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Box Set Celebrates Miles Davis’s Creative Bond With George Wein’s Newport Jazz Festival

Jul 22, 2015

Miles Davis and George Wein represented a pivotal partnership for jazz in the 20th century.
Miles Davis.
Credit Copyright Vernon L. Smith

Miles Davis, the innovative trumpet genius, and George Wein, the visionary festival producer/impresario, were not exactly as close, say, as Damon and Pythias, what with the seemingly inevitable bumps and disagreements that popped up now and then over the long, fruitful friendship and professional relationship between these two titanic forces in jazz.

Nonetheless, the historic alliance that this gifted odd couple formed from 1955 to 1975 at Wein’s Newport Jazz Festival was an immeasurably valuable boost for jazz, an art form perpetually in desperate need of a boost.    

So significant was this two-decade period, in fact, that the 2015 Newport Jazz Festival, which will be held July 31 through August 2, celebrates the relationship between the legendary trumpeter and Wein, the renowned tastemaker who founded the world-famous Newport Jazz Festival in 1954. The celebration, which includes special musical tributes, panels and a variety of other events, commemorates the 60th anniversary of Davis’s Newport debut, a career breakthrough on July 17, 1955.

Marking that memorable date, Columbia/Legacy Recordings celebrates Newport and the Davis/Wein collaboration in exuberant style with its release on July 17 of a four-CD box set, Miles Davis at Newport 1955-1975: The Bootleg Series Vol. 4.

An accessible, invaluable overview of both Davis’s mutually beneficial relationship with Newport and of his evolving artistry, the box set, with liner notes by the Grammy Award-winning music historian Ashley Kahn, clocks in at 296 minutes, including, most importantly, four hours of previously unreleased material. Featuring six of Davis’s stellar bands from that period of radical development, it features live performances in 1955, 1958, 1966, 1967, 1969, 1971, 1973, and 1975 in Newport, Rhode Island, New York City’s Lincoln Center, Berlin and Switzerland, concerts all produced under the imprint of Wein, the international master builder of the jazz festival concept.

As the latest entry in Columbia/Legacy’s ambitious Miles Davis Bootleg Series, the box set serves as a linchpin for the Festival’s homage to Miles, with tributes orchestrated by Wein, the irrepressible, jazz-addicted, piano playing music mogul who, at 89, still runs the show at The Newport Jazz Festival, the jewel in the crown of his jazz empire.

In an early step in his career before his against-all-odds Newport triumphs, Wein owned and operated the legendary jazz club Storyville, a red-hot venue in Boston’s Copley Square. Even then, Wein was presenting a dazzling array of jazz greats and future greats, including a young Miles Davis whom Wein first befriended in 1952. Miles, Wein’s then new jazz buddy, brought down the house in his appearances at Storyville, a foreshadowing of what the trumpeter would do a few years later in his groundbreaking premiere performance at Newport in 1955.

George Wein.
Credit Newport Festivals Foundation

As part of the Festival’s commemoration of the 60th anniversary of Davis’s debut performance at Newport, Kahn, the jazz historian, will curate two seminars each on Saturday, August 1, and Sunday, August 2, presented on a new Festival stage located in the former Yachting Museum at Fort Adams State Park.    

Here’s the tribute panel schedule:

Saturday, August 1 at 1:00 pm -- Miles and George

Wein, a natural-born raconteur with seven decades worth of stories and anecdotes—both hilarious and heartbreaking—from his life experience as a jazz pianist, club owner and festival magnate, talks about his long relationship with Davis with New York Times critic Nate Chinen, co-author of Wein’s informative, entertaining autobiography, Myself Among Others: A Life in Music. Miles & George may not have the resonant ring of the more familiar mantra of Miles & Trane, but represents, in its own unique way, a pivotal partnership for jazz in the 20th century.  

Saturday, August 1 at 3:15 pm -- Miles and Newport

Fine points on the history and aesthetics of Davis’s never less than dramatic Newport appearances will be illustrated through playback of some of the many tasty morsels from Miles Davis at Newport 1955-1975. Panelists include the co-producer of the Columbia collection, Grammy Award-winner Steve Berkowitz and project consultant Nell Mulderry, plus perhaps some all in the family spirit and first-hand recollections provided by Davis’s nephew, drummer Vince Wilburn Jr., and Davis’s son, Erin Davis, with Kahn as moderator.

Sunday, August 2 at 1:00 pm -- Miles and the Electric Guitar

A close look at Miles’  “romance with electric guitars,” love that led to his later passion for playing his trumpet through a wah-wah guitar pedal attachment, and his hand-picked selection of electrified and electrifying lineups studded with the likes of contemporary guitar giants John McLaughlin and John Scofield, et al. Guitarist Mike Stern, a Miles alumnus; Rolling Stone journalist David Fricke and author/critic Bill Milkowski join Kahn, the discussion moderator, in getting to the root of Miles’ infatuation with and highly charged inspiration from the electric guitar.

Sunday, August 2 at 3:15 pm -- Miles, Clark Terry, and St. Louis Trumpeters

Clark Terry
Credit Tom Marcello / Creative Commons

Miles was the iconic artist, and George was the art-loving but pragmatic entrepreneur.

Miles, who grew up in East St. Louis, had an umbilical link with the St. Louis trumpet tradition, most especially with his early hero, the late trumpet master and St. Louis native, Clark Terry. Trumpeters Jon Faddis and Randy Sandke join Kahn in examining the tradition.  To make history come alive visually, excerpts will be shown from the acclaimed documentary on Terry’s life, "Keep on Keepin' On," which was produced by Quincy Jones. 

In his various incarnations with his diverse all-star lineups, Davis generated waves of creativity, controversy and publicity on Wein’s stage.     

With its 20-year scope, the box set provides a compact chronicle of the trumpeter’s dramatic transition from acoustic bop and blues, to his superb “second great quintet” on through to his eclectic/electric signature style plugged-in to rock, jazz, percussion-powered funk and abstraction. What remains constant throughout the tracks are the enigmatic Miles mystique and steely, even pugnaciously fearless, Frank Sinatra-like will to do it his way.    

Exasperated by the new-fangled, funkadelic Miles, many devoted Milesphiles just couldn’t connect with their idol’s plugged-in transfigurations. They refused to drink what they believed was the electronic-laced Kool Aid being served by their once revered jazz apostle turned pop apostate.  Exhilarated by it all, new true believers, on the other hand, were intoxicated with the music’s contemporary edge and surging energies. They were enthralled by Miles as an iconoclastic priest speaking truths in cosmic tongues, communing through his wah-wah pedal attached to his born-again horn.         

Davis’s appearances at Wein’s Newport extravaganzas, both at home and abroad, generated much attention for jazz, a bonus for an art form mostly ignored by the mass media, except when heralding its imminent demise as it has for more than a half-century.

As dynamic figures who thrived on change, Davis and Wein, in their distinctly separate roles -- Miles as the iconic artist and George as the art-loving but pragmatic entrepreneur -- were able to seize the imagination of the general public, even bringing sorely needed converts into the ever thinning jazz fold.  

If you can’t make it to Newport to celebrate this rare association between these two life forces in the music, you can at least stay home and give a close listen to the abundant, kaleidoscopic retrospective offered by Miles at Newport 1955-1975.     

Disc One opens with Miles making his Newport debut on July 17, 1955, playing in a loose and easy all-star jam session with Gerry Mulligan, Zoot Sims, Thelonious Monk, Percy Heath and Connie Kay grooving on Monk and Bird tunes.

The moment of truth -- one of the early epiphanies in the Newport Festival -- occurred, Wein recalls, as Miles soloed on "‘Round Midnight."

Credit Professor Bop / Creative Commons

“He put his horn right up by the microphone,” Wein says, “which a trumpet player didn’t do. Normally, they like to get some air and play a little bit away from the music, but he put the bell of his horn right up against it, and it came through clear as a bell.”

That simple gesture, Wein adds, marked the moment that Davis became the star of the Festival, a deft, minimalist coup that quickly led to his signing with Columbia Records, an epic step in his career. 

Side One also features Miles in 1958 at Newport with Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb, the dream band with which he would later record the masterwork LP, Kind of Blue.

Side Two is devoted to power-packed pieces by the second great quintet (some say the greatest jazz quintet ever) with Miles, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams, pushing modern jazz to its outer, freest limits, while always swinging hard. “That group,” Wein says in the liner notes, “was not ahead of its time. They were the time.”

Sides three and four show Miles, the adventurer, running the voodoo down, creating new soundscapes and what he hoped would be a brave new world where his genius would reign, or, at least, be recognized.  

Through these tracks, you can sample Davis’s ecumenical, genre-crossing, sonic stews and bitches brews, stirred with eclectic crews featuring rock and R&B musicians like guitarists Pete Cosey and Reggie Lucas, electric bassist and funkmeister Michael Henderson and Afro/funk propelled percussionist Mtume. Also in the Milesian mix are such crème de la crème jazz players as keyboardists Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett, sensational saxophonists like Gary Bartz and Dave Liebman, bassist Dave Holland and drummers Jack DeJohnette and Al Foster.     

The Miles Davis at Newport box set.

With his shapeshifting textures, funk-filled flights and morphing moods, Miles explored new galaxies, travelling light years from the mainstream grooves of that casual but eventful jam session with Mulligan, Zoot and Monk that happened 60 years ago on a summer’s day at The Newport Jazz Festival. 

For Wein, through all those years, Miles -- whatever style he used to express his complex inner voice -- was always the master impresario’s winning card, or, as he explains in the liner notes:

“Jazz is like a deck of cards. There are Aces, Kings, Queens, Jacks and a lot of other numbers, but if you’re going to put on a great festival you need the Aces. Miles was an Ace. Year in and year out, he was always a major attraction for us and he created some of the most important music that ever happened at Newport.”

Miles also was, is and may always be an Ace for Columbia Records, as well.     

Even after the seemingly exhaustive series of now nearly 20 box set collections, Columbia/Legacy still has Miles to go and promises to keep. 

For schedules, lineups, tickets and other information on The Newport Jazz Festival go to: newportjazzfest.org

Grace Kelly: Princess of the Blues

Grace Kelly, the young, gifted alto saxophonist/singer, teams up with blues master James Montgomery in what promises to be a house-rocking, soul-drenched session on Thursday, July 23, at 7:00 p.m. in the next Pop-Up Jazz Supper Club show at Cavey’s Restaurant, 45 East Center Street, Manchester.

Kelly, a skyrocketing talent who has studied and recorded with such jazz masters as the alto saxophonists Lee Konitz and Phil Woods, has been right at home playing the blues with Montgomery, the noted singer/songwriter and great blues harpist (harmonica), who was an early career mentor for such now famous singers as the earthy blues diva Susan Tedeschi and Norah Jones. Montgomery, who learned his soulful craft as a young man jamming with such blues patriarchs and mentors as James Cotton, John Lee Hooker and Junior Wells, is delighted with the way Kelly digs deep into the essence of the blues.

“When Grace is soloing with the band grooving behind her, she’s all intensity and concentration. She gets down, bending into this little ball on stage, crouching over as she digs into the blues with such deep feeling, playing this soul stuff while the audience is going crazy,” he says when describing how Kelly immerses herself in the  blues changes for chorus after chorus.

Kelly is Montgomery’s special guest with his band of seasoned musicians: keyboardist Mitch Chakour, who’s played with the Joe Cocker Band and the Shaboo Allstars, and bassist David Hull, whose credits include Aerosmith, the Joe Perry Project and the Buddy Miles Band. Jerilyn Rae also appears as a guest vocalist.

The band hits at 7:00 pm; seating starts at 6:00 pm. Three course prix-fixe dinner and music: $80.00 per person. Reservations: (860) 643-2751. Information: caveysrestaurant.com.

Jimmy Heath Plays The Hartford Club

In what might well be one of the premier concerts of the 2015 fall season, tenor saxophone great Jimmy Heath performs with his quartet on Sunday, October 4, from noon to 4:00 pm  at the West Hartford Rotary Club’s annual Jazz Brunch at The Hartford Club.

Jimmy Heath
Credit Tom Marcello / Creative Commons

Called “a true American original” by Wynton Marsalis, Heath, an NEA Jazz Master and three-time Grammy nominee, has composed more than 100 jazz pieces, appeared on more than 125 albums, performed with John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie as well with the celebrated Heath Brothers’ Band with Percy Heath, the late, great double bassist of Modern Jazz Quartet fame, and drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath. The 88-year-old grand maestro, who also arranges and doubles on flute, will be accompanied by the phenomenal, young pianist Jeb Patton and a drummer and bassist to be announced

Profits from the event support the Gifts of Music program and other local charities. Gifts of Music, a non-profit organization, provides musical instruments and lessons for talented public school students who could not otherwise afford them. A savory cordon bleu mix of jazz and cuisine, the popular, classy series has previously presented such notable artists as saxophonist Javon Jackson and pianist Renee Rosnes. 

Tickets, which have just gone on sale, are $75.00 and include music, brunch and free parking in the Hartford Club’s parking garage. The Hartford Club, a Georgian Revival landmark in downtown Hartford, is at 46 Prospect Street. To purchase tickets, which are available in advance, contact Jim Kilian at (860) 716-5335 or at jim.kilian@pioneer-financial.com.

Please submit press releases on upcoming jazz events at least two weeks before the publication date to omac28@gmail.com. Comments left below are also most welcome.