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.
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.
de Beauvoir were drinking tea in the Café Flore. The
Vian blew his pocket trumpet in the Tabou. The Chameleon
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
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.
Photo : Christian
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
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.
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.
Essential Miles Davis
Sony/Legacy (2 CDs)
Sons of Miles
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.