When Miles Davis Discovered and Then Channeled the Musical Spirit of Jimi Hendrix

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

In 1969 Telegram, Jimi Hen­drix Invites Paul McCart­ney to Join a Super Group with Miles Davis

Lis­ten to The Night When Miles Davis Opened for the Grate­ful Dead in 1970

When Jazz Leg­end Ornette Cole­man Joined the Grate­ful Dead Onstage for Some Epic Impro­vi­sa­tion­al Jams: Hear a 1993 Record­ing

Jimi Hen­drix Arrives in Lon­don in 1966, Asks to Get Onstage with Cream, and Blows Eric Clap­ton Away: “You Nev­er Told Me He Was That F‑ing Good”

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

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  • Ronnie Olds says:

    ⚡🌈🌄🎸🎺 Wow „,thank you so much for post­ing all this info about Jimi Hen­drix & Miles Davis’s devote Con­nec­tion & Alle­giance to Hendrix,plus hop­ing to work & record with him . And John Mclaugh­lin’s info to the sto­ry . Iam a🎸guitarist & have long revered & stud­ied Mclaugh­lin’s work // & Miles’s work too. It is such a grave & great loss to the Music World that all 3 of these Artists did not get a chance to work togeth­er . So my deep­est ThanX🙏⚡🌄once again!!! This real­ly helped fill in a lot of gaps for things not known about this sto­ry!!!

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