photo manipulation by nacrowe
any discussion of MILES DAVIS is bound to be complicated as the man is an icon of 20th century western culture on par with ANDY WARHOL, IGOR STRAVINSKY ERNEST HEMINGWAY, JOHN LENNON or PABLO PICASSO. at the height of his powers, his music was just that transcendent and untouchable, yet ironically accessible and meaningful to the layperson.
the STANLEY NELSON JR-directed documentary MILES DAVIS: BIRTH OF THE COOL (FIRELIGHT, 2020) is a capable attempt at presenting his story, which itself is the story of AMERICA and all its enduring idealistic optimism and gut-wrenching failings. in DAVIS you have a supremely gifted musician who could hold his own with the best of the BEBOP era (i.e. CHARLIE PARKER and DIZZY GILLESPIE) yet made his mark as a composer and bandleader that reached his heights via creating space for collaborators to shine (GIL EVANS, JOHN COLTRANE, WAYNE SHORTER, HERBIE HANCOCK, etc). at the same time he was domineering and abusively violent to the women in his life. he forced his wife FRANCIS TAYLOR DAVIS to withdraw during rehearsals from the broadway debut of WEST SIDE STORY. think about that. he forced her because he thought her role was as a housewife and couldn't stand that others could appreciate her and give her attention. at the same time he celebrated her beauty by forcing COLUMBIA RECORDS to place a picture of his wife FRANCIS on various album covers (instead of white models). very interesting and totally contradictory. he was a deeply damaged person who utilized music, as the film argues, to relay a sense of vulnerability he couldnt present in real life.
and that is where race comes into the picture as a major theme. for me the most compelling point of examination was how race intersected with his career. two particularly poignant moments are 1) his return from FRANCE after touring there in the mid 1940s and 2) getting bludgeoned by racist cops in NYC outside a venue bearing his name shortly after the release of KIND OF BLUE (COLUMBIA, 1959).
with the former he experienced a level of respect and mutual admiration never received stateside. in PARIS he found himself speaking with the likes of JULIETTE GRECO, PABLO PICASSE, JEAN-PAUL SARTRE and others as equals. returning stateside left him depressed and ultimately into the warm embrace of heroin addiction.
the idea that even after gaining the critical recognition and mass-audience admiration for his seminal record work, that he would be beat up in NYC for being black is just so depressing. it seems in the UNITED STATES that whatever your talents, in the end you are still judged by your skin tone. nothing has changed in the intervening years, seems with the advance of TRUMP that level of bigotry is only more out in the moment now.
MILES DAVIS was flawed. severely so. but his music is renowned for its singular soothing voice which relays a way of being that seems possible yet just out of reach. it is the music of possibilities. he was an innovator that will be remembered as such, though by the likes of this film, it would seem if he were among us now he'd not be concerned with past accomplishments and accolades and be fully investigating and seeking out new challenges.
with today's technology its interesting to think of what he could have achieved moving forward.
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