Miles Davis - Birth Of The Cool

Review by Willard Manus

"Miles Davis was as emblematic of his era as Armstrong was of his, and by innovating every aspect of jazz, he left a mark on this music that only Ellington could match. Like Ellington, Davis mocked musical categories. Was he a bebopper, a cool jazz player, hard bopper, modal jazz musician, free jazz revolutionary, a fusioneer, a pop instrumentalist? He was all of the above, and the fact that we are still coming to terms with his music years after his death reminds us of just how remarkable were his range, sweep, and daring," said John F. Szwed in his book, "Jazz 101."

Szwed's comments came to mind as I watched MILES DAVIS--BIRTH OF THE COOL, the new BBC Two/American Masters documentary. All of Davis' many musical sides are captured in the film, which also goes on to investigate his complex, mercurial character. Director/Producer Stanley Nelson has used archival footage, home movies, talking-head interviews and newsreel snippets in creating a vivid, fast-moving cinematic portrait of the visionary trumpeter. Nelson also used texts from Davis' autobiography to help shape his film, with the actor Carl Lumbly imitating Davis' raspy, often foul-mouthed way of speaking.

"Davis acted nasty and cold to most people as a way of protecting himself," said jazz critic Stanley Couch. "Being beat up by a racist cop on 52nd Street in the 1950s changed him forever, made him bitter and cynical." His battle with diabetes and his overuse of cocaine and alcohol also caused his abrupt mood swings and fits of violence, though, as the documentary shows, he could also be warm, funny and caring. In short, the man was a bundle of walking, breathing contradictions.

BIRTH OF THE COOL opens with a montage of Davis at the peak of his fame, playing his horn, working out as a boxer, powering a sports car through the streets of New York with a beautiful woman by his side. Then it flashes back to his childhood in East St. Louis, growing up in a grim household dominated by his father, a dentist and a bully who once punched out his wife. Davis' escape from this unhappy childhood was facilitated by his youthful prowess on the trumpet; while still a teenager, he was a member of Billy Eckstine's big band.
BIRTH OF THE COOL touches on many of the well-known aspects of Davis' career: studying briefly at Juilliard, getting into bebop with Bird and Diz, becoming a heroin addict, finding his own sound on the trumpet (limpid, lyrical, achingly beautiful), and so on. The surprises come out of the interviews with such fellow musicians as Carlos Santana, Jimmy Cobb, Wayne Shorter and Quincy Jones (who said something truly insightful: "Miles wanted to be Stravinsky"). Comments from jazz historians like Quincy Troupe, Farah Griffin, and Stanley Crouch also help us to better understand Davis and his music.

On the personal side, Nelson gives considerable camera time to several of Davis' childhood friends as well as to one of his wives, the dancer Frances Taylor, who loved him dearly--until such time as he possessively demanded that she give up a role in "West Side Story" and stay home with him. When she demurred, Davis, repeating what his father had done to his wife, hauled off and knocked her cold.

Davis was a better, happier man whenever he went to Paris, reveling in its beauty, culture--and absence of racism. On one of those trips, he had an affair with the actress/singer Juliette Greco, who called it "a miracle of love." She introduced him to Picasso, Sartre and the film-maker Louis Malle, who later hired him to create the musical soundtrack for "Elevator to the Gallows." Davis improvised the score, using slow-walking bass beats and muted, slithering horn lines to underline and enhance the action.

Davis' soul-mate was, of course, the composer/arranger Gil Evans, with whom he collaborated on three iconic albums ("Birth of the Cool," "Miles Ahead" and "Sketches of Spain") which redefined the concerto form in jazz. BIRTH OF THE COOL takes us inside the Davis/Evans relationship, shows us how they thought and worked together, developing new methods of instrumentation, improvisation and orchestration.

BIRTH OF THE COOL is packed with nuggets like that, scenes in which Davis' artistry is revealed as never before. With its probing eye, pulsating sound-track, and truthful story-telling, this is one of the best jazz documentaries ever.