The Electric Surge of Miles Davis

Between 1968 and ’75, he plugged into the musical zeitgeist and opened his music to distortion and groove-based repetition, either transcending or repudiating his roots in acoustic jazz.

Oliver Barrett

Miles Ahead, Don Cheadle’s recent, feverishly imagined treatment of the lost years of Miles Davis, is a movie full of beautiful trumpet sounds: bending blue notes, puffs of self-ironizing loneliness, jubilant noise runs, and savagely abstract displacements of air. But the most beautiful of the lot—which is to say, the most eerily and inexpressibly Milesian—is barely a trumpet sound at all. It’s the sound Miles (played by Cheadle) makes when he picks up the mouthpiece, just the mouthpiece, of his long-idle instrument. It’s 1979, and Miles has been in a bad way for a while: musically inactive, coked-out, doldrum-bound, and lurking in the basement of his brownstone on the Upper West Side. But now, after years of silence, he is thinking about playing again. His muse, shaggy from a long solitude, is stirring. So he picks up the mouthpiece of his trumpet and blows through it, pffft!, clearing out the devils and the dried spit, preparing to repressurize his own interior. And somehow, in the sound he makes—curt but sacramental, a rasp of pure musical energy, before melody, before anything—is supernaturally disclosed the entire creative dimension of Miles Davis. At that moment, it feels—it tastes—like the sound he’s been trying to get to all his life.

Think about Miles Davis, try to hold him in your head for a minute, and you experience a kind of galvanic squiggle across the imagination, like the fingertip signature of some higher-voltage being. The sounds and images will not stay still, extremes of cool alternating with zaps of profane energy. The immaculate apprentice on Charlie Parker’s bandstand in the 1940s segues into the withered extraterrestrial of his 1980s comeback. And the mystical mood engineer of 1959’s Kind of Blue (cleaned up after junkiedom, with John Coltrane at his side) evaporates before the scowling noise addict of the mid-1970s, leaning on the keys of an organ with a misanthropic elbow. “I have to change,” Miles once said. “It’s like a curse.” And indeed there was something hexed or pursued about his unstoppable evolutions. Futurity coursed through him, through his art, a continual superhuman crackle. It might be said that he sacrificed his nervous system to it not once but two or three times, recording these and other losses in trumpet lines that strike the ear, to quote the critic Lester Bangs, “like shots of distilled passion.”

Magazine Cover image

Explore the July/August 2016 Issue

Check out more from this issue and find your next story to read.

View More

We are currently fascinated—and Cheadle’s film is part of this—by Miles’s electric period, 1968 to 1975. Last year, two books were published about Bitches Brew, the churning, chthonically powerful double album of Afro-rock improvisations that Davis released in 1970: George Grella Jr.’s Bitches Brew, and Victor Svorinich’s Listen to This: Miles Davis and Bitches Brew. This year’s contribution to Miles studies is Bob Gluck’s The Miles Davis Lost Quintet and Other Revolutionary Ensembles, which locates the music of his electric epoch within a historic continuum of exploratory jazz. “Electric Miles” is the version who plugged in to the zeitgeist, traded his suits for hipster finery, and opened up his music to distortion and groove-based repetition, either transcending or dramatically repudiating (depending on your perspective) his roots in acoustic jazz. Critics wept—literally, in the case of one tearful pundit at a 1973 concert—as Miles surrounded himself with electric guitarists, electric keyboardists, and extra drummers; wired himself up with a wah-wah pedal; and fired frosty fillips of trumpet-sound into halls of reverb. The Miles of Cheadle’s Miles Ahead is, properly speaking, post-electric: Limping around and cursing people out in his cindery whisper, the great man is still neurologically fried from the high-risk, high-yield experiments of a few years earlier, the experiments that continue to freak out musicians and engross musicologists.

Electric Miles grabs us in three ways: musically, symbolically, and politically. Musically, because Miles was channeling Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, and the tearing noise at the edge of a James Brown scream, while sounding nothing like any of them. Symbolically, because the music represented creativity at full tilt, at a pitch of invention almost indistinguishable from the destruction (aesthetic and, as it also turned out, personal) necessary to establish its conditions. And politically, because Miles was a militantly autonomous black artist, a whitey-scorning, Uncle Tom–excoriating, no-shit-taking man of his time—and this music, above all, was his statement. In Listen to This, Svorinich makes the excellent point that the Bitches Brew sessions began the day after Hendrix performed his screaming, sorrowful, polyvalent version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock, turning the national anthem into a feedback chorale. The echoes, the fumes, of this consummate art act were in the ether as Miles and his musicians convened at the CBS Studio Building at 49 East 52nd Street in New York City. Hendrix at Woodstock on Monday, Bitches Brew on Tuesday: There’s the summer of 1969 for you.

What happened at the CBS studio over the next three days was without parallel. Looking backwards, we can see how Miles got there. Sketches of Spain, in 1960, had been a ritual in a heat-haze, a summoning of the duende—the ecstatic imp that alights, flamelike, on flamenco musicians in moments of transport. The softly electrified In a Silent Way, in 1969, was a glittering portal in space, a dreamed-up gateway for the new sound. Nonetheless, when that new sound came—the tremendous shuffling organism of the Bitches Brew band, directed this way and that by the hieratic motifs of Miles’s trumpet—it felt like a rupture in the vocabulary. “Pharaoh’s Dance” kicks the album off with predatory, lightly panting drums and doom-green auras of electric piano and guitar. (Grella hails this opening as “the single most ominous thing in the infinite man-years of experience and consumption that pop culture has produced.”) Thereafter, the music intensifies and falls apart, intensifies and falls apart: The layered rhythms—two drum kits, assorted other percussion—clatter and shake; John McLaughlin makes chopped, oblique comments on his guitar; there are caustic sprinkles of electric piano from Chick Corea, and a kind of hubbling, bubbling underjazz from Bennie Maupin’s bass clarinet.

If a sense of near-terror pervades the Bitches Brew sessions, it’s partly because the musicians had almost no idea what they were doing. After gathering them in his customary ad hoc fashion (some were recording with him for the first time), Miles set them off with literally a minimum of instruction—a glance, a gesture—and producer Teo Macero hit Record. As a bandleader, Miles had never said much. As far back as the ’50s, he acknowledged later, he’d been communicating via “silence and evil looks.” But now, winging it with these spooked and reactive players, he achieved total telepathic immersion. He glared and pointed—now you—and picked up his horn. With the cold delirium of a single phrase, he could reorient the music completely. Macero taped everything, fabricating the album later with razor-blade edits and a mighty, synthesizing wit. He looped sections, he spliced takes, he did things destructive to real time and thus heretical to the jazz process. William Wordsworth would have approved, however: This was truly “emotion recollected in tranquility.”

By 1975, Miles’s health was shot: ulcers, bursitis, and a disintegrating hip joint that he treated with fistfuls of painkillers. The quality of his music was dropping off, too. If Bitches Brew and 1971’s A Tribute to Jack Johnson had seen him blowing his red-lacquered horn over the waters of chaos, by the mid-decade live album Agharta, he was swamped. He put down his trumpet a few months later, and didn’t pick it up again for nearly five years. The Miles who returns to the stage at the end of Miles Ahead—the creaking space lord in bug-eyed shades, purveyor of super-sleek, super-tepid pop funk—is an aftermath figure. He has survived, as it were, his own electrocution. So let him play all the smooth licks he likes, and let his trumpet sound like anesthesia. Because while he was plugged in, while he was sizzling, he opened strange doors that—to use a line from another mutant, David Bowie—we’ll never close again.