Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool
Friday, May 10, 7 p.m.
5 Seymour St.
Presented in partnership with Jazz House Kids, featuring a live performance from students.
Q&A with director Stanley Nelson
By MARK S. PORTER
For Montclair Local
For jazz trumpeter and composer Miles Davis, the urge to create music was all-encompassing: “It’s always there … It comes before everything.”
From decade to decade, Davis’s artistic essence impelled him to transcend jazz’s norms and discover new musical realms, as documented in Stanley Nelson’s new biographical film, “Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool.”
“Miles Davis: Horn player, bandleader, innovator. Elegant, intellectual, vain. Callous, conflicted, controversial. Magnificent, mercurial. Genius. The very embodiment of cool,” writes Montclair Film Festival.
“Not only is he a musician who is unparalleled in jazz music, but also he’s such a really intriguing character,” observed director Stanley Nelson, whose bio-doc will be shown in the Montclair Film Festival on Sunday, May 10. “We knew at the beginning we wanted to make a film that looks at Miles, warts and all. One of the keys for us was to get a balance.”
Nelson, who has directed many documentaries about African American life, is an MFF veteran: his “Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities,” he focused on Historically Black Colleges and Universities. The film was at MFF in 2018. “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution,” which focused on the political activist group, screened at MFF in 2015. Nelson is a MacArthur “genius grant” and Peabody Award-winner.
In “Birth of the Cool,” Nelson uses many of Miles Davis’ own insights about music and himself abound in the documentary, some taken from his 1990 autobiography, “Miles: The Autobiography.” They’re voiced by actor Carl Lumbly, who maintains a slight vocal hoarseness that had affected Davis later in his life, following the surgical removal of a non-cancerous tumor in his larynx.
Davis acknowledges his own talents — and his shortcomings, some of them intermixed.
“Being cool and hip and angry and sophisticated and ultra-clean, I was all those things and more,” observes Davis, through Lumbly’s delivery. “But I was playing the **** out of my horn, and I had a great group, so I didn’t get recognition based only on rebel image. People were starting to talk about ‘the Miles Davis mystique.’”
Born in 1926 in Illinois, Davis was a musical prodigy who, while still in high school, was a guest performer in a band fronted by singer Billy Eckstine and a lineup that included Charlie “Bird” Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Art Blakey. In 1944, at age 18, Davis attended the Institute of Musical Arts in New York City, now called the Juilliard School.
“I spent my first week in New York looking for Dizzy and Bird,” Davis recalls in the film.
After three semesters at the Institute, he dropped out for a full-time career as a jazz trumpeter, quickly becoming the leader of numerous lineups and joining groups that included jazz stars such as Charles Mingus, Parker, Gillespie and Max Roach.
Through his compositions and lineups, Davis in the late 1940s moved from bebop to the West Coast, or “cool,” style of jazz. He then traveled to Paris and, as the film shows, found a welcoming scene for his music and himself. Along with a romance with French singer and actress Juliette Greco, Davis met people such as writer Jean-Paul Sartre and artist Pablo Picasso.
When the 24-year-old Davis returned to the U.S. in 1949, he floundered with an addiction to heroin. Later in life, he also abused cocaine and alcohol. He was struck with sickle cell anemia, a hip replacement at age 40, a liver infection and mental illness. And Davis emotionally and sometimes physically mistreated his spouses.
Calling her “a superstar, and she’s funny,” Nelson extensively spotlights one of Miles’ ex-wives, the late Frances Taylor Davis. Frances had married Miles in 1958, and she was seminal in his career, even appearing as the cover model on some of his LPs — she and Davis insisted to the music-company executives that a black woman, not a white woman, adorn his record jackets. But, as Nelson noted and his documentary reveals, “Davis violently attacked Frances” and she left him in 1965, divorcing him three years later.
Musically in the mid-1950s, Davis evolved from bebop to hard bop, and usually used a Harmon mute on his trumpet, resulting in a bell-like sound. Then he transformed his focus into modal jazz, teaming with pianist Gil Evans and other musicians to create the LP “Kind of Blue,” recorded in April 1959 and, after 60 years, still the world’s best-selling jazz album.
In the mid-1960s, Davis again envisioned a new realm for his music, teaming with electric guitarist John McLaughlin and other plugged-in musicians to meld jazz with rock. Via his “electric” period, Davis is often credited with creating jazz fusion. Increasingly, he incorporated funk into his compositions, along with ambient influences. Through all of his jazz innovations until his death in 1991, Davis maintained a delivery that was uniquely his own.
“Miles had a way of playing that sounded like a stone skilling across a pond. He just touched on the waves,” says longtime Davis band member Herbie Hancock in the film.
JAZZ AND MONTCLAIR
“Birth of the Cool” includes the remembrances of musicians, promoters, club owners and recording-company executives. “We have incredible people who knew him,” said Nelson. “A lot of these are jazz icons.”
Because Montclair takes pride in the acclaimed jazz musicians who reside here, and is the home of Trumpets Jazz Club, Nelson is enthusiastic about “Miles Davis” being shown in the Montclair Film Festival.
“Birth of the Cool” is being presented in partnership with Jazz House Kids, and the showing will feature a performance by a student ensemble from the school.
Jazz House Kids’ artistic director is Grammy-winning bass player Christian McBride. His wife, Melissa Walker, is the founder and president of Jazz House Kids.
The school for young musicians is now in its 15th year. Jazz House Kids also presents the annual Montclair Jazz Festival in Nishuane Park, which will have its 10th anniversary this year. Among the musicians Jazz House Kids has hosted are Oliver Lake, Billy Hart, Reggie Workman, Wallace Roney, and the late Geri Allen, many of whom have lived in or near Montclair.
Geri Allen’s former husband, Wallace Roney, was Miles Davis’ only protegé, and many say that Davis’ influences are unmistakable in Roney’s style on the trumpet. Roney is among the performers reflecting on Davis’ life in “Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool.”
Miles Davis had an impact on McBride when he was still a teenager. At 17, McBride was picked to be in a trio including keyboardist Joey DeFrancesco, which backed fellow students of the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts. They played in front of Miles Davis while he was a guest on “Time Out,” a talk show hosted by Bill Boggs. Recalling Davis critiquing a 13-year-old horn player and advising him to play in a different key, McBride said, “Miles was notorious as one to never hold his tongue.”
But McBride perceived tha this advice was meaningful to the young players. “A truly great leader trains other truly great leaders,” he said. “Miles’ legacy cannot be overstated.”
“I’m a huge jazz fan,” acknowledged Nelson. “I use a lot of music in my other films.”
In “Miles Davis,” Nelson packs his documentary with the artist’s music. And, as he noted, Miles Davis broke through strictures, whether racial barriers or jazz orthodoxy.
“Miles was an icon in a very different way than most jazz musicians,” Nelson noted. “He transcends jazz, he transcends music, and becomes an icon.”