Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool (2019)

Is there a modern artist whose personal life, public persona and artistic ambitions create more psychic dissonance than Miles Davis? Bob Dylan, Liz Taylor and Elvis would probably qualify, but Miles Davis certainly tops my list for being the one guy whose mystique, flaws and artistry captured the public imagination in an unprecedented way.

If you’ve read Miles’ autobiography, you won’t learn anything new about the man or his career. Regardless, it’s a serviceable synopsis of his life and achievement.

Unfortunately, you do have to endure some of the standard woke talking points that are mandatory these days. To be fair, it’s mostly present in his autobiography in the first place (i.e. wypipo bad except for French hipsters), but there are times when it felt like Stanley Nelson was intentionally emphasizing certain moments in order to maximize the virtue signal. Naturally, the film lingers on the infamous assault he suffered at the hands of a belligerent and #RACIST cop in 1959 while simply trying to enjoy a smoke.

Apparently, Miles never quite recovered from that incident psychologically and he carried a chip on his shoulder from that moment forward. As Farah Griffin reminds all of us privileged wypipo, it just doesn’t matter how successful a man becomes if he’s black. He’s forever forced to contend with a system that’s rigged against him. Never mind all of the wypipo who helped propel Davis’ career into the stratosphere. Nope. None of that counts. And that’s why you should snicker at Miles’ badassery when he tells Columbia executives to get that “white bitch” off the cover of Miles Ahead. Good for Miles that he got the album cover he wanted, but it’s apparently too much to expect that a consistent standard be applied to everyone when it comes to disparaging remarks made about people who are in the racial out group.

As a piece of American cultural legacy building, the contradictions in Davis’ body of work are especially thorny. The film opens with a quote from the autobiography. He recounts the occasion he saw Bird and Diz playing together in 1944 and described it as the most fun he had “with my clothes on”. There’s another piece that I haven’t yet sourced which refers to the necessity for “change” in artistry. I’m not saying it’s inauthentic, but it does place Davis’ work at odds with the idea that jazz is an American tradition. A tradition is something that is conserved. If it’s constantly changing, then what are you conserving?

This brings us to the now predictable schism between Classic Cool Jazz Miles versus Freaky Hippie Psychedelic Miles. Some version of this debate has been alive since at least the time of the release of In a Silent Way. Where Ken Burns fully ceded the debate to the more conservative Wynton Marsalis/Stanley Crouch perspective, Nelson only gives Crouch a cursory moment to rebut Miles’ embrace of the electric frontier. With a stunningly elitist quote by Carlos Santana, Nelson makes it clear that Miles’ demolition of the tradition was central to his artistic genius.

While I remain sympathetic to Miles’ electric innovations, I think Nelson’s full capitulation to the evolutionary ethos in artistry is foolhardy. Miles’ electric innovations had an impact because there was still a residual perception of an actual jazz tradition. As much as the modernists affect a pretense of being brought into subjection by a Crouch/Marsalis Jazz Politburo, they have long prevailed in this debate. The question is how much room is there for the traditionalist perspective at this point in history?

The Classic Cool Miles of the 50s and early 60s did represent a cultural high water mark. Not just for jazz, but for American culture, modern art, and to a certain extent, manhood itself. There was something dignified and romantic about that music. As a cultural role model, I’d wager that the stylish, virtuoso jazz musician represented a better aspirational ideal than say Lil Wayne.

As a husband and a man, Davis was less than exemplary. Naturally, he fulfilled the fantasy of the profligate male celebrity who gets to have lots of beautiful women. It is interesting that when he wanted domestic traditionalism from Frances Davis, it meant asking her to abandon her career. It may just be a commentary on the ways celebrity itself is at odds with true domestic stability, but Nelson and Wayne Shorter seemed intent on hitting feminist talking points when describing her discontent with the role of housewife.

Jazz is regarded as a uniquely American art form and Davis’ contributions to the form are undeniable. Like Bob Dylan, people argue over which version of Miles is the true representation and which is the fake. This documentary won’t settle that debate, but it’s a decent summary of one of America’s most captivating artists.

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