Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool, jazz icon on American Masters

 The essence of what the film American Masters — Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool is trying to convey is defined with the quote, “I want to feel the way Miles sounds.” Mmm, baby, that says it all. This film unpacks the man behind the horn.
 PBS is presenting a deep dive into the music icon with American Masters — Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool. Premiering Tuesday, February 25 on PBS. The film earned a Grammy nomination in the “Best Music Film” category, and it’s the music that makes Stanley Nelson’s two hour documentary so extraordinary. For music lovers of all genres—this is the show to see. It takes a hard look at the legend and plays the music you need to feel.

 “In honor of Black History Month we’re proud to launch American Masters’ 34th season on PBS with Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool. The program explores his six-decade career breaking boundaries, and his complicated personal life,” said Michael Kantor, executive producer of the American Masters series from WNET, at the 2020 winter press tour for the Television Critics Association (TCA).

At TCA (r-l) Musician Erin Davis; bassist Marcus Miller; filmmaker Stanley Nelson; drummer Vince Wilburn; American Masters executive producer Michael Kantor (photo credit RahoulGhose/PBS)

 On hand for the TCA interview panel—musician/ producer/ composer Erin Davis, who toured and recorded with his father Miles Davis; drummer/producer Vince Wilburn, who performed and recorded with his Uncle Miles; Emmy and Peabody Award winning director/producer Stanley Nelson; and Grammy winning musician/composer Marcus Miller, who collaborated with Miles on several albums at the end of his career.

 With rare footage, studio outtakes, and new interviews (including Quincy Jones, Carlos Santana, Clive Davis, Wayne Shorter), viewers will understand Davis’ musical journey, moving away from the “fast and furious” bebop jazz that his idols Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie pioneered to create his own signature style, as he did with his signature recording of “Round Midnight.”

Miles Davis, Round Midnight recording session June 1956. (credit Don Hunstein /SonyMusic Archives)

 Davis wasn’t born a cool jazz icon. It’s interesting to note that he a grew up as a dental surgeon’s son in a middle class family, and he spent time at Juilliard. Nelson said, “There were so many levels to Miles Davis. He grew up as a dentist’s son. His father was the second richest African American in the state of Illinois. But he also grew up in East St. Louis at a time of segregation and rampant racism. All that went into making Miles who he was.”

 Composer Marcus Miller explained, “That duality played a big part of who he was, because he carried himself with dignity. He was very proud and determined to fight against racism. I think if he had not been upper middle class, I don’t think we would have had the same Miles Davis.”

 What was it like to work with Miles Davis? Miller groaned, “He was scary as hell–at first. Because when I started playing with Miles, it was 1981, so there were 40, 50 years of history with him when he walked in the door, so it was very intimidating at first. I was intimidated until the music started. He envelopes you in his music, and you forget to be nervous, because all you want to do is just give him the best you can give him.”

 Adding more insight Miller revealed, “His direction was very cryptic. He never told you exactly what he wanted. He just said ‘rocks skipping on the water,’ and that was the direction you got. It was up to you to figure out what he wanted. If you played something he didn’t like it, he was quick to let you know that. If he liked it, he didn’t say anything, and that’s about as good a compliment as you could get.”

 Nelson said, “You rarely see a portrait of a man that worked hard at honing his craft, a man who deeply studied all forms of music, from Baroque to classical Indian. An elegant man who could render ballads with such tenderness, yet hold rage in his heart.”

 From American Masters, WNET THIRTEEN’s award-winning biography series, the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and had a successful theatrical run. In conjunction with the PBS broadcast premiere in February, Columbia Records/Legacy Recordings, will release “Miles Davis – Music From and Inspired by Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool, a Film by Stanley Nelson.”

 Tune in American Masters — Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool, premiering Tuesday, February 25 on PBS.

Margie Barron has written for a wide variety of outlets including Gannett newspapers, Nickelodeon, Tiger Beat and 16 Magazine, Fresh!, Senior Life, Production Update, airline magazines, etc. Margie is also proud to have been half of the husband & wife writing team Frank & Margie Barron, who had written together for various entertainment and travel publications for more than 38 years.