I can't think of a single artist in music history who reinvented their image as many times and was at the forefront of so many different waves of music as Miles Davis.
Not only did his music span across cool and modal to fusion, jazz-funk, jazz-rock and even jazz-rap in the early 90s (my first introduction to him was via his 1992 Grammy Award-winning album 'Doo-Bop'), but he also had an incredible eye for spotting talent. Coltrane, Shorter, McLaughlin, Corea, Hancock, Jarrett, Bartz and other incredible musicians would go on to create legendary albums of their own, and Davis was highly influential in their success. When ‘Bitches Brew’ was released in 1970, people thought it sounded like nothing else being created. Rolling Stone magazine described him as "the most revered jazz trumpeter of all time, not to mention one of the most important musicians of the 20th century."
So, what more can be shared of Davis that hasn’t already been covered in numerous books and films, like the Don Cheadle-starring ‘Miles Ahead’ and 2001’s award-winning doco ‘The Miles Davis Story’?
The first five minutes of the new ‘American Masters’-produced documentary ‘Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool’ by Stanley Nelson (‘The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution’) may feel like a standard-issue look at the jazz icon’s life, but the remaining does not. The Emmy Award-winning director received access to never-before-seen footage and rare outtakes from Davis’ close friends and family archives. Davis’ own music is used as the score, and the documentary is narrated by Carl Lumbly as Davis (by way of his autobiography and some gravelly voice-acting).
From the son of a prominent dentist in East St. Louis to trumpeting in the clubs of Manhattan’s 52nd Street (his playing is described as “pure and elegant and tasty ... musically tasty”), the documentary follows Davis as he dabbles in bop, plays with his heroes Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie (he'd vomit from nerves before each gig), sees his turn with the ground-breaking ensemble album that gives the film its title, as well as through the quintet periods, his fusion era, his moments in a drug-fuelled exile, and finally his resurrection at the end of his career.
There are new interviews with his children, but the most interesting ones are with his first wife Frances Taylor, French singer/actor Juliette Gréco and his final partner, Jo Gelbard, who all discuss the relationships they had with him. It becomes clear that Davis, known for being a genius and but physically abusive, was deeply influenced by the women he loved over every step of his career.
The anecdotes are fascinating. Aside from romancing the beautiful Greco by the canals of Paris, he chose to stay in France because there was less racism towards black people compared to the United States. He met with philosophers and intellectuals through Greco, such as Jean-Paul Sartre, and recorded the soundtrack to Louis Malle’s 1958 French crime film ‘Elevator to the Gallows’. Davis watched Malle’s film and took notes, then played “bits of themes” on his hotel room piano that later turned up in the film. For the recording session two weeks later, Davis brought the musicians into the studio with no preparation, and they played while watching the scenes. This improvisational method by Davis, and the relationship Malle’s film establishes between music, image and emotion, were considered groundbreaking.
Details coalesce to build the story of a human who was gifted with extraordinary talent that was sometimes an extraordinary burden, who lived a life full of intrigue and plot twists.
After leaving Greco behind in Paris, Davis returned to America. It was at this time that his propensity for drugs and alcohol came to the fore. He had a bad heroin addiction and ended up going back to East St. Louis to live with his father for a time. When he came back, his career really started to take off. It was then, during his ‘Kind of Blue’ era, when he met Taylor, a famous dancer. She said he told her, “Now that I’ve found you, I’ll never let you go.”
Davis had several successful albums. However, even as one of the most famous musicians in the world, this didn’t stop a cop from harassing him while he smoked a cigarette outside of his own concert at Birdland, or a detective from cracking him over the head with a baton (we see photos of a stunned and bloodied Davis in front of the club with his name on the marquis). He became increasingly bitter and cynical after this, and sank into a cocaine addiction.
‘Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool’ succeeds in moving past the legendary mystique to show a man who was sensitive, prone to depression, and terrified of vulnerability. Davis was gifted with extraordinary talent that was sometimes an extraordinary burden, who lived a life full of intrigue and plot twists.
Nelson combines Davis and his music to give us an intimate portrait of how one mind shaped popular culture. ‘Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool’ humanises a musical genius and ends up giving us an engrossing, hilarious, informative and heartbreaking look at the Miles Davis that music fans thought they knew.