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Stanley Nelson: How Do You Make A Film Do Justice To Miles Davis And His Music?

Victor L. Schermer By

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Miles Davis is far more than a legendary jazz great. He was and is a cultural and musical icon whose life was largely compelled by five driving forces: 1) his groundbreaking innovations in cool jazz, modal music, fusion, and beyond; 2) his "cool" persona, which has influenced and inspired several generations; 3) his tempestuous love life; 4) his struggles with and opposition to racism; and 5) his drug and alcohol addiction. To make a film documentary about him which encompasses all these aspects in a coherent, meaningful way presents a great challenge to a film maker. It is a great credit to producer/director Stanley Nelson that he took up the challenge and met it straight on. The film, Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool (Eaglerock Entertainment; Firelight Pictures, 2019), relentlessly pursues his life and music from beginning to end with a narrative, film clips, recordings, photographs, archival news stories, and interviews that capture the manifold, complex sides of a man who pushed the limits of life and music to the edge.

Stanley Nelson is a seasoned documentary filmmaker whose focus is on the African American experience and its history. He is a MacArthur "Genius" Fellow and winner of three Primetime Emmy Awards. Among his notable films are Freedom Riders (2010), Wounded Knee (2009), Jonestown: The Life & Death of People's Temple (2006), Sweet Honey in the Rock: Raise Your Voice (2005), A Place of Our Own (2004), The Murder of Emmett Till (2003), and The Black Press: Soldiers without Swords (1998). With his wife Marcia Smith, he has established Firelight Media, an independent non-profit documentary production company training and supporting emerging filmmakers.

Although until now Nelson's films have not focused on musicians, music and its use in his films have been among Nelson's primary preoccupations. He has loved jazz and listened to Miles Davis' albums since childhood. Miles Davis' life and music are inextricably intertwined with the African American community and events. In Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool, Nelson builds connections between African American life, Davis' struggles with racism, his passionate and sometimes troubled life, and his lasting and far-reaching musical legacy in ways that surpass most other jazz documentaries.

All About Jazz: What made you want to do a documentary about Miles Davis?

Stanley Nelson: I'm a lover of jazz and music in general, and I've used a lot of music in my documentaries. So I thought of doing a documentary about jazz, and who better than Miles Davis? First of all, he was so important and groundbreaking to jazz and all music. And Miles was such an interesting and complicated character that I felt his life would make a great documentary film.

AAJ: Perhaps you could let us in on a few of your own favorite jazz albums and musicians.

SN: I especially love Miles, John Coltrane, and Thelonious Monk. I love that generation of musicians. There are a couple of albums by Branford Marsalis that I love. I listen to music from the time I wake up until I go to bed at night. I just explore. Spotify and similar websites allow me to just jump around and see what's there. So I'm always trying to discover something new. But I always go back to the classic jazz artists like the ones I mentioned.

AAJ: Which movie directors have inspired or influenced you the most regarding film making?

SN: I worked for the late great William Greaves who was a documentary filmmaker and a pioneer of African-American filmmaking. Greaves produced more than two hundred documentary films, and wrote and directed more than half of these. I was really inspired by him and what he had done. But also, I was encouraged by the fact that he was able to make a living for himself and his family as an independent film maker. I worked for him in the 1970s, and that had a big impact on me. And I went to the Leonard Davis Film School at the City College of New York, and there I became big fan of the Japanese film maker Kurosawa and the massive scope that his films had. And Raoul Peck's film I Am Not Your Negro, based on James Baldwin's unfinished manuscript Remember This House, had a big influence on me. Of course this is just getting started...

Making the Movie Work—Its Magic

AAJ: To get directly to your film, the story of the making of the actual record album, Birth of the Cool (Capitol, 1957; recorded 1949-50) only takes a couple of minutes, so why did you choose it for the subtitle of the whole movie?

SN: I thought that the phrase "birth of the cool" epitomized Miles. He was the essence of "cool,' so it seemed like a natural phrase to use. We kicked around the idea of calling it "Miles Davis: Sorcerer." We had to call the film something, right? So we felt that "cool" best fit Miles.

AAJ: The film shows that Miles was more than and sometimes quite different from "cool," but I agree that's the way many people think of him. So they could easily make that connection.

SN: But it also says something about Miles beyond music. He was such a fascinating character outside of his music. There was a lot of coolness in the way he dressed, the sports cars, the townhouse. Everything about him radiated cool, so that's why the subtitle.

AAJ: The African American artist Barkley Hendricks entitled his exhibition of life size portraits of contemporary African Americans "Birth of the Cool," with obvious reference to Miles. He might have had something similar in mind to your idea that Miles epitomized cool.

Audiences are tremendously moved by watching the film, so I imagine you, being right there, were strongly affected by some of what you saw and heard. What were some of the most emotional moments you experienced when making the film?

SN: It's probably not what you're thinking about, but my most emotional moment was when the film was completed, and I showed it for the first time to my wife who is also my Firelight business partner. I asked her what she thought, and she said, "You've done it!" It was the first time I realized the film could be something special to people other than us who were working on it. It was the first time I had the sense that the movie might resonate with many in the public.

AAJ: Were you especially touched by any of the interviewees, photographs, or film clips?

SN: Well, you know, I'm sitting there with Wayne Shorter, Jimmy Cobb, Herbie Hancock, Carlos Santana, Jimmy Heath, and all these people whose music I've known and loved. And to be able to be with them in their homes and talk to them was just incredible! I could go on and name everyone in the film. It was just amazing! We had a screening of the film when it opened in LA on August 30, and Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock both showed up. And they both participated in the Q&A after the movie. Afterwards, I went back to the hotel with my wife, and I said, "Hey, Wayne Shorter knows my name!" I was thrilled to meet these guys who were my heroes.

Frances Taylor Davis, Miles' first wife, was a very special person to interview. She just takes the film and runs with it. Sadly, she passed away last Thanksgiving and never got to see the film. But it was amazing for me to sit with Frances and know her for a brief time. As a kid, I used to sit and stare at my father's album cover of Some Day My Prince Will Come (Columbia, 1961) with her on the cover. She was just so beautiful.

There was so much there in the film. A lot of the footage we got from Miles' friend Corky McCoy had never been seen before: the footage of Miles boxing, driving his Ferrari, outside and on the porch in the snow. Corky literally had all that in his basement, home movies he made with Miles for himself, and we were able to use those. Corky was also an artist and did some of Miles' album covers.

AAJ: Frances Taylor Davis' scintillating personality really comes across. And she was so honest and forthright.

SN: And that's just who she was! She's beautiful and funny and insightful and spicy, all those things at once. You can see why Miles loved her. Everybody loved Frances.

AAJ: You accessed so much material. Did you leave anything out of the film that you wish you could have fit in?

SN: Sure, there was more we could have put in, but for me, I made the film I wanted to make. There's nothing I wish I could put in that I didn't. But part of that is just holding on to my sanity so I'm not thinking, God I wish I could've put that in! We had a long working schedule, and we spent a lot of time trying to get it right. There were little things I wished I could change, like keeping a particular shot running another second, or that I could cut out another shot! But there was nothing big that we left out that we wished we put in. Yeah, we could've had another hour, another five hours, on Miles, but I like the two hour length of the film. There's a tendency now to make long TV documentary series, and that's OK, but I'm happy with what we got into a two hour film.

AAJ: So you didn't feel there was a chunk of Miles that you wished you could have focused on at greater length?

SN: We might have added more things, but the fact is we knew we were aiming at a two hour film from the beginning, so we didn't regret what we had to leave out.

Miles Davis, His Music and Personality, and the African American Experience

AAJ: Miles knew the great African American writer James Baldwin, and Baldwin wrote a short story about a young jazz musician suffering from drug addiction. It's called "Sonny's Blues" and, since part of Miles' story is his addiction, I wondered if you referred to that story in framing those parts of the film?

SN: No. I'm sorry, I'm not familiar with that story.

AAJ: Just as a piece of information about music history, I've never been clear about how Miles got interested in "cool" jazz and how he made contact with Gerry Mulligan and Gil Evans, since Davis was hanging with Charlie Parker and the bebop crowd. Did you find out anything about that?

SN: I don't know the exact story, except that Miles hooked up with Gil Evans during the 52nd Street period, and they shared an interest in orchestral music. Miles was borrowing orchestral scores from Juilliard School of Music. I also think that it might have been a reaction to bebop, which was hard driving and fast paced. Miles was always looking for something different, always drawn to stuff that was new.

AAJ: Jazz is an important part of the African American experience and history, and the film shows profoundly how that is so in Miles' case. How do you as an African American identify with Miles Davis in that respect?

SN: Well, of course I love his music. On a personal level, we share some things in common. For example, my father was a dentist like his dad. So like Miles, I grew up in the upper middle class of black life. Let's be clear that in no way would I compare myself to him, but I can identify with some aspects of his life. And there are things Miles Davis experienced as a black man in our society that I think any African American can identify with. Certainly we are all familiar in one way or the other with his confrontation with the police. Miles was an icon for many African Americans in the 1950s and 60s. He was a black man who took no shit! That's what he projected. Also, Miles was very dark skinned. Someone in the film said that Miles was as dark skinned as any black person they ever saw in their life! And he was undeniably beautiful! How do you reconcile being black and beautiful? Well, "Black is Beautiful!" That's what Miles projected.

AAJ: You've made documentaries about noted African Americans who represent the striving for freedom and equality such as Emmett Till, Marcus Garvey, the Freedom Riders, the Black Panthers, Sweet Honey in the Rock, and others. How do you see Miles fitting into that legacy?

SN: I think that Miles is a genuine hero in music. I have no doubt at all that people will be listening to Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959) a hundred years from now. His music will live on through the ages like Beethoven and Bach. But I also think that what comes out in the film is that his contribution stretches beyond just music. What makes him such a fascinating character is that he becomes an icon in a very different way from other great musicians. Somebody asked me, "Who is Miles today?" And I said, "You can't even talk about that because Miles made music for forty or fifty years and started four or five different movements in music. There is no one particular Miles Davis today; his legacy keeps growing and changing all the time as it did when he was alive.

AAJ: I grew up in the 1950s and 60s and quickly latched onto jazz, so to me when I was young, Miles was figuratively speaking a part of my life. Does he have the same connection to the current younger generations?

SN: Like Jimmy Cobb said in the movie, every couple of generations keeps re-discovering Kind of Blue, giving a window into his and others' music. Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1970) is a jazz album and it's also a rock album. It's still influencing many musicians today. When my niece went away to college, I gave her a copy of Kind of Blue as if to say, OK, kid, now that you're an adult you ought to listen to some adult music! I think things like that happen over and over again. While doing this film, I was traveling around a lot, and everywhere I went, I heard Miles' music. I go in a store, and Miles is playing in the background. I go in an elevator, it's Miles! Or in a restaurant, they're playing Miles! He's everywhere! So, yeah, he's in the DNA. The film opened up in Amsterdam over the weekend, and the numbers of movie goers that came, the business we did in Amsterdam was phenomenal. It's Miles! We'll be opening in England and Germany in a couple of weeks and at some point in Japan. He has a big fan base in those countries. Miles' music is just everlasting: it just is!

AAJ: It's exciting to see how his popularity is so alive today. This is very important for the jazz community to know. There's a lot of feeling today that the younger generations aren't interested in jazz anymore because they are not familiar with the American Songbook standards from over a half century ago, and they don't like how complicated jazz can be, that it takes real listening effort to appreciate some of it. Musicians and others often lament the seeming decline of audiences for jazz. It's hard for younger musicians to get record sales going. Everyone is frustrated because they think jazz can't reach the younger generations. But here we see that Miles Davis is still going very strong and has great appeal to youth! So what's up with this?

SN: My own feeling about jazz is that it's lasting and eternal. Not just Miles, but all of the music. I think today that people come home and they get tired of listening to hip hop or rap. They then find that jazz has its place as something really special. It's one of the only art forms where people are improvising in real time. There's something amazing about that.

AAJ: I felt your film had a remarkable feeling of improvisation about it too. In my review I mentioned that Miles Davis said "There are no wrong notes. It's what you do with them." That statement captures the feeling in the film. It goes from place to place, person to person, event to event, and it all comes together like an improvised composition.

SN: Thank you. To me, that's the highest compliment I could be given. And one thing we tried to do in the film, and I think we were fairly successful with it, is to let you hear the music. When we were preparing the film we listened to so much music that we lost track of what the musicians even sounded like! So we really wanted to provide an opportunity to have time to listen to each musical excerpt. But the trick is how to do that without stopping the flow of the events and story. We wanted the music to help push the story forward. That was a real challenge, but I think we succeeded.

AAJ: I think you succeeded admirably, although there were times I wished I could hear some of the tracks all the way through, but that would have been impossible given the scope of Miles' whole life and career. But I wanted to ask you to say what you hope the film will do for the African American and the jazz communities. I'm sure you had a purpose like that in mind for it.

SN: No, I really didn't have a purpose, and I don't now. I don't do a film with a purpose in mind. I hope that there are many things you can get out of the film. If you see it and you say, let's go have a hamburger, that's fine with me. A woman came up to me after the screening in LA, and she was so moved she was sobbing. And that's good too. If someone came and said, "After seeing the film, I'm gonna go and research Miles and listen to Miles," that's great. And if you go on Spotify and listen to "similar artists" and go off on a tangent, that's great too. There are so many things you could take away from the film. Women have come up and talked about how they appreciated the way we explored the role of women in his life in all its goodness and badness. Musically speaking, there were five decades of different music going from bebop to hip hop that moviegoers might relate to. The film doesn't have a specific purpose. And each moviegoer will relate to it in his or her unique way.

AAJ: Perhaps the most gut-wrenching scene is where Miles appears bloody and bruised in the police station after the police beat him outside Birdland. You pulled together photos, narratives, and news articles from that event to create a very powerful statement about not only the horrific unjustified treatment he received by the police, but about racism itself.

SN: Yes, that's an incredible scene. And in the film Miles, Frances Davis, and Jimmy Cobb, all of whom were there, talk about it. And we found incredible photos in newspaper archives from the time. Miles was wearing a white jacket which was soaked in blood, and his head was bandaged from the beating by the policeman outside of Birdland. The photographs themselves expose the ugliness of racism.

This reminds me that we should mention that one of the things that makes the film work is that Miles is the narrator. The actor Carl Lumbly "becomes" Miles, and his narrative is taken from Miles' own words, so in a way Miles comes in and out of the film as the teller of his own story. I think that really works well.

AAJ: And a significant subtext of the film is how an African American or any of us deals with prejudice, whether racial, religious, sexual orientation, gender, and so on. Miles was profoundly affected by and conscious of prejudice throughout his life, and this is documented in the film in many ways.

SN: In that sense, the film did speak to African American life during Miles' times and in is much more than his own story.

The Director Steps Out from Behind the Camera

AAJ: I suspect our readers would like to get to know you personally a bit. So, just for a sampler, how do you spend your time when you're not working? What is your life about aside from being a film producer and director?

SN: I have a wife, Marcia Smith, who is my partner in all things. We have a company, Firelight Media, which not only makes films, but we have a project we call Documentary Lab, and a producer's lab where we work with filmmakers of color. We're working with about fifteen film makers across the country at any one time to help them get their films made and on the air. We had three or four films at Sundance this year. One of the films about lynching won a Special Jury prize at Sundance. We've won almost every award that you can name: Emmy's, Peabody's, and all those things with our films from the Lab.

I have three kids, and they all grew up and out of the house a couple of years ago. So my wife and I are able to travel the world more. And just recently, I've been running around the country like crazy with the Miles Davis film, premiering it in different cities.

I also love to go fishing, and I spend the spring and summer months and a little bit in the fall doing that.

AAJ: Do you live in the country or the city?

SN: I live in Harlem. Our film company is based in Harlem, and we live there as well.

AAJ: I wanted to ask you about all the documentation you accessed for the film. Do you have an archive? And can scholars, historians, and researchers have access to it?

SN: We don't have a formal archive at this point. I don't know what we'll do with what we've collected. Miles's family, who were incredibly supportive with all aspects of the film, controls his archives. They have an incredible storage facility in California, so hopefully they'll be able to do something with the things we've collected.

AAJ: What are you looking forward to for your next projects?

SN; We've got a bunch of things that we're doing. We're working on a four hour series documentary on the Atlantic Slave Trade in Africa, Europe, and the New World. It's quite a left turn from Miles Davis, but we're really excited about it. It's going to be a series for PBS. So we're moving forward with that project. I feel very lucky to be able to work on films of important subject matter and that mean a lot to me personally.

Doing the Miles Davis film was just an incredible honor for me. There's a line in the film where Quincy Troupe is covering Miles' first show at Newport, and Troupe says Miles got the chance, and he was going for it with a vengeance! And that's how I thought of this film from the start -I was going for it with everything I had!
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