PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


Miles Davis: The Miles Davis Story [DVD]

Marshall Bowden

Miles Davis

The Miles Davis Story [DVD]

Label: Columbia Music Video
US Release Date: 2002-11-26
UK Release Date: Available as import

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."

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





ABBA's 'Super Trouper' at 40

ABBA's winning – if slightly uneven – seventh album Super Trouper is reissued on 45rpm vinyl for its birthday.


The Mountain Goats Find New Sonic Inspiration on 'Getting Into Knives'

John Darnielle explores new sounds on his 19th studio album as the Mountain Goats—and creates his best record in years with Getting Into Knives.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 60-41

PopMatters' coverage of the 2000s' best recordings continues with selections spanning Swedish progressive metal to minimalist electrosoul.


Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.


Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.


Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".


John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.


The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.


Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.


In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.


Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.


Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.


'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.


Jazz Composer Maria Schneider Takes on the "Data Lords" in Song

Grammy-winning jazz composer Maria Schneider released Data Lords partly as a reaction to her outrage that streaming music services are harvesting the data of listeners even as they pay musicians so little that creativity is at risk. She speaks with us about the project.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 100-81

PopMatters' best albums of the 2000s begin with a series of records that span epic metal, ornate indie folk, and a terrifying work of electronic music.


The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.


'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.