New documentary profiles the jazz icon on PBS
There was, and is, no other sound like that of Miles Davis.
Friends, relatives and collaborators remember the dynamic personality that translated into a singular musical style — honored with eight Grammys and induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame — in celebrated filmmaker Stanley Nelson’s “American Masters” documentary “Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool,” making its PBS debut Tuesday, Feb. 25 (check local listings). Quincy Jones, Carlos Santana, Wayne Shorter and recording-industry titan Clive Davis are among those who recall the tenderness and harshness that made the late Miles Davis (whose voice is re-created by actor Carl Lumbly) such a gifted enigma as a jazz icon and in his personal dealings.
Also featured is someone who knew him as both colleague and father, his composer-producer son Erin Davis. “What I got from him,” Erin recalls, “was, ‘If you want to be a musician, you have to be serious about it.’ Maybe not take myself seriously, but take it seriously. We had that little four-track (studio) in our house, and he would just tell me what kind of beat to program or something, and he would just play some chords on it. When I played in his band, it was a lot more nerve-wracking for me, (but) it was still the greatest experience.”
Davis was married three times, the last to actress Cicely Tyson, and Grammy winner Marcus Miller – who also appears in the documentary — had a unique view of him from several perspectives. “I think as an African-American musician in the ’40s and ’50s, you had to have a shell, and he didn’t really step out of that shell very often,” Miller reflects. “He kept people at a distance, but once he felt comfortable, then it was a completely different thing.
“I played in his band for about two years,” adds Miller, “then I left, and I came back to compose and produce for Miles. The second time was when I really got to know him. Lots of times, it was just he and I. I had already recorded the track, and we were adding his trumpet to the already recorded music. And he was comfortable at this point enough so … I would say to the engineer, ‘Please don’t start the music.’ I would just give him a look like, ‘Don’t press any buttons, because I’m getting ready to hear a story here.’ ”
Davis’ popularity among his peers was clear to director Nelson, who says, “Even with as hard and abusive of a person that Miles could be, the musicians who played with him loved him. They came on in (for the film) because they all wanted to tell their stories about Miles.”