The Sorcerer of Jazz

Miles Ahead

a film directed by Don Cheadle

Bitches Brew

by George Grella Jr.
Bloomsbury, 144 pp., $14.95 (paper)
Miles Davis at the Vancouver International Jazz Festival, 1986
Chris Cameron Photography
Miles Davis at the Vancouver International Jazz Festival, 1986

In 1975, Miles Davis put down his trumpet and retired. Davis was famous for his dramatic silences in performance: the notes he chose not to play were almost as meaningful as those he did. But this silence would last for nearly five years, during which he all but disappeared into his Upper West Side brownstone. Visitors evoked a macabre dungeon swarming with prostitutes, drug dealers, hangers-on, and corpulent roaches. Davis, who styled himself as jazz’s “Prince of Darkness,” later confirmed the rumors with unabashed relish in his 1989 autobiography, Miles, written with the poet Quincy Troupe.

Yet for all this decadence, there was a noble, almost monastic aura to Davis’s retirement at forty-nine, after one of the most extraordinary careers in postwar music. Davis had taken part in almost every phase in jazz’s evolution since the mid-1940s. Born in 1926 into a prosperous black family just outside East St. Louis, he arrived in late 1944 in New York. His official reason was to attend Juilliard, but this was a smokescreen to placate his father, an oral surgeon who owned a three-hundred-acre farm. His real reason was to follow his idols, the alto saxophonist Charlie Parker and the trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, who were revolutionizing jazz at clubs in Harlem and on West 52nd Street. Parker, whose appetite for music was exceeded only by his appetite for heroin, taught Davis bebop, a form of small-group improvisation characterized by extreme velocity and complex chord progressions, and warned him to stay away from the needle—advice Davis ignored to his lasting regret. He was a classic bohemian rebel, irresistibly drawn to the sound, and the forbidden pleasures, of the street.

Davis, who died of a stroke in 1991, played on some of Parker’s finest sessions, but he was a somewhat tentative, even ambivalent bopper, because he couldn’t play as high or as fast as Gillespie. He was searching for a mellower, less frenetic approach to bop, and found it in “cool” jazz, a style he developed in the late 1940s with the Canadian-born orchestrator Gil Evans. So fervently did he believe in his own vision that, at twenty-three, he turned down an offer from Duke Ellington.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s Davis assembled bands that were notable for their startling contrasts of personnel, like the pairing in his late 1950s sextet of John Coltrane, a tenor saxophonist with a furiously probing, gnarled style, and Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, a buoyant, sweet-toned alto player who always sounded as if he’d just gotten out of church.

Davis became known as “the sorcerer” because of his alchemical flair for transforming the humblest of materials—a Tin Pan Alley song, a simple bass line, even another musician’s wrong note—into an exalted form of expression. Shy to the point of taciturnity, he rarely spoke to his sidemen, except to offer the occasional cryptic instruction—“play [guitar] like you don’t know how to play the guitar,” he told the guitarist John McLaughlin—yet he knew how to inspire their best playing. He also knew how to make their compositions sound better, as if he had distilled a cloudy liquid. The keyboardist Joe Zawinul was aghast at Davis’s ruthless arrangement of “In a Silent Way,” which Davis used as the title track of his 1969 recording with Zawinul, but Davis illuminated qualities its composer hadn’t quite discerned.

Easily bored by what he called “old shit,” Davis shed styles as soon as they risked settling into formula. When “cool” lost its edge in the hands of white West Coast musicians, he pioneered hard bop, a simplified, funkier style of bop that reasserted jazz’s roots. When hard bop hardened into its own set of sweaty clichés, he gravitated to “modal” jazz, which used scales rather than chord changes as a harmonic frame. When Ornette Coleman launched the “free jazz” revolution, Davis looked on from the sidelines with a disdain that barely concealed his anger at being upstaged by a weird-looking alto player from Texas, but he soon formed a visionary quintet with a group of young Coleman admirers. And when he grew frustrated with the limits of acoustic jazz, he combined it with electric instruments in a mélange that, in the late 1960s, became known as “fusion” or “jazz-rock.”

A small, dark-skinned man of feline, somewhat pouty sensuality, Davis was also a dandy, and each of his musical makeovers seemed to arrive with an alluring new wardrobe. He weighed each move with an artist’s seriousness and an entrepreneur’s concern for his brand, which eventually became known simply as “Miles,” a synonym for artistic integrity, masculine cool, and black self-confidence. More than any black artist before him, he refused the role of entertainer, above all the humiliating “grin” that Louis Armstrong and even Gillespie had worn to make whites feel comfortable. Davis was accused of being hostile because he sometimes turned his back to the audience while playing, but he did so merely to hear better what everyone else wanted to hear: his horn. What gave his music its cohesion, even its identity, was his unforgettable sound, at once intensely intimate and defiantly aloof. He was a poet of loneliness, of shadows and masks, in a music more associated with extroverted expression and communal festivity.

Davis achieved his sound by playing without vibrato, an approach he learned from his first teacher in East St. Louis. Most trumpeters since Armstrong had used vibrato to make their horns sound more like the human voice, but Davis created an even more human sound by dispensing with it altogether. Through his horn he seems to speak to us, in a language shorn of artifice or sentimentality, much as Billie Holiday did. Indeed Davis, who modeled his phrasing partly on singers and actors (notably Orson Welles, whose radio broadcasts he studied closely), is perhaps best understood as a vocalist who happened to sing with a trumpet. His voice was especially beautiful on ballads, which he would sometimes perform with a stemless Harmon mute that lent his playing a beseeching, breath-like timbre, and a restrained yet smoldering eroticism.1

Miles Ahead, Don Cheadle’s film about Davis, is set toward the end of his “silent period,” in the late 1970s. After several years spent on nonmusical pursuits—cocaine, round-the-clock orgies, and, in his words, “making fun of white folks on television”—he is plotting a comeback, when he is flooded by memories. The film is not a full-dress biopic but rather a portrait of an artist, often in a decidedly whimsical register: there’s even an invented subplot involving a car chase for a stolen demo, guns blazing in the Manhattan night.2

Cheadle, who directed, cowrote, and stars in the film, has perfected Davis’s glare and his famous rasp (the result of a throat operation in the 1950s); he also captures Davis’s physical grace and vanity, his anger at being forgotten by a world that he himself has shut out. In Cheadle’s portrayal, Davis emerges as a sort of Don Draper of jazz: brooding, seductive, and radiantly opaque, a charismatic loner whose sometimes terrifying behavior, especially toward women, can be rationalized, if not forgiven, because it seems rooted in a history of suffering, and somehow connected to his mysterious powers as an innovator.

Cheadle has said that what attracted him to Davis was that “he never looked back, always forward,” but in the film he looks back with as much longing as Charles Foster Kane. In the sumptuously imagined flashbacks to the 1950s and 1960s, the identity of “Rosebud” is never in doubt: the dancer Frances Taylor, his former wife. When Davis met her in 1953, she was a dancer in the Katherine Dunham Company. He was a heroin addict and pimp, twenty-seven years old but already being treated as a has-been, eclipsed in the jazz press by Chet Baker, who was an inferior talent but possessed the advantage of being white.3

Meeting Taylor, whom he married in 1958, inspired Davis to clean himself up and focus on his music. He formed his first great quintet with Coltrane (later expanded to a sextet with Cannonball Adderley), a band whose propulsive yet unhurried sense of swing owed much to the pianist Ahmad Jamal, whom the jazz establishment had dismissed as a cocktail musician, but whose lightness of touch, subtle rhythmic accents, and imaginative use of space Davis hailed as a revelation. He also made two undisputed masterpieces: the 1959 modal album Kind of Blue, a series of lyrical and limpid mood pieces for sextet, considered by many to be his greatest work; and, a year later, Sketches of Spain, where he moaned, cried, and whispered against Gil Evans’s haunting orchestral arrangements of Andalusian songs.

It is when he hears Sketches of Spain on the radio that Davis, in Miles Ahead, is visited by an apparition of his former wife, and throughout the film he wanders through his roach-infested house, uttering “Frances!” and wondering how he blew it with her. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, they were one of New York’s most glamorous couples: friends of the Belafontes and Quincy Jones, hosts of a benefit for Bobby Kennedy’s Senate campaign. Taylor gave up her career at his insistence, and stood by his side when he was viciously beaten by cops outside Birdland, where his quintet was performing in 1959. (They had seen him escorting a white woman to a cab during a set break, and accused him of “loitering.”) Davis wrote the song “Fran Dance” for her, and put a coquettish photograph of her on the cover of his romantic 1961 album Someday My Prince Will Come. But after an agonizing hip surgery, Davis became increasingly dependent on cocaine and painkillers, and he lashed out at Taylor, sometimes violently. When she fled their home in 1964, she was literally “running for my life.”

“Frances was the best wife that I ever had and whoever gets her is a lucky motherfucker,” Davis later wrote. “I know that now, and I wish I had known that then.” Cheadle has adopted Davis’s rare expression of regret as the leitmotif of his film. According to Cheadle, Taylor “represents the muse, the voice he has lost and is trying to recapture.” Oddly, the film all but ignores the decade between the collapse of his marriage and the “silent period.” Far from losing his way when Taylor left him, Davis rebounded, entering the most inventive stage of his career. (He found other, no less important “muses,” notably Cicely Tyson and the young singer Betty Mabry.)

In the late 1960s and early 1970s he was leaner and fitter than ever, eating only a single meal a day, and spending much of his spare time in the gym boxing, which allowed him to hold notes longer and to play higher than he ever had. (He even sounded like a boxer, with a rhythmic attack that suggested jabbing here, thrusting there.) He threw himself into his work with the Second Great Quintet, the band he led from 1964 to 1968 with the tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter, the pianist Herbie Hancock, the drummer Tony Williams, and the bassist Ron Carter.

It was music of intense formal experimentation, brimming with collective improvisation, yet it had none of the contrivances, or the cacophony, of free jazz. With Williams accenting the backbeat, and playing just a little louder than everyone else, the quintet had an enveloping, vaguely African pulse that made the swing of the first quintet seem almost antiquarian. In concert, the music never stopped: Davis’s sets were now uninterrupted medleys, the tunes mere signposts along the way.

When Davis felt he could go no further with straight-ahead acoustic jazz, he embraced the electric age, much as Bob Dylan had a few years earlier. He did so gradually, first adding electric guitar to his acoustic quintet in late 1967, just after “Coltrane died and fucked up everybody.” But by 1969, when he recorded the monumental double album Bitches Brew—the subject of a perceptive new monograph by George Grella Jr. in the 33 1/3 series—he had forged a bold new style, later dubbed the “electric Miles.” Today no period of Davis’s work exerts as much fascination for young jazz musicians. The score for Miles Ahead—assembled by the pianist Robert Glasper—includes several excerpts of the electric Miles; we even hear passages in scenes set in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

But in 1979, when the film takes place, Davis’s electric work was still extremely polarizing and, in the jazz world, mostly unloved. He was widely accused of surrendering to rock, the sinister force that was allegedly driving young people away from acoustic jazz. Amiri Baraka dismissed Davis’s electric jazz as “dollar-sign music”; the pianist Cecil Taylor sneered that he “plays pretty well for a millionaire.” (This judgment was reinforced when Davis returned to the stage in the early 1980s, playing Top 40 tunes against synthetic funk backdrops as gaudy as the gold lamé jacket that Issye Miyake designed for him.) Shortly before Davis’s death in 1991, Stanley Crouch wrote that Davis “deserves the description that Nietzsche gave of Wagner, ‘the greatest example of self-violation in the history of art.’” He left no doubt that what led to Davis’s “fall” and set him “firmly on the path of the sellout” was Bitches Brew.

In 1970, the year of its release, Bitches Brew sold nearly a half million copies, and sent the jazz world into a state of confusion: Was this the end of jazz, or a new beginning? Jazz purists weren’t wrong to suspect that Davis’s new music had something to do with commercial pressures. Clive Davis, the president at Columbia Records, had called him to a meeting about his declining record sales. Miles Davis was a deeply competitive artist, and the idea that he was losing audiences to white rock musicians with inferior skills—and, worse, had to open for them at concerts—inspired him to beat them at their own game. But he did so very much on his own terms. What one hears in Bitches Brew, as Grella argues, is not pandering but searching and striving: “a great work of abstract music inside the sounds, beats, and riffs of commercial music,” “avant-garde with soul and a beat.”

Bitches Brew was a more ungainly work than its predecessor, the shimmering tone poem In a Silent Way, but its sprawl was a measure of Davis’s audacity, his hunger for new forms. It featured an unusual ensemble of thirteen musicians, including three electric keyboardists, two drummers, and two bass players. Perhaps the most distinctive ingredient is Bennie Maupin’s bass clarinet. For much of the album, Maupin plays almost entirely in the lower register of his horn, making guttural noises, short, agitated phrases that add an incantatory undercurrent to the “brew.” Every musician, even Davis himself, contributes at one point or another to that roiling brew, to which the soloists respond and over which they occasionally collide.

Bitches Brew bids farewell to almost every musical convention, including the traditional cues for foreground and background. Most of the tracks are exceptionally long (twenty-six minutes, in the case of the title track), and they are not so much songs as—in Grella’s words—“waves” of improvisation, leaving the “disorienting sensation of…simply stopping without coming to a formal end or resolution of any kind.” Here were the sonorities of the free jazz Davis had claimed to disdain, only set against electric grooves and churning, tribalistic percussion.

Bitches Brew is very much an ensemble work, but the defining sound is Davis’s trumpet, as confident and fiery as ever. We hear him in an extraordinary range of moods: the fierce, growling swagger of “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down,” a hot blues in the key of F, set to a languorous New Orleans march rhythm; the hypnotic call-and-response of “Bitches Brew,” a cousin of the Andalusian pieces Davis had loved playing since Sketches of Spain; and the plaintive, mysterious lyricism of Wayne Shorter’s “Sanctuary,” with its echoes of “I Fall in Love Too Easily,” a Davis favorite. Blues, balladry, and the “Spanish tinge”: the effect here is a kind of kaleidoscopic self-portrait.

How could so many jazz critics have overlooked Davis’s powerful trumpet playing on Bitches Brew, and its continuities with his previous work? The reason for their bewilderment was, in large part, the brew, the music’s muddy electric bottom, which bore no resemblance to the jazz they knew. Davis had never been a pure bopper, but his music had always made allusion, however oblique, to the grammar of Parker and Gillespie. On Bitches Brew, Davis decisively broke with his roots in bop. As Grella argues, building on the pivotal work of Greg Tate and Paul Tingen, the more revealing points of comparison were no longer to be found in jazz but in the psychedelic guitar of Jimi Hendrix, the warbled vocals of Sly Stone, and the bass lines of James Brown.

Davis, as Grella sees it, was a bluesman even before he was a jazz musician. And in the late 1960s he had begun to worry that he was losing his “blueness,” his connection to popular black music and black audiences; he said he missed “the sound of $1.50 drums and the harmonicas and the two-chord blues.” Hendrix, Sly, and Brown showed him the way back to the blues of his East St. Louis childhood, the real “Rosebud” of his art. As he put it, “I don’t play rock, I play black.”

The music Davis made from 1969 to 1975 was some of his blackest ever, sometimes directly based on bass lines and riffs he heard in James Brown and Sly Stone.4 Yet it was also bristling with jagged, sometimes disturbing dissonances that grew out of his interest in the European avant-garde, particularly Karlheinz Stockhausen. It would prove no less demanding, and no less dazzling in its variety, than his acoustic work.5 There were slow, meditative compositions of breathtaking lyrical expansiveness, from In a Silent Way to “He Loved Him Madly,” his eerie requiem for Duke Ellington. There was the hallucinatory syncopation of his 1972 record On the Corner, perhaps the strangest funk album ever made. And, finally, there were the raucous, throbbing mid-1970s concerts, in which Davis had to hook his trumpet up to a wah-wah pedal to even be heard above the din of electric guitars. Like the early minimalism of Philip Glass, it was music you did not so much listen to as inhabit, an environment of sound where you were free to tune in and out.

Part of the enduring fascination of records like Bitches Brew lies not only in what they sound like but in how they were put together. Here Davis grudgingly shared credit with his producer, Teo Macero. A saxophonist and composer who had worked with the musique concrète composer Edgard Varèse, Macero was as important a Davis collaborator during these years as Gil Evans had been in the late 1950s. Macero sat in the control room with Davis at every session while the sidemen performed, often without being told if they were rehearsing or playing an actual take. Their relationship was volatile—the Bitches Brew recordings began just after an explosive row in which Davis demanded that Macero fire his secretary—but Davis thrived on such tension, and his trust in “Teo” was total.

With a razor blade, splicing block, and tape, Macero edited what were unruly jam sessions into suite-like compositions, often using loops—short sections of material—to create ostinato patterns. The two tracks of In a Silent Way are both sandwiched between such loops. Assuming this must have been an error, the jazz critic Martin Williams complained in his review about the “faulty tape splicing.” Others insinuated that Davis had cheated by stretching a half hour of music into forty minutes.

Today these criticisms seem rather quaint. Davis and Macero were, in effect, using the studio as an instrument. And on Bitches Brew, their aim was to create effects similar to those Davis had always sought in his playing: a dramatic expansion and enhancement of our perception of space. As the musician Brian Eno, who was deeply influenced by the electric Miles, has pointed out, the musicians sound as if they are “miles apart…the impression that you have immediately is not that you are in a little place with a group of people playing, but that you’re on a huge plateau.” That impression was powerfully reinforced by the now famous cover art of Abdul Mati Klarwein, which depicted a naked black couple on a beach, facing the sea against a backdrop of blue sky, red flowers, and yellow flames. A storm appears to erupt directly out of the woman’s hair; above the couple an imposing black face appears in profile, dripping with either beads of sweat or tears, as dauntingly inexpressive as the Pyramids.

We seem to be observing an Afro-Futurist rite of spring, and, as Grella observes, there are moments when the brew sounds “uncannily like fragments plucked from The Rite of Spring.”6 The master of this ceremony is Davis himself. He is higher than anyone else in the mix, as befits a lead singer, and, as Grella writes, “the physical power of his playing…cannot be overstated.” Even when he is absent, we feel as if we can hear him. He is summoning the ancient spirit of the blues, and at the same time leaping into the future, binding it to the sound of his trumpet, determined, as ever, not to be left behind. He cannot imagine music going forward without him, and neither, for as long as he plays, can we.

  1. 1

    In the early 1970s, Davis stopped playing ballads. As he explained to the pianist Keith Jarrett, he liked playing them so much.  

  2. 2

    Davis’s accomplice in this quest for the stolen tape is “Dave Braden,” a Scottish journalist played with genial cheer by Ewan McGregor. According to Cheadle, he wrote McGregor’s character because he needed a white lead to raise money. It is odd that he went to the trouble of inventing when there were so many real white collaborators to choose from, among them Gil Evans, probably Davis’s closest friend; the pianist Bill Evans, a crucial force in his late-1950s sextet; and the British composer Paul Buckmaster, who introduced Davis to the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen in the early 1970s, and helped nurse him to recovery in the summer of 1979, around the time Miles Ahead is set.  

  3. 3

    Their rivalry is explored in Robert Budreau’s intelligent recent film about Chet Baker, Born to Blue, featuring an excellent Ethan Hawke as Baker. 

  4. 4

    The bass line in “Yesternow,” the second side of Jack Johnson, the mesmerizing album he recorded soon after Bitches Brew, was lifted from James Brown’s “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,” and slowed down to a ghostly drone.  

  5. 5

    The double-sidedness of his work became so pronounced that Davis flaunted it with titles such as Live-Evil, and spelled his name backward as “Selim Sivad.” He was no less fascinated by sexual and racial ambiguity than David Bowie—or Prince, whom he praised as having “that raunchy thing, like a pimp and a bitch all wrapped up in one image.” 

  6. 6

    Although there is no evidence of any influence on Bitches Brew, Davis was a great admirer of Stravinsky, whose scores he studied as a student at Juilliard.