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Miles Davis and the Making of Bitches Brew: Sorcerer’s Brew

The story behind the seminal jazz-rock album Bitches Brew

Miles Davis and the story behind the seminal jazz-rock album Bitches Brew
Miles Davis
Miles Davis
Miles Davis
Miles Davis

The Impact of the Shooting Incident

The question arises why these two sessions were such failures. One explanation may be the shooting incident that occurred in October of 1969. The Birdland affair in August of 1959, when Miles had been beaten and arrested by two New York police officers, had shown how devastating the impact of extramusical dramas on Miles’ musical progress could be. It abruptly cut short the rising creative curve that culminated in Kind of Blue and marked the beginnings of a three-and-a-half-year creative wasteland. Although less directly related to racial issues, and therefore emotionally less close to the bone, the episode in October of 1969 was shocking enough, and it would not be surprising if it caused a creative dip in the months following.

In Miles’ memory, he and Marguerite Eskridge were unexpectedly shot at when they were talking and kissing in front of her apartment. [30] Eskridge remembered the incident differently. “Miles was playing at the Blue Coronet Club in Brooklyn,” she recounted. “He had supposedly been getting calls that he should not be playing there unless he booked through a particular agency. I had a premonition that night at the club that something was going to happen. At one stage I literally felt blood trickling down the side of my face, even though I was never shot. After the gig Miles drove me home in his Ferrari, and he kept looking in the rearview mirror. At one point he said, ‘There’s a gypsy cab following us.’ He tried to lose it a few times, and then we pulled in next to the building where I lived in Brooklyn. A few moments later he saw the car coming in from the rear, and said, ‘Duck down.’ We both ducked. At that point a lot of shots were fired from the car, and then it drove away. We were still sitting in the car because I had been taking my time pulling out my keys and everything. If I had gotten right out and gotten up to the outside door I would have been standing unprotected, and I would clearly have been shot. Miles had been grazed slightly at his side, a bullet had gone through his leather jacket. The car had trapped a lot of the bullets. We went to the hospital and at about 5 a.m. the police came out and read me my rights! I mean, we were the victims! They wouldn’t say what we were being charged for, but they took us to the police station, and then finally I found out that they believed that there was marijuana in the car. Later on, all charges were dropped because they found that it was nothing but herbal teas.”

Miles said that he had been shot at because some black promoters were angry with him for using white promoters to do his bookings, but saxophonist Dave Liebman claimed it was the result of a drug deal gone wrong. “He was definitely involved in something, you know—questionable characters, that’s for sure.” [31] The unfounded suspicions of the police also give this story a race-related slant, and may well have heightened the impact the incident had on Miles. Whatever its background, in the end the link between the shooting and the failure of the November sessions is speculative. If we are to look for musical reasons, a possible explanation is that the many new, young musicians felt inhibited by Miles’ presence, and disoriented by his unorthodox working methods.

The Magical Miles Presence

“When [the musicians] are in that studio it’s like God coming—oh, oh, here he comes,” Macero recalled. “They stop talking, they don’t fool around, they tend to business and they listen, and when he stops, they stop. He is the teacher, he is the one who’s sort of pulling the strings. He’s the professor. He’s the God that they look up to and they never disagreed, to my knowledge, in the studio. If they did, they got a goddamn drumstick over their head, and I’ve seen that happen, too.” [32]

“As far as I was concerned, all the people around me were light years ahead of what I was capable of doing,” Cobham explained. “So all I could do was shut up and absorb and hope that something would stick. For me it was like school time, ten times graduate school. Far beyond any institution. Everything was experimentation. There was not one moment when whatever was on a piece of paper was not changed. That’s why there were no stems on the notes. Nothing was tied. There might be three notes and then a space and then four tones, and then a space, and then two notes. You’d have to generally know how it was phrased, but it didn’t necessarily mean that it was going to stay like that. His instructions were very minimal, almost Zen. He would give me very little to work with. The very rare times he talked to me, it was something like: ‘I need something from you. Give me something between the Latin and the jazz vein.’ I was blown away by the fact that he even acknowledged that he liked what I did. I was just like, eyes open, ears open, absorbing as much as I could.”

Cobham clearly was in awe, and this feeling was shared by several of the other new musicians, possibly causing them to play inhibited. Miles’ darker side was surely a contributing factor. According to many eyewitnesses he could be ruthless in the way he handled people, taking advantage of them if they allowed it, testing them to see how far he could go. He respected those who stood up to him, but musicians who couldn’t, didn’t last long. For this reason some musicians were not only in awe, but actively scared of him.

“His perceptions of people were so intuitive,” explained Lydia DeJohnette. “In one second he would know who you were and what you wanted. And if he felt where you were coming from wasn’t centered, if you couldn’t look him in the eye, if he didn’t think he could treat you as an equal, he would just put you away. He could destroy people emotionally.”

“There was always a lot of magic in working with him,” Jack DeJohnette added. “Always a lot of challenges. You always had to be prepared for the unexpected. You had to be on your toes and alert. He kept you thinking all the time, and that was fun. You never knew what was going to happen, and that made it exciting, but also very challenging. Personally I was never afraid of Miles, but I’ve seen people who were. He had a bitter side and a very loving side. He was a visionary and very intuitive, and he could read people like he could read music. He immediately knew your vulnerabilities and could press your buttons.”

Steve Grossman elaborated on the same theme when he remarked that, even though it was an incredible break for him to be playing with Miles at such a young age, it was also nerve-racking. “Miles was just such a great person and very encouraging. He really tried to make me feel at ease. But he was one of my favorite musicians since I was eight years old, so it was difficult. Also, I was used to playing straight-ahead jazz and to suddenly go into this environment where everyone had a lot more experience, I would say I was inhibited.”

“I was terrified for the first month,” Airto Moreira recalled. [33] The air of danger and the unexpected that always hung around Miles was one way in which he kept his musicians on their toes, fully alive to the present moment and to music. But it could be counterproductive. Perhaps this was the case in November of 1969, when several of the new musicians played “inhibited,” and/or “scared of Miles.” A pointer in this direction is the fact that the following sessions, on January 27 and 28 and February 6, were far superior. The new musicians may well have become accustomed to Miles’ presence, gaining in confidence, and daring to open up more. In addition, Miles seemed to have come to the conclusion that the experiments with a large group of musicians had run their course, because his studio ensembles were getting smaller, and the music better.

Back to the Studio

On January 27, 1970, Grossman was absent and Shorter returned on soprano sax, Zawinul replaced Hancock and Young, and McLaughlin, Brooks and Sharma were dropped. This reduced the ensemble from 14 to 10 players. “Lonely Fire,” first released on Big Fun, starts in a similar ambient mood as “Orange Lady.” Zawinul’s theme sets up a powerful atmosphere, and is repeated over and over again with the rhythm section playing variations underneath, as in “Nefertiti” and “Great Expectations.” “Lonely Fire” threatens to meander too long for its own good as a tone poem, but entices again when Holland embarks on a driving rhythm around the 11-minute mark, with Chick Corea throwing in Eastern-sounding scales. It works, but it’s not a great track, and overly long at more than 21 minutes.

“Guinnevere” was first released in 1979 as part of the Circle in the Round set. A composition by David Crosby of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, it is another showcase for Miles’ interest in American folk music. Little happens in the 21-minute-long track, and for much of the time the melody is played over a very slow four-note bass line. But the atmosphere is nevertheless gripping, probably due to the focus and simplicity of the playing. Contrary to the music on the two sessions in November, the musicians sound as if they’re playing with a unified purpose. It may be a “period piece,” [34] but its pastoral atmosphere still carries some power decades later.

The session of January 28, with the same group as the day before, but with McLaughlin instead of Balakrishna, was another improvement. Perhaps Miles also felt that his compositional ideas had not been giving him the results he wanted, because for this session and the session of February 6, he did not use his own material, but tried his hand at one composition by Shorter, and four by Zawinul.

Shorter’s “Feio” is performed in a similar way as “Guinnevere,” with Holland playing a slow, three-note bass line, the horns somberly blowing the top line, and the spaces being filled up by drums, Moreira’s percussion, and some screaming electric guitar splashes by McLaughlin. It works still better than “Guinnevere,” perhaps because the track is only half as long, and McLaughlin, Moreira, and DeJohnette create considerable interest as well as a potent atmosphere. Zawinul’s “Double Image” completed the day’s work in a version that’s more straightforward and less raw than the one recorded on February 6 and released in 1971 on Live-Evil.

On February 6 Bennie Maupin was replaced by a sitar player, not credited on The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions, but named as Balakrishna on the liner notes for Live-Evil. Suddenly and inexplicably everything fell into place. The track “Recollections,” based on a Zawinul folk composition not dissimilar to “In a Silent Way,” is simply gorgeous. It is beautifully executed, with a similarly compelling, frozen-in-time atmosphere as Miles’ version of said song, all the musicians perfectly aligned with each other, and McLaughlin plays some graceful and elegant folk-influenced fills that are very different from the stabbing staccato riffs that sharpened “In a Silent Way.” “Recollections” is among the most pastoral pieces Miles ever recorded and entirely successful as an ambient piece of music. The same applies to the short “Take It or Leave It,” actually the middle section of Zawinul’s “In a Silent Way.”

Finally, the version of “Double Image” recorded on this day is a triumph. The rhythm is opened up from the fairly standard way it had been played when the same track was recorded a week earlier and transformed into a funky stop-start affair, with a screaming electric guitar filling the gaps. It’s a format that Miles would explore several times during the early ’70s. Although there is still a lot of improvisation going on, the role of the rhythm section is tightly circumscribed. The track is more firmly in rock territory than anything Miles had done up to this point, echoing rock avant-garde rather than free jazz. This is the first sign of Miles formulating a new, rockier, guitar-centered studio direction, which he would bring to fruition in the months following on A Tribute to Jack Johnson.

Read 10 modern jazz musicians discussing the 50th anniversary of Bitches Brew.

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Read Ashley Kahn’s piece on Miles Davis and Bill Evans.

Read Paul Tingen’s article on the making of Miles Davis’ Tutu.

Footnotes

1. Carlos Santana, “Remembering Miles and Bitches Brew,” in The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions (Columbia/Legacy, 1998): 7-8.

2. Tomlinson, “Musical Dialogician,” in Kirchner, Miles Davis Reader, 247.

3. Greg Hall. “Teo: The Man Behind the Scene,” Down Beat, (July 1974): 14.

4. Quincy Troupe, “Overview Essay—Bitches Brew,” in The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions, 92.

5. Hall, “Man Behind the Scene,” 14.

6. Davis and Troupe, Miles, 302.

7. Ibid., 289.

8. Ouellette, “Bitches Brew,” 34. Miles also claimed in his autobiography to have met and been influenced by Paul Buckmaster, an English composer and cellist with a classical music background who was exploring jazz and rock at the time. However, Buckmaster does not remember meeting Miles until November 1, 1969, after the trumpeter’s concert at Hammersmith Odeon in London. Given that the Bitches Brew sessions happened two-and-a-half months earlier, it is difficult to see how the then little-known Buckmaster could have influenced Miles. Miles must have misconstrued the sequence of events in his memory. These inconsistencies demonstrate that not everything the book contains can unquestionably be accepted as the definitive truth.

9. Davis and Troupe, Miles, 289-290.

10. Lenny White claimed that he played on this new version, but only Jack DeJohnette is credited, and the aural evidence only reveals one drummer.

11. Bob Belden, “Session-by-Session Analysis,” The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions (Columbia/Legacy, 1998): 125.

12. Strangely, Bob Belden’s annotations in The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions make mention of 19 edits, but only list 16 in the detailed editing chart (see page 129). Enrico Merlin distinguishes 17 edits in his sessionography, page 335. Incidentally, all track timings in this chapter refer to The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions.

13. Joel Lewis, “Running the Voodoo Down,” The Wire (December 1994): 24.

14. Hall, “Man Behind the Scene,” 14-15.

15. This may be the reason Teo Macero displayed a certain bitterness upon reaching old age—he “knows how to hold a grudge,” noted Eric Olsen et al. in The Encyclopedia of Record Producers (see page 485)—and why he refused to be interviewed unless paid substantial sums of money. Although he graciously took this writer out for lunch and answered some brief questions over the phone, since no funds were available, many valuable observations and anecdotes sadly remained off the record.

16. Hall, “Miles: Today’s Most Influential Contemporary Musician,” Down Beat (July 1974): 14.

17. Lewis, “Voodoo Down,” 24.

18. Eric Olsen et al., Encyclopedia of Record Producers, 486.

19. Davis and Troupe, Miles, 290.

20. Davis, “Good Rhythm Section,” in Carner, Miles Davis Companion, 155.

21. Olsen et al, Encyclopedia of Record Producers, 487.

22. Hall, “Man Behind the Scene,” 13.

23. There has been some controversy around Billy Cobham’s claims that he played on the original Bitches Brew sessions, something that was hotly denied by Lenny White. When asked about this, Cobham answered that he felt that the whole issue was blown out of all proportion, because he’s not sure what sessions he played on at all. Apparently Miles gave him a copy of Bitches Brew with his compliments. Since the album came out several months after the November 1969 and January and February 1970 sessions, of which Cobham had been a part, and the music was radically altered through editing, the drummer genuinely believed for a long time that he had played on the original album. Mindful of how Joe Zawinul did not recognize Bitches Brew when it was played to him, such confusions are understandable. Many musicians had no idea on which sessions they had actually played, and when and whether and how the material was released. Cobham also doesn’t remember playing triangle, although he is credited as having played the instrument on the session of February 6, 1970. As so often, the mists of time appear to have covered a lot of historical detail.

24. Merlin elaborated on his concept of “coded phrases” in a lecture called “Code MD: Coded Phrases in the First ‘Electric Period,'” which was given during a conference called Miles Davis and American Culture II, at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, on May 10 and 11, 1996. A transcript, including musical examples and a details analysis of “Spanish Key,” is available on Pete Losin’s Miles Ahead site, at www.wam.umd.edu/

~losinp/music/code_md.html

25. Ouellette, “Bitches Brew,” 37.

26. Ralph J. Gleason, “Original LP Liner Notes to Bitches Brew,” in The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions, (Columbia/Legacy, 1998): 35.

27. Davis and Troupe, Miles, 301.

28. Belden, “Session-by-Session Analysis,” 135.

29. Ibid., 135.

30. Davis and Troupe, Miles, 296-297.

31. Fisher, Davis and Liebman, 78.

32. Hall, “Man Behind the Scene,” 15.

33. Lee Underwood, “Airto and his Incredible Gong Show,” DownBeat (April 1978): 16; quoted by Chambers, Milestones, 192.

34. James Isaacs, liner notes for CD re-issue of Circle in the Round (Columbia, 1979): 9.

[This article was originally published in the May 2001 issue of JazzTimes.] Originally Published