In a TV documentary about Miles Davis one of his old musicians, not one of the famous guys but someone I think did late-period session work, recalled getting an invitation over to Miles' uptown brownstone where he found the maestro subdued, alone, and preparing a first rate meal for the two of them. He was surprised by Miles' placidity and cooking skills.
The popular novelist Douglas Kennedy once told me a good one about Miles. It seems that Douglas's Dad was a Manhattan banker or broker so the Kennedy family lived in a rich folks' brownstone on the selfsame street where Miles did his living, brooding, fucking, dying, and cooking. According to Douglas there were all sorts of misgivings on the brownstone street when the jazz man bought the house, when word spread about what sort of an individual this too damn nasty trumpeter was. Black, jazz, drugs, a sensualist, loose women and tight men. Miles proved himself to be one bad neighbor. The day after he moved in he phoned the decorators and had the exterior of his home painted shocking pink. He did some painting inside the house too.
Miles' electro work, which happened towards the end of his confused life, was generally decried as the floundering of a past-it master who would've been much better off taking a vow of silence instead of trashing up his reputation. I don't agree with this notion. The later work is fascinating because it is the statement that a powerful artist decided to make at a time in his life when he knew that his time would soon be over. Miles' recordings of dodgy tunes like Human Nature and Cyndi Lauper's Time After Time gave great pleasure to the nascent pop promo universe. While he was ploughing this controversial furrow, he was also painting.
The first I heard about his London art show - which happened a couple of months back at The Gallery On Cork Street (a for-hire space on a street full of real galleries) - was a George Melly radio review of two exhibitions by celebrity musician/painters, Miles and Tony Bennett. Melly was kind to the Miles show, which came and went, strangely curated, without so much as one proper review in London papers or magazines. I've seen better mounted and lit art in provincial thrift stores.
He painting was occasionally good but predominantly inadequate, expensive autographs for prosperous middle aged white guys. The robotic female bustier-clad figures were in sympathy with the Dancefloor sounds going around in Miles' ill head. Most of the paintings were given to the bitches Miles was brewing during his last decade, and it's these selfsame bitches (gone off the boil) who're now flogging his art. That's bitches for you.
Ken Burns, not everybody's cup of tea, recently did a PBS doc, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, with a soundtrack by the dreaded Wynton Marsalis. Marsalis, who connects with jazz much like the Dixie Chicks connect with bluegrass, put together a nostalgic soundscape which sought to remind us white folks of how long ago, back in the land of sepia, the boxer Jack Johnson lived and triumphed. The music had all the authenticity of The Sting soundtrack. (When some 1986 asshole tried to get Marsalis to join Miles on a Canadian stage for a jam, Miles wisely told the slave mentality trumpeter to, "get the fuck off the stage.")
Miles climbed back onto the stage and into the ring triumphantly at London's Barbican on May 30th when the 1971 documentary, Jack Johnson, was shown with a live soundtrack conceived and realized by Marek Pytel of the Reality organisation www.realityfilm.co.uk. Jack Johnson, made by fight promoter William Cayton (who subsequently managed Mike Tyson), is vaguely square as befits a Nixon/Life magazine-era doc but it has the salty whiff of ringside reality about it. I could almost taste or feel the blood and spit and sweat and smashed-up teeth. You could tell that the filmmaker understood the fight game when you heard voiceover talk of selling film rights for fights which took place when newsreel and film were new technology in effect.
Miles took up boxing when he tried to kick junk. He wrote an original soundtrack - Tribute to Jack Johnson - for the Cayton movie in '71. It was, for a long time, his favorite of his recordings. He said, "Johnson portrayed Freedom ‚Äì it rang just as loud as the bell proclaiming him Champion."
For the Barbican showing - styled Jack Johnson; Soundtrack to a Legend ‚Äì Pytel recruited a selection of young Brit jazz players - David Okumu, Byron Wallen, Jason Yarde - and imported drummer Jack DeJohnette, a key member of Miles' band when they did Tribute to Jack Johnson..
The story is a good one. Johnson grew up poor in Galveston, Texas to become the first black heavyweight champion in 1908. He took on the Great White Hope Jim Jeffries, in 1910. This victory lead to race riots, Johnson's persecution, and exile to Europe. His bling bling lifestyle (white bitches, killer automobiles, life in celebrity exile) ended when he died in a 1946 car crash.
Miles wrote in his autobiography that he was hated "because I'm black and I don't compromise, and white people - especially white men - don't like this in a black person, especially a black man." Jack Johnson says, in the movie, "I'm black - they never let me forget it. I'm black, all right ‚Äì I'll never let them forget it!"
Jack DeJohnette was quite something - a lifetime trashing the kit left him sounding like a Sufi master or a punk metal tyrant. The Brit jazz young men worked around him - smart enough to let him take the lead. I like boxing more than I like jazz and, happily, the live music never got in the way of the narrative voiceover. The whole blend, repetitive bebop riffs, the story of the boxer's life, the ghost of the dead jazz avatar, made for a hot and strangely touching event. The music displayed a distinct feel for the frenzied movement going on in the ring
Jack Johnson said, "I like doin' what I do, in front of a crowd. I like life, and I like it now!" Miles couldn't have put it better himself and neither could I...
Joe Ambrose has written 14 books, including Chelsea Hotel Manhattan and The Fenian Reader. Joe is currently working on his next book, Look at Us Now - The Life and Death of Muammar Ghadaffi, which is an expanded version of a story first published in the anthology CUT UP! Visit Joe's website for all the latest info: JoeAmbrose.co.uk.