Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew Turns 50: Celebrate the Funk-Jazz-Psych-Rock Masterpiece

I shouldn’t have to tell you that Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, released fifty years ago this month, is a groundbreaking record. The funk-jazz-psych-rock masterpiece has been handed that award in “best of” lists for half a century. “Bitches Brew is NOT LIKE OTHER records of its time, or any other time,” Rick Frystak announced emphatically on the Amoeba Records blog last year, on the 50th anniversary of the album’s 1969 “hatching” onstage and in the studio. How could it be otherwise?

Davis “gave his band very little instruction” about what to do, bassist and Jazz Night in America host Christian McBride tells NPR's Audie Cornish. “Miles might come in with sheet music with, like, four bars. And then you just, do what you do.”




Or as guitarist John McLaughlin remembers it, in the clip above from The Miles Davis Story, “I don’t think even Miles had a clear idea of what he wanted to do. But he was a man of such impeccable intuition that the moment that thing happened, he knew it. He said, ‘that’s it.’”

“What got recorded was the process,” says bassist Dave Holland, of figuring out, for example, how to make three keyboards at once work. Author and Miles Davis scholar Paul Tingen tones down the idea that the band made it all up on the spot. “Three of the pieces had already been broken in during live concerts,” he writes, such as the live clip of “Bitches Brew” in Copenhagen, 1969, above. And many of the musicians did get to rehearse before the studio sessions.

But during much of the album’s making, Miles “brought in these musical sketches that nobody had seen,” Davis himself says, and the band, featuring 13 musicians in total, found their way. Tingen writes:

On the third day the rhythm section consisted of as many as 11 players: three keyboardists, electric guitar, two basses, four drummers/percussionists and a bass clarinet. Miles had pulled out the stops in his search for a heavier bottom end.

The album’s heaviness, Davis' tape echo, and McLaughlin's squealing, distorted guitar turned off many jazzheads. “A lot of people felt that he was an artistic traitor,” McBride explains. “But I think that there were a number of college kids who were listening to progressive rock [and] soul music who absolutely loved this record.” Davis was booked to open for the Grateful Dead, Neil Young, and the Steve Miller Band. A new generation was turned on to jazz almost overnight.

After Bitches Brew, jazz kept fusing with rock instrumentation and overdrive, “from Chick Corea with Return to Forever and Wayne Shorter with Weather Report to Herbie Hancock with The Headhunters”—and, of course, McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra. As Coltrane’s experimental 60s records had done, Davis’ bedrock fusion album freed rock from its formulas, giving it space to spread out and explore. Even Radiohead cited it as an influence on their groundbreaking 1997 Ok Computer. “It was building something up and watching it fall apart,” says Thom Yorke, “that’s the beauty of it.”

The album’s initial rejection in jazz circles didn’t last, as anyone familiar with the music’s direction knows. Davis determined its course in the 70s (as cover artist Mati Karwein determined its look). “I’m not sure if jazz ever got unplugged,” says McBride, and influential contemporary jazz fusionists like Kamasi Washington, Thundercat, and The Comet is Coming prove his point. Fifty years ago, the ground was broken for experimental electric jazz, and musicians are still building on Miles’ Bitches Brew intuitions.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Linked Jazz: A Huge Data Visualization Maps the Relationships Between Countless Jazz Musicians & Restores Forgotten Women to Jazz History

Having watched the development of interactive data visualizations as a writer for Open Culture, I’ve seen my share of impressive examples, especially when it comes to mapping music. Perhaps the oldest such resource, the still-updating Ishkur’s Guide to Electronic Music, also happens to be one of the best for its comprehensiveness and witty tone. Another high achiever, The Universe of Miles Davis, released on what would have been Davis’ 90th birthday, is more focused but no less dense a collection of names, record labels, styles, etc.

While visualizing the history of any form of music can result in a significant degree of complexity, depending on how deeply one drills down on the specifics, jazz might seem especially challenging. Choosing one major figure pulls up thousands of connections. As these multiply, they might run into the millions. But somehow, one of the best music data visualizations I’ve seen yet—Pratt Institute’s Linked Jazz project—accounts seamlessly for what appears to be the whole of jazz, including obscure and forgotten figures and interactive, dynamic filters that make the history of women in jazz more visible, and let users build maps of their own.




Jazz musicians “are like family,” Zena Latto, one of the musicians the project recovered, told an interviewer in 2015. A multi-racial, transnational, actively multi-generational family that meets all over the world to play together constantly, that is. As a form of music built on ensemble players and journeymen soloists who sometimes form bands for no more than a single album or tour, jazz musicians probably form more relationships across age, gender, race, and nationality than those in any other genre.

That organic, built-in diversity, a feature of the music throughout its history, shows up in every permutation of the Linked Jazz map, and comes through in the recorded interviews, performances, and other accompanying info linked to each musician. Like the Universe of Miles Davis, Linked Jazz leans heavily on Wikipedia for its information. And in using such “linked open data (LOD),” as Pratt notes in a blog post, the project “also reveals archival gaps. While icons such as John Coltrane and Miles Davis have large digital footprints, lesser-known performers may barely have a mention”—despite the fact that most of those players, at one time or another, played with, studied under, or recorded with the greats.

Such was the case with Latto, who was mentored by Benny Goodman and toured throughout the 1940s and 50s with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, “considered the first integrated all-women band in the United States.” Latto was “part of a network that stretched from New York to New Orleans,” but her name had disappeared entirely until Pratt School of Information professor Cristina Pattuelli found it on a tattered flyer for a Carnegie Hall concert. “Soon, through Linked Jazz, Lotta had a Wikipedia page and her interview was published on the Internet Archive.”

Linked Jazz’s focus on women musicians does not mean gender segregation, but a rediscovery of women's place in all of jazz.  Like all of the other filters, the Linked Jazz data map’s gender view shows both men and women prominently in the little photo bubbles connected by webs of red and blue lines. But as you begin clicking around, you will see the perspective has shifted. “Linked Jazz has concentrated on processing more interviews with women jazz musicians,” writes Pratt, “and these resources have been enhanced by a series of Women of Jazz Wikipedia Edit-a-thons in 2015 and 2017.”

Likewise, the inclusion of these interviews, biographies, and recordings have enhanced the breadth and scope of Linked Jazz, which as a whole represents the best intentions in open data mapping, realized by a design that makes exploring the daunting history of jazz a matter of strolling through a digital library with the entire catalog appearing instantly at your fingertips. The project also shows how thoughtful data mapping can not only replicate the existing state of information, but also contribute significantly by finding and restoring missing links.

via

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

What Happened Hazel Scott? Meet the Brilliant Jazz Musician & Activist Who Disappeared into Obscurity When She Was Blacklisted During the McCarthy Era

Women in the entertainment business who have taken a stand against racism and state violence and oppression have often found their careers ruined as a result, their albums and performances boycotted, opportunities rescinded. This, according to Nina Simone, is what happened to her after she began her fight for Civil Rights with the ferocious “Mississippi Goddam.” She continued performing in Europe until the 1990s, but her cultural stock in her own country declined after the 60s. She was largely unknown to younger generations until Lauryn Hill and later hip hop artists turned her music into a “secret weapon.”

Maybe the music of Hazel Scott will enjoy a similar revival now that her name has been returned to popular consciousness by Alicia Keys, who paid tribute to Scott at last year’s Grammys. Once the biggest star in jazz, Scott’s career was destroyed by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in the 1950s when a publication called Red Channels accused her of Communist sympathies. Blacklisted, she moved to Paris and performed exclusively in Europe until the mid-sixties. As with many an artist who suffered this fate during the Cold War, Scott stood accused of anti-Americanism not for any actual support of the Soviets but because she challenged racial segregation and discrimination at home.




Born in Trinidad and raised by her mother in New York City, like Simone, Scott was a classically trained child prodigy (see her play jazz-infused Liszt for World War II soldiers in the video below), whose early, sometimes violent, experiences with racism left lasting scars. She auditioned for Julliard at age 8. “When she finished,” writes Lorissa Rineheart at Narratively, “the auditions director whispered, ‘I am in the presence of a genius.” Julliard founder Frank Damrosch agreed, and she was admitted.

Scott’s mother Alma, herself a jazz musician, “befriended some of the Harlem Renaissance’s brightest stars," and the young Scott grew up surrounded by the leading lights of jazz. When she got her big break at 19, taking over a three-week engagement for Billie Holiday, she immediately joined the ranks of Harlem’s finest.

As it turned out, not only was Scott a brilliant pianist, she also had a hell of a voice: deep and sonorous, comforting yet provocative — the sort of singing style that makes you want to embrace the sublime melancholy that is love and life and whiskey on a midwinter’s night.

She was flown to Hollywood in the early 40s to appear in musicals, but refused to countenance the usual racist stereotypes in film. Relegated to bit parts, she returned to New York. “I had antagonized the head of Columbia Pictures,” she wrote in her journal. “In short, committed suicide.” But she continued her activism, and her career continued to thrive. Finally, "she came to break the color barrier on the small screen” becoming the first black woman to host her own show in 1950. “Three nights a week, Scott played her signature mix of boogie-woogie, classics, and jazz standards to living rooms across America. It was a landmark moment.”

And it was not to last. That same year, Scott voluntary appeared before HUAC to answer the supposed charges against her, remaining calm in the face of hours of questioning and reading an eloquent prepared statement. “It has never been my practice to choose the popular course,” she said. “When others lie as naturally as they breathe, I become frustrated and angry.” She concluded “with one request—and that is that your committee protect those Americans who have honestly, wholesomely, and unselfishly tried to perfect this country and make the guarantees in our Constitution live. The actors, musicians, artists, composers, and all of the men and women of the arts are eager and anxious to help, to serve. Our country needs us more today than ever before. We should not be written off by the vicious slanders of little and petty men.”

Weeks later, her show was canceled “and concert bookings became few and far between,” writes her biographer Karen Chilton at Smithsonian. “The government’s suspicions were enough to cause irreparable damage to her career,” and damn her to obscurity when she deserves a place next to contemporary greats like Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, and others. “After a decade of living abroad, she would return to an American music scene that no longer valued what she had to offer.” Learn much more about Hazel Scott in the short documentary video, “What Ever Happened to Hazel Scott,” at the top, and in Chilton’s book Hazel Scott: The Pioneering Journey of a Jazz Pianist, from Café Society to Hollywood to HUAC.

via Narratively

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

John Coltrane’s Handwritten Outline for His Masterpiece A Love Supreme

Today we present a rare document from the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History: Coltrane's handwritten outline of his groundbreaking jazz composition A Love Supreme.

Recorded in December of 1964 and released in 1965, A Love Supreme is Coltrane's personal declaration of his faith in God and his awareness of being on a spiritual path. "No road is an easy one," writes Coltrane in a prayer at the bottom of his own liner notes for the album, "but they all go back to God."




If you click the image above and examine a larger copy of the manuscript, you will notice that Coltrane has written the same sentiment at the bottom of the page. "All paths lead to God." The piece is made up of a progression of four suites. The names for each section are not on the manuscript, but Coltrane eventually called them "Acknowledgement," "Resolution," "Pursuance" and "Psalm."

In the manuscript, Coltrane writes that the "A Love Supreme" motif should be "played in all keys together." In the recording of "Acknowledgement," Coltrane indeed repeats the basic theme near the end in all keys, as if he were consciously exhausting every path. As jazz historian Lewis Porter, author of John Coltrane: His Life and Music, tells NPR in the piece below:

Coltrane more or less finished his improvisation, and he just starts playing the "Love Supreme" motif, but he changes the key another time, another time, another time. This is something very unusual. It's not the way he usually improvises. It's not really improvised. It's something that he's doing. And if you actually follow it through, he ends up playing this little "Love Supreme" theme in all 12 possible keys. To me, he's giving you a message here.

In section IV of the manuscript, for the part later named "Psalm," Coltrane writes that the piece is a "musical recitation of prayer by horn," and is an "attempt to reach transcendent level with orchestra rising harmonies to a level of blissful stability at the end." Indeed, in the same NPR piece which you can listen to below, Rev. Franzo Wayne King of the Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church in San Francisco describes how his congregation one day discovered that Coltrane's playing corresponds directly to his prayer at the bottom of the liner notes.

In addition to Porter and King, NPR's Eric Westervelt interviews pianist McCoy Tyner, the last surviving member of Coltrane's quartet. The 13-minute piece, "The Story of 'A Love Supreme,'" is a fascinating overview of one of the great monuments of jazz.

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in September 2013.

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Sun Ra Applies to NASA’s Art Program: When the Inventor of Space Jazz Applied to Make Space Art

You may have seen the image above floating around, especially if you follow jazz lovers and writers like Ted Gioia: the first page of Sun Ra’s application to NASA’s art program. The program was “somewhat of a glorified PR campaign,” writes Shannon Gormley at Willamette Week, but one nonetheless that has employed many prominent artists since its inception in 1962, including Annie Leibovitz, Andy Warhol, Laurie Anderson, and Norman Rockwell. NASA has “enlisted musicians, poets and others for more variety,” the Administration notes. “Patti LaBelle even recorded a space-themed song.”

But Sun Ra—given name Herman Blount; legal name (as he writes in parentheses) Le Sony’r Ra—was not, it seems, considered when he applied in the 1960s, even if he more or less invented space jazz in the previous decade. After many years in Chicago, he’d relocated his free jazz big band, the Arkestra, to New York, where they influenced later Beats and the early psychedelic scene (just as he was to influence funk, prog, and fusion in the 70s, and come in for a major revival in the 90s through indie rock and hip hop.)

Likely, whoever read his application was unfamiliar with the creative idiosyncrasies of his language, written just as he sang and played—with incantatory repetition, syntactical surprises, and ALL CAPS all the time. The prodigious, visionary bandleader proposes to contribute “music that enlightens and space orientate discipline coordinate.” One might cast a wary eye on this description, from an applicant who lists their educational mission as “space orientation.” Unless you’d heard what Sun Ra meant by the phrase.




Take his orientation in 1961’s “Space Jazz Reverie” from The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra, recorded just after he arrived in New York, on the threshold of pushing the Arkestra further out into the solar system. The tune “ostensibly sounds like a large-ensemble take on hard bop,” writes Matthew Wuethrich at All About Jazz. "Mid-tempo swing, strange-but-not-unheard-of-intervals and a string of solos.” But the composition starts to warp and wobble. “Ra’s comping on the piano generates an unsettling backdrop.” A “bizarre bridge” after the solos throws things further off-kilter.

This is not cold, crystalline music of the stars, but an emotional journey into the excitation, coordination (to take his phrase), and defamiliarization of space travel. Listening to Sun Ra almost inclines me to believe his tales of interstellar travel and alien abduction—or at least to feel, for a few minutes, as though I had taken a cosmic trip. NASA’s art program would have certainly been enriched by his contributions, though whether it would have raised either one’s profile is uncertain.

Ra’s application “reads like a prophecy,” writes Gormley. We need music, in space and otherwise. “What is called man is very anarchy-minded at present,” he wrote. But Sun Ra himself was “anarchy-minded,” in the best sense of the term—he gave his imagination free rein and did not cater to any authority. This rankled many of his jazz peers, who frequently said he went too far. Sun Ra never seemed to bother about the criticism.

He may have taken the NASA snub a little hard. In his landmark 1972 film Space is the Place, he discusses the space program with a group of black Oakland youth, saying, “I see none of you have been invited.” Sun Ra and the young people to whom he brought the hope of outer space could not have known about the hidden history of African American scientists and astronauts in the space program. In any case, Ra had his own space program. A one-band cultural revolution that was too forward-looking for both jazz and NASA.

via Ted Gioia

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Lives of John Coltrane & Billie Holiday Are Now Told in Two Graphic Novels

How do you tell the stories of larger-than-life cultural figures—of people whose histories intersect with pivotal moments in American history, whose careers set new standards for excellence—without oversimplifying and risking caricature? With comic art, of course. Graphic novels have long proven themselves worthy vehicles for biography. Something about the bold strokes of the illustrations, the dialogue in word bubble form, and the panel style of storytelling makes for a particularly vivid encounter with history.

Artist Paolo Parisi has capitalized on this kismet of form and content in three biographical graphic novels now, one of which—the story of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s rise to fame and fortune—we highlighted just a couple days ago.




Parisi’s earlier efforts took on no less iconic figures than John Coltrane and Billie Holiday in Coltrane and Blues for Lady Day: The Story of Billie Holiday. The Italian artist has demonstrated a passion for American music, especially jazz, in his career as an illustrator. As a writer, he also displays a talent for restraint, largely letting the images tell the story.

As in Basquiat, these images are both drawn from famous photographs and from imaginative reconstructions of what it might have been like, sitting in on recording sessions, in the clubs, and in the heated conversations. Parisi may inevitably view his subjects through an outsider's lens—he may romanticize them at times and may elide important, but hard to visualize, details, as is the nature of the form.

But he excels at making these two musical giants approachable, telling their stories in broad strokes so that those who haven’t read the dense, heavily-footnoted tomes about them can develop appreciation and empathy for their art and too-short lives. It is a sad irony that those who burn bright and die young leave behind the most compelling material for those who tell their stories.

Parisi seems drawn to such tragic figures, or perhaps the form itself requires high-contrast highs and lows. “How could a graphic treatment provide anything other than the sketchiest of details?" asks Coltrane reviewer William Rycroft Tring. “Perhaps by choosing the right subject.” In Coltrane and Holiday, Parisi has two subjects whose lives were inherently dramatic, full of major triumphs and tragedies.

Above all is the music. Graphic novels may not be substitutes for a “proper biography,” as Tring writes, but they are excellent supplements for getting to know the artists as you listen to Lady Sings the Blues or A Love Supreme, whether for the first time or the millionth.

You can pick up copies of Coltrane and Blues for Lady Day: The Story of Billie Holiday online.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The 1959 Project: A New Photoblog Takes a Day-By-Day Look at 1959, the Great Watershed Year in Jazz

If you’ve hung around Open Culture long enough, you’ve heard said that 1959 was a watershed year for jazz—the year of modal classics Giant Steps and Kind of Blue, “harmolodic” masterpiece The Shape of Jazz to Come, and the forever cool Time Out and Mingus Ah Um. Sixty years later in 2019, these experiments and confident leaps forward continue to mark pivotal moments in modern music—moments documented heavily by the photographers who gave the albums their inimitable look.

To celebrate that year in musical breakthroughs and photographic near-perfection, sportswriter and jazz history “superfan” Natalie Weiner has launched a blog called The 1959 Project. “The premise is simple,” writes Tim Carmody at Kottke, “every day, a snapshot of the world of jazz sixty years ago.” Simple it may be, but its dive into jazz history is deep and satisfying. The project has already occasionally strayed outside the lines, posting materials from 1958 and 1960. But great moments in music history cannot be forced to fit tidily inside calendar years.

In addition to iconic photos, Weiner posts short summaries, news clippings, film and television clips, and recordings from albums like Milt Jackson and John Coltrane’s Bags & Trane (1960). Yesterday’s post focused on Max Roach’s 1959 The Many Sides of Max (see him in the studio with Booker Little at the top). January 18th brought us Jackie McLean’s Jackie’s Bag, recorded 1959, released 1960, featuring Donald Byrd, Sonny Clark, Paul Chambers, and Philly Jones, and made for Blue Note by the great Rudy Van Gelder.

Only twenty-three days into the year and The 1959 Project has already covered Kenny Dorham and Cannonball Adderley, Bill EvansCharles Mingus (for 1958’s live Jazz Portraits), and singer Anita O’Day, riding “a wave of critical and commercial success” after her 1958 album Anita O’Day at Mister Kelly’s. That’s only to mention a handful of the entries so far. “It only promises to get better as the year goes on,” Carmody writes—and so does the depth of your jazz knowledge and appreciation if you check in with this dedicated project even once or twice a week.

via Ted Gioia/Kottke

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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