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Inside Stanley Nelson, Jr.’s New Miles Davis Documentary

The director tells JazzTimes about Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool, coming to theaters this fall

Miles Davis in 1971
Miles Davis in 1971 (photo: Don Hunstein/Sony Music Archives)

How do you sum up the life and career of Miles Davis in just under two hours? That was the challenge that noted documentary filmmaker Stanley Nelson, Jr. faced with his latest project, Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool, which premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and later screened at the Maryland Film Festival in Baltimore in May. Funded by PBS’ American Masters and Eagle Rock, the meticulously researched film is the result of two years of production and includes never-seen-before footage and photos, as well as numerous interviews with musicians, scholars, family, and friends. The film is narrated by Miles himself, or at least using the words of Miles, spoken in his trademark sandpaper whisper by actor Carl Lumbly. The result is a masterful and compelling work that tells the whole unvarnished story of the mercurial Miles as a musician and a man.

It helps that Nelson is no ordinary filmmaker. Widely known, right alongside Henry Louis Gates, as one of the pre-eminent chroniclers of African-American history and culture, he’s made more than 20 films, including Freedom Riders, The Black Panthers, Freedom Summer, and The Murder of Emmett Till. He also received the prestigious MacArthur “genius” grant back in 2002. Perhaps there was no one better suited to tell Miles’ life story as an African-American artist achieving success in a white society.

Nelson also knew to work with the Miles Davis estate, which is overseen by his nephew Vince Wilburn and son Erin Davis. Wilburn said that he’s seen the film eight times to date and loves it. That’s not always been the case with projects involving his uncle’s legacy. “Stanley captured the nuances and complexities that made Miles,” Wilburn says. “Bravo to Stanley.”

The film will go into theatrical release in September, with PBS airing the film as part of its American Masters series sometime in early 2020. Nelson spoke with JazzTimes about the process of definitively documenting an icon in American culture.

Stanley Nelson, Jr.
Stanley Nelson, Jr.


JazzTimes: How long did it take to make the film?

Stanley Nelson: It was actually a long process. It started about 15 years ago with American Masters on PBS. We wrote a script treatment for the film. We went out and met his family and got their permission. But for some reason at American Masters, the project got shelved. I’m not sure why. Then about two years ago I called up American Masters, which had a new head, and said, “What about Miles?” They had just talked with Eagle Rock Entertainment out of London and they said, “Let’s go.” So we started up again and made the film.

How did you come to choose Miles as a subject?

I’m a real music lover and a real jazz lover. I always wanted to make a pure jazz film. This was my chance to do that. Who better than Miles Davis? He’s such an interesting character. There’s so much more to Miles than just the music, which is more than enough. Miles is very different from any other jazz artist because he becomes this iconic figure. He transcends jazz in a way that very few jazz musicians have been able to.

You used a voice actor to speak the words of Miles in that famous gravelly voice, and made that the only narration throughout the film. Were all those words from the autobiography that he wrote with Quincy Troupe?

Much of it was taken from the autobiography, but also from some of the interviews that Miles did later in life. We felt from the beginning that it was important to have Miles narrate his own story rather than use a voice-of-God narration. We worked hard to make it work. Miles’ family felt good about Carl Lumbly’s voicing. That made me think that we got it as right as we could get it. Actually, someone in the family asked, “How did you get Miles’ voice throughout the film?”

Of course, almost every musician who knew him does a Miles impersonation.

When we did the interviews, we realized that when people told Miles’ stories, they would naturally go into Miles’ voice. We came to ask people to do that. If you were going to tell something that Miles said to you, then go ahead and use your impression of Miles’ voice. It was fun.

Maybe it could be bonus material for the DVD—the many voices of Miles.

We’re working on a soundtrack with Sony and we’re going to have little bits of what people say in the film to introduce songs. Like Herbie Hancock saying that Miles’ solo was like a stone skipping on the water. And that would lead into “It Never Entered My Mind.”

What did you learn about Miles from making the film?

One of the things that ran through the film is what a difficult person Miles was, particularly with the people he loved. But the musicians he played with loved him. He was hard on the women he was with, but by and large the musicians had a different experience. As Gary Bartz said, “Once you were in with Miles, you were in the family and you could do no wrong.” That was important to understand about Miles.

The issue of race looms large throughout the story, and not just the famous incident of Miles being beaten by a policeman outside the New York City club where he was headlining.

That was one of the things we were able to do naturally as part of the film. It’s not contrived with Miles. Race really affected him. A lot of people don’t know that Miles grew up in a wealthy situation in East St. Louis, but he was a black boy born in 1926 into a racist society. As someone says in the film, his wealth couldn’t protect him from race in this country. The Miles that we have all come to know relates to how Miles reacted to race.

There’s a great deal of footage that I’ve never seen before, like the clips of Miles boxing in a gym. Was it difficult to find that material?

Luckily, Miles was really covered, especially once he signed with Columbia. They were at the recording sessions. We were able to get footage from Corky McCoy, Miles’ friend. Miles actually encouraged Corky to get a still camera and take some photographs of their time together. Then Corky bought a 16mm film camera and took a class in filmmaking. He shot all the boxing scenes. Corky had these 16mm prints of the film he shot of Miles that he never showed to anybody except his family. We were able to arrange with Corky to use that footage. We knew that was essential for us. We wanted to give a sense of the whole. We didn’t want as we get into the ’80s [to] suddenly [have] a lot of footage and nothing [from] earlier on.

It seems that Miles’ estate was all in on this project. Was that an issue, to get the family’s permission and blessing?

They had been all in beginning 15 years ago when we first started. We kept in contact over the years. They’ve been incredibly supportive. They gave me the best compliment—that Miles would have loved this film. I don’t know about that, but it was good to hear. [Laughs]

The sheer number of photos in the film is astounding.

We had thousands of pictures, and we tried to use as many as we could. We struck a deal with Sony for the use of the pictures that they took in the recording sessions, like the sessions with Gil Evans. But a lot of the images they had but didn’t own, so we had to track down the photographers and arrange a deal with them. We were able to find a lot of great photographs. It’s Miles Davis, and we’re trying to tell the story as best we can.

Todd Barkan told me that you have a rigorous process for dealing with photos in a film.

We print out all the photos and put them in a notebook and I go through them. As we’re finalizing the film, I try to go over them again because pictures that you reject at the beginning now have different meaning. We go through a lot of toner! I prefer that to looking at stills on a computer, because on a computer you can hit the wrong button and you might skip 10 photos, which is hard to do when you’re flipping through a book.

We also spend a lot of time with the photos to make sure that they’re not moiréd, and to clean up dirt spots as much as we possibly can. There are a couple spots where we like those dirt spots. The contrast is important too, because when you have photos back to back you have to figure out how to get them to match more. We work on all that diligently as the final process of the film. I wonder if anyone notices, but we do.

You’ve had an incredible career as a documentary filmmaker. How did you get into filmmaking?

I was bumming around at college at CCNY in the early ’70s and I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I did know that I needed to stay in college so I didn’t go to Vietnam. I ended up taking a film class. I thought, “I like this—all I have to do is watch movies all day and go out with my friends and make some movies and write some papers? I could do that.” I switched my major to filmmaking and have been very lucky to stick with it. 

In many ways, it’s a renaissance period for documentary filmmaking, but with DVD sales dropping, streaming becoming the norm, and the opportunities for theatrical releases being so limited by blockbusters and multiplex theaters, it seems like the economic model must be an incredible challenge.

Actually, this film will go into theaters in September. The model for filmmaking is to pay yourself while making the film. This film was sponsored by American Masters and Eagle Rock Entertainment, which is part of Universal. They put up the money and I’m on salary as long as we’re in production and we stay on budget and on time. I get a tiny percentage if the film makes money. For documentaries, there are outliers like American Factory that got sold to Netflix after showing at Sundance, but those are very rare. Our model at [Nelson’s production company] Firelight [Media] is to always be in production. While we’re working on one production, we’re trying to raise money for the next one.

Do you have a favorite Miles period or band?

I grew up with my father listening to Kind of Blue so I’m a lover, like most people, of that period. One of the things that happened is that I had to listen to all of Miles [while researching the documentary], and I really fell in love with the second quintet with Wayne and Herbie. People would describe that as the greatest small jazz band ever, and so I started listening really hard. How could this quintet possibly be better than the quartet with Coltrane? I started listening and I think it’s equal to that. We tried to give that electric Miles its due. We listened to a lot of that electric stuff.

Miles Davis (c/o Firelight Media)
Miles Davis (c/o Firelight Media)

You did do that period and those bands justice. In the film Stanley Crouch stuck to his guns on the ’70s electric period, saying that the band just didn’t sound good.

It was great to have Stanley say that about that period, because a lot of people feel that way. As a filmmaker, it’s important for me to acknowledge that. That music is really challenging. I know people who go home after work and put on Bitches Brew, but I’d rather go home and put on Someday My Prince Will Come and relax. Still, it [the electric period] is incredible music and it changed the way music sounds. It’s very influential.

I’ve never agreed with the logic that some people applied to Miles going electric, that he was thereby selling out. I don’t think that playing dense, dissonant 37-minute jams  could be called selling out. You can see the audience’s reaction in real time in the 1970 footage from the Isle of Wight. They look dumbfounded.

If he wanted to sell out, he could have played Kind of Blue every night. Everybody would have paid to hear that. He didn’t do that. If you’re going to sell out, you don’t put out Bitches Brew.

One of the real treats in the film is the testimony of Frances Taylor, Miles’ first wife, who was a professional dancer and was featured on some of his album covers.

She passed away around Thanksgiving [2018]. Frances was a trip. That’s all you can say about her. When you look at the cover of Someday My Prince Will Come, you can see how special she was. She was one of the most beautiful women I ever saw. She was such a breath of fresh air in the film. She helped us talk about Miles’ abuse because she’s so resilient. He tried to beat her down but she rose above it.

Was there anything you feel you missed or that you were unable to cover in the film?

No, but that might be a blind spot. I was fortunate enough to have the time and resources to make the film I wanted to make, so I don’t sit there thinking I wish I could have done this or that. That way leads to madness, because if every time I screen the film and I think that way, then I’d go crazy. I’m very proud of the film. Now, if some footage shows up from Miles in 1955, then I’ll go crazy. But until then, I’m fine.