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Miles Davis alumni cook up a ‘Bitches Brew’ anniversary show

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM



The family of Miles Davis is looking for his lost book of recipes. He made chili, Italian veal chops and he fried fish in a secret batter.

He knew how to simmer the soul.

Heat and cool. Mix and blend with space.

The progressive jazz trumpet player died 20 years ago this year at age 65. The most iconic example of Davis’ work is the double album “Bitches Brew,” which was reissued last year in a commemorative 40th anniversary edition. With extended electronic solos and a rock-influenced rhythm section, “Bitches Brew” was the first gold album in Davis’ career. It brought a rock audience into the jazz milieu.

“Bitches Brew” will be celebrated at 8 p.m. Thursday at Martyr’s, 3855 N. Lincoln ($25, martyrslive.com).

A Bitches Brew 40th Anniversary Band includes Davis alumni such as Darryl Jones (former Rolling Stones bassist), Blackbyrd McKnight on guitar, Gary Thomas on sax, John Beasley and Robert Irving III on keyboards and Badal Roy on tabla. Nicholas Payton will play trumpet, DJ Logic (Vernon Reid, Jack Johnson) will spin (“Bitches Brew” did not have a DJ) and Munyungo Jackson and Mino Cinelu will be on percussion. Davis’ nephew Vince Wilburn Jr. is on drums. Wilburn put the band together. The concert is being produced by the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University’s Miles Davis Festival that runs through April. The festival is being held to commemorate the 85th anniversary of Davis’ birth.

This will be the first time the group will play “Bitches Brew” in its entirety.

“My playing the trumpet is largely due to Miles Davis,” Payton said in a conversation from his native New Orleans. “The first record I put on out of my father’s record collection was ‘Four and More’ [the 1964 Davis live recording]. That solidified it for me to play music as a career.”

Payton is 37 years old and won a 1997 Grammy for Best Instrumental Solo on “Doc Cheatham & Nicholas Payton.”

“I heard ‘Bitches Brew’ early on,” he said. “But much like John Coltrane’s ‘Love Supreme,’ it weirded me out at first. ‘Bitches Brew’ is essentially a blues record. I look at it similarly to ‘Kind of Blue’ [1959’s departure from fluid chord changes]. Yes, there are electronic instruments and there are doubles of a lot of instruments, so texturally it’s more intense. But you’re still dealing with the modal element; moods instead of tunes.”

Wilburn oversees Miles Davis Properties with Erin and Cheryl Davis, the trumpet player’s son and daughter, respectively. Wilburn is executive producer of the forthcoming Miles Davis bio-pic starring Don Cheadle, who also will make his directorial debut with a possible score from former Davis sideman Herbie Hancock.

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The son of a prominent dental surgeon who attended Northwestern University, Miles Davis was born in Alton, Ill., and raised in East St. Louis, Ill. Davis’ history with Chicago dates back to the winter of 1965 when he recorded “Miles Davis Live At Plugged Nickel” just before Christmas in Old Town featuring tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter, who would re-emerge on “Bitches Brew.”

The Sun-Times talked to the Davis family through a three-way phone conference that was deeply reflective. (Davis has two other sons: Gregory who is in New York and Miles IV, who is in St. Louis.)

“When my grandmother [Cleotha] divorced my grandfather [Miles II], she bought an apartment building at 5716 S. Michigan,” Wilburn said from Los Angeles. “It was close to a restaurant called the Rumpus Room. There was Chili Mac’s. And they used to go to the Sutherland [47th and Drexel, now being restored]. Later on when I got in the band with Miles and Erin, we’d hang out in Chicago in the 1980s.”

Cheryl Davis asked, “Remember how Mom used to take food to the hotel? We’d go to Army & Lou’s. Mom was friends with the original owners.”

Cheryl Davis is a retired teacher who taught for 24 years in the East St. Louis school district. She has a master’s degree in child development and now lives in Las Vegas. She said, “I’m glad my father was my father and my mother was my mother. Although my father was a jazz musician, I never had to like jazz or listen to it for a long time. My musical influence comes from father being around Europe, Asia and other places. His cooking was like that. His cooking is a musical influence to me because of flavors and textures. I had to cut up a lot of carrots, celery, onions, black olives.

“And to shop, a lot of times you couldn’t go to a regular store. You had to go to the Zanzibar to get a foreign spice. In New York, the butcher had to have the meat a certain way. If father wanted to re-roll a roast, he could do it. He’d untie it, season it, sprinkle stuff all around it, roll it back up and tie it with a butcher string. And then broil it.”

Like composing a song.

Wilburn said, “He had a little cookbook about the size of a phone book that you could hold in the palm of your hand. We’re still trying to find that.”

A friend had given Miles Davis a subscription to the French feature magazine Realities. Cheryl Davis said, “Every month there was a recipe at the back of the magazine and father could make it.”

Miles Davis devoured musical influences.

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“Bitches Brew” was recorded in three days during the summer of 1969 in New York City. Jimi Hendrix had just released “Electric Ladyland” and Sly Stone was mixing funk with militant soul and pre-hip-hop in “Stand!” Wilburn said, “He dug Jimi Hendrix, Sly, James Brown. He dug the Stones’ 45, ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.’ He was a sponge. When he did ‘Sketches of Spain’ he bought a bunch of flamenco records. He was a student of music and life.

“Knives and forks? He wanted the best knives and forks. He once sent me to get a telescope. I brought back this little $200 telescope, he said, ‘No, take it back.’ I came back with a real telescope like you see in an observatory. If he wanted to get into something, it was all out.”

Cheryl Davis said, “The everyday living sounds of New York motivated him. The wind touching the skyscrapers, the people clicking their heels on the pavement, the tone of the talk. That was in the air. And he was a Gemini. Geminis are smart, and they can do more than one thing well.”

Although “Bitches Brew” features the extended solos from Shorter and Joe Zawinui (which laid the groundwork for the fusion band Weather Report), Davis created a thundering rock-influenced rhythm section of two bassists, two electric piano players and between two and four drummers at any given time. This pushed him as a power trumpet player.

Payton said, “Just what they did with the space in the room, how they miked the instruments, how it was recorded is innovative — music, notes improvisation and composition aside. I don’t believe in coincidence but he happened to select the right cats at the right time. You get a bunch of cats to get in a room like that to play music so open-ended, it could go either way. That speaks volumes of Miles as a leader. He could galvanize a group of cats through his sound alone. He could play one note and make everyone in the room sound different.

“That is the hallmark of a true leader.”

Wilburn added, “He was like a coach. He had a knack of putting together band members and making a team. He’d take a little bit from each musician and had the insight to know what they would add to the gumbo, the groove.”



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