The First Time I Saw Miles
Legacy has just released, for the first time: Miles Davis, Live at the Fillmore East in New York (March 7, 1970). I was there that late winter Saturday night for the second set, the 11:30 pm show, and it was the first time I saw Miles.
Let me set the scene.
The Fillmore East, at Sixth Street and Second Avenue, a premier Manhattan venue in the early 70s, was a former Yiddish theatre dating back to the early 1900s, when Jews from Eastern Europe flooded the lower east side. But by the sixties, the Jews had long abandoned metropolis for suburbia and before the Fillmore, it was the Village Theatre in a New York neighborhood populated by former beatniks, semi-delirious hippies, budding leftists, raggedy derelicts, leftover winos, runaways, shacked-up couples soon to give birth to bi-racial children, and artists in search of low rent.
Before it became the Fillmore in 1968, Coltrane played one of his last concerts there in ’66, and the next year, it was the site of a revival meeting of sorts when Dr. Timothy Leary introduced his unique brand of “anti-establishment-ism via halucinogens” to the newly christened flower children. I’d been there for Charles Lloyd’s popular “Forest Flower” Quartet and when the Fillmore’s Bill Graham took over the space as his east coast, I heard a number of the psychedelic music icons at the East Village concert space, including Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, the Who, lots of English groups, and all the great bluesman who were finding new respect for their music including B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Albert King, etc.
So why would Miles Davis, a Jazz musician, the Jazz musician, play at such an establishment, on a triple bill with Neal Young and the Steve Miller band, no less? Because he was Miles Davis, a man always reaching out to new audiences, changing his music, creating on the edge.
In the late 60s, after leading one of the most incendiary Quintets in Jazz history (Wayne Shorter, tenor sax; Herbie Hancock, piano; Ron Carter, bass; Tony Williams, drums), Miles was exploring new musical directions. He started by changing up the rhythm, adding a guitar for recording sessions, and introducing Herbie, and later Chick Corea, to the electric piano. After “Stuff,” on “Miles in the Sky,” we knew he’d definitely been touched by funk and that he wasn’t going to be playing standards anymore.
Miles released “In A Silent Way” in 1969, at the time, a revolutionary recording, with three electric pianos, guitar, bass guitar, playing music soon dubbed Jazz Rock, or fusion. But that was just the beginning. As were listened to “In A Silent Way,” over and over, we kept wondering, what would Miles do next. Which way would he take the music.
At the time of his first Fillmore gig, he had already recorded “Bitches Brew,” which made “In A Silent Way,” seem like an appetizer. And, the personnel of his group was changing. Herbie left and was replaced by Chick Corea, who’d been around the New York scene for several years playing with people like Herbie Mann and Blue Mitchell. Ron Carter’s successor in the bass chair, on both acoustic and electric bass, was a remarkable young Englishman, Dave Holland. And Tony Williams, who left to form his own fusion group, Emergency, was replaced by Charles Lloyd’s drummer, a cat from Chicago, Jack DeJohnette, who proved to be an smoldering cauldron of organic rhythms. And in a new role, that of percussionist, Miles hired a Brazilian, Airto Morera. Wayne Shorter was on the way out as well, and the Fillmore appearance was to be his next to the last gig.
Although I’d been a Jazz fan since early 60s, I’d never seen Miles live and believe me, I was ready. From the moment he was introduced, Miles’ set took on all the elements of a happening. The air was electric, literally, with a sense of excitement and energy that had everyone on the edge of their seats. The audience wasn’t composed of Jazz fans, they didn’t go to the Fillmore East, but primarily young people who were part of the seismic change that happened in our culture between 1966 and 1971. They were open to change as well and ready for Miles. Although some of what was played was beyond their comprehension, the energy, power, and pure passion from the stage, had to touch them.
Much more on the edge that what we’d heard on “In A Silent Way,” the music was non-stop, polyrhythmic, and crashing, all the while with a groove. Miles’ trumpet was absolutely on fire that night, each solo more fiery than the last. Wayne also rode the wave, with Jack DeJohnette supercharging the proceedings with his angular, intense rhythms. And it just kept on building.
We now know that the tunes he was playing would soon become his touchstones for the era, “Directions,” “Spanish Key,” “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down,” and “It’s About That Time.” And although confused critics called this Jazz Rock, it was too astounding, too turbulent for anything easily labeled. When the music built in intensity, it was closer to the Avante-Grade of the era, more than anything else. Like Chick Corea’s solos. At times, he sounded like an electric Cecil Taylor. No wonder he left Miles and founded Circle, with saxman Anthony Braxton, that focused on the most “out”music on the planet.
Thirty years after the fact, Miles immortal Quintet Plus 1 Fillmore concert is now available on CD, sounding as fresh as if it was recorded yesterday. So why did they wait so long to release it. Anything else in the vaults, Mr. Bob Belden, Miles historian (he produced the CD)>
Wed Oct 10 2001 (2:18:27 AM)