Somehow, I saw Miles Davis live in the 70’s after he released his first gold record, Bitches Brew. We have all heard people suggest that if you remember those times, then you weren’t there, but I remember it well, just not why I was there.
On April 22, Miles Ahead will open at the O Cinema in Wynwood, and the early word from the criticsphere is that many are agog over Don Cheadle. Some say, this is the role Cheadle was born for. Channeling Davis has been a decade in the making; after developing the story, he co-wrote it, produced it, directed it, and stars in it. “I wanted to be Miles Davis, not depict Miles Davis,” said Cheadle, so Cheadle tries to become Miles Davis.
Some say it works well; others are not so sure. How Miles Davis became this Miles Davis is made clear. Cheadle though, tries to tackle the subject of legend, and legend is difficult to grasp and contain. As a result, he must grab onto extremes – volatility, addiction, and fiction. Much of what you see never actually happened.
It might not matter, because it’s Don Cheadle playing Miles Davis, and who now knows what Davis was really like then anyway. The reality musically was, at least in the 70’s, better understood if you had been there listening. The songs, long, ethereal, moody, broke-beat, and mercurial, are the jazz equivalent of the jam bands of the time. On Bitches Brew, it’s a jazz fusion, all-star team toying with funk that often seems too disciplined for the innovative jazz players with such – let me go 70’s – far out notions: Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul of Weather Report; Chick Corea of Return to Forever; John McLaughlin of The Mahavishnu Orchestra; Bennie Maupin; Dave Holland; Harvey Brooks; and others.
The film soundtrack features Glasper, Herbie Hancock, Shorter, Gary Clark, Jr., and Esperanza Spalding. Another release, Everything’s Beautiful, reimagines Davis as Robert Glasper enlists Erykah Badu, Stevie Wonder, John Scofield, Bilal, and Haitus Kaiyote among others.
The album cover for Bitches Brew revealed another kind of genius. Hamburg born Abdul Mati Karwein lived in that 70’s space between surrealism and music, designing covers for artists such as Davis, Santana’s Abraxis, Leonard Bernstein, The Last Poets, Jerry Garcia, and Earth, Wind, and Fire. He said, “I am only half German and only half Jewish with an Arab soul and an African heart,” a quote almost as good as his friend Timothy Leary’s, “Mati didn’t need psychedelics.” During Mati Klarwein’s New York years, he painted portraits of John F. Kennedy and Jimi Hendrix, but his breakthrough cover came to be commissioned by Miles Davis with Bitches Brew.
Miles Ahead follows Born to be Blue at the O, Robert Budreau’s imaginary biography of Chet Baker, this time embodied by Ethan Hawke. Baker too, lives the life addled by the same axis of evil plus pleasure – heroin, trumpet, style, and women. Both films creatively dramatize the wild lives of their protagonists. Purists who might prefer a trip to the vault to find the reality, should seek Bruce Weber’s 1988 documentary about Baker, Let’s Get Lost, a riveting look at someone unforgettably cool but cracked.
The night I saw Miles Davis remains remarkable. He personified some unearthly nonchalance that has taken decades to make it to the screen. During his performance, he faced his band, and the audience saw only his back. He did not speak, noteworthy because he could be so narcissistic – contrast this with today’s politicians – without a word.