It’s a difficult thing to capture the essence of Miles Davis in a realistic way, aside from listening to his music and watching old clips of him that is. The man who once dubbed himself the ‘Prince Of Darkness’ was a complicated being, especially to those who try to separate his body of work from the unique personality. There is something about him that draws the curiosity of all who have explored his music at some point. Which is probably why the recent Cite de la Musique exhibit capturing a visual biography is so aptly titled “We Want Miles.” Not since the autobiography has something attempted to give the fan a realistic third person view of his life, unfiltered and unbiased. While it is impossible to step into the shoes of the great mind, using some of the collection of items gathered from his life lets people get a glimpse of what was brewing in his head. And we have a virtual tour of the museum in store for you, to make up for the agony of not being able to buy a time machine and plane ticket to Paris or Montreal.
At the beginning of the exhibit with the classic bent over shadow posture of the man, the entrance serves as an invitation to step into the likeness of the figure. This quintessentially represents the man’s devotion to the music, and how he stylized everything he did around this. You don’t have to know every bit of information about the man, but it does help to be warm to his vision even if you may not fully understand it. Chances are that you’re looking at this because you wanted to see some of the exhibit itself, so lets get to the music already.
Venturing into the first section, “From St Louis To 52 Street,” takes people into the start of Miles’ long career. The vibrancy of some of the early art pieces from painter Jean-Michael Basquiat conveys a sense of youthfulness and lively passion that Miles had in his early days. His admiration for some of the legends of the bop era from Dizzy Gillespie to Charlie Parker, depicted in the artwork, really molds his early playing style as he soaks up a lot from them. But at the same time he also feels driven to distinguish himself from his mentors and peers. And after making the Birth of The Cool album he is convinced that he has found his own style.
As Miles comes into his own as a bandleader, he maintains a very active presence recording for labels such as Capitol and Prestige Records. This “Out Of The Cool” period sees him working with a large list of who’s who in jazz that helped to raise him to respectable status during that time. Seeing all of the album covers displayed side by side in the exhibit makes you admire his devotion to making music, even as he struggled with personal vices and issues during that time. In between the covers are some early pictures of him, which really personifies the sense of cool he always maintained even when he was not playing the trumpet.
Where Miles would truly live and exist at is either on the stage of a venue or the recording studio, and since few people got to experience him in the latter setting, the museum tries to recreate it. The “In The Studio For Columbia” contains some of the most highly regarded music in terms of creative exploration, from classics like Kind Of Blue to Porgy and Bess. Pictures from the latter album session is on display, placing visitors in the middle of the empty Columbia recording studio before a busy day got underway. For the album the original notes and sheet music is on display as well, recapturing the output of what a long day in the wooden room would come up with.
Viewed as a great musical partnership now, the period of time Miles spent with Gil Evans gave birth to some of the greatest works in both of their careers. They both were very close friends and were a large influence on each other that incorporated a vast array of musical tastes. Many of the original instruments Miles used are on display throughout the museum such as the Fuglehorn that is displayed in the above picture, which Miles used on Sketches Of Spain.
As Miles searched for ways to free up Jazz music from some of it’s tendencies, he would turn to methods such as freeing up the harmonic structure of his songs to reorganizing his music around the rhythm. Which is what the drum set in the middle of the “On The Corner” section represents. Searching for a way to revitalize the music and make it young again, this period of him incorporating Rock, Funk and Psychedelic ideas into his music saw him coming to the attention of those respective genres as well, to the dismay of many of the Jazz peers. A glimpse to the right shows the various magazine covers he made in the music genres, proving the growth of his influence.
Miles enjoyed the high life and what it allowed him to afford, and he was never afraid to show this off. Dating back to his early days, he loved to drive some of the best car models of his time and would rarely show up anywhere in something that looked ordinary. The sleek red Corvette on the video screen was a favorite pick of that time, and for Miles it also went with his hip persona. He would also give the same treatment to his instruments as the green horn that is on display to the front shows. The collection of album covers in the back to the right that his second great quintet made which included Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter and Tony Williams came from what many called his most synchronized band to date yet.
After this highlight though, Miles encountered a time when he felt that he had ran out of ideas and was tired from everything he had went through, and spent the rest of the 70s out of the spotlight while he sought to finally iron out his life. The narrow corridor in the “Silence, Solitude and Requiem” period tries to create that feeling of how a battle-worn veteran retreated to his corner and had to confront himself, as the red hue casts a solemn feeling to the section. The picture of a scruffy Miles at the end of the hallway with a beard puts him in a certain perspective without all of the glamour and fame around him. This is him when he didn’t have a single concern in the world to contend with.
The final section, “Star People,” has the eventual reemergence of the star into a new world, and new tools at his disposal. Although he had used electronic instruments before, he adapted to the sound of the 80s and with a new generation of artists manages to once again show how he hadn’t lost a step with the making of albums like You’re Under Arrest, The Man With The Horn and Tutu. Encased in the display is the quartet setup that he stuck with in his studio during this time, and with the advances of studio technology also allowed him to be more inventive and depend less on having a full-time band to record with. With this also came a new set of looks for the legend, as pictures from the You’re Under Arrest photo shoot in the background show. By this time he had become a global legend, and was finally getting the respect that was due.
The subtitle for the version of the exhibit that appeared in Montreal, “Miles Davis Vs. Jazz,” captures the relationship Miles had with the genre at large. Putting it into the context of his favorite sport, boxing, it highlights the fact that much of his life was spent going against the musical norm of the time and finding new approaches to the tried and true that most of his peers stuck to. In a way this kind of underlines a recent narrative for the genre that began when he retired from the spotlight and the genre splintered apart. In revisiting the life of the forward thinking man, it not only serves as a reintroduction to someone who has been–for too long encased in a rigid glass case by the jazz gatekeepers (which this exhibit does anything but)–but it also upholds his philosophy of pushing the envelope and progressing with the times. If there is one thing that people should take away from his life, it’s to always take chances and go as far as you can with them. This ends the tour.
Curated by Putnam Doug