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Live Reviews

A Miles Davis Retrospective

By Published: October 11, 2005

Miles also balances the musical and non-musical aspects of the trumpeter's career. The actual musical content of the exhibit, as opposed to the verbal and artifactual aspects, should satisfy even the most rabid jazz fans. It offers recorded cuts from several eras and many different albums throughout Miles Davis's career. However, no tracks are featured here in their entirety. The sound samples here are no mere ten seconds apiece, but those expecting to be able to hear entire tracks (or even whole solos) may find themselves disappointed.

The musical samples certainly offer variety—there are nearly a hundred tracks in the exhibit. Some come from relatively obscure sources: the Eddie Rendell Band, Billy Eckstine band, and early St. Louis and K.C. groups. Miles's career is chronicled in parallel with verbal history and musical archives. Purists may eschew the equal weight given to his fusion and '80s periods, but this equal emphasis evinces the curators' unbiased commitment to thoroughness.

The featured tracks include musical demonstrations of certain stylistic characteristics, such as when Jon Faddis places Miles Davis in the historical context of jazz trumpet style, or when Lester Bowie demonstrates the way marching music was developed (and marching music profoundly influenced early 20th century music in St. Louis). These musical examples are nice touches which reveal specific aspects of the styles that influenced Miles or became a part of his musical vocabulary.

While the brevity of the musical tracks may deter some, the non-musical content of this exhibit surely offers more than adequate compensation. There are many fascinating historical passages about both social developments and events in Miles's personal life. The historical content of Miles carefully avoids any generic or caricaturizing cliches. There are no invocations of "Those Swinging '30s" or "The Bebop Hipster"—or any other such hackneyed concepts.

The information presented in the exhibit gives due care to establishing THE particular social circumstances that bore relevance to Miles life, and THE particular jazz history that had the greatest influence on his music. We learn a good deal about Miles's East St. Louis roots—including several surprising facts. We learn particulars about Miles himself that still seem revelatory... for example, that Sugar Ray Robinson was his inspiration in kicking his heroin habit; or that Miles and Red Garland were kindred souls in their love for boxing. Fortunately, this exhibit does not stray into a mentality of "fun facts" or mindless soundbites about Miles. There is always meat (substance) under the sauce (the details).

Among the especially compelling verbal history in this exhibit are Miles's own reflections on his life (presumably taken from the Troupe interviews), as well as testaments from numerous other musicians. In contrast to another Jazz history epic, we are subjected to little hyperbole or ungrounded rhetoric about the subject. None of the interviews were edited down to statements like "Man, Miles, he was like—you know—incredible. He was Mr. Superhip," with no elaboration. Everybody seemed to have something worthwhile to say. Moreover, I was consistently surprised—in the face of my own biases—that musicians like George Duke or Carlos Santana actually had great insight about Miles and his music.

Perhaps the most moving and yet also most disturbing testimony is that of Frances Davis, Miles's second wife. I won't give away her words, but suffice to say they are startling to actually hear spoken aloud...

While Miles pays due attention to the details of his life and times, it also unflinchingly aims to humanize jazz history, without making it a mere exercise of Sociology 101. The social history content of this exhibit never swamps the subject, a rare feat among all the "exercises" in jazz history.

The physical aspect of the exhibit is delightfully hip and "cool." The walls are painted black, and streaks of different "jazz" colors (burgundy, indigo blue, etc.) correspond with the different periods of Miles's career. All of the displays are tastefully arranged: the text selections are organized around the photography, record covers, and various artifacts in a very logical and pleasing way. Indeed, if the curators had done nothing right with the substance of the exhibit, they would still have scored points simply from the presentation... I have the feeling Miles would have approved of its style.

For those lusting to see essential artifacts of Miles Davis, there are some sweet ones here. The exhibit includes one of the Gretsch drum sets Tony Williams played in the Classic quintet, as well as three trumpets Miles played in different periods. I found the 1950s model, perhaps the most plain version, somehow very sublime—I could almost hear "Billy Boy" coming out of the bell, with that slightly grainy sound.



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