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Live Reviews

A Miles Davis Retrospective

By Published: October 11, 2005
The best things in life truly are the ones you least expect.

An excellent case in point: while on a recent trip out to Missouri to visit relatives, I had the most serendipitous good fortune of encountering a sophisticated, insightful, and moving museum exhibition devoted to the life and career of one famous area native—Miles Davis.

A Miles Davis Retrospective, the first major museum show dedicated to the life and career of Miles Davis, appears at the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis through February 2002. If you have been disenchanted with Jazz history as a result of a certain recent media event—need I say more?—this exhibition should unequivocally affirm the care and thoughtfulness that can bring Jazz history back to life.

This Miles Davis exhibit is a superb testament to not only Miles but jazz itself. It will not soon be exceeded. The retrospective is substantive, enlightening, sophisticated, yet acessible—but in a clever, not vulgar way.

The official brochure for the exhibition does a great job of describing the nature and format of this exhibit. I will offer an excerpt, followed by my own commentary on different features. Here is what the Museum has to say about its own shining achievement with Miles, A Retrospective:

...Miles presents—in image, text, and sound—the dramatic creative journey of Miles Davis, bringing one of the greatest legends in jazz to life. The trumpeter worked through a series of daring artistic phases represented by the exhibition's six sections...

Davis's music is also placed in broader context. Miles describes the influence of The Great Migration on the music of East St. Louis and the entire region; the evolutionary bebop movement in jazz; the "cool" attitude of the 1950s; the intersection of jazz and the civil rights movement; and the significance of fashion and the visual arts in Davis's life...

Visitors will begin their musical journey with a film projected on a 6' by 8' screen, providing a dramatic glimpse of Davis in performance from the 1940s to the 1990s and visually establishing his ties to East St. Louis. Here visitors will see and hear Davis improvising in the moment in a series of classic clips (one of the second Classic quintet, another of Miles at La Eithe fusion, and others of pre-1960 concerts).

Through stereo headphones and a portable, digital audio tour (provided via MP3 player), the mysterious sound of Miles Davis' trumpet will accompany visitors on their own journey of discovery through a world of photographs, artifacts, and text. Acting as tour guides will be the voices of Dizzy Gillespie, Carlos Santana, Charlie Parker, Gil Evans, Keith Jarrett, Gerry Mulligan, and Miles himself (ALSO—Lester Bowie, Frances Davis, Quincy Troupe, and indeed, many other insightful voices), explaining the music, commenting on the artifacts, remembering the history. In the spirit of jazz improvisation, visitors will make their own (unlimited) selections, choosing the music and voices that will accompany their experience. The audio tour is a crucial element of the exhibition and is included in the admission fee.

Miles aims for a comprehensive and thorough investigation of Miles Davis's life and art, as well as the historical context in which he soared. It succeeds in a way that reflects the creativity and humanism of the exhibit's designers.

This exhibit negotiates a careful, yet bold, passage through the thicket of dichotomies present throughout jazz history, navigating between the social history of the music and the personal history of the musicians. Miles was never the mere putty of the social forces of his times, nor was he such a transcendent being that he could have asserted himself in any time or place. Miles strikes a thoughtful balance between the influences of Miles's environment and the unique individualism of the man himself. For example, in one recorded interview, Miles speaks admiringly about "The St. Louis Sound" of trumpet playing, from Freddie Webster to Clark Terry and others. This admission speaks to the idea, hard as it may be for some to believe, that Miles perceived a stylistic heritage ("sweet, gentle trumpet") from which he could draw ideas during the formative years of his musicianship. This information grounds Miles, the legend, in a sincere way... what could be more sincere than his own humility? It is based on the oral history of The Music, rather than any specious speculation about the extra-musical elements of his style.

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.

Miles also presents a couple of stage costumes from his "Rock Star" wardrobe. Some viewers might be turned off, but I personally found them cool in a kitschy kind of way. The '80s red leather costume with metal spikes—"Get Up!", if you will—looks positively ludicrous in person. It is so bad it's actually good. Regardless of how I might feel about Miles's forays into Rock, these costumes—and some of the promos for his concerts, including one on the same bill as the Grateful Dead—were eye-openers. I may be biased against his fusion period, but I would still like to be able to at least have a sense of humor about it.

There are many images throughout the exhibit: original album covers, and seminal photographs of Miles, his family and friends. There are some fantastic vintage photos of Miles as a child, as well as his father (dental school graduation pic!). The classic shots of Miles by Herman Leonard, William Gottlieb and others are also in ample display.

While people both in and outside the jazz world continue to debate the significance of Ken Burns' Jazz series, Miles Davis: A Retrospective strikes me as the real jazz history breakthrough of 2001. I consider myself to be rather knowledgeable about Miles, but this was nonetheless a highly revelatory experience for me. I feel like I have a better appreciation for Miles now than I could possibly have had before. The many recorded interviews, demonstrations by other musicians, and real-live artifacts no doubt had something to do with this. They bring Miles to life in a definite way.

I'm so glad that I serendipitously stumbled onto this wonderful exhibit. No matter how you slice it, Miles is a worthy tribute to Miles and to jazz. It's the kind of homage that should make any jazz fan proud. Hopefully this exhibit will not only satisfy existing jazz fans, but will also serve as a catalyst to introduce novices to the music as well. Maybe some day we'll hear from a few young musicians who were inspired by seeing this exhibit!

If you can get to St. Louis, you owe it to yourself to make the pilgrimage to this exhibit. A trip to the Museum show, combined with an outing to Barbara Roses' fine Jazz at the Bistro, plus some hopping around St. Louis record hangs (Euclid Records was very worthwhile), make for a very fine Jazz-oriented vacation. St. Louis is uncommonly pleasant for a larger city. It has a number of attractions, including the rather pastoral Forest Park area in which the Missouri Museum of History is located. Eat in the restaurant above the exhibit floor... they play radio jazz, and I had one of the best sandwiches there (crawfish with sweet corn) that I have ever eaten.

For more information on the Miles: A Miles Davis Retrospective show, visit the Missouri History Museum's website at

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