An Unconventional Review - Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool
In my old age, I've become quite the fan of Miles Davis, but Miles Davis was a VERY complicated man.....
My freshman year of college, I took a music class called Intro to Jazz. The class focused on a specific time and a specific sound, that being Modal Jazz from about 1956 to 1959's Kind of Blue. I thought jazz was alright, but I didn't have the patience for it. I wasn't living Jazz, I was living Metal and Alternative Music.
Today, when I write, I often listen to Miles Davis' compositions in the background. Not Kind of Blue, mind you, but Bitches Brew. I have sorted through many of Davis' works and have become an amateur Davis Historian.
What the BBC's Birth of the Cool on Netflix was, was an Intro to Miles Davis. The documentary touched on key turning points of his musical career and skimmed through his tumultuous personal life.
"Skimmed" being a very generous term, some critics would call it a, excuse the term, whitewashing.
What Birth of the Cool attempted to do was to sell Miles Davis to a younger audience either unfamiliar with, or casually familiar with, the Jazz titan. Birth of the Cool focused on young Miles from the Prestige years to the early Columbia years, about 1944 to 1970.
What Birth of the Cool did right was load the film with Davis' music. The focal point of the movie was Davis' altercation with a White Police officer in 1959....
Now I shouldn't blame the BBC, they basically had 2 hours to tell a story and in order secure Davis' music, I'm sure they had to get the okey-dokey from the Davis Estate. I can't imagine that the Estate didn't put some stipulations on what to present and what not to present in order to secure unlimited access to his music. With that being said, this is what I would need in order to present the perfect Miles Davis Documentary: 10 Hours, broken up into 5 2-hour Episodes. And this is how I'd do it:
The Prestige Years (1951-1956)
Stanley Nelson did a very good job setting up the early years of Davis' Career. I would expand on a few points that Nelson glossed over, like, oh by the way, Miles had 3 children with Irene Cawthon but spent their child support money on heroin. (In Davis' defense, all jazz musicians were on heroin at the time.) Nelson also did a nice job pointing out that Davis never recorded a note of music for Prestige past 1956, but they continued to release his original music through 1961.
The Columbia Years - Jazz Star (1957-1968)
These are the years that most jazz fans love. The Kind of Blue Years. The Gil Evans Years. Miles was on top of the Jazz World and everything he touched turned to gold. (Or Platinum.)
Oh, and he basically ruined Frances Taylor's life. Nelson briefly touched on the topic in the documentary, and interviewed Taylor, but he didn't have time to expand upon a few brief segments. I would end Part II with Davis' divorce from Taylor, (who died in 2018).
The Columbia Years - Rock Star (1968-1975)
Electric Miles was a rock star. If you google the term Jazz Fusion, Miles Davis' picture comes right up. Starting with Filles de Kilimanjaro up to, and including, Dark Magus, every release was music evolving in real time. You're yelling at your monitor that On the Corner was the worst Jazz Album ever released, you'd be dead wrong. On the Corner was the most polarizing Jazz Album ever recorded. I loved it. It sounded like the City. Other people thought it was noise. On the Corner would have been a perfect documentary debate topic.
MY documentary would have a cut of music from every one of the albums from this era. The last time Miles Davis was great? Dark Magus, recorded in 1974.
The Dark Years (1975-1980)
Miles put down his trumpet, but the music kept moving. What would have happening if he never put down his instrument? Focus on peers like Herbie Hancock. Would Rockit have existed if not for the influence of Miles Davis?
Remember, Miles did a mountain of drugs and turned his abode into a mini-Sodom and Gomorrah. I betchya Cicely Tyson has some interesting stories about this time period, also.
The Ghost Years (1980-Death)
Other than the Red Hot Chili Peppers' John Frusciante, I can't think of any other musician who danced with the Beast, didn't touch his instrument for, at least, 5 years, then came back. When Miles came back, major damage had been done to his soul. I have tried to listen to Tutu on multiple occasions and it sounded like a guy doing his Miles Davis impression instead of Miles himself. I can't listen to any albums recorded in the Ghost Years anymore. You want to counter that Davis' performance earned Tutu a Grammy? Miles Davis won that Grammy because his name was Miles Davis. Mike Stern had a 20 second sound bite in Nelson's release, that dude looked like he needed his own documentary.
When Miles died in 1991, you could do a 2-hour special on the Funeral ALONE.
Yet even in Death, Miles has remained proficient, releasing new material nearly every year for the next 30 years. Obscure outtakes from the 60's & 70's? Gems.
Rubberband? Garbage. But how many artists have vault of music that can be released until the end of time? Zappa? Prince? That list isn't very long.
I am adding up how much money everything would cost in my head to do a proper 10 hour Davis mini-series.
Yeah, that ain't ever getting made.
Right now, I'm watching Miles in Vienna from 1973 on YouTube. I paid zero to watch it. When I listen to Miles on YouTube, I pay zero to listen to it. I don't feel bad one bit, the music is timeless. What the Davis Estate wants you to do is remember the good times, but ignore the problematic aspects of his life.
Why? In a #metoo era, certain aspects of Davis' life are not conducive to music sales.