This summer, those two big musical festivals in Rhode Island are celebrating some important anniversaries. The Newport Folk Festival recently commemorated 50 years since the epochal moment Bob Dylan “went electric.” And the Newport Jazz Festival is celebrating 60 years since trumpeter and festival favorite Miles Davis first took the stage.
At that time, Davis’s career was faltering. But his 1955 appearance with an ad hoc super group greatly resuscitated it. It also led directly to his signing with Columbia Records, for whom he would record such legendary albums as Birth of the Cool, Kind of Blue (still the best-selling jazz record of all time), Sketches of Spain, Bitches Brew and Jack Johnson.
Davis would return to Newport and its various offshoot shows over the next 20 years, each time confounding any expectations with different players and different sounds. The best of these live moments have been collected in the new box set for the fourth volume of the ongoing (and official) “Bootleg Series,” Miles Davis at Newport 1955-1975 (Columbia/Legacy).
“They wanted to showcase the relationship between Miles and [now 89-year-old festival founder] George Wein. George and Uncle Miles had a strong friendship until Miles passed in 1991,” says Erin Davis, Miles’s son. He — along with his sister Cheryl and cousin Vince Wilburn Jr. — oversees and directs the Miles Davis estate.
“So many great recordings came out of that festival. We wanted to bring people music they hadn’t heard before,” Davis continues. “Some of it is on other records. But a lot [nearly four hours] has never been released. “
Wilburn adds that the friendship between the men was close and genuine. He recalls that during the 1970s when Davis was not performing much and was battling personal demons, Wein handed a check for $75,000 to the trumpet player for “when he was ready” to play the festival again.
“And Uncle Miles said ‘I’m ready!’” Wilburn laughs. “They had such respect for each other.”
The box set includes performances by Davis and his various groups at Newport or one of the Newport-branded touring shows in the United States and Europe in 1955, 1958, 1966, 1969, 1971, 1973 and 1975.
Among his band members over the years heard here who would go on to their own major careers are John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Cannonball Adderly, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Tony Williams, Keith Jarrett and Michael Henderson.
But nowhere is the shift in Davis’s sound more jarring than beginning with the 1969 show, where he radically included many more cacophonic rock instruments, sounds and players — helping to create what was later known as jazz fusion.
Those who might have come to hear Davis’s more gentle standards like “Bye Bye Blackbird,” “Stella by Starlight “ and “’Round Midnight” were in for a rude shock.
“A lot of people didn’t understand his new direction. They wanted him to play Kind of Blue forever,” Erin Davis says.
“But he was playing the music that was in his head. And you can’t keep that down. Years later, it was called groundbreaking and evolutionary. But at the time, some people just didn’t get it. I love it when artists change and evolve. I don’t want to hear the same thing over and over again.”
Davis and Wilburn say that there will be future reissues in The Bootleg Series, though both men are also pretty busy with their own music careers as players, writers and producers.
Davis also has a musical footnote as a member of the short-lived mid-1990s blues rock group Bloodline. The band — which released one record — also included the sons of Doors’ guitarist Robbie Krieger and Allman Brothers Band bassist Berry Oakley. It was also the first band for a young blues player who would go on to do pretty well for himself, who was then known as “Smokin’” Joe Bonamassa.
Both men are also preparing for the release of the feature film Miles Ahead. Don Cheadle directs and stars as Davis in the biopic set during the late 1970s. Cheadle also co-wrote the script with Steven Baigelman, himself a co-writer for the James Brown biopic Get On Up.
Miles Ahead will close the New York Film Festival in mid-October before its nationwide release.
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“It’s a labor of love and Don’s directorial debut. It’s not a cradle-to-the-grave movie, but it moves around!” Wilburn offers. “We can’t wait for people to see it!”
Finally, it should be noted that both men also were part of their father/uncle’s band at different points, sharing both the stage and the studio with him. And don't think for a minute that they got easier treatment from the notoriously strict bandleader just because they shared some branches on a family tree.
“Everyone was supposed to be spot-on, intense, and keep it moving and follow him, [especially] when we were playing live. And that was it. It was intense in a good way,” Wilburn sums up.
“He wanted excellence the best, every night. He wanted you to kick ass every night, and that’s what he brought out in his musicians. We called it Miles Davis University!”