The Sound Of Boundaries Breaking

This past March, Sony/Legacy released Miles At The Fillmore, a four CD set of Miles Davis’s run of shows at the Fillmore East from June 17 – 20th, 1970 and three songs from a Fillmore West show on April 11th of that same year. In the blur of our hyper-reactionary, oversaturated musical culture, this release has been quickly passed over. That’s a shame. Let’s explore its significance.

The seeds of the performances on At the Fillmore (and their residual historical value) date back to Davis’s 1965 record, E.S.P., which started moving Davis’s music subtly into new territory until he really started raising eyebrows with the release of In A Silent Way (1969) that put electric instruments (guitar and piano) at the forefront of his music.  

Then came the watershed moment with Bitches Brew in April of 1970. With its long tracks (only six titles spread across two albums), multiple instrumentalists (two bassist, three drummers, a percussionist) and Davis’s own aggressive playing, Bitches Brew scared and angered the jazz cognoscenti who lambasted him in the press as a sellout. Worse still, they thought, Bitches Brew showed Davis was moving into the much maligned Free Jazz movement. None of this was true. However, for all the people the record isolated, it gained perhaps as many new coverts.

Anyone who knew about the trumpeter’s absolute contempt for being pigeonholed shouldn’t have been surprised at this shift in direction. Additionally, he had been playing some of this material live a good year before the record’s release. Yet, it’s often difficult for fans and critics of any genre to wrap their heads around a new direction. And, for some reason, jazz fans (be them purists or critics) have been known to be unusually reluctant to adapt.

At the same time Davis was moving his jazz further, the genre itself was quickly losing popularity to rock. No one was wiser to this than Davis. Through the mid 60’s, his “second great quintet” was part of the jazz vanguard mixing minimalism and modal concepts (instead of chord progressions). Though they were one of the greatest of the era, they played to ever-dwindling paying customers as the decade wore on.

So, of all the 20th Century jazz musicians, who better than Miles Davis to investigate rock instead of ignoring it—to shrewdly react with instead of against? Under the influence of his soon-to-be second wife, Betty Mabry (who would also release three fantastic funk LPs as Betty Davis), Miles turned his attention to rock and funk bands. He soaked up their ideas and fed these new influences into his own craft to create a completely new form of jazz, which is often referred to as Fusion or Jazz Rock. Bitches Brew was the result.

While a majority of the intelligentsia was thoroughly unimpressed, the kids loved it. His label, Columbia Records, quickly geared the marketing plan toward this new audience and took out advertisements for the LP in Rolling Stone as well as the jazz bible, Down Beat. Instead of playing clubs, Davis was to appear at festivals and venues normally frequented by rock bands.   

Which brings us to how Davis came to play the Fillmores. Bill Graham, proprietor of both Fillmores, liked to mix genre on his bills—give the kids some vegetables before dessert (in this case Davis shared the bill with Laura Nyro for the June Fillmore East dates and Grateful Dead and Stone the Crows for the April Fillmore West gigs). These shows were likely the bands’ fans first live exposure to Davis. Many in attendance thought Davis would serenade them with the cool jazz their parents listened to. Far from it. The combined effect of rock and funk along with Davis’s love for modern classical composer Karlheinz Stockhausen created music far from that heard on, say, his seminal 1959 album, Kind Of Blue.

Davis’s band at this point was made up of Dave Holland playing bass, Steve Grossman handling horn duties, Jack DeJohnette drumming, and Airto Moreira fooling around with exotic percussion. Add to this mix two keyboardists: Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett, both of whom were filling the gaps with amazingly adroit tapestries. Corea invented brilliant textures by using a ring modulator, which turned his notes into electronic noise. Each night these men played almost the same set without breaking between songs (each night sounding different from the other as per the usual non-structure of improvised music). The show was one giant blanket of sound falling over the dumbfounded heads of all those in attendance. It was the future.

Yes sir, them dirty, stinking hippies ate it up; a rapturous applause followed each show and, in the case of the Grateful Dead, headlining bands shit their pants (not literally) having been put in the amazingly unlikely position of following the legendary musician. As Dead bassist Phil Lesh would later remember:

“As I listened, leaning over the amps with my jaw hanging agape trying to comprehend the forces that Miles was unleashing onstage, I was thinking: ‘What’s the use? How can we possibly play after this? We should go home and try to digest this unbelievable shit.’ With this band, Miles literally invented fusion music. Of all of us, only Jerry [Garcia] had the nerve to go back and meet Miles [who] was surprised and delighted to know we knew and loved his music; apparently other rockers he’d shared the stage with didn’t know or care.”

Originally, the tapes of these four shows were taken into the studio and heavily edited by Davis’s longtime producer, Teo Macero, and released as a single LP: At the Fillmore in December. Now, over forty years later, At the Fillmore gives another example of Davis’ already immense musical stature.

Because we have the luxury of hindsight, we can see that Davis quickly moved on even from these groundbreaking shows. In fact, they were fairly benign in comparison to what he had coming in down the pike. Yet, the importance of Miles At The Fillmore cannot be understated; this is a fantastic document of changing times, the sound of a line drawn in the sand.

For most musicians, iconoclastic creative achievements are a lucky ending point to a career. For Miles Davis, it was just another beginning in a career of many beginnings. During the next five years (until his brief retirement from 1976-1981), Miles pushed his music and challenged those willing to listen. He revolved musicians in and out of the band, looked for fresh talent, and experimented with different instrumentations (including drum machines by 1973). He stretched his music into ropes of experimental wonder until it was no longer jazz, but simply Miles Davis music. For those willing to follow him on this new journey, the sky was the limit.

Not all were willing. This crowd included an elderly gentleman who strolled by one afternoon while the trumpeter sat on the steps of his New York City apartment building on West 77th Street.

The elderly man stopped him: “Miles Davis, you’re my man!” he exclaimed. “But this new shit you’re into, I just can’t get with it.”

Miles Davis turned to him: “Should I wait for you, motherfucker?”