Film & TV

The Angry Genius of Miles Davis

Miles Davis performing in Antibes, France in July 1963 (Wikimedia)
As the new documentary Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool makes clear, Davis was not a nice man. But his talent for the trumpet was magical.

How delightful it is to learn that Miles Davis, as a boy, used to take his trumpet out into the woods, listen to the animals, and imitate them on his horn. Later, in New York, he was already working as a professional musician when he decided to go to Juilliard to learn classical technique — a risk in his world, where the best musicians feared “sounding white.”

Many were the influences that went into Davis’s music, as we learn in Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool, a beguiling new documentary full of strange details, some unnerving, some wonderful. Backed by Davis’s resplendent music, it’s frequently hypnotic, even heartbreaking. The usual talking-head interviews — experts, fellow musicians, and family members appear on camera — intermingle with the reflections of Davis himself, read by the actor Carl Lumbly in Davis’s signature gravelly tone.

Davis was an angry man, often a loner, and one source of his hot temper was racism. Born into affluence in 1926 — his father, a dentist, is described as the “second-richest” black man in Illinois — he went off to Paris in 1949 and found himself not only welcome but the toast of its swells. Via his girlfriend, the actress Juliette Gréco (neither spoke the other’s language), he joined a circle of creative people that included Pablo Picasso and Jean-Paul Sartre. Returning home, he said, “It was hard for me to come back to the bullsh** white people put black people through in this country. . . . Before I knew it I had a heroin habit, which meant getting and shooting heroin all day and all night.”

Yet not everyone who suffered racism treated it with heroin. Davis was centrally a rageful fellow, and even in casual snapshots shown in the movie he tends to glower. He witnessed nasty fights between his mother and father, one of which was about whether for his 13th birthday he should be given a violin or a trumpet. On occasion his father would beat his mother, at least once hard enough to knock the teeth out of her mouth. Years later, after a party, Davis’s first wife, Frances Taylor, remarked innocently that “Quincy Jones is handsome.” “Before I knew it . . . I was on the floor,” she recalls in the doc. “It was the most unbelievable thing that ever happened to me because I’d never been hit in my life. It was the first but it wasn’t going to be the last, unfortunately.”

Even that sandpaper-on-rust Davis voice was derived from his anger. When he had a benign growth removed from his larynx in 1956, doctors ordered him not to speak for ten days. He couldn’t do it. People were too annoying. “Everybody was a sack full of motherf***ers” is how one witness to his tirades put it. The rasp seized his voice and never went away.

The documentary is joyous when it recounts Davis’s rise. It was right after high school that he met Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. Playing with them, Davis said, was the most fun he ever had with his clothes on. On 52nd Street in New York City, he was part of a “hotbed of musical research and development” as jazz evolved from bebop to a more soulful, plaintive, and stirring sound: music by which to make love. Yet even amid his many triumphs at Birdland, racial prejudice came after him. He was standing outside the club smoking a cigarette when a cop ordered him to move on. He refused, explaining that he was working inside. Another cop smashed him over the head. He was placed in handcuffs and charged with assaulting an officer, his own blood all over his shirt. (He was later acquitted.)

Despite his long-running troubles with drugs — in addition to heroin, he eventually took up cocaine, and he often drank heavily — Davis was a phenomenal worker. His quintet, featuring John Coltrane, recorded four albums over three days when he was eager to discharge his obligations to the Prestige record label before jumping to Columbia. “He basically took the handcuffs off the musicians,” says an observer, marveling at the strength of those sessions. At Columbia, Davis recorded the landmark Kind of Blue and steered the label against its preference for putting white women models on his album cover. Davis wanted to see a picture of himself, or, failing that, at least a black woman, such as Taylor, a dancer who indeed appeared on the cover of Someday My Prince Will Come in 1961.

Davis was facing obsolescence in the Woodstock era but mounted a ferocious comeback by leaning into the new sounds, delivering the angry, funky Bitches Brew in 1970. Later in the decade he sank into depression and shut himself up in a Manhattan brownstone on West 77th Street, refusing to answer the phone for four years. Yet there was still another comeback left in him, albeit a wobbly one, in the 1980s, when he was suddenly ubiquitous, even popping up on the talk shows and Miami Vice.

AIDS contributed to Davis’s 1991 death, but that goes unmentioned in the doc, which also sugarcoats some of his failings, such as his career pimping women. He was not a nice man. But what he did with a trumpet was so magical, even many of those who were on the receiving end of his abuse looked past his flaws. Taylor, who was interviewed for the film before her death last year, was obliged to quit her role in the original production of West Side Story because of his jealousy. Instead, she served him as a housewife, as best she could, for a while. Even she sounds forgiving.

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