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How delightful it is to learn that Miles Davis, as a boy, used to take his trumpet out into the woods, listen to the animals, and imitate them on his horn. Later, in New York, he was already working as a professional musician when he decided to go to Juilliard to learn classical technique — a risk in his world, where the best musicians feared “sounding white.”
Many were the influences that went into Davis’s music, as we learn in Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool, a beguiling new documentary full of strange details, some unnerving, some wonderful. Backed by Davis’s resplendent music, it’s frequently hypnotic, even heartbreaking. The usual talking-head interviews — experts, fellow musicians, and family members appear on camera — intermingle with the reflections of Davis himself, read by the actor Carl Lumbly in Davis’s signature gravelly tone.
Davis was an angry man, often a loner, and one source of his hot temper was racism. Born into affluence in 1926 — his father, a dentist, is described as the “second-richest” black man in Illinois — he went off to Paris in 1949 and found himself not only welcome but the toast of its swells. Via his girlfriend, the actress Juliette Gréco (neither spoke the other’s language), he joined a circle of creative people that included Pablo Picasso and Jean-Paul Sartre. Returning home, he said, “It was hard for me to come back to the bullsh** white people put black people through in this country. . . . Before I knew it I had a heroin habit, which meant getting and shooting heroin all day and all night.”
Yet not everyone who suffered racism treated it with heroin. Davis was centrally a rageful fellow, and even in casual snapshots shown in the movie he tends to glower. He witnessed nasty fights between his mother and father, one of which was about whether for his 13th birthday he should be given a violin or a trumpet. On occasion his father would beat his mother, at least once hard enough to knock the teeth out of her mouth. Years later, after a party, Davis’s first wife, Frances Taylor, remarked innocently that “Quincy Jones is handsome.” “Before I knew it . . . I was on the floor,” she recalls in the doc. “It was the most unbelievable thing that ever happened to me because I’d never been hit in my life. It was the first but it wasn’t going to be the last, unfortunately.”
Even that sandpaper-on-rust Davis voice was derived from his anger. When he had a benign growth removed from his larynx in 1956, doctors ordered him not to speak for ten days. He couldn’t do it. People were too annoying. “Everybody was a sack full of motherf***ers” is how one witness to his tirades put it. The rasp seized his voice and never went away.
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