Miles Davis: The Birth of Cool

Ahead of it showing at the EFG London Jazz Festival this week, it’s time for me to review this beautiful Stanley Nelson documentary.

I’ve been a bit slow on it, having seen it at the London Film Festival and had Stanley himself guest on my radio show. I picked It Never Entered My Mind as my Tune of the Week because music, frankly, rarely gets any more majestic or romantic than that. 

But the whole film is a terrific watch. I’m not sure it breaks a whole lot of new ground for Miles Davis experts, but even for those who think they know the artist well, there’s a lot of reassessment here, and some simply magnificent music which, given new context and new visual framing, sounds better than ever.

I’m not embarking here on a potted Miles history – the film does that for you – but what I can say comes to the fore are the women in his life- Juliette Greco, Frances Taylor, Betty Davis, Cicely Tyson… (the ellipsis allows for many more undocumented relationships). This womanising is an aspect that clearly dominated his music, so sexy and seductive is that famous tone, teetering between arrogant strut and male fragility. “I want to feel the way Miles sounds,” says one woman. “Elegant and tasty,” says pianist Jimmy Heath, while Herbie Hancock, whom Miles picked to be part of his band at the age of just 23, compares it to “a stone skipping across a pond”.

Jazz promoter George Wein, refers to Miles as having “duende” that breathtaking charisma toreadors exude when holding arenas spellbound with their poised stillness and daring.

Nelson, being one of the finest black documentary film makers, brings Miles’ blackness into focus, too, illustrating how Miles’ smart blending of modern classical music with the hot jazz of big band created “serious black art”. Along with that challenge, was Miles’ suited, handsome look: “sharp as a tack, smooth and clean black masculinity and mystique.” All this photogenic black smartness was something that clearly challenged (and threatened) certain white establishment figures. 

There’s an extraordinary story about New York cops beating up and arresting Miles for loitering outside the 52nd street club on which his own name was up in lights. Nelson finds archive photos of bloodies Miles after the arrest and they’re shocking – and, quoting from Miles’ own autobiography, in lines read out by an actor, cites this incident as something that made “me bitter and cynical, and changed me forever.”

On he blows, nevertheless, past the racism he loathed and through to the brilliance of the orchestral collaborations with Gil Evans (Sketches of Spain and Porgy and Bess, so, so good) and being the first artist to put a black woman on the cover of a jazz album, the stunning dancer Frances, whom he’d forbidden to star in West Side Story so she could be his lover full time.

Yes, the film shows Miles the oaf, the bastard, too. His surly side, his ability to be an arsehole and beat up women, is key and I’m pleased the film doesn’t shy away from this. It’s all part of his “cool”, sadly. Same goes for the drug addiction – the coke, the percodan, the pints of scotch and milk.

What about that quintet, too? Ron Carter, Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams, the drummer he hired at the age of 17. Footprints is the key track from that era.

Because Miles knew when to shift gears, too. He met funk queen Betty Davis and she gave him a whole new look and turned him electric, resulting in the cosmic concoctions of Bitches Brew and On The Corner, fusions which changed jazz forever, before Miles disappeared for 6 years after a car crash, depressed and drugged again.

Cicely Tyson is credited with bringing him back, to the funk of Tutu and touring again and guesting on Miami Vice and talk shows and jamming with Prince. That’s when I first saw Miles, in London at Hammersmith when he turned his back on the audience to play, and at the Nice jazz festival when he did it again, but sounded amazing. He didn’t do the old stuff, but riffed on Michael Jackson’s Human Nature and Cyndi Lauper’s Time After Time, two gorgeous vocal songs given new dimensions when sung by Miles’ trumpet.

Oh shit. I did end up giving you the potted history. Because Miles is all that. And more. And the film is so smooth as it glides through the music and the history and, well, the muthafuckin cool.

Stanley Nelson packs it all in and that’s some elegant feat. A rounded portrait of the artist emerges, the man, and the music, and the women, and the history of black America. And I loved it, every note.