Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool Review – Documentary Takes the Bell Off the Horn

Stanley Nelson brings a studious effort to Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool, the music makes it real.

“Music is always there, it comes before everything,” Miles Davis says early in director Stanley Nelson’s (The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution) documentary Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool. This thesis comes in all forms during the film. It is an explanation, a direction and an excuse at various times. But after an hour into the film, it becomes apparent Miles Davis, the quintessential cool jazz cat, wasn’t so aloof as it would seem. Everything went into his music. His loves, his torments, his early family’s inner turmoil, the entire racial divide of America came out of his horn. And he encouraged the musicians who played with him to do the same.

Miles Davis: Birth Of the Cool is comprehensive and revelatory, even if it is a little dry in that PBS “American Masters” way. The Public Broadcast System is known for spreading education and this film goes for the mind over the body, regardless of how many shots they throw in of Miles at a boxing speed bag. That is the intent, but during a screening, the soundtrack of Davis’ life gets into the pores. Davis was born in 1926 into a wealthy family. His father, a dentist who also raised cattle, was the second wealthiest man in Illinois, a state set deep in Jim Crow America. His father was a violent man at home. Miles grew up watching his parents go at it, and remembers his father actually knocked out some of his mother’s teeth.

Any Miles fan knows he has a checkered history himself with violence, and this resonates like a held note over how Nelson lays out the rest of Davis’s story. One of these fights was over the instrument Miles would learn. His mother wanted him to play the violin. His father wanted him to play the trumpet. This sets up a subliminal idea of guilt, something which can be overcome by the blue notes of jazz.

The greatest feeling he’d ever had in his life “with his clothes on” was playing with Charlie “Bird” Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in Billy Eckstine’s swing band when Miles was a teenager. He was 18 when he headed out to where the action was: 52nd Street in New York City. The narration, done by Carl Lumbly quoting memories from the autobiography Davis wrote with Quincy Troup, remembers there were jazz clubs on both sides of the street. The accompanying photograph captures the 3 Deuces, Club Carousel, Club Samoa, Jimmy Ryan’s bar, Onyx, and Kiki Hall in one snap. These were laboratories where some of the greatest experiments were being conducted. “You can compare bebop with the Manhattan Project,” says music writer Greg Tate. These “sound physicists” were rocket scientists, and they were the maddest of scientists. As Walter Cronkite points out in an archival newscast, they were blamed for all kinds of mischief, from interfering with the morals of society to changing the very weather itself.

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Miles was a force. As a young man, the documentary shows him wanting to fuse together all the elements. He enrolls in Juilliard by day, but his nighttime education has far more grueling curriculum and is just as serious. There is no dancing to the new jazz sounds growing in Manhattan. Bebop sets are not minstrel shows. The musicians on the stage do not care about entertainment and they don’t smile, at least not for the audience. They “wanted to be Stravinsky,” Quincy Jones tells us. It was all about the purity and innovation. A Juilliard teacher instructs the class that blues was born of the pain and suffering of slavery. Miles raises his hand, and politely waits until he is called on. He tells the instructor she is a “goddamned liar,” and walks out of the room. The documentary makes it feel as if he’s learned enough.

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Miles develops his own sound: a straight tone with lyricism, describes musicologist Tammy L. Kernodle. It was “organically him.” He deliberately moves away from the 52nd Street sound in search of new colors, moving the music forward and bringing it somewhere it hasn’t gone before, explains Greg Tate, who says Miles was widening the palette of jazz. The documentary then shows how the young artist’s own canvass was growing.

Paris was in a post-war euphoria when jazz came, says the actress Juliette Greco. Miles hits the city of lights in 1949 and loves his time there. In France, the food has more flavor, the air on the streets is aromatic. The documentary dips into romance as Greco remembers she and Miles found the “miracle of love,” allowing them to communicate even though they spoke different languages. Her love of the time period and the man come across beautifully. Jazz was the pinnacle of artistry in France and Miles was treated as an equal by the geniuses of the day. He lounged with Pablo Picasso and John Paul Sartre, who asks him at one point “why don’t you marry Juliet,” who remembers him saying “because I love her.”

The French sequence is the most hopeful, and Greco’s memories are golden but, again, it shows how life inflicted itself on art. Miles throws himself into ballads. Carlos Santana says it takes courage to play a ballad. It’s easier to “play a lot of notes and go ‘see what I can do.'” Kernodle sums up Miles’ music by describing it as romantic without sentimentality. This may have been true when the artist was still breathing into that mouthpiece, but as music becomes more technologically proficient and reaches technically enforced levels of perfection, it evokes a sentimental journey from a journeyman who never even played that song.

Coming back to America and the “bullshit white people out black people through,” Miles says he drifted and before he “knew it, had a heroin habit.” The horn player goes back and forth between heroin, cocaine and booze throughout his life. A pain management doctor goes as far as to say the addictions are probably warranted because of two car crashes Miles suffered. In the narrative of his life, both the pain he caused because of dope and the dope he did because of pain get lost in each other. But each time they are anaesthetized by the best painkiller at his disposal: the music. It is heartbreaking to know he laid down his horn for four years because the needle brought him a comfort no ensemble could. But it is equally joyous to see how he laid down his works to play, for as long as he could. And when he did he brought beauty. Birth of The Cool doesn’t dwell on this, preferring to lay out cold facts. But, again, the faces in the photographs fill in details words can’t begin to scat.

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Miles drove fast cars and exuded a sophisticated cool. He was the epitome of a “black man who takes no shit,” Kernodle notes. Drummer Lenny White says “musicians didn’t want to play with Miles Davis, they wanted to be him.” Miles didn’t get recognition for his “rebel image” because he says he was too busy “playing the fuck out of that horn” to internally capitalize on the Miles Mystique.

At the height of his popularity, Davis was beaten by a white cop for smoking while black. It happened in front of the club Birdland on a hot steaming night in August. Miles was standing right by a sign with his name on it: the marquis of the club he told the cop he was taking a break between sets at. Black and White photos show dried blood on Davis’ jacket and post traumatic disconnection on his face. Miles said he would have “expected this kind of bullshit in East St. Louis, but not here in New York City, the slickest, hippest city in the world. That incident changed me forever. It made me more bitter and cynical than I might have been.” The documentary shows how no amount of recognition or acclaim could protect the artist from racial hostilities.

Miles’ ex-wife Frances Taylor Davis talks frankly about the abuse she suffered from a jealous Miles. When they first meet, it is a hot romance and they are a celebrity couple. “Miles and Frances are on fire,” she remembers. She had “the best legs in the business” and his lips moved mountains. They met in 1958 and got married in 1960. She got him to look at his own art in a different way, comparing his works to Spanish bullfighters, the best having a quality called duende, authentic passion. She was not only a symbol of his love, but a symbol of the social revolution he captured in the art. Francis is on the cover of his 1961 album Someday My Prince Will Come, because he wanted to feature a photograph of a black woman. She introduced him to flamenco and was his muse for the album Sketches of Spain.

But when Frances was cast as a dancer in the original production of West Side Story, Miles forced her to quit, stay home and learn to cook. They divorced after she remarked that Quincy Jones was handsome and Davis hit her. The film does not pull punches, her account is low key, but emotional. It rings with consequences.

Davis’s second wife, the singer Betty Mabry, was also a provocative figure in Davis’ growth as a musician. She inspired him to go electric in the late ’60s, and to incorporate rock and funk rhythms. She also graced a cover of one of Davis’s albums. After abandoning the horn for almost half a decade, he is nursed back to music by the actress Cicely Tyson, who forces him to quit drugs and eat healthier. There is humor in the documentary. Forced into being a vegetarian, Miles at one point craves meat as much as drugs.

The film gets its title from the 1957 compilation album Birth of the Cool, which caught three sessions of the Miles Davis Band during 1949 and 1950. That band had Mike Zwerin on trombone, Bill Barber on tuba, Junior Collins on French horn, Gerry Mulligan on baritone saxophone, Lee Konitz on alto saxophone, John Lewis at the piano, and the rhythm section of bassist Al McKibbon and drummer Max Roach. It defined a movement.

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The documentary is loaded with wonderful time capsules. Like when Miles got through his entire Prestige Records contract in a series of jams where the musicians had freedom to express themselves in ways unheard of in even the most progressive circles. The documentary pounds this point home again during the live dates which followed Bitches Brew. Chick Corea remembers being encouraged to practice during shows. The young piano player thinks this is ludicrous, to do this in front of an audience. Miles just smiles and assures the band he’ll take care of the audience. It is a wonderful inside look at an impossibly divine approach to impeccable scores of irreproachable works. The trust he shows these musicians is amazing.

This reviewer felt glimpses of coming-of-age movies as the vintage footage catches young faces sublimely happy as kids in a musical candy store. As stodgy as the documentary strives to make the documentary in its desire to push history into perspective, Nelson captures the rapture of players lost in the sublime heaven of a perfect run, harmony or a space between notes. This is how living history should be told, unadulterated from when it was live. The film also captures Miles composing the score to Louis Malle’s film Elevator to the Gallows by improvising to the screened images and dialogue. He captures sadness, joy and yearning, but says he limits himself to three takes because playing more risks a stale interpretation.

The documentary speaks with Columbia Records’ Clive Davis, saxophonist Jimmy Heath, drummer Jimmy Cobb, and the three surviving members of Davis’s mid-sixties quintet: saxophonist Wayne Shorter, pianist Herbie Hancock, and bassist Ron Carter. They also get words from music history scholars Farah Jasmine Griffin, Stanley Crouch and Jack Chambers, and concert organizer George Wein. Davis’s manager ranger Gil Evans can’t help but smile remembering even the worst tortures Miles would put him through. Everybody does Davis’s voice in the documentary, but Hancock is clearly having the most fun. The film mentions that Miles got his distinctive gravelly voice in 1955, when he couldn’t stop himself from talking after getting surgery to remove polyps from his throat and how the audience laughed the first time he appeared on a stage and heard it. The mimicry gets funnier and funnier throughout the picture as every player takes a turn trying on the voice.

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Miles Davis: Birth Of the Cool is most at home cataloguing the evolution of Davis’ styles and how they revolutionized music, both within jazz and in other genres. Davis studied all forms of music, from Baroque to classical Indian to funk. By the On the Corner album, where he mixed sitars and funk, Davis was a voodoo priest of acid jazz. Prince jammed with Davis. The film says Miles’ influence can be heard in electronica and house music. There is bebop in hip-hop and beyond.

The flashing photo montages which define each decade show how Miles was outside the times. The roaring twenties sequence shows flappers and streetcars. Elvis Presley floats over the fifties and the Beatles open the sixties. Later in the documentary there is home footage of Miles joking around with Yoko Ono, and playing basketball with John Lennon. Davis died in 1991. The musicians remembering still hold back tears when they get to that. Carlos Santana says it felt like he was hit in the head with a jackhammer when he heard.

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It took this reviewer all weekend to view Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool. I found myself pausing to hear entire songs before moving on. “Kind of Blue” alone is 9 minutes and this is a two hour documentary. As Ashley Kahn says, “you can listen hundreds of times, it always has something new to say,” which is his definition of a masterpiece. The documentary fills in a lot of gaps, without getting caught up in glossy dramatics and leaves the snippets of sound to cover the omissions. After watching the documentary, the audience wants to feel the way Miles sounds.

Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFKRead more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.


4 out of 5