There are plenty of good reasons why Miles Davis remains one of the most influential jazz musicians of all time. He led the jazz parade for nearly every new style developed since Bebop, including Cool Jazz, modal Hard Bop, Fusion, and what you might call 1980s commercialism. If he didn’t do it, one of his famous former sidemen probably did. Rather impressively, Stanley Nelson manages to condense his remarkable career into a nearly two-hour documentary without any glaring omissions. The beauty of his music and the irascible nature of his personality come through clear as day in Nelson’s Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool, which screens during the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.
Miles Davis never had the pyrotechnic chops of a Dizzy Gillespie or a Clifford Brown, but he made a virtue of his limitations by developing his own muted, lyrical sound earlier in his career. As his reputation grew, he formed one of the most acclaimed ensembles in jazz history, featuring a then-little-known John Coltrane on tenor. Yet, Davis was only getting started.
Together with his friend and soul-mate-arranger Gil Evans (who gets his due credit in the doc), Davis led the Birth of the Cool sessions, which had a formative influence on West Coast Cool Jazz; recorded Kind of Blue, one of the best-selling jazz albums of all time and a trail-blazing example of modal improvisation; formed his even more exploratory “Second Great Quintet;” kick-started the fusion revolution; and disappeared and then re-emerged with some of his most commercial work ever. Nelson covers all these major turning points, getting all the important stuff right.
Nelson interviewed many who knew Davis well, but the most notable by far is the late Frances Taylor Davis, the musician’s first wife, who is widely considered Davis’s great love and most significant muse, based on published comments. She rarely discussed her celebrated husband after their divorce, so her participation is a real coup. Close friend and frequent cover artist Cortez McCoy also contributes highly personal memories of Davis. Plus, we hear from jazz giants Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones, Jimmy Cobb, Lenny White, Mike Stern, Marcus Miller, and Jimmy “Little Bird” Heath.
It is dashed ironic Nelson’s film took its title from the 1949 and 1950 sessions collected on the Birth of the Cool album, because it represents a rather short-lived period in his career and helped inspire the Cool style, which Davis frequently dismissed with contempt. Of course, the Cool school was largely associated with white musicians, like Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan (who played on all the Birth sessions), whose success rankled Beboppers and Hard Boppers, like Davis. Still, it has the ring of something fresh and grand and historically significant, so here it is.
Regardless, Nelson packs quite a bit into the film. The soundtrack incorporates so many Davis recordings, even hardcore fans will lose track of whether or not their favorites were included. Nelson can’t cram in everything (we have always been partial to his soundtrack and acting work in the film Dingo), but editor Lewis Erskine shoehorns in all the milestones, while maintaining clarity and a brisk pace. Very highly recommended, Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool screens again tomorrow (2/1) in Park City and Saturday (2/2) in Salt Lake, as part of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.