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