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Miles Davis And The Golden Age of Parisian Jazz

By Mike Zwerin

PARIS, 22 June 2001 - In Paris in 1957, Miles Davis, who would have been 75 on 26 May, pulled off one of those Ellingtonian casting miracles he had become famous for: like putting Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones in the same rhythm section, which he could not afford to bring to Paris with him.

And so just passing through, as it were, when making do with a pick-up band would have sufficed, he took these inexperienced, inexpensive young French replacements, of which not much was known or expected at the time, and helped them become a band that deserves its own place in history.

Speaking of history. Sony Music is celebrating Davis's 75th birthday by releasing a two-CD collection entitled "The Essential Miles Davis," going from "Now's the Time" in 1945 through "Portia" from "Tutu" in 1986. In addition, a flood of 24-bit digitally remastered CD re-issues ("'Round About Midnight," "Milestones") with bonus tracks, new liner notes and photos, further marks the date. The 10th anniversary of his death will be commemorated in September.

Commemorations appear to have gotten out of hand. Who was it who said that soon we'd be nostalgic for breakfast? From 29 May through 2 June, the first Saint-Germain-des-Pres Jazz Festival commemorated what they call the golden age of Parisian jazz." There were concerts at, among other venues, the Café Deux Magots, Chez Papa, Le Bilboquet and l'Eglise de Saint-Germain-des-Pres in homage to a special place and time where Existentialists, Beats and beboppers once mingled. Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were drinking tea in the Café Flore. The writer Boris Vian blew his pocket trumpet in the Tabou. The Chameleon presented Allen Eager. Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and William Burroughs were guests in the so-called "Beat Hotel."

Effortlessly comfortable in the eye of all that, Davis was the star of a star-filled neighborhood during the winter of 1957. He was photographed with Jeanne Moreau and Juliette Greco, and seen around the Latin Quarter with each of them, fueling rumors of affairs. His French pick-up band worked for several weeks in the jam-packed Club Saint-Germain on Rue Saint Benoit across the street from the Crystal Hotel, where Stephane Grappelli could sometimes be heard practicing Bach chaconnes. On the same trip with the same sidemen, Davis recorded one of the most hair-raising movie sound tracks of all time for Louis Malle's, Elevator to the Gallows, starring Moreau.

Miles Davis
Miles Davis
Photo : Christian Rose

In addition to the veteran master drummer (and honorary Parisian) Kenny Clarke, the quintet consisted of Barney Wilen, tenor saxophone; Rene Urtreger, piano, and Pierre Michelot, bass. All three were white Europeans in their early twenties (Wilen was half American). Wilen, then 20, had a gift comparable to Stan Getz's - it was all so easy for him. Urtreger and Michelot, both of whom will play at the Saint-Germain-des-Pres Festival, were hugely talented and it all meshed.

Why take the trouble to organize a special sound when it was only going to last a number of weeks? They were just temps, after all. Still, the Parisians felt that if Miles had chosen them, they must be better than they'd thought. Which turned out to be true. To say they have been overlooked since is an understatement.

Urtreger remembers the first meeting: "I was shy, like a little boy. I had a big poster of Miles on the wall of my bedroom. So you see, I was playing with my god. Boy, was I nervous. The first time we met we had set the rhythm section up in a basement somewhere in Montparnasse. It was freezing down there and there was hardly any light. Miles came in from New York straight from the airport. It was so cold he left his coat on. It was kind of spooky, he stayed in the shadows. He took out his horn and - boom, just like that, no count-off, no key - he just started to play. I prayed for it to be something I knew. It was 'Tune-Up' and I guess we did O.K. Miles packed up and said 'All right' and walked out to get some sleep. We hardly even got a look at him."

Davis was famous for his evil side - as when he'd tell Wilen to "stop playing those awful notes." Fortunately, insecurity was not one of Wilen's problems. He'd go back up and try harder. He knew that Miles enjoyed playing the devil. He also knew his own worth and he knew that Miles knew it and besides, as everybody knows, gurus have strange ways.

Miles had been even younger (18) than Wilen when he joined Charlie Parker in 1945. His thin and shaky tone sounded like he looked - in need of a bowl of soup and a hug. The question was why Bird had chosen him in the first place. He was just plain inadequate. He cracked notes, had trouble reaching above the staff, scuffled with the lines. But the nature of the chooser allowed the choice to receive the benefit of the doubt. Eventually he expanded his sensibility and musicality to a point where it was said that he was making the sound track for the movie of our lives. (He expresses the sound of the Paris night behind Moreau in the Malle film.) He's still making it. Ten years after his death, it remains impossible to avoid him.

At first, people missed those macho trumpets of yore - Louis Armstrong, Roy Eldridge ("Blow, Roy, blow," sang Anita O'Day), Dizzy Gillespie and a long line of screeching Cubans. The trumpet was a he-man's horn, not for sissies. No man wanted to be accused of playing trumpet like a girl. Davis's much admired female side gradually matured and then it was called a "sensitive" side. Audiences were known to applaud his silences, he'd taught them the importance of what was left out. He wasn't called "The Prince of Silence" for nothing. He was also known as the "Prince of Darkness." He turned his back on audiences. He liked to slink into cool slouches in dark corners. He wore shades at night; no eyes to be seen.

The Essential Miles Davis

The Essential Miles Davis
Sony/Legacy (2 CDs)

Related: Sons of Miles

Mike Zwerin has been jazz and rock critic for the International Herald Tribune for the last twenty years. He was also the European correspondent for The Village Voice. Mike Zwerin is the author of several books on jazz and the jazz editor of Culturekiosque.com.

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