 54% of students entering high school in the State of New York did not graduate, with reports also revealing that 50% of the male population in the Chicago public schools in 1953 were functionally illiterate.  In addition, incidents of teacher brutality against children were not uncommon, with children having little recourse other than dropping out.  In 1951, nearly 41% of all grade school teachers in America had no college degrees, with estimates in New York City that less than half even held teaching certificates, so the postwar state of American education was in dire straits, with this film serving as a public wake up call, putting the entire system on notice.  Like a plague spreading across the nation, the release of the film led to U.S. Senate subcommittee hearings chaired by Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver, school board meetings, and plenty of talk festering about teenage dissent, gathering opinions from various experts, psychologists, child behavior professionals, and university researchers, including the harebrained suggestion that comic books led to the corruption of youthful minds, mirroring the post-McCarthyist hunt for subversive Communists lurking within, ignoring the rapid spread of racism that was ravaging through the urban expansion into suburbia, which were basically white-only places of refuge to escape the inner cities, setting up model schools that became distinguished by the quality of teaching and school districts that were flush with money, as opposed to the massively underfunded inner city schools that were largely ignored, becoming dilapidated relics of a failed system, eventually leading to a school-to-prison pipeline for predominately minority students.  It’s important to understand that the so-called remedy for this scourge of delinquency spreading across the nation was to accentuate a two-tiered system, one for the rich and one for the poor, an approach that continues to exist today.  In 1978 voters in California rebelled against funding public schools through the implementation of Proposition 13, dramatically lowering the tax base, leading a tax revolt that spread across the nation, literally decimating inner city public schools, gutting their resources, putting them at a decisive educational disadvantage, where today the everyday realities in largely minority inner city schools resemble decrepit conditions in Third World countries, driving wealthy kids into private schools reserved for the rich, while the expansive schools in the predominately white suburbs continue to flourish, with some resembling college universities.  This two-tiered system also translates into two unequal systems of justice and opportunity, which only accentuates the racial divide haunting our nation at the moment.  This film, however, feeds into the common stereotypical perception of minority criminalization, where minorities are viewed as criminals.  All the well-meaning teachers are white, while the out-of-control class in question is of mixed race, white, Latino, and black, mirroring the possibilities of desegregation, yet it’s viewed as a social experiment gone wrong, creating a disturbing atmosphere of social defiance and disobedience, contaminated by an element of criminalization.  All are tainted by the same broad brush, even if those most guilty are actually white, which actually matches a continuing perception of today, with whites mistakenly believing blacks are responsible for the majority of crimes committed in America, as if justifying their racial apprehension, yet the overwhelming majority are committed by whites, with more than double the amount of arrests and more than two-thirds of charged criminal offenses annually (FBI — Table 43).

Set in the all-boys North Manual Trades High School of New York, an inner city working class milieu, the film simmers with anxiety about race and how that translates to an American educational system that feels woefully inadequate.  Glenn Ford plays Richard Dadier, a Navy vet who got his education on the G.I. Bill, a naïve yet liberal-minded white teacher at a new mixed race school that is largely a collection of stereotypes, approaching the first day with a certain amount of apprehension, where all around him he sees examples of unruly behavior, where he is challenged right from the outset.  While the principal, Mr. Warnecke (John Hoyt), insists there is no discipline problem, all the evidence proves otherwise, where some of the indifferent teachers describe the school as “the garbage can of the educational system,” while calling these kids “savages” and “screaming animals,” suggesting there is no hope for them, as teaching methods are simply ignored.  As if on cue, one of the teachers is attacked in a brutal rape assault, with Didier coming to her rescue, then beating the tar out of the attacking kid, who leaves escorted by the police in a bloody mess.  His students aren’t too happy about that, refusing to cooperate in class, where traditional teaching methods immediately hit a wall of resistance, with students intentionally answering incorrectly followed by a series of smart remarks, making jokes about his name, calling him “Mr. Daddy-O.”  Sensing rebelliousness in their ranks, he attempts to single out an ally in one of the brighter students, Gregory Miller (Sidney Poitier), thinking if he could get one to cooperate the others would follow, but Miller has no interest in being anyone’s prized favorite, retreating into the disharmony of the class, refusing to stick out like a sore thumb.  Dadier and a new math teacher, Joshua Edwards (Richard Kiley), commiserate over drinks after work, with Edwards expressing an interest in bringing his prized jazz collection to school for his more advanced students, suggesting mathematics are a key component to jazz music, thinking his kids would take an interest, but his plan backfires when both men are assaulted in an alley by a group of students afterwards (payback for the earlier incident), and again when Artie West (Vic Morrow, doing his best Brando imitation) and his gang of goons decide to teach Edwards a lesson by sadistically throwing his records around in a game of keepaway before destroying his entire collection, leaving Edwards devastated, quitting his job shortly afterwards in a state of utter despair.  Dadier tries a similar technique, playing a 16mm cartoon projection of Jack and the Beanstalk, which does generate plenty of interest and enthusiasm, asking engaging questions afterwards, suggesting even a cartoon can get them to learn to think for themselves, thinking he may finally be breaking through, but he’s stymied on several fronts.  Unbeknownst to him, his pregnant wife (Anne Francis) starts receiving anonymous letters followed by prank phone calls suggesting her husband was having an affair with one of the teachers, causing her extreme anxiety, almost losing the baby in a premature birth (in the book the child dies).  Another student files a complaint against Dadier for his use of inflammatory racist language during a lesson, including the n-word, called into a conference with Mr. Warnecke, suspected of having racial motives, with Dadier angrily denouncing the accusations, suggesting the words were used as an example of what “not” to say.  In today’s politically correct culture, the teacher would be fired anyway, regardless of their intent.  It’s Poitier who provides the saving grace, heard singing and harmonizing the Negro spiritual “Go Down Moses” with several other black friends, almost like an apparition, The Blackboard Jungle (1955) – Leading The Group - YouTube (2:28).  Despite the apparent peace offering, Dadier faces more resistance in class when he catches West cheating in class, building to an inevitable confrontation, with West pulling a switchblade in defiance, leading to the dramatic spectacle of a knife fight.  This heavy handed approach is overly simplistic, setting the moral forces of good against evil, like the arrival of the cavalry, suggesting if you can remove the bad apples the rest will flourish, which is a technique still being used today, where there are record numbers of expulsions, routinely targeting minorities.  If only it were that easy, continuing the fantasy narrative by suggesting it is, becoming more of a cultural time capsule than a relevant social treatise, added to the National Film Registry in 2016.