Miles Davis: How Much Is Enough?

Miles Davis
Bitches Brew: 40th Anniversary Legacy Edition
Sony Legacy

Miles Davis was, of course, a great American artist—a jazz trumpeter and composer, a bandleader, and an important style-setter in music and beyond. Indeed, well before his death in 1991, Davis understood that his image was part of his art: his style and attitude toward folks outside the music were as much a part of his mystique as Kind of Blue or the sound of his Harmon-muted horn on “My Funny Valentine.”

Of course, some people liked the 1950s Miles—dark Italian suits, coyly played standards—most of all. Others liked Davis in the early ’60s—playing in front of orchestras doing Sketches of Spain and hiring the hippest younger musicians. Plenty have come to admire the Miles who was digging Sly Stone and Jimi in the late ’60s and early ’70s, wearing a lavender shirt and ascot, perhaps, with a hip vest. More and more folks remember Miles fondly from the 1980s: playing the baddest version ever of the Cyndi Lauper hit “Time After Time”—a man still lyrical and down in his 60s, still putting together a great band, appearing on 60 Minutes for a coy interview with Harry Reasoner.

Miles understood that his mystique was part of what sold him, telling Bryant Gumbel in a 1982 Today Show interview, “That’s what the people like.” Above all else, Miles Davis made great music, yes. But he always used everything he could to sell his talent.

Today, almost 20 years since he died at the age of 65, the sale of his image and legacy has never been more vigorous and aggressive. For fans discovering him for the first time—and there are sure to be many—this is a blessing. His 40-year body of work is one of the highlights of 20th century art. But it’s equally true that the Davis Estate and the record companies who control his legacy have shown seemingly little restraint in repackaging Davis. In 2010, they are not only selling a re-mastered box set of Bitches Brew, but they are re-releasing nearly all of Davis’ recorded output for Columbia in a new trumpet case format and have even licensed a micro-brew in Davis’ honor: Dogfish Head’s Bitches Brew.

It’s a marketing blitz that begs a question. Is there any reasonable limit on the re-selling of Miles Davis? How much can we really value Bitches Brew, or any cherished favorite, just because it comes in a new wrapper?

Bitches Brew (the Album), Celebrated, Explained

Davis fans will no doubt be aware that 2009 was the 50th anniversary of Kind of Blue, the best-selling jazz album and masterpiece. Sony celebrated with a $110 box set that was terrific in every way, except possibly in that its essence, the Kind of Blue recording itself, had been available for 50 years at a tenth the price.

2010 brings the 40th anniversary of Bitches Brew, a Davis album that is almost as iconic and influential, even if it is thoroughly more peculiar and hard to put on during a Sunday brunch.

The music itself is, or remains, astonishing. Far from being “the birth of fusion,” Bitches Brew is an exceptionally complex and messy masterpiece. If the jazz/rock that came in its wake was precise and muscular, driven by rock energy and volume, then Brew is a sprawling jam with few up-tempos and few written melodies. Unlike the dazzling free-swing of Miles’ ’60s quartet, the whole album lopes and grooves, pulses and thrashes, with key centers that shift and grow frequently ambiguous.

At the time Bitches Brew was released, it sold vigorously but it also disappointed—even angered—many fans. He has sold out to rock ‘n’ roll many felt. In plain fact, the music was a far cry from a simple backbeat designed to attract kids.

“Miles would get bored real fast—he was always hearing new things to keep the music fresh,” explains his nephew Vince Wilburn, Jr., who played with him in the 1980s. “Instead of being complacent, you change. Miles listened to everything.”

It is well known that, sure, Miles was enamored of Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix during this period, musicians he was aware of partly through his wife, Betty Mabry. And while Miles cut his fees in order to open for rock musicians, seeking exposure to younger, non-jazz audiences, the music itself—like that on Bitches Brew – was knotty and cryptic.

Davis’ youngest son, Erin Davis, explains that, ultimately, Miles did not care about whether his music was popular. “What I know from him is that when he has a certain idea or sound in his head, it doesn’t matter what people think about it. If he decided that he likes what electric bass sounds like, then he’s going to use it. I think the funny thing was that he would be really happy with this stuff and wouldn’t understand why people would criticize it. But he didn’t really care. He was adventurous—you don’t have to play the same way for your whole career. The Rolling Stones still sound the same, as great as they are. But he didn’t want to do that.”

Listening to Bitches Brew all these years later, it is more apparent than ever how nimble and advanced it was. While it grew organically from modal and free playing, and while it flowers here after partial attempts at a new sound on Miles in the Sky and In a Silent Way, few jazz musicians made any serious attempt to build on it right away. Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters and Weather Report head-faked in this direction, but it was 25 years before younger players finally picked up its lead. “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” and “In a Spanish Key” still sound beautifully ahead of their time.

Beyond Just Bitches Brew

The music in the new box set goes beyond the tracks released in 1970, and even beyond what was part of the 1998 remaster or the 2004 box set. The Bitches Brew (Legacy Edition) released on August 31st contains the original album, a few outtakes and a DVD of a concert from 1969 with the so-called “Lost Quintet” (with Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Dave Holland, and Jack DeJohnette). A box set collector’s edition arrived as well,bearing an additional CD of a later concert, vinyl, posters and, of course, a much higher price tag.

These extras are largely marvelous, but they do not add to the thrill of Bitches Brew as much as they continue to flesh out the question of how Davis modified his working band to make this music possible in concert. The 1969 concert features tracks from Bitches Brew, In a Silent Way, and some repertoire of the 1960s quintet, presented in a seamless flow with no pauses. Although the instrumentation is still a “classic” quintet—trumpet, saxophone, piano, bass, and drums—the approach of the band is dramatically new.

DeJohnette is a multi-dimensional drummer with more polyrhythms rolling through his hands than Elvin Jones ever imagined. While Holland is still on upright bass here, he is mostly playing complex ostinatos and embellished vamps. And Corea uses the Fender Rhodes like a drum and computer at once, more likely creating clusters of dissonance or bell-like shots of sound than “chords” as we have been used to them. Above this, Davis and Shorter play occasionally together (on “Directions” and “Sanctuary”) but mostly advance their own statements with convincing freedom and daring. That the band still has a foot in the past, however, may be the most daring thing of all. When Davis and Corea duet on “I Fall in Love Too Easily,” the abstraction of the rest of the material persists—it is both heartbreakingly lovely and suspended in mid-air.

The full-disc featuring audio from a concert in August 1970 frames Bitches Brew on the other side. Miles has now expanded his live band to include a second keyboard (Keith Jarrett’s organ) a second percussionist (Airto Moreira) and Gary Bartz for Wayne Shorter on saxophones—a group usually known as the “Cellar Door” band from the official release, Live/Evil. This group more closely reflects the layers of sound from Bitches Brew itself, though without the guitar or second reed instrument. The set is quite similar to the quintet set of a year earlier, but the band can now convincingly recreate the funk of “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” and has now abandoned “I Fall In Love Too Easily.” Miles, with so many musicians now truly stirring in the pot, is clearly not turning back from his new direction. And the commitment in his trumpet approach to this new style is now total.

Off to the races with the new, Davis was not looking back.

Miles Misconceptions and Musings

The finality with which Miles closed the book on his old—very successful and lucrative—self simply reinforced the public’s perception of him as angry or difficult. Whey else would a jazz musician turn away from international success toward a less familiar sound? But the artist’s family denies this today.

“He was not cold at all,” Wilburn explains. “When he turned his back to the audience, he was just focusing on the guys in the band. He would say, ‘When you go to a classical concert, the conductor has his back to the audience, right?'”

His son concurs. “The whole ‘Prince of Darkness’ moniker was wrong. Miles was a very funny, generous guy. He loved to make popcorn, but he also loved to cook. He had a little black book of recipes that he hid from people. When he died, we all looked for that recipe book, but we never found it.”

Both Davis and Wilburn played and toured with Miles late in his career, at a time when Miles seemed ready to embrace the world. “I was the student and he was the teacher,” Wilburn explains. “He was a father figure to me. I called him ‘The Chief.’ I learned about saving money, how you dress, how to cook. He set the standard.” Musically, Wilburn says that Miles was “just about the music. He was directing us.”

“When I was young, I toured with him,” Davis says. “The responses were greater outside the states. In Europe they would go nuts. In Japan they would book him for two weeks in a club, an intimate setting. I was nervous every night.”

More than anything, these intimates of Miles stress that he followed his feelings as an artist. “Miles made music based on things he felt in his life and things he heard in his head. If he wanted to play wah-wah trumpet, that’s what he chose to do,” explains Wilburn. “The big band stuff he was playing at the very end of his life, that was just something he wanted to work on. But he never wanted to talk about the past.”

Beyond the Recordings

Wilburn and Davis speak excitedly about the many other initiatives surrounding this anniversary. Wilburn helped to organize a concert at Sunset Junction (in LA) in late August that featured older compatriots of Miles (Badal Roy, Wallace Roney) with hip hop musicians under the name Bitches Brew Revisited. There is the Dogfish Head beer, and the massive re-release of all of the trumpeter’s work for Columbia inside a real trumpet case.

Perhaps the project that could make the biggest splash, at least with folks who are not fans of the music per se, is a Miles Davis biopic that has been in the works for some time, tentatively starring Don Cheadle. Wilburn reports that the script is still in process. “We’ve gotta get the right script. I’m supposed to meet with Don soon. We don’t want to blow it.”

And is there more great Miles stuff in the vault, yet to be revealed to the public? “We’ve got a ton of things,” Wilburn reports. “We’re trying not to oversaturate the public. We don’t want to put out Miles Davis lunchboxes. But we have a trumpet case where you can put all your Miles music. We’re doing another release with Monster cable. We’re going to go into the vault and release some bootlegs. We’re going to do a hip hop thing with different producers doing different Miles tunes—I’m going to get Q-Tip and Questlove involved.”

But the question remains: with big anniversaries of classic Miles Davis recordings coming almost every year now, but the only really new product being official releases of concert bootlegs, is the Miles Davis estate really serving the public or merely making bank on Miles’ continued adoration and fame?

What Davis Still Does For Jazz

In 2010, jazz has a fragmented audience. The biggest fans of Pat Metheny are not likely following The Bad Plus, and aficionados of New York’s mainstream scene are not hot for the experiments of guitarist Nels Cline. But during most of Miles Davis’ heyday, he was respected and adored by the great bulk of the jazz scene. Even today, Davis is a consolidating figure, a name that every jazz fan thrills to and that many of those who don’t know jazz still recognize.

His influence is not just limited to jazz,” Wilburn notes. “Every musician that I know—whatever genre they play—loves Miles. Keith Richards to Radiohead to Henry Rollins to hip hop DJ’s. He has had a wide influence on different legacies.”

With a vast body of work, spanning over five decades and a half-dozen stylistic shifts yet featuring a single recognizable instrumental sound, Miles Davis created a pool of music that can constantly be rediscovered. Therefore, the periodic reissue of his catalog provides each new generation a fresh shot at digging Miles. Older fans don’t have to buy it again, but the music is continually being reborn.

It has, however, been frustrating that each reissue comes with a tiny sliver of extra material at often exorbitant prices. The family promises us that there are many more Davis “surprises” coming, but surely there is a limit to how many more concerts with the Lost Quintet exist or even is worth being discovered. Hardly lost anymore, that group is now decidedly exposed.

The classic periods of the late ’50s, the mid-60s, and now the 1970s have been mined about as thoroughly as one can imagine. What else is left?

Wilburn and Erin Davis believe that young folks prefer the Davis material that followed his 1975-81 hiatus. “I think that people are trying to catch up to that music,” Wilburn says. “He’s been gone since 1991 and we’re still trying to figure it out. Miles loved the blues and ballads during that time—blues was always the second number when we played back then.”

Erin Davis notes that some of the post-comeback music is at Warner and is being packaged now into another box set. “I grew up on that stuff. It’s the bread and butter to me. Musicians of my age know it all. They love Decoy and Star People.” Additionally, that newer material is way more popular outside of the U.S., according to Davis.

But do we really want to hear outtakes from Doo-Bop or The Man With The Horn?

Maybe it’s just me, but I think that my Miles Davis Box Set days are behind me. I crave the long booklets and the whiff of the “Good ol’ Days,” sure, but I mainly crave just listening to the music. I don’t think that these releases are damaging, but sometimes I fear that they just crowd out vital new music that should be heard.

But, to be sure, I still listen to Miles—boy, do I. This month, it’s Bitches Brew I’m reinvestigating. Forty years on, it still sounds jarring and beautiful, thrilling and inevitable. May it ring like that forever.

RATING 8 / 10