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Miles Comes To The Big Screen; Nephew Vincent Wilburn Approves

R.J. DeLuke By

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[Don Cheadle] is an intense, beautiful actor. I thought he could bring it home. —Vincent Wilburn
Sometimes a comment made without serious intent can start the wheels of fate.

Many Miles Davis fans know there has been a Miles Davis movie in the works for some time. Different proposals emerged over the years, none of them coming to light for varying reasons. Now, however, all Miles fans know that it's here. The movie, filmed in Cincinnati, is complete and ready for release. It debuted in New York City the second weekend in October. The final fruition of the film may have been the result of one utterance from the jazz icon's nephew, Vincent Wilburn, son of Davis' only sister and a drummer in the trumpeter's band for a period in the 1980s, touring and recording with the legend.

When Miles was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (yes, rock), in 2006, Wilburn was asked who should play his uncle if the film were to be made. He said, point blank, "Don Cheadle."

That put things into motion and in 2015 surfaces Miles Ahead, a film project brought to the screen by Cheadle and Steven Baigelman. They co-wrote the screenplay. Baigelman and Mark Amin are executive producers and Cheadle is a producer as well.

But the film is not a typical bio pic, following a person's life and times and giving historical perspective. That may cause controversy among purists. (What is Miles Davis if no controversy? It followed him around, deserved or not). It will jump into more theaters in 2016, the year Miles would have turned 90 (May 26).

Cheadle himself, in interviews, has openly scoffed at the idea of a bio pic, noting—correctly—that even those are flawed and a good bit of fiction and generalization used. There is no way Miles' rollercoaster life could be encapsulated in two hours of a bio pic, any more than Ghandi or Jimmy Hoffa or, for that matter, Charlie Parker. Each of those movies were flawed. Occasionally, there are good ones, like the recent Ray Charles film. But Ray didn't capture it all.

There may be things in the film that viewers find troublesome, like Miles using a gun, which he didn't do. And apparently, there is little sign of his many great sidemen over the years. But Cheadle has opted to try something very different. People's opinions will no doubt vary about his success. But filmmakers, and artists, should be lauded for their attempt at experimentation.

The Davis family, Wilburn and Miles' children Erin and Cheryl, are pleased with the result. Wilburn, who played drums in the groups that played a funk/rock/jazz/future music amalgamation, feels that regardless of the story line, Cheadle brought the Price of Darkness to the screen brilliantly.

Wilburn, interviewed at his New York City hotel room the weekend of the film's debut, is unconcerned. He's confident the film will be well received and hopes an Oscar comes Cheadle's way for his impressive portrayal of the jazz legend.

Darryl Porter, general manager of Miles Davis Properties, also speaking from the hotel room, says plenty more is on tap for fans in 2016. There will be a project called Cool and Collected, which "is a convergence of Miles' artwork and his music. It's curated by Francine Turk a Chicago- based fine artist. Her work has been exhibited next to Picasso and a lot of the other greats. She listened to Miles and created a series of paintings. And those paintings will appear at the exhibition, as well as some of Miles' original artwork," he says.

Then there's a high tech exhibition, an event lasting between three to seven days in New York, Los Angeles, Paris, Chicago, Miami and Tokyo. It will consist of "a giant wall that has Miles' artwork digitally reproduced on it. You can stand in certain spots and mix the art around to create your own piece," says Porter. "A camera takes a photo of you and puts it in the artwork, then sends it to your cellphone so you post it on social media. The opening night in each city, we would have an A-list talent perform."

There will also be a 20-episode podcast series on Miles' life via PodcastOne. Also look for a Montblanc pen with the Davis brand, and a Miles brand of watches. Porter says there will be plenty more to come during the 90th anniversary year of the musician's birth.

As for the film, Wilburn says going into it with an open mind—just like the music of the legend—is important. Parts of the conversation follow:

All About Jazz: I heard about this movie a long time ago, people trying for the rights to the story.

Vincent Wilburn: Walter Yetnikoff [former president of CBS Records International, who helped sell Columbia Records to the Sony Corp.] was involved with one with Wesley Snipes in the '80s.

AAJ: What did you feel about it in the beginning? Some of these Hollywood movies don't turn out so well.

VW: I'm the one who picked Don Cheadle. I thought it was great, because Don is a badass. It was the script that was important. That was the most important thing.

AAJ: Yeah. Cause his career and his personality had so many facets.

VW: Yeah. This was Don's directorial debut. So he wanted to take another approach to it. Keep it layered, not so much like a bio pic.

AAJ: How did he get involved?

VW: I accepted an award for my uncle, my cousins and I, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame award in 2006. Afterward, when you go backstage to talk to the press, the question came up, 'Who's going to play Miles Davis? Who would you like to play your uncle?' And I said Don Cheadle. But I had never met Don Cheadle. When we got back to L.A., he was shocked too. His agents called our lawyer and we worked out a deal, where we could work together. Once we worked out that Don wanted to do it and he was into it, it was just a matter of getting together. And which approach we wanted to take with the movie. It was Don's directorial debut. He nailed it.

AAJ: How did Cheadle win you over?

VW: Don's an intense cat and a hell of an actor. He played Sammy Davis in The Rat Pack [1998], he did Hotel Rwanda [2004], he did Petey Green in Talk to Me [2007], he was Mouse in Devil in a Blue Dress [1995]. He's an intense, beautiful actor. I thought he could bring it home. Once he signed off and he wanted to do it, that was it.

AAJ: So the estate—you and Erin and Cheryl— were involved right from the start?

VW: Any use of Miles likeness or otherwise, they have to come to the estate. So the estate was into it. It was a no-brainer, once we sat with Don. We didn't just sign the rights off and that's it. Don was very curious to get as many aspects of Miles as he could from Miles sidemen, from the family. The three of us have a different take on Miles. Cheryl is different, his daughter. Me playing in the band. Erin played percussion in the band later, but he's the youngest, so he's got another perspective on his dad.

AAJ: You were involved in the development of the script and the research?

VW: No. Don and Steven Baigelman did the script. I would take iPods over to Don's house so he could get into some of the music. He would want me to speak like Miles, just so he could vibe a little bit of it. We would get tapes of Miles speaking. Then he came up with his interpretation. I thought he nailed it.

AAJ: What's your impression of the movie?

VW: If you go and see the movie, go with an open mind. And try to get something out of it. If the music hits you. Or there was something that Miles did in the movie, and you say, 'Oh, man. Don nailed it.'

I've gotten calls from people who said, 'Miles didn't drive a certain car.' I don't want to give the movie away. But don't go to the movie with those types of thoughts. It's a movie. It's entertaining. Don kicked ass in it. Go with an open mind. Just as you would listen to some music you've never heard of by uncle Miles. His mind was open and evolving. Approach the movie like that. That's my suggestion. It's not a bio pic. It' not like Ray or Walk the Line [movies on Ray Charles and Johnny Cash, respectively]. It's different. Stories inside stories.

AAJ: But Miles on the screen, you think he nailed it.

VW: I think he did.

AAJ: Even though it's not historical, did it touch on different eras?

VW: You gotta see it. Without giving it away. You might get something that I didn't get out of it. The next person might get something that we didn't get out of it. People that saw it today in the screening room walked away and loved it. Everybody I talked to loved it. We received a very positive reaction in New York.

AAJ: Have you heard from other musicians yet?

VW: No. This is the first weekend.

AAJ: Is there music other than Miles' in it?

VW: Robert Glasper composed some music. Then Robert Glasper and Don composed some music. Then we have a track from Pharoahe Monch [a rapper from Queens]. It's hip-hop, jazz, catalog-driven of Miles' original compositions, Wayne's [Shorter] compositions. And [Glasper] did an amazing job on the soundtrack.

AAJ: When Cheadle was playing as Miles, I know he did some wood-shedding to make sure his hands and fingers looked correct. Was it Miles recorded music, or another trumpet player dubbing?

VW: Miles. And some things [Glasper] re- recorded. Don worked with a trumpeter from Los Angeles, Fernando Pullum. So Don got it down.

AAJ: Overall, you think it's going to be well received?

VW: I hope Don wins an Academy Award. He put his heart and soul into it. And financially, he put his money where his mouth is. You've got to realize this cat took it upon himself to direct and star in a movie of a man who changed the course of music six or seven times. That's hard-ass shit to do. That's not an easy task. But Don took it on like a trouper and nailed it.

AAJ: What are you up to these days, musically?

VW: I've got the Miles Electric Band. I've got to meet with an agent on Monday [October 12]. It consists of myself, Darryl Jones, cats who played with Miles.Mino Cinelu, John Beasley, Bobby Irving. There's about 11 of us. The trumpet chair floats. Wallace Roney played with us. Etienne Charles in San Francisco. And we just got back from Poland and we had Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah. The trumpet chair is killing.

AAJ: How did Miles influence you as a musician?

VW: I call it Miles Davis University. All the students came through it. Plus he was a life teacher, not just music. He taught me how to take a spoon away from the bowl when you eat soup. I never knew that shit, you know? He was that kind of person. He was knowledgeable. He told me to save money. Invest money. When you go on stage, always dress impeccably. Don't wear any damn thing. One time I had some Nike shit on. He said, 'You look like a walking billboard.' I never dressed like that again going on stage.

He was a proud black man. A proud man. I've read things where people thought he was... how do they put it... he didn't like white musicians. If a musician could play, he didn't give a shit if he was green. It was always about the advancement of music. Evolving, that's what he was about. Never stay complacent. It wasn't about money. He made great money, but it was in his heart. What he set out to do was keep it moving and keep it fresh. Never resting on your laurels. That's what he did until the day he passed away.

AAJ: I know he had am impeccable sense of rhythm. Did that influence you as a drummer?

VW: Man, he talked about rhythm from the riverboats. He would get rhythm from listening to trains run on the track. He loved rhythm. I remember he brought me James Brown The Payback album [a landmark funk album, Polydor, 1974]. He said, 'Learn it back and forth.'

He gave me the guidelines to what to listen to, how to be a better musician. Not just drums. Composition. Drums. Bass. Whatever you wanted to play, be serious about the music and don't bullshit the music. This is your life, so act like it.

AAJ: How was Uncle Miles versus, Miles, your boss on the road?

VW: He was intense. He was a teacher. He was family oriented. He didn't take any bullshit on the bandstand. It was all about the music. If you couldn't handle it, you suffered. He was caring and he loved us. He cared about me and treated me like a son.

AAJ: I know he was close with your mother [sister, Dorothy] and Vernon [brother].

VW: Oh yeah. They were close. Curse each other out and then five minutes later they'd act like nothing happened. And they wouldn't let anybody else get in the middle. [chuckles] My dad wouldn't dare get in the middle of their arguments. You couldn't mess with them. Once they got into their arguments, stay out of it. Then five minutes later [imitates Miles raspy voice]: 'Dorothy, what you cooking for dinner?' You know. It was something to behold.

AAJ: What are your thoughts on the legacy of Miles?

VW: The legacy of Miles... the music speaks for itself. What we're trying to do each day, like this last box set from Newport [Miles Davis At Newport 1955-1975: The Bootleg Series Vol. 4 box set, Legacy] is to keep it fresh. We're finding new ways of finding new audiences, like with the Robert Glasper re-mix. Our manager, Darryl Porter, is reaching out for synergies. We have a bunch of things coming out in 2016, which would have been Miles 90th birthday.

AAJ: What do you hope the film does for Miles legacy?

VW: I hope with the film... you learn a little bit about Miles, you learn a little bit about his music. You take away something positive, and it makes you feel good.

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