Summertime, and the livin’ is easy, fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high. Your daddy’s rich and your momma’s good lookin’, so hush little baby, don’t you cry.
In a way, this line sums up what Miles Davis’ childhood might have been like, growing up in sunny East St. Louis. As a jazz innovator, he is today considered one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century, and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts honours his vast contribution to the music industry in the exhibit “We Want Miles.”
The museum also marks the 20th anniversary since Davis last played at our city’s beloved Jazz Festival. For more than 30 years, Montreal has been host to one of the best jazz festivals in the world and an exhibition honouring one of our century’s most influential musicians is nothing but just right.
The entire exhibition follows Miles Davis through the lens of Miles Davis. One decade after another, one new musical discovery after another, one personal drama after another. At the entrance, an old radio plays jazz next to Davis’ family photographs and high school diploma. Suddenly we are transported into East St. Louis in the late “20s, and into the home of a prosperous African-American family. Around the age of 19, Davis developed an interest with a new form of jazz, the bebop, and moved to New York in 1944 to meet his idol, Charlie “Bird” Parker.
Three big jazz-inspired tableaux by Jean-Michel Basquiat reference this important reunion that marked the beginning of a musical career that went from one musical genre to another so smoothly, so naturally, it can only be compared with the flight of a bird, headed in some direction unpredictable and unknown to us.
Davis’ big break in France in the early “50s was accompanied by his romance with French actress Juliette GrÃ©co, only to be followed by years of drug abuse and then a period of “cold turkey” during which he decided to come clean. This is when Davis’ career literally exploded, in the mid “50s. A room with a big screen replays a scene from the classic French movie Ascenseur pour l’Ã‰chafaud by Louis Malle (released in North America as Frantic), where actress Jeanne Moreau walks the streets accompanied by Davis’ music.
Later, in a room dedicated to the “70s, we see Davis’ transformation from jazz musician into a strange hybrid, keeping the same jazz cool he was known for but applying it to the new music style that made kids go crazy at the time: rock. Funk and black satin (or afrofunk) were born. This was the period when it was cool to be a rock star, and Davis become one. He liked the new rock vibe so much that he began working on a collaboration with Jimi Hendrix, which was interrupted by the guitar guru’s untimely death. There are pictures of Davis where it’s hard to tell if it’s Davis or Hendrix in a big afro and open leather shirt.
Davis’ future seemed bright until 1975, when, all of a sudden, he stopped playing. For nearly six years various medical problems and love disappointments led him to stall creatively. He lived as a recluse from the press. In the exhibition, a narrowing hallway depicts this period of Davis’ life, only to lead to a big, bright room representing his glorious comeback with the album Tutu in 1986. Some of his shiny stage vests are hanging on the walls and there are interviews with him playing on several small screens. In the center of the room is a big colourful statue of a man playing the trumpet.
There is the impression that Davis had found satisfaction and happiness again. His last album was also considered one of his best ever, and unlike many other artists whose career goes up and then down, Davis’ appears to have been an ascent all along.
The exhibition ends the same way Davis’ career will be remembered &- exciting through the whole run. There is no period of his life that was not interesting or innovative, or that should be neglected. It’s hard work putting up a collection of items that can teach someone who knows close to nothing about Miles Davis not only about Miles Davis, but about music and life in general. The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts made this exhibition not only a lesson, but an experience.
There is but a single thought in one’s head upon leaving: we still want Miles.