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Miles Davis v. Wynton Marsalis: Jack Johnson in Jazz

By Published: March 8, 2005
What might seem surprising is that Marsalis, an ardent student of jazz history, avoids any nods to Davis' earlier score on the same subject. Of course, Marsalis is the leading figure in a movement among jazz musicians that has turned firmly away from just the sort of electronic and rock- or pop-inflected experiments that Davis championed in albums like Jack Johnson. And the two trumpeters have had a rather fraught relationship. In the early 80's, Wynton was a rising star in the jazz scene, and his playing was often described, depending on how well the critic liked it, either as a new development in or a knock-off of the style of acoustic jazz Miles had been playing in the early to mid 1960's. Davis, then in the twilight of his career, did have some kind words for the younger man, but they were publicly critical of each other as well. Marsalis disparaged Davis for abandoning acoustic jazz in favor of jazz-rock fusion, and Davis sniped that Marsalis was spending too much time playing classical music and not developing his own improvisational voice. In an infamous incident at the Vancouver Jazz Festival in 1986, a producer apparently tried to orchestrate a poignant intergenerational moment by having Wynton come up on stage to jam with Miles' band, but Miles would have none of it, stopping his band and crudely telling Wynton to "get the fuck off the stage."

This backstory does tend to make the whole idea of Wynton Marsalis doing a Jack Johnson soundtrack album seem vaguely Oedipal, as if he's trying to revisit the points of Miles' career where, in his view, the great musician went astray, and to show how it should have been done instead. But, armchair psychology aside, which soundtrack succeeds better? Musically, both scores are strong and evocative; the one a person finds more enjoyable will depend mostly on whether their preferences lie towards Miles' experimental attitude or Wynton's neo-traditional style. In the films, there's no doubt that Wynton (who's collaborated with Ken Burns before on the popular PBS documentary Jazz) has written music that complements Burns' film beautifully. Davis' raucous soundtrack, on the other hand, sometimes sits somewhat uneasily with Cayton's fairly conventional documentary style. But at other moments the effect can be powerful. The opening sequence begins with Miles' music over a black screen, and proceeds a series of still photographs of Johnson as the voice of actor Brock Peters, playing Johnson, declaims his philosophy of life:

"I like doin' what I do, in front of a crowd ...

I like life, and I like it now! ...

I'm Jack Johnson, heavyweight champion of the world!

I'm black—they never let me forget it.

I'm black, allright—I'll never let them forget it!"

...while Miles' band rocks on underneath, building in intensity with Johnson's speech. It's an exhilarating effect, capturing Johnson's joie de vivre, as well as the sense of menace and chaos Johnson exuded with his exploits in and out of the ring. If the rest of the film doesn't quite live up to the promise of that opening, it shows us for a moment how Miles tried to break Jack Johnson out of the history-book world that Burns and Marsalis present him in, and bring him crashing into our own.

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