Miles Davis: Selling the Dark Prince

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By Don Hunstein

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Say the name Miles Davis and it conjures images of the most poignant figure in jazz—ever. He changed the direction of jazz multiple times, and he was always at the precipice of the next groove of his own musical frontier. From bebop to hip-hop, from Coltrane to Prince, Davis effortlessly and seamlessly melded his distinctly delicate sound through straightahead, fusion, funk and beyond. He’s been studied and copied and debated. He’s a hero and a villain, an artist’s artist who always wanted the music to move forward.

Whether you know this about Miles Davis or just learned it, the people in charge of his legacy are working to make sure you never forget it.

“We want to raise the profile of Miles so people just don’t remember Miles when they reach into their record collection or turn on the radio,” says Darryl Porter, general manager of the Miles Davis estate. “We want it so that when people pick up a newspaper or magazine they have to see him.”

Since the beginning of the year, Davis’ estate has been managed by a new team comprised of family members and aided by business advisors who want to perpetuate his legacy. Plans are in the works for a motion-picture biography as well as recordings that remix classic Miles and pair him with soul, pop and hip-hop artists. His artwork comprising some 150 lithographs will be exhibited, and we’ll soon see Miles showing up in ad campaigns.

All of these efforts are being guided by Miles Davis Properties LLC, which includes Davis’ youngest son, Erin, his daughter, Cheryl, his nephew Vince Wilburn Jr. and his brother-in-law, Vince Wilburn Sr. The group is assisted by attorney Gerry Margolis of the Manatt, Phelps & Phillips LLP law firm in Los Angeles. Publicity is handled by Rogers and Cowan, also in Los Angeles.

The current roster of players is a departure from New York-based representation spearheaded by attorney Peter Shukat of Shukat, Arrow, Hafer and Weber, which had a long history with the estate. Now all things Miles have a West Coast focus, and in the early days of the transition, the team was in the midst of transferring properties from New York to Los Angeles and untangling deals the new group didn’t think were a good fit.

“Part of the change in direction of how Miles’ intellectual property is treated is to make re-use something more special and treated with respect,” says Margolis, who has represented the Rolling Stones for more than 30 years.

Representatives from the Shukat firm declined to talk about how Davis was marketed in the past.

Wilburn wants an aggressive marketing approach for his uncle and says, “I just felt like it wasn’t moving along the way Miles would probably want it to. There wasn’t enough going on but reissues. How many issues can you reissue? I just thought we could keep it fresh. And with Gerry and Darryl and the new team it just adds that dimension.”

On a day-to-day basis, Margolis, Rogers and Cowan, the family and Porter work in concert to guide the process. Porter and Wilburn Jr. run point on the stream of requests to use Davis’ music or to adopt his likeness.

“I don’t recall a situation when we weren’t on the same page,” Porter says. “Their agenda is all the same: to preserve Miles’ legacy and to maximize the estate and not jeopardize the legacy.”

No one in the group will say how much the estate is worth or how it has performed over the years. Margolis says the majority of revenues that flow into the estate are driven by royalties from the use of Miles’ master recordings and his copywritten material.

The principals in charge of keeping Davis in the forefront don’t talk about money in public; instead they choose to speak fervently about the aesthetics and the essence of the deals they pursue. They talk about style, class and cool, all the things connected to Miles, so any endeavor they attach his name to has to embody those qualities.

“I’m not looking to whore Miles Davis out,” says Margolis when pressed about finances. “I don’t get paid on a percentage of the money I generate. We want to make sure the legacy is marketed in the classiest way possible.”

In March, Miles Davis was swept into the public consciousness once again through his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a nod to his influence in shaping musical styles across genres.

The importance of the artist was highlighted again when Davis’ family donated artifacts from the performer’s life to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. The museum already houses some 100,000 pages of unpublished compositions of Duke Ellington and a collection of instruments chronicling the contributions of musicians from King Oliver to Louis Armstrong.

The Davis donation furthered that treasure with the sheet music he used to play Porgy and Bess’ “Summertime” and the Versace suit he donned at his landmark 1991 performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. John Edward Hasse, curator of American music at the museum, believes the Miles donation is especially significant because of his place in the culture.

“We see Miles Davis as one of the greatest American trumpeters ever. As an innovator who again and again reinvented himself and reimagined the music we call jazz,” Hasse says. “Someone who transformed the aesthetic a number of times, whose sound on his instrument became a unique aural trademark, instantly identifiable, and came to dominate jazz during the second half of the 20th century more so than anyone else. His importance goes far beyond jazz, for he was one of the great American musicians, period. And one of the great 20th-century musicians, period.”

There is probably no other move the estate could have made to ensure the proper positioning, respect and cultural prominence for Miles than giving the Smithsonian tangible pieces of the artist to share with the world.

As Hasse puts it, “Something we bring in now will be here in a thousand years, when most things in the 20th century will be forgotten. It is important that Miles Davis be in the national treasure house, for it tells the story of America.”

Hasse says he’s in talks with the family to obtain the rest of Miles’ sheet music so it can be kept safe and studied for the ages.

As a brand, Miles Davis is probably the next great untapped resource, whose potential to penetrate the market for economic gain and celebrity capital has yet to be realized. In midsummer a number of deals linking Miles to fashion, commercials, music and the use of his likeness are in play. While sifting through the flood of options that confront his estate daily, the group is guided by one principle: “Would Miles do this?” Just as the group is eager to exploit good opportunities that would be lucrative and grant easy exposure, they are just as adamant of steering clear of relationships and collaborations that would portray Miles in a bad light.

Jonathan Faber is president of CMG Worldwide. His firm specializes in handling the intellectual property of celebrities including Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday and Buddy Rich. Faber says deciding what marketing is out-of-bounds and carefully choosing which relationships are appropriate is part of the “branding process.” This is a crucial decision by estates that determines how an artist is presented and under what circumstances. “We tend to regard our clients as brands to the extent that’s appropriate for that client,” Faber says. “We work with Princess Diana, and we would never say that she is a brand because that would be offensive to the people in charge of her rights now, and that is contrary to what she stood for. But you could also say that was her brand: an anti-brand.”

A large part of branding involves the use of photographs because they provide an easy vehicle to project an artist into the public consciousness. For instance, there has been an effort on the part of Faber and CMG to market only images of Holiday at her best: youthful, beautiful, vibrant, without the signs of abuse that wore on her countenance later in life. “You can’t rewrite history and sometimes tragedy is a part of that history,” Faber says. “But we would never want to emphasize that.”

The Elvis Presley estate has made similar choices to present the public with photos of the young svelte Elvis to keep that image fresh in the public’s mind. Porter has helped manage a number of artists, which included a stint with Elvis’ wife, Priscilla Presley. While Porter thinks the Presley estate made a smart move, he feels he doesn’t have the same issues when marketing Miles.

“The music grew because of Miles, and he grew with the music,” Porter says. “I don’t think there was ever a time when you can look at Miles and say he didn’t optimize cool. We don’t have the same restrictions as other people who try to lock in on a segment of a person’s life or career.” He adds, “So we haven’t begun to think about imaging, but we have thought about branding, and the branding is all about keeping it cool.”

Control over photos goes beyond projecting a certain aesthetic to the public. It’s also important for estates to prevent images from being connected to causes or companies in conflict with the wishes of the artist or the family. Faber says Marilyn Monroe’s estate won’t license images of her with fur. CMG has also worked with Humphrey Bogart, who has a cigarette in almost all his photos. “He died of lung cancer, and the family doesn’t want to see advertising with Bogart smoking a cigarette,” Faber says. “It would be lucrative for Bogart to license tobacco companies, but they don’t want it.”

Porter says the estate is currently in talks with General Motors, BMW and several other top brands about doing commercial tie-ins using a combination of Miles’ image and music. And Wilburn is attempting to find the right label to establish a Miles Davis line of clothing. He says an agreement with Damon Dash, the former head of Roca Wear, was close, but fell through. In midsummer, the estate’s official Web site, milesdavis.com, is still under construction. By the fall Wilburn anticipates the site will feature chats with the family, music downloads and information on album releases. Eventually the site will also be used to market Miles’ artwork and other paraphernalia.

Faber says because Miles Davis, like Jimi Hendrix, oozes cool whenever he is thought of or seen, he becomes a metaphor for all things hip, and that quality will be transferred to the product lines he endorses. He believes this dynamic is at work when marketing Ellington. “If you’re an ad executive and you have a company that you want to be thought of as sophisticated and intelligent and unique, Duke Ellington is all of those things. And it becomes shorthand because the public already has all of those built-in feelings and emotional connection to him, and it gets assigned to the company whether consciously or subconsciously.”

One of the Davis estate’s top priorities is to move discussions for a motion picture of the artist’s life from the tentative stages to greenlight status. As of mid-July there was overwhelming enthusiasm but little progress on the essentials of bringing Miles to the big screen. There’s no script and no director, but a few A-listers are lobbying to give voice to Miles’ unmistakable whisper.

Wilburn, who lived with Miles and played in his band from 1984 to 1987, said a biopic on his uncle is long overdue. “People thought they knew Miles, but they probably only knew one side of Miles. We want to tell the story of his life and his craft. We want to show how he changed the course of music, how he came to that thirst and drive that kept him going until he passed away. We can’t get it all in the film, but we want to touch on the important periods in his life. And there was a dark side. You have to touch on that, too. My other uncle, Vernon, used to say, ‘Miles was no angel.’”

The estate has been in talks with director Antoine Fuqua, who guided Denzel Washington to his Oscar for Training Day. “Antoine’s excited about this project,” Wilburn says. “When you talk to him, you can feel the fire.”

Porter says the estate has also been speaking with actor Don Cheadle, who Porter says has been quoted in Ebony magazine saying his dream is to play Miles Davis. Cheadle received a best-actor nomination for his performance in Hotel Rwanda. “We’ve been having intimate conversations with both of them,” Porter says. “We are locking in on a writer, and then we’re going to a new studio to lock in the project and get it made.” He adds that since the project’s been generating buzz, Terrence Howard, who also has a best-actor nomination for Hustle & Flow, has expressed interest in playing Miles.

Both Porter and Wilburn say they want the biopic on Miles to rival the artistic and commercial success of Ray, which chronicled the life of Ray Charles and earned Jamie Foxx an Oscar for best actor.

“Hollywood is tripping all over itself to lock up story-life rights,” says CMG’s Faber. “We are constantly being solicited to give options for the right to pursue investors and get everything in place for a biopic. If the artist still maintains publishing rights, it can be very significant for the estate.”

The thinking that guides family members in charge of the estate is simple: Push the legacy forward, don’t harm the legacy and keep the branding cool. But family rivalries aired in public may blur the message. Miles’ other sons, Gregory and Miles IV, weren’t included in his will and haven’t been involved in plans to promote and continue his legacy.

This month Gregory Davis is slated to release Dark Magus: The Jekyll and Hyde Life of Miles Davis by Backbeat Books. The 224-page read, with a foreword by Clark Terry, will offer a front seat to life with Miles on the road, backstage and at home. Gregory says the book is an attempt to pull away the public façade: “They will get insight from someone who traveled with him. An inside view of this great international icon and his first son, who served as his assistant, road manager, nurse and bodyguard—whatever he needed.” He says writing the book was at times cathartic. “And painful at times, and very humorous and funny. We had some good times and some times that were very painful.”

In the documentary The Miles Davis Story, Irene Cawthon, the mother of Cheryl, Gregory and Miles IV, is shown talking about her pain after learning her sons were excluded from Miles’ will. “It didn’t matter about me,” she says. “He could forget about me, but as far as the children are concerned, with that amount of money you have enough to leave a little something, but he didn’t.”

Gregory, 60, still thinks the will doesn’t reflect Miles’ true wishes. “My father was not that angry at his sons or that mean as a person.” He says his anger over the will or tension with family members isn’t why he wrote the book. “I don’t harp on that to everybody, but it never leaves my consciousness.” He says if members of the estate were to reach out to him in good faith and compensate him for lost revenue, he would want to reconcile.

Porter says the olive branch is always extended. “We want to work as a united front. Gregory has rights to certain publishing, as does Miles IV. No one is trying to interfere with that. I don’t know what has been conveyed back to Gregory by his lawyers, but I do know that our guys have extended the branch. If Gregory is not aware of that, that’s unfortunate.”

The future of Miles is tied to the gritty beats and urban flows that define hip-hop. As the estate sees it, it’s essential to entrench Miles with the hip-hop generation and cultivate new fans that will take his music into new enclaves of social awareness. “What we hope to do is bridge the gap between young listeners,” Porter says. “And the best way to do that is create a fusion between hip-hop and jazz—and hip-hop and Miles specifically.”

The estate’s first foray into this effort is Evolution of the Groove, produced by Wilburn and scheduled for release in the first half of next year. Evolution features remixes of classic Miles tracks with hip-hop and soul artists blessing the music with their personal imprint. “We went after Nas, and he was doing his record, so we went to Dallas Austin’s studio in Atlanta and recorded Nas,” recalls Wilburn. “And his dad, Olu Dara, played some trumpet parts on it and it was killing.” He’s also interested in getting rapper Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest on the album and has been talking to vocalist Rachelle Ferrell about her participation.

What the estate is planning isn’t new. Panthalassa: The Music of Miles Davis 1969–1974, released by Columbia in 1998, featured producer Bill Laswell remixing songs from the trumpeter’s electric period. And a number of labels have allowed DJs to rummage through their vaults to sample and loop songs to provide the foundation for countless hit records, the most famous being Blue Note, which struck platinum in 1993 with US3’s Hand on the Torch featuring Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island,” which was sampled to create “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia).” Eli Wolf, vice president of A&R at Blue Note, who oversees the remix projects, said the formula for success is to find an artist who can blend a classic sound so it resonates with contemporary tastes. “You also want to pick creative remixers who have an audience in their own right.”

Porter says the estate averages about 35 requests a week to sample Miles’ music, but so far it has turned down all queries. “We’ve had people who want to take a Miles sample and build a career [by] co-branding their name with Miles and bring no talent to the table,” Porter says. “We have been very cautious not to do that because that dilutes the brand.”

There is a misogynistic and violent bent to some hip-hop, and the estate wants to stay clear of it. Porter tells of an A-list act that wanted to sample a track from Sketches in Spain, but the approach wasn’t flattering to women. “The family opted to pass on it even though it would have generated thousands of dollars for the estate,” says Porter, who won’t name the act. “We will probably go back to the group and say, ‘It didn’t work with your idea. Here’s our idea, can you do something that fits?’”

Each time Miles moved his sound a little farther from the comfort of his listeners, there was backlash and resentment. Porter says the estate isn’t worried that fans will take exception to the hip-hop-Miles link. “We don’t want to offend anybody,” Porter says. “Miles passed 15 years ago, and his legacy was locked in at that point. Anybody who wants to listen to Kind of Blue doesn’t have to worry, that will be there.” He adds, “The beauty of this is they can’t get mad at Miles for this. They can get mad at me, Vince and Erin. We don’t mind if people point the fingers at us and say, ‘These guys messed up.’”

Bassist Marcus Miller, who played with Miles and worked as a writer/producer from 1985 until his death in 1991, thinks what Wilburn’s up to is in sync with Miles’ wishes. “He was all about the next step,” says Miller. “I remember a story about someone walking up to Miles and saying, ‘Man, I could get with you back in the ’50s, but I can’t get with what you’re doing now.’ And Miles said, ‘Well, you want me to wait for you?’”

In the late ’80s Miles expanded his audience by blowing his magic into pop hits like “Time After Time” and “Human Nature.” The estate wants to replicate that success in the new era with the international release of Cool and Collected: The Best of Miles Davis on Sony. Besides the Cyndi Lauper and Michael Jackson hits, the record will feature other mellow, smoother classic tracks like “So What” and “Stella by Starlight.” “This is designed to create new Miles fans,” Porter says. “The goal is to reach a population that might not like classical jazz. We’re looking to grab an audience that may not think they like that kind of jazz and help them understand they really do.”

Miles’ renditions of “Time After Time” and “Human Nature” are still in heavy rotation on smooth jazz radio. “The reason Miles Davis gets played over and over is he put his own twist on the song,” says Lori Lewis, program director at WSMJ in Baltimore. “It’s almost like Miles owns ‘Human Nature’—and, oh, yeah, Michael Jackson sang it once.”

For those who aren’t interested in remixed music or attempts to sate pop sensibilities, classic Miles, and plenty of it, is on the way. In May, Concord released The Miles Davis Quintet: The Legendary Prestige Quintet Sessions. The four-disc set is unique because it’s the first time a painting by Miles, “New York by Night,” appears as cover art. The set includes a disc with transcriptions of his solos. Featured are “Max Is Making Wax” from a Tonight Show performance and two transcriptions of “Tune Up,” one from the studio and the other from the Blue Note in Philadelphia in 1956.

Cheryl Pawelski is senior director of catalog development for Concord Records. “I was trying to think of something unique with the first box set we are doing. With the Prestige sessions there isn’t a lot of unissued material and with the Miles stuff, there’s nothing at all. So I wanted to give it a different spin.” She says two more box sets are planned with original cover art and extras like the transcriptions. “I’m trying to do something new, not only with packaging, but I’m looking for photos that people haven’t seen before.”

And for the Miles fans who also love Prince, there are talks in the works to release recordings of Davis playing at one of the Purple One’s birthday parties. The estate says to stay tuned.

Porter, Wilburn and the estate’s other players have latched onto the business savvy that Miles displayed in life, always looking to open himself up to new modes of expression. The caretakers of his legacy are taking the genius of his life to new audiences through the Web and motion pictures, and they’re reinventing his music for the next generation of fans while maintaining his presence as a key figure in classic jazz. As Wilburn recalls, “He just wanted to reach a broader and broader audience. He wanted to reach the masses.”

Originally published in October 2006

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