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Miles Davis v. Wynton Marsalis: Jack Johnson in Jazz

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Where Marsalis identifies with the audience and writes music that flatters our own sepia-toned vision of the America of a hundred years ago, Davis identified himself with Johnson, and set out to create a soundtrack that flaunts his own individual style.
A director fascinated by the outsized life of the African-American boxer Jack Johnson sets out to make a documentary to tell the man's story. Given the centrality of race to Johnson's story and Johnson's own musical interests, a jazz soundtrack seems most appropriate, so he enlists the foremost jazz trumpeter of the day to provide a score.

This certainly will sound familiar to those who've caught Ken Burns' latest PBS documentary, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, with its soundtrack by Wynton Marsalis. But lost in most of the commentary on Burns' film is that fact that the same scenario has been played out before too, back in 1970 when the jazz legend Miles Davis recorded music for the documentary Jack Johnson by filmmaker and fight promoter William Cayton (later famous for managing a young Mike Tyson).

Both films tell the story of Johnson's rise from a poor childhood in Galveston, TX to become the first black heavyweight champion in 1908; of his defense of the title against the "Great White Hope," Jim Jeffries, in 1910, and the race riots precipitated by Jeffries' loss; of Johnson's subsequent persecution and exile to Europe; of his flamboyant lifestyle, including several affairs with and marriages to white women; and of his inevitable decline and eventual death in an automobile crash in 1946. But the approaches of Marsalis and Davis to their respective scores for this tale could hardly be more different.

Marsalis draws on the ragtime and blues of Johnson's own time, including arrangements of tunes by Jelly Roll Morton, W.C. Handy, and other contemporaries of Johnson. Even when he's not explicitly appropriating early 1900s musical idioms, his music often feels of a piece with the times being depicted in the black and white photographs and grainy newsreel footage. This isn't meant as an insult: Marsalis' compositions and his band's performances are masterful, warm and engaging, crafting an elegant and pleasing musical impression of an era in American history. Especially winning is the opening theme, "What Have You Done?," built around the thick, rich acoustic bass of Reginald Veal and Douglas Wamble's twangy, bluesy guitar line.

Davis' score—released as the album A Tribute to Jack Johnson—on the other hand, disdains this historical approach entirely. The film begins with thudding electric bass, clanging guitar, and a hard backbeat in the drums, before Miles' horn comes wailing in. Most of music continues in the brash tone set by the opener, though there are tender moments too, as when Miles' solo muted horn mournfully alludes to his earlier "Concierto de Aranjuez" while Johnson retreats to Spain after finally losing the title. Relatively unnoticed when it first came out, probably due to the poor commercial showing of the film, the album has gained critical appreciation over the years, and it's easy to see why. Davis plays some intense and adventurous solos, and the rhythm section offers ferocious accompaniment, with John McLaughlin grinding out electric guitar rifts, and Herbie Hancock's organ spitting out chords like shotgun blasts.

This project continued Miles' experiments with electronic instruments that he began in the late 60's on albums like In A Silent Way and Bitches' Brew. But the Jack Johnson music, maybe more than any other Miles Davis album, comes across, in its style and attitude and rhythmic drive, like rock and roll—no doubt Miles felt that the free-spirited, rebellious image of rock would communicate Johnson's own iconoclastic personality.

So, where Marsalis identifies with the audience and writes music that flatters our own sepia-toned vision of the America of a hundred years ago, Davis identified himself with Johnson, and sets out to create a soundtrack that flaunts his own individual style, and that would sound as exotic and even as threatening to the stodgier listeners of Miles' time as the idea of a black heavyweight champion seemed in Johnson's day. Marsalis' score tries to evoke the past, Davis' tries to bring the emotions that were stirred up by Johnson into the present.

Davis' sympathy with Johnson isn't surprising—like Johnson, he was a born provocateur, and stubbornly refused to project the image that was expected from him. Both had a penchant for fast cars, snappy clothes, and general hard living. Davis, too, had his run-ins with racist law enforcement, and also went through an expatriate period in Europe, where, like Johnson, he found a much warmer reception than in his own country. And Davis was an avid amateur boxer to boot, crediting the sport with inspiring him to kick his heroin habit in the early 50's. The two men shared a certain proud, pugnacious attitude: when Davis wrote in his autobiography that he was disliked "because I'm black and I don't compromise, and white people—especially white men—don't like this in a black person, especially a black man," he could have been writing Johnson's epigraph as well.

What might seem surprising is that Marsalis, an ardent student of jazz history, avoids any nods to Davis' earlier score on the same subject. Of course, Marsalis is the leading figure in a movement among jazz musicians that has turned firmly away from just the sort of electronic and rock- or pop-inflected experiments that Davis championed in albums like Jack Johnson. And the two trumpeters have had a rather fraught relationship. In the early 80's, Wynton was a rising star in the jazz scene, and his playing was often described, depending on how well the critic liked it, either as a new development in or a knock-off of the style of acoustic jazz Miles had been playing in the early to mid 1960's. Davis, then in the twilight of his career, did have some kind words for the younger man, but they were publicly critical of each other as well. Marsalis disparaged Davis for abandoning acoustic jazz in favor of jazz-rock fusion, and Davis sniped that Marsalis was spending too much time playing classical music and not developing his own improvisational voice. In an infamous incident at the Vancouver Jazz Festival in 1986, a producer apparently tried to orchestrate a poignant intergenerational moment by having Wynton come up on stage to jam with Miles' band, but Miles would have none of it, stopping his band and crudely telling Wynton to "get the fuck off the stage."

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 black—they never let me forget it.

I'm black, allright—I'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.
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