Visions of Miles
During the introduction to this DVD biography of Miles Davis released by Sony Music Miles’ onetime mentor, trumpeter Clark Terry, points out that the tension between Miles’ warm trumpet sound and his image as an egotist created a mystique that was not easily penetrated. Davis biographer Ian Carr, also a trumpet player, tells us, quite rightly, that Miles Davis “often looked back, but always moved forward.” Davis never rejected the music he had created, despite people’s belief that he did. Those who believe this were simply not listening to him or were approaching Miles through the eyes of others. His refusal to play earlier music that fans adored as he moved forward was based instead on a profound respect for that music and the circumstances and inspirations that created it. He believed that once that music had been realized to the best of his potential on recordings, there was no need for it to be played again. In any case, it was impossible for him to do so, because he simply had lost interest once a new idea had grabbed him.
Like most biographical attempts at organizing Davis’ personal and professional lives into a coherent story, the early years are painted much more vividly than the later years. And, after all, what more can be said about the years from around 1975 until Davis’ death? We’ve already had numerous biographies featuring the thoughts of family members and former sidemen about Miles’ famous “silent years”, his ‘80s comeback, and the resulting music that has never been accepted by the jazz world. The years that Miles spent with Charlie Parker, the Birth of the Cool sessions, his recovery from heroin addiction: these are the years where the remembrances and thoughts of family members, Carr, photographer Jean Pierre Leloir, Clark Terry, Dizzy Gillespie, and others help fill in areas where mere words on a page cannot suffice. The importance of Miles’ first trip to Paris and affair with singer Juliette Greco cannot be overemphasized. It gave him a glimpse of a world in which race was of little consequence, in which his behavior and motives were not questioned, and in which jazz was of great interest. We learn that Miles was hooked on heroin and headed the way of his mentor, Charlie Parker, when he found his way into the Birth of the Cool sessions with Gil Evans, who would be a nearly lifelong collaborator, and someone whom Miles referred to as a friend.
Similarly, the reminiscences of Bob Weinstock, who was impressed with Miles’ work on Parker’s recordings, are of interest. Weinstock’s Prestige label became known for a time as a label that signed jazz junkies, and heroin-addicted musicians could always count on earning a few bucks with a quick Prestige recording session. Weinstock admits, though, that Davis made Prestige world famous, even though there were better selling artists on his label. The recording Walkin’ not only was a defining record for Prestige and Miles, it ushered in a new style known as “hard bop” that presaged soul-influenced jazz and provided a counterpoint to the cool style that Davis himself had helped invent in the first place-not a bad trick! Curiously, though, there is no mention of Miles’ famous first quintet featuring a young John Coltrane along with Red Garland, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones. Coltrane is discussed during the segment on Kind of Blue. One can only presume that it is because the first quintet’s work wasn’t on Columbia, but it is an inexcusable exclusion.
The segment on Davis’ second great quintet, featuring Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams, is highly interesting because, since all the musicians involved are still alive, they mostly speak for themselves. This was one of jazz music’s most eloquent ensembles, not only musically, but verbally as well. The group’s development from the ultimate abstract jazz ensemble into the eventual electric rock-influenced band of Bitches Brew and Live At Fillmore isn’t dealt with in any detail, but the developments of In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew are given interesting slants, particularly with the input of Joe Zawinul, who is now older than Davis was at his death. The usual catalyst of seeing and hearing Jimi Hendrix is trotted out as the main influence on Bitches Brew—at least the usually vaunted influence of wife Betty Mabry is passed over. Of course, the complexity of Davis’ development from 1965 to 1971 doesn’t lend itself very well to a simple narrative format. John McLaughlin tells us that he doesn’t believe that even Miles knew exactly what he was trying to do, and bassist Dave Holland reveals his belief that the Bitches Brew sessions were all about capturing a process.
It’s also revealing when Keith Jarrett, who played electric keyboards with Miles for a time, informs us that Miles would probably rather have a bad band playing bad music than a band that played what he had already played before. “That” Jarrett tells us, “is against even his natural instinct, which makes it a creative act.” That’s the crux of Davis’ quest and precisely why his continuing to create new music was a heroic act of the first order.
The primary representative of Davis’ 1973-1975 live band, which played out his electric Afro-funk-world-rock to its ultimate conclusion, is sax player Dave Liebman. Unfortunately, Liebman doesn’t remember the period all that fondly, as he was subjected to reverse racism by outside fans and musicians, and he asserts that often the music played by the group was “confusing and chaotic.” Paul Tingen’s exhaustive study on Miles’ electric groups, Miles Beyond, gives some indication that there was a split in the group between those who believed fully in what they were doing and were intent on carrying the experiment to its conclusion, and Liebman, who seemed unsure whether the music they were producing was of any real value. It would have been interesting to hear from percussionist Mtume or other band members, as well as to show where that path led, via the incredibly interesting, if not always successful recordings Get Up With It and Agharta.
The story of Miles’ comeback is well known, and this music has usually been trashed as not worthy of his legacy. This year’s release of The Complete Miles Davis at Montreux, 20 CD’s culled from his live performances at the famed jazz festival throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s makes it clear that Davis was still creating astounding music which often came off better live than on record. We get to hear Marcus Miller talk about the recording of Tutu and John McLaughlin points out that Miles’ playing changed very little right through the posthumous Doo-Bop.
I applaud the decision to ignore the ill-conceived Montreux appearance where Miles recreated some of his Gil Evans charts with a full band under the direction of jazz music’s biggest sellout ever, Quincy Jones, in favor of a concert in Paris a few days later that featured musicians from almost all of Miles’ many bands over the years. That was certainly a more fitting remembrance, and I wish a DVD were available of that. Compared to the Montreux film, Miles looks healthier and at peace in this footage, even though he died only a few weeks later. John McLaughlin provides a most fitting remembrance: “Miles, I miss you”...[in Miles’ voice]: “Play the tape, John. Play the tape.”
There aren’t many extras on the DVD, just a brief written biography and a series of “album profiles” that amount to little more than a plug for Davis’ Columbia recordings (two of his best post-comeback albums, Tutu and Amandla, released on Warner Brothers, aren’t mentioned). Overall, The Miles Davis Story is as good a place as any for those not familiar with the trumpet player’s life to start learning about him. Though a few true career highlights, such as the first quintet and the ‘50s comeback at Newport, are missing, those unfamiliar with Davis’ career could do worse than starting here. For those heavily into jazz and/or Miles, there isn’t much this disc will add to your knowledge, but it is nice to see interview segments with musicians such as Clark Terry, Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock, Dave Liebman, and John McLaughlin. And, of course, there’s the chance to see and hear Miles himself speak again, and it is easy to forget at times that he has passed on. As Miles himself said, “play the tape.”