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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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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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