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A Miles Davis Retrospective

AAJ Staff By

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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.


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