Editorial
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Miles Davis, Bitches Brew, and the 2020 Jazz Renaissance

on March 24, 2020, 4:30pm

The Opus: Bitches Brew is currently ongoing, and you can subscribe now. To celebrate the new season, stream a legacy edition of Mile Davis’ Bitches Brew via all major streaming services. You can also enter to win the massive 43-CD The Genius of Miles Davis box set, which includes the four-disc The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions.

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Fifty years after its release, the narrative of Miles Davis’ seminal Bitches Brew is a familiar part of musical history: After decades spent defining one jazz subgenre after another, Davis took his most audacious turn yet, reacting to his perceived abandonment of jazz music by the white critics of the day with a record it would be impossible for them to ignore. The result was an album that blended elements of rock, funk, and jazz into something wholly different. As Davis put it in his 1990 autobiography,

“What [the label] didn’t understand was that I wasn’t prepared to be a memory yet, wasn’t prepared to be listed only on Columbia’s so-called classical list. I had seen the way to the future with my music, and I was going for it like I had always done. Not for Columbia and their record sales, and not for trying to get to some young, white record buyers. I was going for it for myself, for what I wanted and needed in my own music. I wanted to change course, had to change course for me to continue to believe in and love what I was playing.”

So, Davis changed course and brought the entire jazz world with him. It’s fitting, then, that the latest milestone anniversary for Bitches Brew comes at a time when jazz — and in particular the kind of boundary-erasing fusion jazz found on that record — is in the midst of another critical and cultural renaissance.

In the decade after The Wall Street Journal asked the ill-informed question “Can jazz be saved?”, the genre thrived in ways it hadn’t in a generation. In his end-of-the-decade piece for The New York Times, critic Giovanni Russonello noted that, after finally “[outrunning] the ideology of Neo-Classicism,” jazz entered the 2020s defined, in part, as “an ever-evolving form of black music that allows young virtuoso musicians to incorporate pop, hip-hop, and electronics into new styles that sound like our information-overloaded, 21st century lives.” With all of that in mind, it’s instructive to look at how the echoes of Davis and his 1970 masterpiece still reverberate now, both in the emergence of new (or newly vital) forms of fusion and the centering of the genre within America’s current political moment.

Though it may sound controversial to some, there’s an argument to be made that the most important jazz release of the 2010s wasn’t really a jazz album at all. In his perfect-A review of Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 opus To Pimp a Butterfly, our writer Michael Madden praised the album’s “cosmic splat of jazz, soul, and funk” as the product of “one of the most restlessly creative artists in music today.” In addition to launching Lamar into the hip-hop stratosphere, the record acted as a coming-out party for Lamar’s collaborators and their own version of Davis’ fusion ethos. Beyond bringing in proven pop personnel from Pharell Williams to Snoop Dogg to George Clinton, Lamar turned much of the album’s sound over to then-relatively unknown members of the Los Angeles jazz scene.

In an interview with Billboard, co-producer Terrace Martin likened Lamar’s approach to assembling his own jazz supergroup to Davis’ association with stars in their own right like Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. “It’s kind of like the Miles Davis concept, too, where his whole album is full of leaders,” he said. “But, leaders that follow him.”

Lamar’s roster included artists as versed in video game beats and anime title tracks as they were the classics of Davis and his peers. These included Grammy-winner Robert Glasper, Kamasi Washington (whom The Guardian describes as “the poster boy of this bilingual generation”), and Stephen Bruner. Also known as Thundercat, Bruner claims at least partial credit for playing Davis’ records in the studio to get Lamar into a similarly expansive mindset.

As he told Rolling Stone’s Jeff Weiss in a 2015 profile, “I played him Miles Davis’ ‘Little Church’, and he was like, ‘What the fuck is this?’ I was like, ‘This is Miles Davis, man — and one of his baddest records.’ He was always like, ‘I gotta come to your house and take this stuff off your hands.’”

Later in the article, Weis notes that “Thundercat doesn’t speak with the academic seriousness you might expect from a serious modern jazz player.” That turned out to be exactly the point; given the opportunity presented by Lamar’s massive success, Washington, Bruner, and the rest of their contemporaries have brought their vision of jazz to the cultural forefront. On records like Washington’s Heaven and Earth or Thundercat’s Drunk, they weave together omnivorous sonic landscapes that borrow liberally from global genres while simultaneously grounding the music in the realities of contemporary black life.

They’re not the only ones, of course. The renewed relevance of this form of fusion also sparked interest in the jazz scenes of cities across the world, from Jeff Parker, Makaya McCraven, and the rest of the roster at Chicago’s International Anthem label to the London jazz typified by Shabaka Hutchings’ work with The Comet Is Coming and Sons of Kemet.

It’s an abrupt switch from decades of jazz’s perceived ossification by the general listening public. In that same Guardian article, Hutchings notes that Davis’ genre-bending maximalism seemed to skip a generation of jazz artists, and may now finally be reemerging:

“Guys like Wynton Marsalis were young players who were keen to be taken seriously by an older generation of jazz musicians and keen to assert that jazz was a high art form. Mentioning reggae or hip-hop might seem to dilute that commitment. So you ended up with a somewhat dogmatic genre, one that was quite self-contained. The difference now is that my generation don’t feel the need to solely identify ourselves with one genre. We’ve grown up with rave and electronica and hip-hop and have no qualms about integrating that into our music.”

The revivification of jazz’s musical relevance also left it well-equipped to amplify and express the passions of political protest. Although Davis himself rarely expressed outward political messages in his work, one belief he held true was that jazz exists as a quintessential and unalienable achievement owned by Black America.

It’s a sentiment echoed in the discourse around critic Nicholas Payton’s 2011 essay “On Why Jazz Isn’t Cool Anymore”, in which the New Orleans trumpeter argued for a rejection of the marginalizing veneration of the past and an embrace of the more holistically defined “Black American Music,” or #BAM. It’s also the same thing John Lewis of the The Guardian described as “sonic politics” in his review of 2017’s London Jazz Festival:

“These aren’t straightforward protest songs or civil rights anthems but complex compositions that incite debate on slavery and incarceration, migration and displacement, culture and identity — yet do so without the band members using words themselves.”

Those sonic politics are as unavoidable as they are necessary. It’s no coincidence that this particular jazz renaissance coincided with the most outward displays of black outrage, grief, and unrest since the Civil Rights era. As the Black Lives Matter movement shined a light on police brutality and the systemically oppressive racism that condoned those acts and more, it also created the need for arts that reclaimed and redefined what it means to be black in America.

Writing for Salon in 2017, critic Rachel Leah compared this search to the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and ’70s, in which “writers and artists connected blues to jazz to R&B in an attempt to create a broader, more textured picture of the black experience.”

“This resurgent jazz, and its various appearances in popular music today, builds not just upon classics of the genre, but across multiple black musical traditions, crossing many lines,” she said. “One album might incorporate harmonies from gospel or R&B, rhythms of hip-hop, soul, and funk. In their broad retellings of black musical history, these works resurface the expansiveness of black history itself.”

From Washington’s ode to growing up nerdy and black (“Street Fighter Mas”) to Angel Bat Dawid’s stark deconstructions of ambient oppression (The Oracle) to McCraven’s reclamation of the last words of Gil Scott-Heron (We’re New Again), we’re seeing that resurfacing happen in real time. Along the way, we’re also gaining an understanding of what qualities make for good jazz music in 2020: curiosity, unblinking honesty, and an appreciation of (but not deference to) everything that came before.

It’s impossible to know exactly what Davis might think of these developments (though, were he still around, he wouldn’t be shy about sharing his opinion). There’s one bit of certainty, though: Of all the lessons that could be learned from Davis’s mercurial career, the artists of 2020 have internalized the two our moment seems to need the most.