Bitches Brew

May 2001 by Simon Weil
Part 1 of 3


Part 2: A New Hope
Part 3: Wynton Marsalis and George Lucas


I

If you look at the cover of Bitches Brew, one striking aspect is the interwined black and white hands. For Miles Davis, someone who had only a few years earlier objected to the presence of a white woman on the cover of one of his records, this image of racial harmony is telling. An important part of Miles' sense of self was his identity as a black man. Time and time again he would return to the subject in interview. He made no bones about his antagonism to the racism of America. The cover image has to be seen in that light. In 1970 he had been arrested (not for the first time) on account of his colour. One of his biographers, Ian Carr, states: "This experience brought home to him, yet again, the futility of the black's plight in American society" and then says, significantly, "though he was beginning to realize that the younger, non-conformist rock generation were experiencing similar treatment at the hands of the American establishment. After recounting the story of his own arrest to [the magazine] Zygote, Miles added:

"It's just the whole attitude of the police force...It's not so much the way black people are treated any more. It's the way they treat all young people that think the same way, so no matter what colour you are, you get the same shit. That's what black people have been trying to say for years...."

Carr comments:

"Miles Davis was identifying with the younger generation of Americans who were rejecting and questioning many of the values of their society, who demonstrated against the continuation of the Vietnam War..."
Carr p274

This is why the image of racial harmony appears on the cover of Bitches Brew. It was the realization that the young generation of Americans, the rock generation, were essentially fighting the same forces that he opposed that drew Miles towards them - and their music. In making common cause he was following in the wake of Martin Luther King who famously had said:

"I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveoweners will be able to sit at the table of brotherhood...and when this happens...we will be able to speed up that day when all God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! Thank God, Almighty, we are free at last!"
"I Have A Dream" speech quoted in Making Peace with the 60s/Burner p33

While disagreeing with King's non-violent stand, Miles believed that King was a great leader - and "America's Saint":

Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in Memphis...The country erupted in violence again. King had won the nobel prize for peace and was a great leader and a beautiful guy, but I just never could go for his non-violent, turn-the-other-cheek philosophy. Still, for him to get killed like that, so violently, just like Gandhi - was a goddamn shame. He was like America's saint, and white people killed him anyway because they were afraid when he changed his message from just talking to blacks to talking about the Vietnam War and labor and everything. When he died, he was talking to everyone, and the powers that be didn't like that. If he had just kept talking to blacks he would have been alright, but he did just the same thing that Malcolm did when he came back from Mecca and that's why he was killed, too, I'm certain of it.
Miles/The Autobiography p279

The image of black and white hands of Bitches Brew is Miles' version of "black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics.... join[ing] hands.

II

So, for Miles, that cover image was a significant statement. Bitches Brew came out in 1970 and was recorded in 1969. Of the previous year Miles says:

"The music I was really listening to in 1968 was James Brown, the great guitar player Jimi Hendrix, and a new group Sly and the Family Stone."
Miles/ The Autobiography p282

Both Hendrix and Stone lived out the experience of black and white intertwined in their bands - and both had primarily white audiences. Hendrix at the time had white English players on bass and drums, while Stone went further - with both a white drummer and saxophonist but, also, a female trumpet player (as well as his sister on vocals and keyboards). His was a model for integrated bands - and so, by implication, for an integrated society.

Sly was...a philosopher, preaching a message of total reconciliation that lived up to the big sound. "Everyday People," "Everybody is a Star," "Life," "I Want to take You higher" and "You Can Make It if You Try" - most of them hits - expressed as well as anything the sentiments of the Haight [San Francisco's hippie area], and the hopes of the ghetto. For a time, it seemed, Sly's approach could heal all wounds; offer black kids a model for something other than slick, Copacana-level success; give whites a fairly healthy black star; produce for both a meeting ground where they could work out their mistrust.
The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll ed. Miller p316

The lyrics to Everyday People:

Sometimes I'm right and I can be wrong
My own beliefs are in the song
The butcher, the banker, the drummer and then
Makes no difference what group I'm in
I am everyday people, yeah yeah

There is a blue one who can't accept the green one
For living with a fat one trying to be a skinny one
And different strokes for different folks
And so on and so on and scooby dooby doo-bee
Ah sha sha - we got to live together

I am no better and neither are you
We are the same whatever we do
You love me - you hate me you know me and then
You can't figure out the bag I'm in
I am everyday people, yeah, yeah

There is the long hair that doesn't like the short hair
For bein' such a rich one that will help the poor one
And different strokes for different folks
And so on and so on and scooby dooby doo-bee
Oh sha sha - we got to live together
There is the yellow one that won't accept the black one
That won't accept the red one that won't accept the white one
And different strokes for different folks
And so on and so on and scooby dooby doo-bee
I am everyday people
[1968]

So once more we have the image of black and white living in harmony. So, as well as Martin Luther King, Miles was following Sly Stone (or probably King through Stone) when he produced Bitches Brew.

III

An odd element of the Bitches Brew cover is the dark, lowering cloud from whose base a thin snaking thread leads back to a black woman's head. The impression is that the woman is in fact the source of this cloud. But it is not a cloud. If we look at Dr King's "I Have A Dream" speech we find this:

"There will be neither rest or tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizen rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges."

Looked at in this light, it is pretty clear what the thing coming out of the black woman's head is - it's a twister - i.e. a whirlwind, the whirlwind of revolt. And this is what the Bitches Brew of the title is - it is the whirlwind of revolt which Mati Klarwein (the cover artist) has shown as the product of a black woman's head. So Miles record is, on this reading, an evocation of Martin Luther King's "whirlwinds of revolt". We can check this.

Davis' electric music drew flak more or less from the beginning, to the extent that, when Stephen Davis interviewed him in 1973, he :

"...asked Miles if he ever read anything about him that he liked. "Ralph Gleason", he rasped. "He understands me."
Miles Davis Companion/Stephen Davis Interview 1973 p165

Probably the most readily accessible piece by Gleason on electric period Miles is his sleevenote to Bitches Brew:

...electric music is the music of this culture and in the breaking away (not breaking down) from previously assumed forms a new kind of music is emerging. the whole society is like that. the old forms are inadequate. not the old verities but the old structures. and new music isn't new in that sense either, it is still creation which is life itself and is done in a new way with new materials

so we have to reach out to the new world with new ideas and new forms and in music this has meant leaving the traditional forms of bars and scales, keys and chords and playing something else altogether which maybe you can't classify yet...

...this is new and right now and has the edge and that snapping fire you sense when you go out there from the spaceship where nobody has ever been before.

..it's all in there, the beauty, the terror and the love, the sheer humanity of life in this incredible electric world which is so full of distortion that it can be beautiful and frightening in the same instant.
Bitches Brew sleevenote/Ralph Gleason

Gleason states that Bitches Brew was revolutionary.

IV

What we did on Bitches Brew you couldn't ever write down for an orchestra to play. That's why I didn't write it all out, not because I didn't know what I wanted. I knew what I wanted would come out of a process and not some prearranged shit. This session was about improvisation, and that's what makes jazz so fabulous. Any time the weather changes it's going to change your whole attitude about something, and a musician will play differently, especially if everything is not put in front of him. A musician's attitude is the music he plays.
Miles/The Autobiography p290

Bitches Brew was recorded on three days 19th-21st August 1969. The weather had, metaphorically, changed the weekend before. For ending on 18th August, the Woodstock weekend was held. It was a highpoint for the counterculture, attended by 400,000 people. To watch the Woodstock movie is to see how the particants were convinced that they were indeed "reach[ing] out to the new world with new ideas and new forms in music". This was also true of the previous year, but with a very definite dark side:

"In the crazy, horrible year of 1968, when first Martin Luther King and then Robert Kennedy were shot to death, people were reading a book Kennedy had just written, Toward a New World. He had been inspired by an epigraph from Tennyson's "Ulysses":

"The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come my friends,
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world."

It was no affectation. A poetic vision lay deep within the "ruthless brat" his enemies saw (not without justification early on). He was at a rally in a predominantly black slum in Indianapolis when he had to announce to his unknowing audience that King had been assassinated. He improvised a prayer for the country, appealing to them to uphold King's legacy, and he did it by recalling a fragment from Aeschylus that had helped him after his brother's murder: "In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until our despair against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God."
The American Century/Harold Evans p548

I want to suggest that the "atmosphere" - the mood of the moment when Bitches Brew was recorded - was a mixture of these two strains. Of the sense of radical change, of reaching for the future - and of crazy horribleness. I suggest that this is the mood of the record, both "beautiful and frightening in the same instant".

V

A lot of the light on Bitches Brew comes from Miles playing, which has a verve and, sometimes, a majesty. His playing through the next year continues in that vein (though still basically dark) reaching a peak of optimism with his soundtrack to a documentary of the great black boxer Jack Johnson. Johnson was a hero to Miles, one of the men whose example of fortitude and moral courage gave him the strength to beat heroin in the 40s. A boxer himself, Miles identified with Johnson - and his sleevenote to the resulting album bears witness to that, being both long (for Miles) and affectionate. It starts:

"The rise of Jack Johnson to world heavyweight supremacy in 1908 was a signal for white envy to erupt. Can you get to that? And of course being born Black in America...we all know how that goes. The day before Johnson defended his title against Jim Flynn (1912) he received a note "Lie down tomorrow or we'll string you up - Ku Klux Klan." Dig that!

Johnson portrayed Freedom - it rang just as loud as the bell proclaiming him Champion. He was a fast-living man, he liked women - lots of them and most of them white. He had flashy cars because that was his thing. That's right, the big ones and the fast ones. He smoked cigars, drank only the best champagne and prized a 7ft bass fiddle on which he'd proudly thump jazz. His flamboyance was more than obvious. And no doubt mighty Whitey felt "No Black man should have all this." But he did and he'd flaunt it."
Sleevenote to "Jack Johnson" 1971

Here the person of Johnson merges with the person of Davis the author - himself the owner of a yellow ferrari, fast-liver "lots of women", flamboyant, jazz playing, black man who flaunted his success. But also someone who portrayed freedom - a symbol of freedom for the black man. So, in a sense, the music on Jack Johnson is a self-portrait of Miles at that time - optimistic, and seeing his way to the future. At least half of it ("Right Of") was recorded in April 1970, the month that Bitches Brew was put out. When Davis says: "Johnson portrayed Freedom - it rang just as loud as the bell proclaiming him Champion" he is both speaking about himself following in the path of Martin Luther King and showing Johnson to be a pre-echo of King's famous speech:

"..the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with new meaning; "My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, lands of the Pilgrim's pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring!"...
I Have A Dream Speech/Martin Luther King


Part 2: A New Hope          Part 3: Wynton Marsalis and George Lucas

source: http://wwww.allaboutjazz.com/articles/arti0501_01.htm

maintained by Thomas Hönisch TOP last update: August 12, 2001