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‘Cool’ jazz: Legendary Miles Davis gets spotlight on ‘American Masters’

‘Cool’ jazz: Legendary Miles Davis gets spotlight on ‘American Masters’

The son of an East St. Louis dentist, Miles Davis displayed his genius at playing the trumpet as early as age 13, when he played with Eddie Randle’s Blue Devils. During the summer after he graduated from high school, Davis was asked to sit in on sessions with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. He moved to New York in 1944 to attend the Juilliard School. At night, he went to the dozen or so jazz clubs on West 52nd Street. Timeless albums such as “Kind of Blue” (1959) lay before him as well as fruitful collaborations with musicians Wayne Shorter, John Coltrane and Herbie Hancock. He often went into the studio with mere sketches of musical ideas and allowed the session musicians to improvise until the music was good enough to record. His relentless experimentation wasn’t always embraced by critics or audiences, but he never played it safe.

Problems in his personal life — addictions and domestic violence — tarnished his legend, but filmmaker Stanley Nelson was able to convince Shorter, Hancock and Davis’ ex-wife Frances, among others, to speak on camera and give us a complete portrait of the man behind the music.

Your film has lengthy excerpts of Davis’ music. Was it hard to get those clearances?

It was difficult, and it was expensive. For us, it was really important to get the music right. Sony asked us, “Can you pick 10 or 20 cuts?” We wanted [the film] to go where the music takes us. So we didn’t do that. We did a massive search. There were actually a lot of recordings of his performances. We combed everywhere.

The jazz clubs that Davis went to on West 52nd Street are gone. What can you tell New Yorkers about how important they were in his musical development?

There’s been nothing like those clubs. Every 20 feet there was another one. They were small clubs, but they were all over. Jazz was at its heyday when Miles was 18 and came to New York and he fell into it. It was special. People in those days, if they wanted a night out, they went to 52nd Street.

Miles Davis poses for a portrait, circa 1956.
Miles Davis poses for a portrait, circa 1956.Miles Davis © Tom Palumbo

Over 5 million copies of “Kind of Blue” have been sold. What is it about that particular record that makes it so influential?

“Kind of Blue” is magic. There’s no way to describe it. There’s the Bible for religion and “Kind of Blue” for jazz. When you listen to the record, you love it but you’re also loving the fact that you love it. There’s something in the discovery of it that makes you feel smarter. It’s an album I would [put] on for everybody and dare them not to like it. And it seems like it’s effortless.

Miles made his wife Frances, who was a dancer, quit the original production of “West Side Story” to become a full-time mother to his children by another woman. Why was he so threatened by her?

That’s Miles. Miles was living in a day where men expected that of their wives. There was a certain feeling among men in that era, that your wife shouldn’t work, that you should take care of her. He was not a jealous guy but extremely jealous of Frances as she was very vivacious and beautiful.

Which is your favorite Miles Davis album and why?

I have different favorites. I did nothing but listen to Miles for two years. I love “On the Corner” and “Bitches Brew.” The “Second [Great] Quintet” album with Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock. If I’m tired when I come home, I’ll listen to “Birth of the Cool” or “Kind of Blue.” There’s a Miles for everybody, no matter what your mood is or what you want to listen to.

“American Masters: Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool” premieres at 9 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 25, on PBS.

Miles Davis is shown during a 1959 recording session for his album
Miles Davis during a 1959 recording session for his album “Kind of Blue”Don Hunstein/Sony Music Archives

Source : Robert Rorke Link

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