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Miles Davis & Bitches Brew: Forty Years of Freedom

The legacy of Bitches Brew

Miles Davis circa 1970

At 10 a.m. on Monday, Aug. 18, 1969, Jimi Hendrix finished up the final set at the Woodstock Music & Arts Festival with “Hey Joe,” an old blues he transformed from a weary lament into a triumphant, space-age swagger of ricocheting, buzzing notes. Four tunes earlier, Hendrix had transformed “The Star-Spangled Banner” even more radically, filling the anthem with guitar sounds that mimicked the bombs and screams of a Vietnam battlefield even as it staked the African-American guitarist’s claim on his own nation. The crowd had dwindled over the long night from half a million to about 100,000, but the mud-splattered diehards were witnessing the narrowing of the gap between rock ‘n’ roll’s amplified song form and jazz’s instrumental improvisation.

Twenty-four hours later that gap narrowed even more. At 10 a.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 19, Miles Davis assembled a group of musicians in Columbia Records’ Studio B in Manhattan to record the music that would become Bitches Brew. Hendrix’s Woodstock band, Gypsy Sun & Rainbows, had included electric guitar, electric bass, drums and two percussionists. Davis’ musicians included all that plus a second drummer, two keyboardists, an acoustic bassist, trumpeter, saxophonist and bass clarinetist. Both bands were biracial and similarly attired: headbands, fringe, bellbottoms, leather vests, scarves, jeans and other trappings of 1969 bohemia. As guitarist John McLaughlin, bassist Harvey Brooks and keyboardists Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul plugged in their instruments and fiddled with their amplifier dials, it seemed that this session would not sound at all like Kind of Blue.

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