Like the motions of a boxer, Miles Davis' music for this tribute contains much repetition in the motion and rhythm of his sextet. His open trumpet drove the point home with force.
Electric guitar and electric bass were new to Davis' music in 1970. Ironically, he was honoring a traditional fighter who loved traditional jazz by rolling out his new sound with futuristic overtones. His echoing muted trumpet eventually became a Davis trademark. The perky soprano saxophone in his new band opened doors for a new wave in jazz that continues today to forge ahead in its popularity. The electronics of guitar, bass and organ created a powerfully emotional sound for jazz; however, it was quite new and difficult to accept. Many were turned off by the new wave of fusion. Thus, the jazz world split.
The professional boxing world underwent a more gradual change. Champions such as Floyd Patterson, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Muhammad Ali and Larry Holmes garnered a deep sense of admiration from the public. They inspired us in our daily lives. Like Davis, they were in the public eye and were scrutinized for all their actions. More recent champions, however, have changed all that. Like jazz, the professional boxing world has split. Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson made headlines, but for all the wrong reasons. Recent heavyweight champions such as Lennox Lewis, Roy Jones, Jr., Chris Byrd and Vitali Klitschko have not inspired us as the legendary boxers did.
So, Davis' tribute to Jack Johnson was justified. He created the impression of Johnson's courage through his music. For nearly an hour, the music drones on in a rhythmic cycle that emulates the training and tactics of a boxer. Dreamier sequences reveal the obstacles that Johnson had to overcome. Racial prejudice and bigotry have always impeded progress. Johnson knew that. Davis knew that. In 1970, the world was just then learning how to repair the wounds. We're not there yet, but the music lives on to help in our search. A new PBS documentary by Ken Burns helps to keep us aware. We've got to open our eyes and our ears. As Davis says in the album's liner notes, "Johnson portrayed Freedomit rang just as loud as the bell proclaiming him Champion."
Personnel: Miles Davis- trumpet; Steve Grossman- soprano saxophone; Herbie Hancock- organ; John McLaughlin- electric guitar; Michael Henderson- electric bass; Billy Cobham- drums