From Miles to Zappa
December 29, 2015
Having seen fit in the past to document portions of my cultural evolution in general and my musical transformations in particular, I see no reason to stop now. Especially with a column deadline looming and a couple of films from the upcoming Sundance Festival Film Guide triggering easily accessed column-inches of an anecdotal nature.
For what seems like geological ages now, I’ve been hearing and reading rumors that the almost excessively-talented actor Don Cheadle had been working on a personal project dealing with the life and times of jazz icon Miles Davis. Well, let the word go forth that the wait is over.
"Miles Ahead" is currently scheduled for five screenings at this year’s festival. Named for one of Davis’ groundbreaking compositions and albums (his subsequent collaboration with arranger Gil Evans following "Birth of the Cool"), the film marks Cheadle’s initial turn as a feature film director.
With a premiere as the Closing Night Film of the New York Film Festival already under its belt, "Miles Ahead" will be screening as part of what is fast becoming one of my very favorite categories at Sundance: "Spotlight."
Through a quite convoluted set of circumstances, the early 1960s became my own personal "golden age" of jazz. Miles had somewhat-recently recorded "Kind of Blue" with a virtuoso sextet that included the equally-legendary John Coltrane. The LP went on to become the top-selling jazz album of all time.
So, prior to the coming of ’60s classic rock, Mile Davis and many other practitioners of the jazz form would have their way with me and my kind. Looking back, this is where many of us acquired our first inclination toward a bohemian sensibility.
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The jazz scene had a way of putting you on a path to, although certainly not material wealth, what we came to call "enlightenment." You know, the acquired skillset necessary to outfox security when, say, Miles was playing the Hollywood Bowl or the Pacific Jazz Festival.
Miles could never stand still artistically. He was always in flux. Later in the decade, following a European tour with what historians have come to call his "second great quintet," he would "go electric," wood-shedding a new combo pretty regularly at Shelly’s Mann Hole, a jazz club in Hollywood.
Until Miles picked up his horn, their whole shtick was unrecognizable. The wardrobe and the ballads that had, along with the sound of his muted trumpet, helped make Davis the coolest human on the planet, had vanished. In its place were the top-shelf trappings of the counterculture. Miles, who had been checking out Jimi Hendrix and Sly and the Family Stone, would now fuse jazz and rock.
The Zappa part of this equation unfolds both during a mostly-similar timeframe in ’60s LA and also the end of next month as part of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. Being well-schooled in Miles, of course, lent itself rather well to getting onboard with Frank Zappa and the "Mothers of Invention" once they began making the scene at various counterculture music venues in the southland.
The tribe of which I was a member would never consider missing a Zappa gig in those days. The musical charts of which his quite virtuoso bunch partook completely dazzled the mind of the uninitiated, while, at the same time, took those who had been around the block on a ride they would never forget.
We would arrive early and stay late, camping on the floor in front of the stage — the better to be freed from conformity by the master, our sensei, our commandant, our guide. Never has the "bizarre" held such an attraction. It could be said that Zappa operated from within a magnetic force field from which there was never any desire to escape.
And that’s pretty much why most "Frank-o-philes" of note will be gobbling up tickets to the film "Eat That Question — Frank Zappa in His Own Words," which screens in the Documentary Premiere category during this year’s festival.
Although I am not aware to what extent Miles and Zappa were familiar with each other’s music, to those of us on the aficionado end of the performance art equation, they will always be in the pantheon of artists who pushed the form. And to the musicians who played with them, it was nothing short of graduate school.
For the rest of us, however, from Miles to Zappa was nothing short of a joy ride!
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and has been an observer, participant, and chronicler of the Park City and Wasatch County social scenes for more than 40 years.