I gave “Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool” a second viewing last night, having watched it on Sunday on BBC2 and giving it a ‘damning with faint praise’ summary in my last blog. My overall impression was that, while it is a very watchable film (and film it is, weighing in at just under two hours in length), I do wonder whether viewers new to the trumpeter will ‘get’ what all the fuss was, and still is, about? Miles’s unparalleled achievements, in particular his leadership of high-quality bands over at least five jazz sub-genres and decades (i.e. cool, Third Stream, bebop, hard bop, modal, free bop, jazz-rock and even pop-jazz, although others may be able to add even more to this list) and his uncanny ability to scope out new talent as part of these leadership qualities, mark him out as one of the very few true greats from the last century. It puts him in the same Premier League as, inter alia, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus and John Zorn.
I want t revise my previously stated opinion about the perceived paucity of reflections on Miles’s mysogyny and race-obsession. These features of Miles’s psychology were given an appropriate airing, but both really deserve attention in separate studies, so complex are they - his relationship to his parents, for example, and the racial situation in St. Louis at the time, deserve proper and thorough examination, and the biopic format does not allow for this, to be fair to the film’s makers. It does give considerable, and sympathetic, screen time to his first wife, Frances Taylor, she on the cover of Someday My Prince Will Come and ESP. Taylor unfortunately comes across as somewhat of a self-regardee, which was probably essential with a husband like Miles Davis, but it would have been nice to have further heard from his other partners, especially Cicely Tyson and Betty Davis, who, as far as I know, are both still alive and well. Miles’s female partners were important influences on his music and on his presentation (Betty on his acid-funk costumes, most famously). Cicely Tyson comes across all Gwynneth Paltrow, with her cranky medical remedies for Miles’s multiple ailments, and Betty sounds like, in Miles’s own words, a “bad mutherfucker” (with tastes to match his own). Frances admits that Miles struck her “on more than one occasion” (despite him allegedly saying in retrospect that she was “the best wife I ever had”). The fact that his father saw fit to hit his mother on occasion is also highlighted. He clearly suffered from ‘Othello syndrome’ (associated with both alcohol and stimulant abuse), forcing her to abandon her ballet career. Marguerite Cantu, a later lover, describes him as “violent and abusive”. His last ‘significant other’ was Jo Gelbard, and Miles’s violence seems to have been burnt out by this stage, and he appears to have behaved himself with her, perhaps exhausted musically, existentially and physically. It may just be coincidental, but Gelbard was Caucasian. Another genius who had violent tendencies was Charles Mingus, who also appears to have ‘settled down’ with a white woman, his wife Sue Mingus (born Graham), who was the dedicatee of ‘Sue’s Changes’.
With regards to racial matters, the film covers well the pivotal incident outside Birdland in August 1959 (the year of Kind of Blue, to add insult to injury, quite literally), but minimises the effect that corrosive racism had on Miles Davis’s mental health throughout his life. It would have been worthwhile, however, stressing the trumpeter’s colourblind attitude to important musicians he worked with over the years - Gil Evans is highlighted, but some of his most memorable work also featured Bill Evans (piano), Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh, Teo Macero (as producer), John McLaughlin, Dave Holland, Mike Stern and Bill Evans (saxophone). Ambivalence stalks his relationships with both women and white people.
To be continued…