Miles Davis Documentary in Theaters

Stanley Nelson’s documentary Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool debuted at Sundance last winter and is now making its way across the country. It was premier weekend here in Los Angeles, and it was fun to see Nelson’s take on the Davis story as well as reconnect with people in the Miles orbit. I am one of dozens of interviewees you will see and hear in the film. You can check out the schedule of screenings here.

I’ve been involved in the Davis story for a while now. It began when I moved to St. Louis in his home region for graduate school in 1991. Davis died that September, and the response in the city seemed to be something of a shrug. Years later I was working at the Missouri History Museum as the historian for a new permanent exhibition on St. Louis history. I had the audacity to contact the Davis estate to see whether they would be interested in lending an authentic Davis trumpet to the exhibition. They agreed, which only emboldened me.

Q&A after a Los Angeles screening: Davis’s son Erin and nephew Vince Wilburn; musician Marcus Miller; voice actor Carl Lumbly; and director Stanley Nelson.

Not long after, I asked whether they might be interested in an entire exhibition–6,000 square feet strong–on his life that would coincide with the seventy-fifth anniversary of Davis’s birth and tenth of his death. They said yes to that too, and then the plans kept going–a book of essays edited by Gerald Early, who had pioneered a series of conferences on Davis at Washington University for a few years prior–a music festival on Davis’s 75th birthday that brought Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Ahmad Jamal to East St. Louis, Davis’s hometown, and a concurrent exhibition of Davis’s artwork at another museum, all in addition to the exhibition Miles: A Miles Davis Retrospective, which ran from May 2001 to February 2002. It was a regional celebration that seemed the least that we all could do to honor one of the most important artists of the twentieth century.

I conducted research for the exhibition in New York–my first visit–and met some amazing people. I even briefly held the master tapes of Kind of Blue in my hands. A conference on Jazz and Photography hosted by the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University established that this field had not yet been explored fully, and an idea was born.

The Miles Davis exhibition made use of more than 200 photographs from around the world, and it reinforced my sense that there was more to be learned about the image of jazz and what it meanings might be, and when I returned to graduate school and completed my dissertation, Blue Notes in Black and White was born. When published as a book, it only made sense that Miles Davis, subject of a central chapter, would be on the cover.

Davis keeps coming back. I wrote an article on Davis and Jack Johnson for The Cambridge Companion to Boxing. And I was one of dozens who sat with Stanley Nelson for an interview for Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool. Seeing the film brings back not only the many images I’ve known for so long, but the extraordinary people I’ve met along the way. Ron Carter, looking professorial, was one of those people. I had the fortune to interview him for Early’s book, and it was an honor. Frances Taylor, Davis’ ex-wife, just about steals the show. What spirit! It saddens me that she died last fall before the film was complete. I thought of others who passed before they could be interviewed. I would gladly exchange my screen time for record producer George Avakian, who died in 2017. He was a gentleman from an earlier time who never lost his passion for new music. The film doesn’t mention Davis’ other legendary producer at Columbia, Teo Macero, who died in 2008, but I can tell you he had plenty of stories–just none he would let me publish. Clark Terry (d. 2015), fellow St. Louis trumpeter and lifelong friend, had much to say. For that matter, nearly all of the photographers and designers I interviewed for my book and whose images of Miles Davis are legendary are also gone. William Claxton, Neil Fujita, Herman Leonard, Don Hunstein, Dennis Stock, the ever generous Lee Tanner, and the list goes on.

Still with me, though, is Becki Hartke, who designed the exhibition, chose the photo for the book cover, and has generally put up with me for the past two decades. Time passes, but somehow the Miles Davis story remains compelling. Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool gives us a chance to marvel at that story again.

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That’s me with Cheryl Davis and Becki Hartke after a screening in Los Angeles.

With director Stanley Nelson.

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