Miles Davis’s music went electric in the 1960s and the critics have still not forgotten
The first time composer and arranger Paul Buckmaster heard it—that music—it was “so intense I thought I was going to climb the walls and the ceiling. Some kind of future music.”
It was—that music was, if you could call it music, and Stanley Crouch didn’t think so—“like jumping out of a plane without a parachute.” It jarred the hell out of author/columnist/critic Crouch, a black man who tolerates nonsense from nobody, black or white.
“I tried to like it because it was him,” Crouch said, him being Miles Davis, and the music being when Miles and his trumpet and all the other instruments of his quintet went electric in the late 1960s—an era of turbulence, of trauma, here in the U.S. and everywhere else.
Some people were harsher than Stanley Crouch. “The most brilliant sellout in the history of jazz,” said one disdainful authority. Miles Davis? “A man who pimped women and drugs.”
But to Carlos Santana, the world-class guitarist who worshiped Miles, that future music was “spiritual orgasm,” and its instigator a revolutionist—“a serious brutal artist who would not comply with the plastic system”… and unlike Sammy Davis, Jr., unlike Michael Jackson, “would not tap dance for anybody.”
The first big-time impact of that music, those sounds, a “Bitches Brew” before 600,000 people at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival, was, for Santana, “like shocking you out of a heart attack—your whole vitals resonate.”
The Davis quintet’s seven minutes on the Isle of Wight form the core of a blistering new 87-minute documentary, “Miles Electric: A Different Kind of Blue,” by the director who was there with six cameras and a crew to shoot the entire five-day festival—centered around star Jimi Hendrix, a powerful influence on Miles—and came away with three and a half hours of incidental footage, and seven electrified, electrifying minutes, that the filmmaker didn’t quite know what to do with.
His name is Murray Lerner, and his home base has been Greenwich Village since 1961, some few years before Miles Davis went electric. The movie that Lerner at long last put together, those seven electric minutes at its core—in vivid color and with astonishing cinematic dexterity—had its world premier a few weeks ago at Lincoln Center in the 42nd New York Film Festival. Coming out November 16 from Eagle Rock Media is a 72-minute DVD replication of “Miles Electric.”
None of Lerner’s Miles-at-the-Isle-of-Wight footage has been seen anywhere until now.
“It’s never been around,” Lerner said. “Not even bootlegged. Took me a long time to put it together—25 years. Now there’s buzz that TV may be interested.”
What he has done is to interweave the Miles-at-the-Isle footage and sound with latter-day reflections by talking heads Santana, Crouch, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, James Mtume, Dave Liebman, Keith Jarrett, Dave Holland, Joni Mitchell, Tiny Tim (who opened for Miles at that concert).
“It’s hard to get an interview with these guys, they’re always so busy,” said Lerner. “I wanted Santana in particular. Santana loved Miles, and did an essay to a reissue of ‘Bitches Brew’ that said some of the things I had in mind. I finally got Santana, and then Keith Jarrett, and Joni Mitchell, and Tiny Tim, and so on.”
Bassist Dave Holland: “Every time Miles put his horn to his lips it was a great adventure.”
Pianist Keith Jarrett: “He was doing something a trumpet wasn’t meant to do.”
And making all the other musicians on the other squeaking, squawking, wailing, screaming, shaking, rattling instruments follow that outlawry. The scraping of fingernails on a blackboard.
“Miles would play a few bars on the trumpet and then they’d know what it [the theme, the direction, the gestalt] was.”
Percussionist/composer James Mtume speaks of how the need for electricity sufficient to power the tormented instruments was so high, the concert techies had to turn the lights off. Total darkness. “Nobody in the audience believed it was Miles.” It wasn’t a music that bespoke the Miles Davis they knew, or thought they knew.
Saxophonist/flutist Dave Liebman speaks of the Jack Johnson connection, pointing out how in speed, reaction time, movement, nuance, etc., the Davis trumpet technique was closely related to boxing. And indeed, Miles not only identified with that great black fuck-’em-all 1900s world heavyweight champion but brought forth a five-part “Tribute to Jack Johnson” CD to italicize it.
Interestingly, so has a trumpet player of the present era, Lincoln Center’s Wynton Marsalis, creator of the score for “Unforgivable Blackness,” the fine new Ken Burns two-part documentary on Jack Johnson that also premiered at the recent New York Film Festival. More interesting yet is the fact that Wynton Marsalis is one of those jazz purists (and Stanley Crouch acolyte) who, in the words of Murray Lerner, “did not get along with Miles Davis.”
Sprinkled here and there in “Miles Electric” are quick, informative shots of Miles himself, bitches brewing. Finger in ear, listening, blocking out extraneous sounds, unpeeling the music; then all ten fingers jitterbugging on the stops of his instrument like frantic ants; then the artist sticking his tongue out at the camera; then Miles alone, isolated, spent, in a red shirt, the gig complete, gathering his gear and walking off—the fighter wearily, warily, leaving the ring when the combat is over.
Filmmaker Lerner is not altogether new to electrified instruments. His “Festival,” a documentary shot during a Newport Folk Festival, takes a good look at Bob Dylan on the electric guitar years ago.
No, Murray Lerner never met Miles Davis, who died in 1991, face to face.
“But I’ve learned enough [including from some of the Davis women] to know he was not a cold, aloof person,” Lerner explained. “He would say, ‘Listen, and then play.’ And he would say: ‘Play what you don’t know.’”
Or as Keith Jarrett put it: “To be totally ignorant of the next thing is terribly exciting.” For the perpetrators. And even for the victims who we are.