LISTENING POST: Miles Davis and the ‘Birth of the Cool’

New documentary finds the trumpeter shadowboxing with himself

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Photo credit: Photographer Jim Marshall/ Sony Music Archives Courtesy of Abramorama/ Eagle Rock.
THE MAN WITH THE HORN: Miles Davis On Stage, 1970.

Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool, a feature-length documentary about the mercurial jazz trumpeter, composer and pop icon who died in 1991 at age 65, opens at the Plaza Theatre this Friday, Sept. 13. Directed by McArthur “genius” grantee Stanley Nelson (The Murder of Emmett Till, Freedom Riders), Birth of the Cool offers a compelling portrait of a brilliant, complex, charismatic and deeply conflicted man whose influence on the course of jazz, in particular, and popular culture more generally, rivals the impact of any artist in any field back through the ages.

It helps to bring some knowledge of the subject to the screening experience. The deeper the knowledge, the more rewarding the experience will be, especially regarding the music. While Nelson does a nice job of laying out the essential chronology and evolutionary twists of Davis’ life and career, the musical passages are edited for 21st century attention spans. Davis fans will appreciate the never-before-seen photos, home movies and concert footage, but the artistry sometimes plays second trumpet to the documentary formula.

“Music has always been like a curse with me,” intones actor Carl Lumbly at the beginning of the film in a voice-over mimicking Davis’ trademark raspy near-whisper (a self-inflicted consequence of failing to heed the rehab regimen following larynx surgery in 1956). This narrative technique is used throughout, with Lumbly quoting from Miles: The Autobiography. The book’s co-author, Quincy Troupe, also serves as one of the many commentators drawn from Davis’ circle of friends, fellow musicians and family members, along with critics, historians and industry colleagues

“I’ve always felt driven to play music,” the voice-over continues as the scene depicts Davis shadowboxing in a ring. “I always go to bed thinking about it and wake up thinking about it. It’s always there. It comes before everything.”

Single-mindedness is not an uncommon trait among successful people, but can lead to unintended, undesirable repercussions if left unchecked. Nelson’s documentary does a remarkable job of exploring the central dialectic of Davis’ life and artistic output, which pits an obsessive, anti-social malcontent against a sensitive, visionary genius.

Birth of the Cool refers both to Davis’ landmark collaboration with arranger Gil Evans, which spawned a seminal series of recordings by a nine-piece ensemble between 1948 and 1950, and the trumpeters’ cultivated persona and style, which combined aloof sophistication and cynical detachment with an appreciation for finely tailored clothes and high performance sports cars.

“Miles Davis was the personification of cool,” remarks Tammy Kernodle, a professor of musicology and author of Soul on Soul: The Life and Music of Mary Lou Williams, in the documentary. “He becomes our black Superman.”

Black or white, Superman is vulnerable to kryptonite, a mineral remnant from his home planet, exposure to which can cripple or kill him. Davis’ kryptonite comes in the form of a misogynistic streak inherited from his father who once struck his wife so hard a couple of her teeth were knocked out. Tellingly, when Davis reflects on the domestic violence he witnessed as an adolescent, he says, “It had to affect us somehow, but I don’t really know how.”

Nelson pointedly answers Davis’ self-query through interviews with the musician’s former wives and girlfriends a number of whom relate their own tales of mistreatment. Davis’ first wife, Frances Taylor, was a professional dancer on the rise when she met Davis in 1958. She describes how, out of spiteful jealousy, Davis demanded she drop out of the original cast of ‘West Side Story.’ In a later incident, he knocked her to the floor. (Taylor left Davis in 1965 and died last year at age 89).

Davis’ contradictory nature permeates Birth of the Cool. Cruel and dismissive, he was also a preternaturally gifted improviser who used a horn and mute to articulate some of the most deeply emotive music a human has ever produced. He was the most successful jazz musician of his day who was also a black man living and working in not so great America.

Birth of the Cool vividly recounts a notorious incident in New York City in August 1959 when Davis was playing at Birdland. It was near the end of a two-week run promoting the release of ‘Kind of Blue,’ destined to become one of the highest-selling jazz albums of all time. One night, during a break between sets, Davis escorted a white woman outside the club so she could catch a cab. When a white police officer ordered Davis to “move on,” he refused to comply, pointing to the marquee on which his name was prominently displayed. The officer moved to arrest Davis and a struggle ensued. An off-duty detective walking by joined the fray, repeatedly striking Davis with a club. Beaten and bloodied, the trumpeter was arrested, but subsequently acquitted of disorderly conduct and assaulting a police officer.

“That incident changed me forever, made me much more bitter and cynical than I might have been,” Davis says.

At this point, ‘Birth of the Cool’ is barely half over. Still to come is the dissolution of the ‘Kind of Blue’ band, which included John Coltrane, followed by the assembling of the incredible Sixties quintet with Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock and 17-year-old Tony Williams; the revolutionary experiments with electronic instruments culminating in the landmark 1969 album Bitches Brew; protracted struggles with drugs and depression; a return to the concert stage at Avery Fisher Hall after years of withdrawal and isolation; the influence of Betty Mabry, Davis’ second wife, and Cicely Tyson, his third; reminiscences by Davis’ son, Erin, and cousin, Vince Wilburn, who administers the music side of the Miles Davis estate with other family members; and even more beauty, tragedy, exaltation and exasperation.

Birth of the Cool is probably the most comprehensive compendium of the life and art of Miles Davis the world is likely to get. The man was a tough subject when he was alive. Telling his story undoubtedly required a few tough calls by Stanley Nelson. The result is an engaging, unflinching document, which is sure to be studied for years to come.

Special Note: Jazz great and former Davis collaborator Jimmy Heath and Davis family members Vince Wilburn Jr. (Davis’ nephew) and Erin Davis (Davis’ son) will be present for a Q&A following the 7 p.m. screening on Friday, Sep. 13. Plaza Theatre, 1049 Ponce De Leon Ave NE, Atlanta, GA 30306, 470-225-6503.

Made in America: A Concert of American Art Song and Opera: Capitol City Opera, which was formed in 1983 to provide classically trained singers in the Atlanta area with an opportunity to learn and perform complete opera roles and to develop their vocal and acting skills on a professional level, is presenting a free concert Saturday afternoon, September 14. “Made in America: A Concert of American Art Song and Opera” features songs by American composers Lee Hoiby and Charles Ives, as well as selections from operas set in America including Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land and Mark Adamo’s Little Women. The performers include Allison Nance (mezzo-soprano), Robin Sewell (soprano) and Catherine Giel (piano). Suggested donation $10. 3 p.m. Sat., Sep. 14. High Point Episcopal Community Church, 4945 High Point Road Northeast, Atlanta, Georgia 30342. 404-252-3324.

Kronos Quartet with Mahsa Vahdat: Saturday’s concert, featuring Kronos Quartet with Iranian vocalist Mahsa Vahdat, at Emory University’s Emerson Concert Hall kicks off the 2019-2020 Candler Concert Series. It promises to be an extraordinary experience. The program features newly commissioned works by composers from the greater Muslim world including Azerbaijan, Egypt, Somalia, Palestine, Yemen, Afghanistan, Iran and Syria, as well as fresh arrangements of related pieces drawn from Kronos’ vast repertoire.

The setlist was originally conceived as a response to President Donald Trump’s 2017 executive order (EO) limiting entry of immigrants and refugees to the United States from seven Muslim-majority countries. The EO was immediately challenged by various courts, which found the ban un-Constitutional based on its blatantly anti-Muslim sentiment (a breach of the Establishment Clause). Although certain legal challenges remain unresolved today, the Trump administration revoked and revised the EO a number of times until it finally passed muster and was upheld by the Supreme Court in June 2018.

Meanwhile, Vahdat and her sister, Marjan, also a professional singer, are banned from singing in Iran while they await sentencing on charges stemming from a headscarf-free performance in a music video shot on a rooftop in Tehran. Furthermore, Marjan is not allowed to perform in the U.S. because she does not possess the proper visa. How I wish I was making this up.

For further details on this 21st century fundamentalist crackerbox saga, see the interview conducted by Andrew Alexander and Mark Gresham at EarRelevant. In addition to discussing the Vadhat sisters’ plight and Sunday’s program, Harrington dives into the relationship between Western classical and other types of music and the important role music plays in troubled times. As he puts it, “It’s part of a musicians’ responsibility to lift our audience out of ‘un-knowledge.’ Kronos Quartet with Mahsa Vahdat. $65. 8 p.m., Sat. Sep. 14. , Emerson Concert Hall, Schwartz Center for Performing Arts, 1700 North Decatur Road, Atlanta, GA 30322. 404-727-5050.

Glenn Phillips Band CD/DVD/Book release show: To anyone who hasn’t yet read Chad Radford’s interview with Glenn Phillips online and in the current print edition of Creative Loafing, rectify that oversight post haste. When you get back here, you’ll know that Phillips has written a memoir, Echoes: The Hampton Grease Band, My Life, My Music and How I Stopped Having Panic Attacks.  The book is packaged with a full-length album of new music, The Dark Parade (the guitarist’s first solo album in 16 years) and a DVD chronicle of a 2015 concert marking the 40th anniversary of Phillips’ first solo album, Lost At Sea. The concert DVD features the original players on Phillips’ epic first solo release along  with Cindy Wilson of The B-52s guesting on the encores.

For those of you still hopelessly lost at sea at this point, Phillips is our town’s very own homegrown (actually, he was born in New England, but that doesn’t count anymore) intergalactic guitar wizard who initially materialized on this musical plane as a founding member of the Hampton Grease Band (there were earlier bands, but those don’t count, either). Since then, Phillips has conjured up something like 20 albums in cahoots with everybody from Bob Weir and Pete Buck to Henry Kaiser and Elliott Sharpe. Additionally, Supreme Court, an ongoing, decades-long project with Swimming Pool Qs founder Jeff Calder, continues yielding wondrous material.

While the chat with Radford will fill you in on the panic attack side of Phillips’ story, which is gripping and inspirational in its own right, I encourage with extreme prejudice your presence at Eddie Owen’s Red Clay Music Foundry in Duluth Saturday night for the official release show for the Echoes book/CD/DVD joint. Phillips will be joined onstage by regular cohorts Bill Rea, John Boissiere and Calder, along with special guests Dana Nelson and Hampton Grease Band bassist Mike Holbrook. First set at 7:30; second set: 8:45 p.m. All are welcome to stay for both sets.

Country Music Watch Party Most Listening Post readers are aware by now of documentarian Ken Burns’ latest magnum opus, Country Music, which premiers this Sunday on PBS. As CL resident country music expert James Kelly recently penned in a gracious plenty preview of the series, the opening episode of Burns’ eight-part, 16-hour documentary highlights the integral role played by Atlanta in the origin of the indigenous American art form, which became known as country music.

In 1923, New York-based Okeh Records sent to Atlanta a team of engineers equipped with one of the world’s first portable recording machines. Their mission was to capture on wax cylinders a posse of southern musicians, which included multi-time state fiddle champion John Carson, doing their various things (e.g., jazz, blues, gospel). Of the many recordings produced during the multi-day sessions, which took place in a small now vacant building at 152 Nassau Street, the 78 rpm recording of Fiddlin’ John Carson performing “The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane”/”The Old Hen Cackled and the Rooster’s Going to Crow” was a smash success. Today, it’s widely considered the first record by a country music artist, although at the time no such genre label existed.

In recent months, a public campaign led by Save 152 Nassau has been advocating for the preservation of the downtown building where American music history was made, which is threatened by demolition to make room for, of all things, a Margaritaville Restaurant.

All of which brings us to Sunday’s “Country Music Watch Party” at ASW Whiskey Exchange located in the Lee + White development along the West End Beltline. Sponsored by Save 152 Nassau, the event features live music by the Skillet Lickers, whose roots extend back four generations to the earliest years of the American recording industry in the 1920s, followed by the broadcast premiere of Country Music. A portion of sales during the evening’s festivities will benefit the Atlanta Music Project.

Country Music Watch Party,” Free, Sun., Sep. 15. Music 6-8 p.m., screening of “Country Music” 8-10 p.m. ASW Whiskey Exchange, 1000 White St. Suite A, Atlanta GA 30310. 404-590-2279

Tinariwen at Variety Playhouse w/ Lonnie Holley Formed in 1979 while in exile in Algeria, Tinariwen is a band of Tuareg musicians from northern Mali who have been hailed worldwide for their superb musicianship; bluesy, mesmerizing electric guitar-driven sound; and powerful messaging, which celebrates the nomadic Tuareg culture. During a period of relative stability, Tinariwen returned to their homeland until 2012-13 when an uprising of Islamist extremists again made living in Mali a dangerously untenable proposition. Since then, Tinariwen has been touring and recording outside of the country, and sharing stages with Robert Plant, The Rolling Stones, Herbie Hancock and Carlos Santana.

In 2012, Tinariwen was named Best Group in the Songlines Music Awards for their album Tassili, which also garnered a Grammy for Best World Music Album. Currently touring in support of their latest album, Amajdar, which dropped September 6, Tinariwen will perform at the Variety Playhouse on Monday, September 16, with Lonnie Holley opening. The following day, Tuesday, September 17, Tinariwen travel to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, for a gig at Ramkat, a local venue, also with Lonnie Holley as the opener.

The concert caused a stir several weeks ago when a couple of sponsored Facebook posts announcing the show caught the attention of the usual assortment of bigots, racists and “patriots.” “Take the fucking towels off your god damn heads,” wrote one commenter. “Any true American will not support this bunch of trash,” chimed in another, followed by “Taliban rock?,” “Shootout at midnight?” etc., etc. ad nauseam. One of Ramkat’s owners quoted in the local press said the venue plans to hire extra security for the gig.

There’s no limit to the many ways America is being made great again.

Rhiannon Giddens with Francesco Turrisi: there is no Other tour: Rhiannon Giddens is a singular phenomenon. The classically trained, infinitely flexible, pellucidly clear voice; the virtuosic touch, whether on violin, viola or minstrel banjo; the imaginatively challenging choice of material; the unmistakable poise, strength and charisma; Giddens is one of the boldest, bravest, baddest musicians on planet Earth.

Her latest album, there is no Other (Nonesuch), which dropped In May, features Giddens paired with Italian multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi, the same duo that will be performing Friday, Sep. 20 at City Winery. Recorded with minimal fiddling and tweaking, the album includes original songs penned by Giddens; interpretations of traditional ballads, shanties and folk songs, such as Ola Belle Reed’s “I’m Gonna Write Me a Letter,” Oscar Brown, Jr’s “Brown Baby,” and “Pizzica di San Vito” (an Italian traditional); and “Black Swan,” the somber lullaby from Gian-Carlo Menotti’s opera, The Medium.

With Giddens and Turrisi playing an array of acoustic instruments drawn from African, Arabic, European, and American cultures, there is no Other weaves a magnificent 12-track tapestry of contemplative space and otherworldly beauty.

In January, I interviewed Giddens for Songlines, a world music magazine headquartered in London. The main focus of the interview was the album she had just finished, Songs of Our Native Daughters, for Smithsonian Folkways. When I asked her about upcoming projects, she mentioned there is no Other and the tour with Turrisi, which included a performance at Big Ears.

“It’s a meditation on how all of these different sounds we play come together,” Giddens said. “We have this idea that world music is a recent phenomenon, but actually it’s a very old idea. The sounds of the frame drum and the minstrel banjo or a playing a trans-drum from Iran called the daf on an Appalachian ballad — all of these sorts of things work really well because they’re all coming from the same source.”

“I’m so proud of the record; it’s really killer,” she continued. “It’s got accordion and piano and viola and violin, all of these different beautiful sounds from around the world that work together because we are, in fact, all together.”

Rhiannon Giddens with Francesco Turrisi. $50-$60 {SOLD OUT). Friday, Sep. 20, 6 p.m-9 p.m. City Winery Atlanta, 650 North Avenue NE Ste. 201, Atlanta, Georgia 30308. 404-946-3791.

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