A major exhibition centered on Miles Davis affirms his overall cultural influence
By Howard Mandel
Trumpeter Miles Davis is an iconic New Yorker. Though he died at age 65 in 1991, one still expects to see him standing next to his red Ferrari on Central Park West arguing with the cop who pulled him over, with Mailer at the bar at Elaine’s or walking across the plaza at Lincoln Center explaining things to Leonard Bernstein. But Montreal is now staking its own claim to Miles.
The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts has just opened the exhaustive We Want Miles exhibit for a four-month stand. The show comprises performance videos, art
photography, oil paintings, scores, letters, instruments and, oh, yes, Miles’ inimitable sound, filling nine capacious rooms of the Jean-Noél Desmarais Pavilion. In conjunction with the exhibit and recognition of an international audience’s continued fascination with all things Davis, the Montreal Jazz Festival promises bookings this summer (June 26 to July 6) focused on his multi-faceted legacy. Judging from the hip version of Tutu, Miles’ 1980s studio masterpiece—which electric bassist Marcus Miller (MD’s main man back then) led to cheers at Montreal’s splendidly-appointed L’Astral club the night before the exhibit’s unveiling—that could be well worth traveling for.
Subtitled Miles Davis vs. Jazz, the museum’s installation is an expanded edition of an eight-stage show-and-tell that originated last fall at Paris’ Cité de la Musique. It comprises more than 350 personal items on loan from Miles’ survivors, Miles Davis Properties, LLC and such of his musical protegés as Miller, trumpeter Wallace Roney, drummer Cindy Blackman and John Coltrane, whose tenor sax is on display. Starting with snapshots of Miles as a privileged child in Depression-era East St. Louis and ending with a row of the star-spangled toreador jackets in which he performed during his last decade, the exhibit covers half a century of personal change—Miles was a great one for that—and cultural transformation.
At his best, Davis was the purveyor of sophisticated intensity, in-the-moment modernism, music with purposeful flow. What his best was, though, remains a matter of cross-generational debate. Did he fully realize his early promise as Charlie Parker’s sideman and progenitor of “the Cool”? Do his orchestral works with Gil Evans and modal milestone Kind of Blue live up to the kudos? Did his Second Quintet with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams take bebop to its final conclusions? Was Miles blowing smoke to obscure that he was past his prime with his jazz-rock fusion and ’70s electric funk?
Well, there is none: just hundreds of thousands of words by dozens of writers (including me in my book Miles, Ornette, Cecil: Jazz Beyond Jazz) still entranced by his siren songs. A fine arts museum’s presentation of any jazzman in such depth, however, is firm avowal of his broad, lasting significance. Walking through this show is like being inside the deluxe boxed sets of Miles’ CDs issued by Sony Music Entertainment (which is presenting the exhibit in collaboration with Sun Life Financial, an international insurance firm). For those already in the know, much of what’s here is familiar but wonderful to see up close and all together.
Here’s a loop from Louis Malle’s movie Elevator to the Gallows of Jeanne Moreau scouring Paris for her lover, with Miles’ aching solo on the soundtrack, and also homemade footage of Miles demonstrating his boxing skills. Mati Klarwein’s weird images for Bitches Brew and Live Evil pop with more resonance than the paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat that Miles collected and emulated, or the plump, bejeweled Miles sculpted by Niki de Saint Phalle. Miles’ relentless productivity is emphasized; music is all too bounteous, as the museum’s excellent speaker system delivers different Miles recordings in each room, and different excerpts, too, in a series of smaller chambers devoted to his especially notable albums. The result is unfortunate; you can’t really listen to any one thing without hearing bits of Miles bleed in from elsewhere.
To experience a vivid revival of Miles at his boldest, though, is a huge treat. In 1986 Marcus Miller synthesized Tutu’s gothic processionals and grandiose confections virtually by himself for Miles to play in, over and through; now he fronts trumpeter Christian Scott, saxophonist Alex Han, multi-keyboardist Federico Gonzalez Pena and spark-plug drummer Louis Cato in making Tutu live like it was written yesterday. Tutu Revisited comes to New York’s Highline Ballroom June 22, but no stateside museum has scheduled We Want Miles. So you must fly to Montreal.