After the release of Bitches Brew in 1970, Columbia Records pushed Miles Davis to play a series of dates at the Fillmore West and East supporting major rock bands like Neil Young and Crazy Horse, the Grateful Dead, and the Steve Miller Band. Miles “went nuts,” Columbia’s Clive Davis later remembered. “He told me he had no interest in playing for ‘those fucking long-haired kids.’”
The reaction does not reflect Miles’ attitude toward all the music enjoyed by long-haired kids, especially—it should go without saying—the psych rock he embraced and transformed in the early seventies. Miles admired a handful of rock musicians, and none more so than Jimi Hendrix, whom he discovered, notes the short excerpt from The Miles Davis Story above, through guitarist John McLaughlin.
As McLaughlin tells it, Davis was dumbfounded when he first saw Hendrix play on film in D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary Monterey Pop. “As the 70s dawned,” Tim Cumming writes at The Guardian, Hendrix had his Band of Gypsys, and Davis was in the audience for their legendary new-year set at Fillmore East, marveling at Machine Gun and the powerful drumming of Buddy Miles.”
Miles’ appreciation of Hendrix, James Brown, and Sly Stone birthed the album Jack Johnson in 1971, a “concentrated take on rock and funk that defies categorization.” As you can hear in “Right Off, Pt. 1” above, it was also a return to the blues, a legacy he shared with Hendrix. “Jimi… came from the blues, like me,” Davis wrote in his autobiography. “We understood each other right away because of that. He was a great blues guitarist.”
In the year before Hendrix’s death, the two jammed at Davis’ house and planned to record an album, though it never came to pass. The idea remains an impossibly compelling musical what-if. (So does the time Hendrix invited Paul McCartney to create a super group with Miles Davis.) “Some things are simply beyond conception,” writes Kollibri Terre Sonnenblume in an appreciation of Live-Evil, Miles’ most direct channeling of Hendrix. As Davis himself later wrote, “By now I was using the wah-wah on my trumpet all the time so I could get closer to that voice Jimi had when he used a wah-wah on his guitar.”
Davis “lifted musical elements from Hendrix’s oeuvre,” notes Sonnenblume, pointing out the many specific references throughout the album’s four live and four studio tracks. The first song on the album, “Sivad,” kicks things off with an aggressive solo almost right off the mark:
First-time listeners often mistakenly assume they are hearing a guitar coming in at the 49 second mark, but they’re wrong. That squealing, distorted sound, chattering with rabid ferocity, lunging like a rabid dog and circling like a dervish – complete with what sounds for all the world like a pick-glissando – is coming out of Davis’ horn, not McLaughlin’s guitar.
Hendrix’s death upset Miles deeply. “He was so young and had so much ahead of him,” he wrote. It’s hard even to imagine what might have lay ahead for both of them in the studio, but Davis’ take on Jimi’s musical personality might give us a good idea of where they were headed—into territory far beyond the blues, jazz, rock, world-funk, and any other genre label you might care to name.