Thursday, 5 May 2016


Miles and Me

My father liked jazz although I can’t remember him playing any at home on the hi-fi. I think his taste lay more toward traditional Second World War era big band and Dixieland. My own explorations into jazz were initially academic: here was an art form, an important one that I felt I needed to know about and try to understand. I found myself being moved in much subtler ways than the opening riffs of rock ‘n’ roll songs. I’ve realized that if I had seen Charlie Parker or Horace Silver in a New York club all those years ago my world would have changed. Friday night Ann and I went to see Miles Ahead, Don Cheadle’s new film about Miles Davis.

During one of our last face to face conversations Dad mentioned that he saw Miles at the Black Bottom, one of those legendary clubs that helped Mafia-cement Montreal’s reputation as one of North America’s premier sin cities. I said, ‘You saw Miles Davis in a club, in his prime?’ My father was a hep cat? Dad said, ‘Yes, but I didn’t get it.’

My sister Anne’s husband, Al, a scientist and a rollicking amateur jazz pianist saw Miles much later in his career at another Montreal venue. ‘He just stood there on stage. I think his horn was blue, or maybe red. Once in a while he’d give it a toot. But it was Miles, you know?’ Four or five years ago Montreal’s Musee des Beaux Arts mounted an exhibition from Paris called We Want Miles! which Al and I coursed through, taking our time. There were listening stations that allowed visitors to get a sense of every stage or segment of Miles’s career. There were artifacts: instruments, acetates, clothing and original LP cover artwork.

What amused me in the exhibit was the surviving correspondence written on behalf of Miles by his management. ‘Miles wants a villa in the south of France…’ ‘Miles wants sole composition and production credit…’ ‘Miles wants to ensure that no other musicians are mentioned in the liner notes…’ All neatly typed. I got the impression that Miles might make another cosmic and notoriously prickly artist like Van Morrison seem like a nice guy.

‘Improvisational’ was probably bopping through Don Cheadle’s head while he wrote, directed and starred as the barking, borderline lunatic. Miles Ahead isn’t exactly a biographical film because most of it never happened. Instead, the movie attempts to illustrate, not explain, the relationship between an artist and his art. Miles Davis possessed a profound gift and there is no empirical explanation for his genius. The new, requisite 10,000 hour theory does not apply to Miles or the few like him who have graced this planet with their work. So why not sketch the ethereal essence of an artist with a boozy, coke-addled caper fable? Miles’s truth was in his music and the truth about Miles might best be depicted in a fantastical tale of fiction. Maybe Ann and I didn’t get all of it, but it was Miles, you know?

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