Miles Davis: A man and his quest

Special to The Times

Why do we find Miles Davis so fascinating? More than a decade after his death from a stroke in 1991, his 1959 album “Kind of Blue” continues to be the best-selling jazz recording of all time. Two books have been published chronicling the making of that recording, and most of his other studio outings have been the subject of boxed sets that include every false start, outtake and unreleased number.

Other artists have received similar exposure -- Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and John Coltrane among them. But there is something different about Davis, something about the elusive, enigmatic qualities of his personality, which -- surfacing through his music -- add a mysterious, indefinable appeal to his art.

Many -- but not all -- of the root sources of that personality are present in an extremely compelling new DVD, “The Miles Davis Story.” The engrossing documentary was produced by Mike Dibb for England’s Channel 4 Television with running commentary by Ian Carr, author of “Miles Davis: The Definitive Biography.”


While much of the material is based on new interviews, the DVD also taps other sources, among them the 1986 PBS documentary “Miles Ahead” and a mid-’80s CBS promotional video.

Structured chronologically, reaching from Davis’ early childhood in St. Louis to his final days in Malibu, the story clearly reveals -- probably unintentionally -- the ego-driven core that simultaneously energized his creative process while repeatedly shattering his personal life.

The segments that most persuasively illustrate that duality are a series of interviews with close family members: Irene Cawthon, the mother of his first three children; his ex-wife Frances Taylor Davis; his daughter Cheryl; his youngest son, Erin. (Although, curiously, there is nothing from his other wives, actress Cicely Tyson and singer Betty Mabry.) Similarly, conversations with producers Bob Weinstock (who signed Davis to Prestige in the early ‘50s) and George Avakian (who signed him to Columbia in 1955); with his close musical and personal associate, arranger-composer Gil Evans; and with musicians Clark Terry, Dizzy Gillespie, Jimmy Cobb, Ron Carter, Chick Corea, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette, John Scofield, Marcus Miller and saxophonist Bill Evans, among others, add more details to the documentary’s multifaceted portrait.

Some of those details are not complimentary. Cawthon describes having Davis jailed for not providing child support for his three children and speaks bitterly of the omission of his first two sons, Gregory and Miles IV, from his will. Frances Davis identifies his physical abuse as a primary cause of the breakup of their relationship. Several musicians allude to his periodic impatience with women and his greater sense of comfort around men. His already well-documented problems with drugs are also addressed, in several segments by Davis himself, as is his cold-turkey kicking -- at his family home -- of a hard-drug habit.

There is, in addition, a running tally of the numerous physical problems afflicting Davis throughout his life: difficult hip problems; a throat operation that resulted in his famously husky style of speaking; bleeding ulcers; and finally, a stroke.

These descriptions are sprinkled throughout a thorough detailing of Davis’ musical career: his early friendship with Terry; his enormous admiration for Gillespie, which eventually led to the opportunity to replace Gillespie in the Charlie Parker Quintet; the “Birth of the Cool” sessions (described in far too limited detail); his partnership with Gil Evans in a series of momentous orchestral recordings; his defining groups of the ‘50s and ‘60s; his fascination with rock music and electronics in the final decades of his life.


As damning as some of the comments from family members may be, there are equally powerful, dramatically contrasting plaudits from the musicians who worked with him. Evans, for example, describes Davis as having “changed the tone of the trumpet for the first time since Louis Armstrong.” Dave Holland notes that it was the “process that was important.” Davis, he continues “was on to recording the process of discovering this new music and developing it. That’s why it has that searching quality.” And Cobb, Carter and Keith Jarrett all describe, in different ways, Davis’ incessant quest to reach the next creative horizon.

Each of the many segments in this remarkable saga includes examples of Davis’ playing from the period. Purists may be bothered by the relative brevity of the music, but this is, after all, intended as a probing documentary rather than an illustrative performance history.

And Legacy has made it easy to track the journey from a purely musical example via two complementary music CDs: “The Essential Miles Davis.”

By the time the program rolls to a close, the reasons for Davis’ appeal are considerably clarified, on many levels. His charismatic qualities as a performer, for example, are visibly present almost from the beginning -- regardless of musical style or fashion of garb. And his playing, with its distinctly melodic qualities (Cobb refers to its inherent lyricism, and Shirley Horn underscores the affection that singers hold for his playing) is also consistently appealing, from acoustic beginning to electronic finale.

But what also becomes clear is Davis’ insistence that he be viewed on his own terms, noting at one point his lifelong reluctance to take orders from anyone. And it may, in fact, be Davis himself who came up with the best explanation of all when he simply said, “Don’t call me a legend. Just call me Miles Davis.”


Davis on disc

“The Miles Davis Story”

DVD, 125 minutes; Columbia Legacy

Rating: ****

“The Essential Miles Davis”

2 CDs; Columbia Legacy

Rating: ****