Parker Burwell Toop credit Jak Kilby


Miles Davis: ‘Birth of the Cool’. Part Two.

One perhaps of the most under-appreciated of Miles Davis’s influences was that of PAIN? Around the time of the much-lauded Live at the Plugged Nickel recordings (December 1965), Miles went through TWO hip replacements in the spring and the summer of that year, and not only was he in tremendous pain, but he also added a Percodan habit to his list of problematic substance use - his ‘issues’ with jealousy were only compounded by coke and scotch (not Coca-Cola!), let along the reintroduction of opioids into his psycho-pharmacological profile.

There was another disaster in October 1972, when he crashed his Lamborghini whilst on a drug run, breaking both his ankles, necessitating the use of physical crutches to accompany the chemical ones. Just like Bob Dylan’s famous motorbike accident, this one also somehow seemed symbolic of the artist’s ‘crash and burn’ lifestyle and musical experimentation (Dylan had just completed his epochal ‘electric’ albums Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, and Miles his own landmarks, Jack Johnson and Live-Evil). Life seemed to be imitating art. The section in the film on the ‘second great quintet’ is very good, with critic Ashley Khan (who wrote the Impulse! label biography, ‘The House That Trane Built’) describing it’s “incredible level of democracy”, which set the template for the rest of Miles’s career, assuring in turn the careers of so many of his ‘pupils’. Ron Carter describes him, non-ironically, as the “head chemist of the laboratory”. Herbie Hancock quotes him as dryly stating that “I pay you to practice in front of the people”.

‘Birth of the Cool’ posits 1969 as THE key year, correctly I think. Rock and Funk influences become key (Jimi, James and Sly), and Ron Carter sensed the wind direction, refusing to play electric bass. Dave Holland, in turn, gave Miles a historic heads-up, by him being the only musician/leader  that Holland has ever agreed to play the electric bass for. Similarly, Keith Jarrett got off his own high horse to play electronic keyboards, before retreating to a life mostly dedicated to an  obsessive exploration of the acoustic instrument.

Miles’s drug use was always problematic, and there is enough of it in his biography to make that of Keith Richards seem like Donny Osmond’s. Miles really had a problem, from following Bird into heroin addiction at a very young age (’smack-struck’, basically), which was compounded by his having to leave Juliet Greco after his 1949 Paris jaunt. Cocaine eventually replaced horse, a seemingly more benign substance (this was how it was seen at the time), but one that often proved to be even more insidious and mentally destabilising (see ‘jealousy’ and ‘paranoia’). Towards the end of the film, his manager (one of ‘em, anyway) Mark Rothbaum, and his nephew Vince Wilburn, try to make some sense of his ‘Dark Period’, when he was in an isolated meltdown over six years, a period where he was snorting coke to beat the band - Erin Davies, his son, rather euphemistically opines that “I was a little scared of him”. His last years were financially rewarding, but the film rather runs out of of willpower at this point. As a period, 1981-91 is the certainly the one that seems the least rewarding artistically, but this may not be the view of those coming to his music without the critical baggage that so many of us have developed - Miles at least definitely got the mainstream recognition that he had craved for so long.

But just how do you end the narrative of such an incredible life? “He was like a brother who does dumb things” is one concluding comment. Really? He was one of the last century’s most important artists, but sometimes it’s genuinely difficult to separate the man from the considerable myth. One thing is clear from this biopic - he was ‘cool’ as fuck. Which nobody can deny.

Custom Post Images

Banner and book cover photo credit: Jak Kilby