Miles Davis v. Wynton Marsalis: Jack Johnson in Jazz
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 blackthey never let me forget it.
I'm black, allrightI'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.