AT 7.30 PM on March 24, an hour after the screening of ‘The Miles Davis Story’ began, the recording theatre at Mumbai’s Mehboob Studio was quite empty. Only 20 or 25 people were present in the hall, paying close attention to the jazz documentary. The crowd trickled in post-8 PM, primarily to watch the live acts — singer Daniel Tyler of the Full Moon Rising project, funk-R n B outfit Naina Kundu Trio and jazz-rock band Max Clouth Trio.
The evening was part of the monthly Live From The Console series organised by Oranjuice and Day 1, a Sony Music division. Sadly, most of the 200-plus people who sauntered in later missed the documentary on trumpeter and bandleader Miles Davis, one of the most influential and innovative figures in 20th century music and one of the greatest names in jazz history. Maybe the 6.30 PM timing was a bit early for their Saturday night. Or maybe it was because a large number of Mumbai’s so-called current-day jazz fans have never really tuned in to Miles, preferring more modern and rambunctious forms of the genre instead.
‘The Miles Davis Story’ is directed by British documentary filmmaker Mike Dibb, whose other subjects have included surrealist painter Salvador Dali, Nobel winning Mexican writer Octavio Paz and jazz/ classical pianist Keith Jarrett. With some amazing research, lots of trivia, brilliant concert footage and a series of interviews with musicians and industry-folk close to Miles, he keeps the viewer riveted over the film’s two-hour length.
If John Szwed’s biography ‘So What: The Life Of Miles Davis’ gives a deep reading insight into the legend’s life, Dibb’s film provides the visual and aural pleasure, and the nostalgia. The documentary deals with Miles’ upbringing, his brief stint at the Juilliard School, his interactions with bebop greats Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, his recordings with bandleader Gil Evans, his work with French filmmaker Louis Malle and his own pathbreaking innovations in cool jazz, hard bop, jazz-rock and even the much-criticised hip-hop jazz.
The list of recordings featured include ‘Birth of the Cool’, ’Milestones’, ‘Kind of Blue’, ‘Miles Ahead’, ‘Sketches of Spain’, ‘ESP’, ‘Bitches Brew’, ‘A Tribute To Jack Johnson’, ‘Tutu’ and the posthumously-released ‘Doo-Bop’, and one hears snippets of classic jazz numbers like ‘So What’, ‘Milestones’, ‘All Blues’, ‘Spanish Key’ and ‘Tutu’.
Snapshots of Miles playing the trumpet, eyes closed and back to audience, Parker and Gillespie doing a fascinating duet, and amazing solos by saxophone great John Coltrane, pianist Chick Corea, saxophonist Bill Evans and percussionist Don Alias are woven perfectly into the narrative. For variety, there’s also a dazzling performance by guitar god Jimi Hendrix, whose work Miles particularly admired.
The list of interviewees reads like a who’s who of post-70 jazz and jazz-rock, with names like guitarist John McLaughiln, bassists Ron Carter and Marcus Miller, pianists Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, Joe Zawinul and Corea, saxophonist Evans, trumpeter Ian Carr, singer Shirley Horn, and drummers Jack DeJohnette and Alias, besides recording industry bigwig George Avakian.
There are snatches from his personal life too, as the film talks of Miles’s association with Irene Cawthon (prominently interviewed here), Betty Mabry, Cecily Tyson and Juliette Greco, besides close friend Shirley Horn, and also his relationship with his children Cheryl, Gregory and Miles IV. His stints with drugs, depression and illness are given due footage, and his death in September 1991 described with a sense of true loss.
Over the years, jazz has boasted of numerous icons and extraordinary musicians, but Miles carved a niche of his own by creating defining newer sounds and textures. He moved with the times, and like a Pied Piper, inspired scores of music to follow his path. As such, ‘The Miles Davis Story’ is a remarkable tribute to his genius
One only wishes more people had made it earlier to experience the film’s brilliance. Of course, they can always catch the DVD.