Documentary "Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool" spells out a musical genius' influence

A new movie about Miles Davis, "Birth of the Cool," details how this extremely talented musical eccentric's influence cannot be overstated.
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Miles-film

By Mike Greenblatt

I almost met Miles Davis.

During the years of his mysterious hiatus (1975-1980), when Miles seemingly fell off the face of the Earth after setting the music world on fire numerous times with his revolutionary approach, rumors were rife that he was dead. People thought maybe he had become an European ex-patriot, or that he was homeless. No one heard a note from his famous horn. We heard he was now only playing keyboards. We heard lots of things. He may have been absent, but his records were being played and any news of his whereabouts was bound to create a furor. Truth was, he had barricaded himself in his Upper West Side townhouse, mired in drugs and alcohol. He was sick. He was silent. And the whole world waited for a return that more and more people thought was never going to happen.

I was attending a press party for George Jones in Greenwich Village where I met the colorful, eccentric Master John Blair. Blair had bumrushed the show at a recent Newport-in-New-York Jazz Festival concert at Carnegie Hall by casually strolling down the aisle with his homemade invention, the vitar, a combo guitar/violin, and proceeded to perform a solo with the band onstage to the surprise, amazement and wonder of all. How he got past security I’ll never know but he blew the house away and, when he finished, he just-as-casually strolled offstage, up the aisle and disappeared.

Who was that masked man?

Well, I’ll be damned if there he was again at this press party dressed in the same cape and carrying his vitar. Naturally, being the intrepid reporter that I am, I went right up to him and asked him about that night. His answer took a rambling route through his history and the history of jazz in New York and by the time he finished, the press party was over and everybody walked to The Bottom Line to ostensibly see the great country singer, No-Show Jones. He didn’t show up at the party but we had no idea he wouldn’t show up for his concert either. 

I walked with Blair to the show and after we were both disappointed about not seeing George Jones, he leaned over conspiratorially and whispered in my ear, “Do you want to go to Miles Davis’s house?”

Did I? It would be the scoop of the century to go visit Miles Davis at his house! We got on an uptown subway as people all around us gawked at this strange dude in the cape. 

We get to his house. My heart is racing a mile-a-minute. Blair rings the bell. A woman’s voice answers.

“Yes?”

“It’s Master Blair.”

“Hold on.”

And then I hear it. I hear that rasp of a voice through the intercom. 

“What you want?”

“I got a reporter with me. Can we come up?”

And then I hear the three words I’ll never forget. 

“Is he white?”

“Yeah, but…”

Click. 

And that’s my Miles Davis story. 

These remembrances have been triggered by the release of the amazing documentary Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool (Eagle Rock Entertainment/Firelight Films/American Masters Pictures). It was directed by Stanley Nelson who won Emmy Awards for previous documentaries The Murder of Emmett Till (2003), Freedom Riders (2011) and The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (2015). Nelson was granted full access to the Miles Davis estate. In using never-before-seen footage and interviews just for this doc with Quincy Jones, Carlos Santana, Clive Davis, Wayne Shorter and Ron Carter, a portrait of this complex man emerges. It is a stunning and captivating portrait that proves the old adage that change is the only constant for true artistry. 

Set off by the decades, you witness the contributions of Miles to American culture in the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. His pure and unadorned artistry is couched within the confines of each decade’s popular culture. Most improbable of all is his ‘80s resurrection on up to his death in 1991 from bronchial pneumonia compounded by a brain hemorrhage, stroke and, finally, coma, after respiratory failure. He was 65. 

Numerous moments stand out like how he gave John Coltrane the stage in which to shine and find his own groove. Or how he commandeered what has to be thought of as the greatest quintet in jazz history with pianist Herbie Hancock, the 17-year old drummer Tony Williams, bassist Ron Carter and sax man Wayne Shorter. On a personal level, it shows how all three of his wives proved to be profound influences on him: Frances Davis (’58-’68), funk diva Betty Davis (’68-’69) and actress Cicely Tyson (’81-’88). 

The Miles influence cannot be overstated. When he left bebop in the dust for funk, he dictated the future jazz-rock fusion explosion. His musical tentacles wrapped themselves around hip-hop, progressive rock and R’n’B as well. 

The movie is no whitewash. Yeah, he abused heroin. Yeah, he physically and mentally abused his wives. Genius has its eccentricities, sure, but there’s certainly no excuse for his caveman ways with women. Miles seemed to have been a tortured individual whose only grace came when he blew that trumpet. Thank goodness he blew it enough to give us hours and hours—in different configurations—to love and groove to for a lifetime. 

A bonus CD from the Live At Montreux series includes performances from ’73, ’84 and ’85. 

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