JACK JOHNSON — SAY IT LOUD

Racism, discrimination, a rock manifesto, sex, sport, violence and audio editing. Buy a ticket, this album has it all. Oh, and it’s a soundtrack too.

Coming off the recording sessions that produced In A Silent Way (released July, 1969) and Bitches Brew (April, 1970), it was clear that Miles Davis was determined to move his music-making forward. The restlessness and exploration once contained within his solos were now also being expressed via his choice of personnel and his enigmatic non-direction of those musicians in the studio. When In A Silent Way was released, Miles expressly banned any use of the word ‘jazz’, insisting ‘a new direction in music’ be the catch-phrase1.

Complete Jack Johnson Sessions CD

Miles Davis – The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions [Columbia, 2003, 5 CDs]

During sessions between February and June 1970, the approach was laissez-faire. Davis had a ‘tape rolling’ policy that aimed to capture moments when they spontaneously arose in the studio. Guitarist John McLaughlin—not an official band member but an absolutely key part of the sessions—commented that “Miles himself didn’t exactly know what he wanted, but he was a man of such impeccable intuition that at the moment it happened, he knew it”.2

These were Miles’ last sessions for two years, and the material (or segments of it, at least) was issued on a range of albums including Live-Evil (1971) and Big Fun (1974). Some of the tracks did not see the light of day until the release of the five-CD Complete Jack Johnson Sessions in 2003. But the material we are focussed on here was created on April 7th 1970 and edited into the two side-long pieces comprising the album Jack Johnson (released February 1971).

The music was for a documentary film about the life and times of the titular boxer, released in 1970 and nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary. We’ll return to the subject of Mr Johnson later, but first, the music.

Jack Johnson Mo Fi LP

Miles Davis, always alert to prevailing trends and fashions, had been eyeing the large (and lucrative) rock market for some time. In particular, he was drawn to the funk of James Brown and Sly Stone. But perhaps even more significantly, Miles was a big fan of the new direction of Jimi Hendrix and his Band of Gypsies.

Jack De Johnette, talking to Bill Milkowski for Downbeat, offered this anecdote:

“Miles had this way of showing you something without having to say it. I remember the week we worked at the Paul’s Mall Jazz Workshop in Boston he kept playing all these Buddy Miles tapes for me. We’d sit in his Lamborghini and drive around, he’d put in this tape, crank it up, not say anything, and eventually I’d get the picture. ‘OK, I hear what you want. You want a Buddy Miles groove with my technique, right?’ And he’d smile real big and say ‘Yeah!’”.2

On the day of the particular session that produced Jack Johnson, it was Billy Cobham on the drum stool rather than Jack De Johnette, but the story remains enlightening. The other musicians were McLaughlin on guitar, Herbie Hancock on organ, Steve Grossman (soprano sax), Michael Henderson (electric bass) and the leader on trumpet.

The significant role of Ted Macero in sculpting the recordings made by Miles and the band into albums cannot be over-stated. Side one of Jack Johnson, ‘Right off’ is almost twenty-seven minutes long. But it is far from one long jam. Here is Macero’s construction:

00:00  Take 10, complete

10:46  Trumpet solo -1

12:02  Take 10A

15:02  Take 11 from the middle

18:30  Take 12 with Intro looped

[-1 At the end of a November 1969 session, Ted Macero asked Miles to play an unaccompanied solo]

Side two is a lot more complicated.

Jack Johnson Mobile Fidelity

But what of the music?

It’s a tearing electric funk jam; it’s a rock-jazz comet, zooming from ear to ear via every auditory synapse in your sorry brain; it’s distorted guitar and piercing trumpet lines, crashing cymbals over thunderous beats. The bass pulses and jumps, keyboard shouts force their way through the funk squall, battling with molten lines of soprano sax. And that’s just the first ten minutes of side one.

No wonder Macero inserted a gentle solo trumpet interlude—you need to catch your breath in the face of this fiery intensity.

Basically, this is primarily a bout between McLaughlin’s tearing guitar and the funk-backed trumpet of Davis (who has Grossman on sax in his wind corner). It’s exhilarating, sometimes scary, and never ever boring.

In ‘Yesternow’, breathing space is provided by the surprising inclusion of a segment of ‘Shhh/Peaceful’ from In A Silent Way in addition to another 1969 solo flown in. Late in the 25½ minute side, Macero adds strings—the only nod to traditional film scoring in the entire album—before the deep voice of actor Brock Peters intones the following benediction:

“I’m Jack Johnson, heavyweight champion of the world. I’m black. They never let me forget it. I’m black alright. I’ll never let them forget it.”

Jack Johnson back cover

Does the music fit the film? No idea; I’ve not seen the documentary. But if the life of the title character is anything to go by, the energy, jagged textures, relentlessly funky drive and sudden explosive bursts of violence are a fine parallel.

In a time of racial stereotyping, segregation and rampant discrimination, John Arthur “Jack” Johnson was the first ever African-American world heavyweight boxing champion, a title he held from 1908 until 1915. But before winning the title from a Canadian in Sydney in December 1908, Johnson had been denied many requests to fight for the crown based simply on his colour. When he did fight, and win, the white establishment called for a Great White Hope to take him down and ensured that press articles were peppered with racial taunts and threats. This from the New York Times:

“If the black man wins, thousands and thousands of his ignorant brothers will misinterpret his victory as justifying claims to much more than mere physical equality with their white neighbours.”3

And so it continued. The fact that Johnson was one of the first celebrity sportsmen—flaunting his wealth, partying with ‘white women’ and boasting about his achievements (both sporting and, er-hem, other) did nothing to diminish the prejudice he experienced. He lived a rich, audacious and tabloid-friendly lifestyle, including three marriages, all to non-African-American women.

Johnson died fast, too: a car crash in North Carolina after he had stormed out of a diner for refusing to serve him.

Years after his death, Muhammad Ali spoke often of his admiration for Jack Johnson. It’s easy to imagine how the mighty Ali might identify with the struggles of his predecessor.

It’s also easy to see how Miles Davis, a big fan of boxing, did not need much persuasion to create music for a documentary on Johnson’s life. Davis produced music that darts, jabs and surges with energy and passion. With Macero’s editing moulding the raw material into two slabs of timeless music, Miles Davis produced a truly classic [soundtrack] album in Jack Johnson. Just don’t call it jazz.

Miles Davis Jack Johnson boxer

Packing plenty of, um, punch – a five star Miles album

 

NOTES

  1. Nicholson, Stuart (1998) Jazz Rock – A History. Schirmer Books, NY.
  2. Milkowski, Bill (2003) Miles’ Rock Manifesto in Miles Davis: The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions. Sony-Columbia
  3. All biographical data from the Wikipedia page on Jack Johnson.

*

 

41 comments

  1. This sounds completely awesome.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I need this, and I want to see the movie now as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Me too. I imagine one could track down the doco in this multi-sourced world.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Soon. I think tonight might be for Leonard Cohen.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I like your boxing metaphors describing the music. That’s brilliant.

    I really like the looks of that five CD set. It was rare to see one of those in decent shape.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Cheers Mike. Yes, that set is really quite revelatory because of the breadth of material included. And fascinating to hear the pieces that Teo Macero assembled into those albums.
      As for the set, I got it secondhand two or three years ago and it is in pretty good knick – a bit of scuffing on the box, but quite acceptable. Gotta say, I’m a sucker for those metal-spine Miles sets!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I found that a lot of those metal spine sets had cardboard sleeves that COULD do a number on the disc itself. I saw a few of those ;(

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Great piece. Need. To. Hear. This. I’ve got the original album of course but apparently McLaughlin plays an absolute storm on the rest of the material, right?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. McLaughlin is not on all of the material, but certainly enough to make the set worthwhile (if a little overwhelming – 5 CDs is a LOT) to a fan. Find it extraordinary that he moved from the filthy fiery distortion of these session towards the spiritual intensity of Mahavishnu.

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  5. In a silent way & Bitches Brew are on the 1001, I’ve yet to check them out, but when I do, I’d like to hear this one that followed them. That “I’ll never let them forget it” quote is a powerful one.
    Another fine post Bruce

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Cheers Geoff. I’d start with In A Silent Way – it is superb, accessible and timeless. With Bitches Brew, I reckon if you start listening now, you may be ready to write by Spring 2018. Yep, it’s that demanding and dense.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I appreciate the managed expectations for writing turnaround going in!
        I’m not sure if the image will work – but I saw this recently and thought you might enjoy too:
        https://i2.wp.com/1001albumsin10years.files.wordpress.com/2016/11/bitches-brew.jpg?ssl=1&w=450

        Liked by 1 person

        1. That’s great. You can picture the consternation!

          Liked by 1 person

  6. A fine post that persuades me to give JJ another crack.
    Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks DD. Don’t know where you stand with Bitches Brew, but this is more funky and groove driven.

      Like

  7. I don’t mind Bitches Brew – certainly can see its greatness. But JJ NMCoT; An Earl Grey of an album, if you know what I mean.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Definitely worth the second listen. Likely to listen now and then in future too.
        I guess my capacity to appreciate what once seemed to me to be merely competing or independent styles, melodies and rhythms has grown. Now such sounds are likely to strike me as codependent, interpenetrating or even synergistic on a really good day.
        (Sorry about the bullshit jargon; my dysfunkytional sense of humour).

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Don’t apologise, I just signed up for the podcast!

          Like

        2. Sonny Sharrock’s Ask the Ages is razing away the sound of noisy Z’s new grain mill, a strategy with roots in your compelling JJ review. A rippa.
          Thanks.
          DD

          Liked by 1 person

        3. Fighting noise pollution with avant noise? Works for me! Glad it does for you, DD.

          Like

  8. Loved this. Jack Johnson (person, not LP) was someone I did a big chunk of work on at university and I did see the doc then. Years later Jack Johnson (LP, not person) blew my socks off, I think it is my favourite of his ‘non-jazz’ albums, certainly as you say, the grooviest.

    Teo Macero was a stone cold genius, he was every bit as much Miles Davis as Davis himself was at this point.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Did you seek out Jack Johnson (the person) from comments Muhammed Ali made? Or?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I read about him first in an Ali biography but then did some history work on the (ahem) Rise of the Black Athlete: Ideas of Strength & Nationhood Through … I can’t quite remember the rest of my title, but you get the picture – ’68 Olympics / Arthur Ashe that type of thing.

        What interested me was just how forgotten a figure JJ was.

        Wow, that’s all a lifetime ago for me!

        Liked by 1 person

  9. Brilliant piece, Bruce… brilliant. I find Jack Johnson (person) incredibly interesting, but I’ve never seen the documentary. It’ll come as no surprise to you that this is an LP I’m keen to add to my modest collection… though that set is very tempting!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The box set is brilliant and overwhelming. Not sure I’ve yet come to grips with it (which is fine – nice to have sitting in the background). Glad you enjoyed the piece, J. Cheers.

      Like

      1. Given that I still find some of Miles’ albums overwhelming (most of the non-jazz jazz stuff, I guess) the set might be something for me to digest in bite sized chunks. The man was a maverick and a marvel.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. Great post. Great album. It’s still (partly) jazz, though, whatever Miles says.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. shhhhh! don’t scare off the rock dogs!

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Love Miles in this style. We’ve talked about this before. I grew up knowing about JJ. My dad was a big fight fan (And Jazz, Hawkins was his guy) and a Johnson fan. It’s been a while since I seen the film. I did catch the newer Ken Burns one and read the book of the same name ‘Unforgivable Blackness’. fantastic stuff. But yeah, the music of Miles sounds so good. Good topic Bruce! I’ll be revisiting the original doc now that I’ve been reminded.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s a good ‘un for revisiting, CB, that’s for sure. I’ll try to catch up with the movie at some stage.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. […] of the hat to my friend Bruce @ Vinylconnection. When I told him in November that I’d be reviewing Bitches Brew soon, he suggested, “if […]

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  13. […] The music was for a documentary film about the life and times of the titular boxer, released in 1970 and nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary. We’ll return to the subject of Mr Johnson later, but first, the music. … (read more) […]

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  14. […] JACK JOHNSON — SAY IT LOUD […]

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  15. Bruce have you read any Davis Bios?

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  16. […] JACK JOHNSON — SAY IT LOUD […]

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  17. CB’s reblog sent me over here. Good piece. My friend Steve-o who turned me on to Weather Report lo those many years ago turned me on to this, too. Haven’t heard it in ages. I don’t own it so I will now give whatever version I can find on Spotify a spin. Have you seen the Don Cheadle movie ‘Miles Ahead?’ It’s largely made-up bullshit but it’s exhilarating made-up bullshit.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Haven’t seen the film – appreciate the warning! Sometimes exhilarating bullshit is just what you need.

      Like

      1. I cannot predict whether or not you will like it. But it’s a hoot and Cheadle throws himself into it with reckless abandon.

        Liked by 1 person

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