Miles Against the Ropes

No jazz musician was ever more mythologized, sexually, than Miles Davis. By all accounts, the man hailed as the Prince of Darkness exuded a magnetic and sinister allure. New York University professor Robin D.G. Kelley once posited this mystique as “a product of a distinctive aspect of African-American culture-what we might call the pimp aesthetic.” Like the archetypal street hustler, explained Kelley in a 2001 article for the New York Times, Davis combined masculine posturing with manipulative seduction-and, in his electric period, even assumed the pimp’s peacock attire.

Pimp of Darkness? A recently issued documentary, Miles Electric: A Different Kind of Blue (Eagle), doesn’t dispel the idea. Murray Lerner’s film culminates in Davis’ full performance at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival, to a rock crowd 600,000 strong. The trumpeter stalks onstage in a red leather coat and sequined blue jeans, a gold medallion hanging pendulously from his neck. Playing four months after the release of Bitches Brew (Columbia), his band achieves elastic and bristling ferocity; at times their music resembles, as Kelley suggested, the soundtrack to a blaxploitation film. Miles’ own sound is sharp and piercingly aggressive, a far cry from the fragile lyricism of his earlier career.

Davis had moved toward a more demonstrably virile mode of trumpet playing-what film scholar Krin Gabbard has termed a “phallic” style. In a 1992 essay called “Signifyin(g) the Phallus,” Gabbard described this style, epitomized by Louis Armstrong, as an expression of coded male sexuality in a racist and repressive culture. To a generation of trumpeters emulating the less extroverted sound typified by ’50s Miles, he assigned the phrase “post-phallic.” Whatever you make of this binary-and paraphrasing doesn’t quite do it justice-there’s no question that Davis’ ’70s image embodied, as Gabbard put it, “an almost exaggerated masculine identity.” By the time of Isle of Wight, his solo style suggested the moves of a boxer: bright jabs, rhythmic feints and blistering combinations.

In fact, Davis had spent the first half of the year recording a soundtrack for Jack Johnson, William Cayton’s documentary film about the man who, in 1908, became the first black heavyweight champ. “He was a fast-living man,” the trumpeter wrote approvingly of Johnson, in a rare liner essay. “He liked women-lots of them and most of them white. He had flashy cars because that was his thing [emphasis his].” Although clearly appreciative of Johnson’s pugilistic prowess, Davis seemed even more enamored of the fighter’s outsized virility, black militancy and convention-flaunting flamboyance-in other words, his most pimplike attributes. It’s no accident that the just-reissued album A Tribute to Jack Johnson (Columbia/Legacy) eschewed period-appropriate swing for distortion-laced funk-rock-badass music, then as now. Heard in full on The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions, a box set released by Columbia/Legacy in 2003, this material alternately swaggers, surges and struts. And despite being of its time, it still sounds astonishingly contemporary. It’s because of Miles’ example that rapper Mos Def formed the band Black Jack Johnson, which he featured on his 2004 album The New Danger (Geffen).

As it happens, Johnson is now the subject of another documentary, with a soundtrack by another jazz trumpet icon. But Wynton Marsalis’ music for Ken Burns’ PBS film Unforgivable Blackness is a far cry from the slashing fusion Davis forged. This is probably for the best, as Marsalis has crafted a remarkably effective score. But from what I’ve seen of the film, it seems that Davis’ affiliation with Johnson is blotted out entirely. This should come as no surprise, given that Stanley Crouch-who once suggested that Miles “pimp[ed] himself” by going electric-is the very first commentator to appear onscreen. At a concert presentation of Unforgivable Blackness at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Hall in November, an audience member asked Marsalis whether he’d taken Miles’ music into consideration, and he answered succinctly: “No, because that was rock music. That’s not what this is about.” When brothels and prostitutes enter Johnson’s story, Marsalis turns not to Jimi Hendrix but Jelly Roll Morton, jazz’s pimp progenitor. And although Gabbard branded Marsalis a post-phallic figure a dozen years ago, the trumpeter’s playing now falls squarely in the phallic camp. On “Love & Hate,” which Burns has singled out as a soundtrack highlight, Marsalis affects a heroic pose with commanding authority and nary a trace of irony.

If Burns has unwittingly emasculated Miles, another filmmaker recently reaffirmed the trumpeter’s prepotency. Michael Mann’s 2004 thriller Collateral (DreamWorks) includes a scene in a deserted jazz club, where the band onstage is playing Davis’ “Spanish Key.” Jazz fans alone will recognize this performance as the original Bitches Brew studio recording, passing for improvisation. Daniel, the affable trumpeter-bandleader-clubowner played by Barry Shabaka Henley, rhapsodizes after the set about Davis’ onetime visit to the club; he’s an imitator still in awe, and rueful about his own noncareer. You don’t have to witness Daniel’s execution moments later to understand that the Miles in this scenario is in fact Vincent, the contract killer played by Tom Cruise who coolly and brutally exerts his dominance. The example is extreme but still instructive. Like Vincent (and for that matter, Johnson), the Pimp of Darkness is what Isaac Hayes once called “a complicated man”-not entirely a villain, but too amoral to be a hero. Taking this into account, the best recent appraisal of Davis’ dark charisma comes from an interview on the Miles Electric DVD. “It’s not a power that has to be exercised,” says bassist Dave Holland. “It’s just a power that is.”