Distribution and Marketing Company Abramorama recently announced a deal with Eagle Rock Entertainment to theatrically release Stanley Nelson’s much anticipated documentary on the life of jazz trumpeter and composer Miles Davis. “Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January. It recently began its theatrical run and is set to premiere at the Gene Siskel Film Center, beginning October 4, for two weeks.
“The story of Miles Davis – who he was as a man and artist – has often been told as the tale of a drug-addled genius,” said director Nelson. “You rarely see a portrait of a man that worked hard at honing his craft, a man who deeply studied all forms of music, from Baroque to classical Indian. An elegant man who could render ballads with such tenderness yet hold rage in his heart from the racism he faced throughout his life. I’ve been fascinated with Miles since my college years and have dreamed of telling his story ever since. I am beyond thrilled to be working with Abramorama on the release of this film that is very special to me.”
With full access to the Miles Davis Estate, the film features never-before-seen footage, including studio outtakes from his recording sessions, the silent years from 1975 to the mid-80s, and photos and new interviews. Quincy Jones, Carlos Santana, Clive Davis, Wayne Shorter, Quincy Troupe, Stanley Crouch, Herbie Hancock, jazz promoter George Wein, music historian Ashley Kahn, Eugene Redmond, musicology professor Tammy Kernodle, Ron Carter, and a host of Davis’ ex-wives and family members, are just a few of the luminaries and industry icons weighing in on his life and career.
Following its Sundance world premiere, Variety said the film was “superbly crafted” and “a tantalizing portrait: rich, probing, mournful, romantic, triumphant, tragic, exhilarating, and blisteringly honest,” and Rolling Stone called the film “essential.”
I was able to screen this documentary, and it is a great overview of Davis’ life and doesn’t just harp on his substance abuse, which, according to the documentary, became really troublesome after he became depressed after visiting Paris in 1949 and progressively worse when he had hip surgery in 1965, followed by a subsequent auto accident in the early 70s.
Miles met singer Juliette Greco in Paris and, although he cared for his high school sweetheart Irene Cawthon with whom he would have three children, Greco brought him into a circle of intellectuals, artists and philosophers who changed his entire world-view. “I was living in an illusion of possibility and it was hard to come back to the b.s. that white folks put Blacks through [in America],” he said.
The documentary also explains his distinctive gravelly voice, which was the result of Davis not letting his voice properly rest after polyps were removed from his larynx in the mid 50s.
Born in Alton, Illinois, in 1926, Davis was enamored with the world of jazz in the 50s in New York, when Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie “Bird” Parker were holding court—at a time when Davis was briefly studying at Juilliard.
“Be-Bop musicians were rocket scientists, and Miles stepped into a hot bed of musical research and development,” said writer Greg Tate. “He widened the palette of jazz and took it in another direction,” said Kernodle.
Frances Taylor, a dancer, was a stunning beauty who caught Davis’ eye and attention around 1958. The two, who were described as a “hot couple,” were married for about 10 years; but the marriage ended because Davis was physically abusive toward Frances.
However, during the good times, they were always well dressed and served as a sort of power couple, according to the documentary. “They were the prince and princess,” said Davis’ nephew Vince Wilburn, Jr., who also worked as a drummer. Wilburn also sadly noted that during the early 70s Miles would travel to Harlem to do drugs, although he was living with him for a while to keep him on the straight and narrow. Said Wilburn, who is also involved in the documentary, “I wanted him to get back to my uncle—my superhero.” Davis’ son Erin Davis admitted that, “It was a dark time for him.”
After Davis left the Prestige record label for Columbia (1955-1975), he insisted that Black women be used on his album covers. As a result, Taylor’s photo was used on his 1961 album “Someday My Prince Will Come.”
American funk and soul singer Betty Mabry was married to Davis briefly in 1968, and she ushered in his change of clothing from “sharp as a tack” to a funkier, more free style. Previously, Davis was the “personification of cool,” with the fast sports cars and clothes. However, Davis himself said that imagery didn’t negate his importance as a musician. “Being cool, hip, angry, sophisticated and ultra clean. I was all those things and more. But I was playing that horn and not just a rebel image.”
It was also around this time that Davis became interested in rock-influenced jazz, recording “Bitches Brew,” whose album cover was just as iconic as the content. This studio double album featured electric instruments and is considered one of the most influential albums of the 20th century.
In the early 80s, Davis met and married veteran actress Cicely Tyson, who—although it is well noted about the abuse in this marriage—inspired and encouraged Davis to kick his drug habit. As a result, Davis was compelled to tour again, after his so-called “silent years.”
Davis was beaten by cops in 1959 while standing in front of Birdland, a club where he was performing in New York. This left him “much more bitter and cynical.” For Miles Davis’ fans and jazz lovers alike, this isn’t a revisionist portrayal of Davis. It does show his flawed, arrogant, difficult and drug-filled existence. But it also presents great insight into a musical genius.
In “Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool,” Davis summed up his entire career that spanned nearly 45 years, which could relate back to the circumstances surrounding that beating. “All I ever wanted to do was communicate what I felt through music.”
Davis died of a stroke in California in 1991.
For more information about the screening, call 312-846-2800 or visit http://www.siskelfilmcenter.org/miles-davis-birth-of-the-cool
Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., is the Entertainment Editor for the Chicago Crusader Newspaper. She is also the author of “Old School Adventures from Englewood–South Side of Chicago.” For book info, firstname.lastname@example.org.