According to the drummer, who worked alongside Davis before his passing in 1991 at age 65 from pneumonia, filmmaker Stanley Nelson finally told “the truth” about the complex jazz genius.
“Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool” first premiered at Sundance earlier this year and is now making its way to theaters in New York and Los Angeles before debuting in various parts of the country. The documentary traces Davis’ life and career with narration drawn from the artist’s 1989 autobiography. The film also highlights interviews with Herbie Hancock, first wife Frances Taylor Davis, admirer Carlos Santana and lover Juliette Greco — just to name a few.
Director Stanley Nelson and Wilburn spoke to Fox News about the misconceptions they wanted to address, the painful reality Davis had to endure and what kept him evolving over the years.
Fox News: What compelled you to launch this “Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool” now?
Nelson: Well, I'm a great music fan, a great jazz fan. I really wanted to make a film about just jazz, and who better than Miles to make a film about? Miles has been so influential in jazz music... So the opportunity to make this film was a real honor for me.
Fox News: Vince, how do you feel about the documentary?
Wilburn: When Stanley sent the link late at night ... I live in L.A., Stanley in New York — I watched it and then my cousins watched it. So by the time I finished, it was maybe 1:30 in the morning. I was so moved. I was crying and I called Stanley. I forget about the time difference. I said, "Stanley, this is a beautiful documentary, man. You got it." He said, "Call you later, I'm asleep." Click. I was so excited because it was that moving to me ... Every time I watch it, it affects me. That feels good and it feels good for my family that Stanley understood, and interpreted what he felt.
Nelson: The best compliment I ever got about this film, was Vince turned to me after screening and said, "Miles would have loved this film.” Even when I say that, I still get the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Because there's no greater compliment to me than that Miles would have loved this film.
Wilburn: I think so. I know so.
Fox News: Vince, a lot has been said about your uncle. What was it about this project that made you want to get involved?
Wilburn: Stanley told the truth. A lot of times people write about Uncle Miles or they do documentaries or movies and it's not the truth. Stanley, he went for the honesty, what made the man tick. That's one of the things we love about the documentary. Stanley was honest. It's important.
Fox News: What are some misconceptions that the two of you wanted to address in the film?
Nelson: I think one of the things that are really, I hope, important about the film is it's not only about Miles, but it's about how racism in the United States affects people and how the racism that Miles experienced within his life affected him. Also, Miles' father and mother had a very abusive relationship. There's a great quote from Miles in the film where he says, as a kid, seeing his mother and father fight, he says, "It had to affect us somehow, but I don't know how." Then, as the film goes on, I think we see how it affected him. So there's a lot of other things in the film that I think can grab people that aren't just about jazz and not just about the music.
Miles grew up wealthy. His father was a dentist. Besides living in East St. Louis, they had a farm outside town. Miles had his own horse as he was growing up. But still, he was subjected to the racism of the South and racism in the United States.
Miles comes out with the album "Kind Of Blue," which is still the bestselling jazz album ever, and, at the same time it comes out, he's beaten up by the police outside a club that has his name on the marquee. He's out there smoking a cigarette during a break and the police tell them to move on. He says, "No, that's my name up there in lights," and they still beat him up. He takes a beating. So those things affected Miles. How it might've affected me or you or Vince, who knows, but I think it affected Miles in the way it did and made him, as he says in the film, much more bitter.
That's something we talk about and some people talk about in the film, because one of the quandaries for us in making the film was, how does this guy who was so angry at times, and he was, and how does he make such beautiful music? Then someone says, that that was a way he could escape — through his music. He could escape the racism and what he was subjected to through this beautiful music. He could show, as someone says in the film, a side of himself that he couldn't show in the real world as a black man. It's hard as a black man sometimes, to be tender, but Miles could be tender through his music.
Wilburn: Coming from East St Louis to New York... I think my mother accepted his high school diploma. He was on the train to New York the next day, my mom told me. He sought out Charlie Parker. Julliard during the day and Birdland at night, to seek out Charlie Parker.
Fox News: How did Parisian actress Juliette Greco influence Miles, both personally and professionally?
Nelson: Well, Miles goes to Paris for the first time in 1949 to play. It's the first time he's been out of the country, and what Miles experiences in Paris, that he says openly over and over again, was something that was just freeing. It's been that way for so many artists, African-American artists, to get it out of this country and you're treated in a wholly different way. That's what Miles saw, and although he has this long-standing relationship with Irene [Birth], he falls in love with Juliette Greco and they have this relationship. Miles has this love affair with Paris that he has for the rest of his life.
Wilburn: I traveled with him. He always looked forward to going to France. He was knighted in France. He said the food tastes different in France. The audiences were more receptive in France. He loved it.
Nelson: Once again, that's something that's repeated over and over again for African-American artists. There's that whole expatriate community that still exists, that goes to France and other places in the world and sees something different. It's almost like you go there and you realize how oppressive the racism in the United States is. That you might not even be aware of day to day, because you're so used to it, but you go to Paris and you're like, "Wait a minute, there's a different way I can be treated. There's a different way."
Especially for Miles in the late '40s, because, as we say in the film, Paris was just coming out of the war, being freed from the Nazis and jazz was the sound, the new wave sound, that Paris is listening to. The artists in Paris, Pablo Picasso and others, are accepting of Miles. And Miles is hanging out with Pablo Picasso and those kinds of people who are looking at [him] as an artist, at the same level that they are.
Fox News: Vince, what's one memory of your uncle that's still vivid in your mind?
Wilburn: He had a sense of humor, but we can't go on camera and tell any of those jokes! But the music. That was his everything. That was his life. For him to see the audience, to experience the trade between the trumpet and the audiences all over the world, I guess that I would've imagined that brought him so much joy. It brought me joy and I'm behind the drums. He was always in a good mood when the band sounded great and when he came on stage.
But if the band didn't sound too good, we felt it. [He was] always striving for the best... Each band member, he always wanted to strive and get the best out of all of us and evolve, keep the music evolving.
Fox News: How did Frances Taylor serve as Miles’ muse?
Nelson: What she gave him were love and stability. She loved Miles dearly and Miles loved her... Miles didn't have to be out there chasing women, didn't have to be worried about anything, because Frances was there. Frances was holding it down, as you see in the film.
Wilburn: I call them the king and queen, and when she passed away [in 2018], I'm pretty sure that she still loved Uncle Miles and Uncle Miles loved her.
Fox News: What was it about jazz that drew Miles in as an artist?
Nelson: I think one of the things that the film talks about, that you have to understand, that when Miles gets into playing jazz, he's playing with a big band and basically leading a band at 14. In the early '40s, jazz was the popular music in the United States and in the world. It's like saying, what would get a kid today into hip hop? Well, that's what was popular. Jazz was the popular music of the day. It was the dance music, it was the listening music, it was the popular music of that time.
Fox News: Vince, how are you keeping your uncle's legacy alive?
Wilburn: I have a band called The Miles Electric Band with my cousin Erin. We tour... with Cheryl, Miles' daughter... it's a love of the legacy. So we just keep it up.
Nelson: One of the incredible things — and Vince is being modest here — is that they keep finding new music... they're coming out with new music constantly from the vaults. It's just great. It's a real gift to have that music.
Wilburn: It’s this vault of music that's unreleased that we hope that, [we can] But when we release it, we think about it... We just don't put music out just to put it out. Tastefully done. Like this documentary.