Miles Davis: Birth Of The Cool

Miles Davis: Birth Of The Cool is the superb new documentary from Stanley Nelson, looking into the tumultuous life and career of the legendary  Jazz musician, Miles Davis.

Widely regarded as the master of Jazz, Davis would be best remembered for his close collaborations with John Coltrane and Charlie Parker (his idol),  as a true innovator, switching effortlessly between traditional Jazz standards, funk psychedelic, and electric soul across a five decade career until his early death at the age of 65 in 1991.

Actor Carl Lumby perfectly encapsulates the essence of Davis through passages of his autobiography. Nelson’s documentary effortlessly charts the ebbs and flows of Davis’ tempestuous life and career with Nelson incorporating stock archive footage across key milestones – from Davis’ affluent (but fraught) childhood in St Louis Missouri as a musical child prodigy, through to his final concert appearances as the uncompromising maestro jamming with legendary figures including Herbie Hancock, Prince and Carlos Santana. Inheriting his gift of musicianship from his mother, Cleota – a music teacher and violinist, Davis received his first trumpet in 1935 after his mother refused to let him play the violin.  Moving to New York to join the hip jazz scene  in the hope of playing with his idol, Charlie Parker, Davis soon found himself in the company of John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie in 1944 – marking the year Davis entered the prestigious Institute of Musical Arts (now Juillard) to develop his craft as a jazz trumpeter. Escaping racist abuse in  post-war America, Davis travelled to France where he would start an on-off relationship with actress Juliette Greco, and compose the soundtrack of Louis Malle’s Ascenseur pour l’echafaud improvising against the large film screens. Performing with his quintet under Columbia, Davis’ LP  Kind of Blue would sell 4  million copies alone, introducing audiences to his sensuous style of playing – and would follow this up with Bitches Brew.  Herbie Hancock, a teenage prodigy in his own right, recalls Davis’ generosity with Davis inviting him to perform with him. For Hancock, Davis was  a “stone skipping across a pond … he just touched on the waves.”  A bloodied Davis encounters racist abuse by a cop outside The Birdland Night Club in 1959, causing him to feel naturally bitter in his views throughout his life with Davis admitting;  “That incident changed me forever, It made me much more bitter and cynical than I might have been.” The women in his life are a strong thread throughout the narrative, all playing an integral role in his transformation – but at a price.  First wife, Frances Taylor Davis, his beloved muse and cover girl for Davis’ LP Someday My Prince Will Come, reflects on their romance and partnership as the ‘hot’ power couple, but eventually Davis’ paranoia and jealousy would destroy their once close relationship thanks to his spiralling heroin addiction. Wives 2 & 3 – the radical, fierce musician Betty Davis (who shaped his love for psychedelic funk) & Oscar winning actress Cicely Tyson (who encouraged Davis to adopt a healthier diet through a vegan diet) are acknowledged for bringing Davis to legions of new fans, with Davis playing to sold out concerts – but both are conspicuously absent in their assessment of their former ex-husband.

Stanley Nelson’s film is a great testimony to the bygone era of jazz music and a troubled genius, with Nelson striking the right balance between the considerable achievements of Davis’ life and career against the more unsavoury aspects of his life. Well worth a look ****

 

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About Lynsey Ford

A film and media graduate from Birkbeck College, I am a freelance journalist based in London, and Co-Editor of The People's Movies. My work has been published with numerous publications including The British Film Institute, The Spread, The Stage, The Culture Trip & The Quietus.

View all posts by Lynsey Ford →