“At times his persona eclipsed his music.”
By Mike Shanley
Stanley Nelson became obsessed with Miles Davis while the future filmmaker was in college. He took his dad’s copy of Davis’ Kind of Blue album to school and spent many hours in his dorm listening to the rhapsodic “Flamenco Sketches” and getting lost in the sound of it.
Miles Davis has many stories attached to his legend, including a lyrical soloist, a musical visionary, sharp dresser and a person who didn’t suffer fools, to put it gently. The trumpeter furthered his legend with his 1989 autobiography, filling it with braggadocio that might not have let the truth get in the way of a good story. “At times his persona eclipsed his music,” Stanley says in his director’s statement. As a filmmaker, Stanley always dreamed of being able to tell the whole story of Davis, clearing away the mythology to reveal a deep thinker who listened to all kinds of music. His Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool was the result of that dream. It reveals someone who was constantly exploring. While his peers thought learning theory could take something away from their performance, Davis “wanted to see what was going on in all of music.”
To make the documentary, Stanley was granted full access to the Miles Davis estate, which allowed him to use footage that has never been presented to the public and studio outtakes from his recordings. He also interviewed musicians who played with him, including Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock, Lee Konitz and Wayne Shorter. Birth of the Cool, named for a seminal recording session that ushered in a more subdued brand of jazz, also includes Davis’ trademark raspy voice, offering firsthand insight into his work. While the film might further the Davis legend, it also goes a long way to show the facets of his work that earned him that distinction in the first place.