Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool packs what it can into two hours

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      A documentary by Stanley Nelson. Rating unavailable

      One night in 1987, Miles Dewey Davis was asked by a Republican matron why he’d been invited to a Reagan White House dinner for Kennedy Center honorees.

      “Well,” he answered, in his famous rasp, “I changed music five or six times. What’d you do?”

      That (frequently distorted) anecdote is not found in Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool, but it captures the pugnacious nature of the most style-conscious jazz avatar of the postwar years. The montage-heavy doc is reasonably comprehensive, but even at two hours, much is excised from a career that began in the shadow of bebop virtuosos Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and ended with a surprising string of poppish radio hits before his death in 1991.

      Writer-director Stanley Nelson (who previously took on the Black Panthers and the Wounded Knee uprising, among other subjects) hits the key in-betweeners. One might expect more about the titular album, which orchestrated the music far from the bold athleticism of his mentors and towards the dreamy “cool” sound later associated with West Coast jazz—even if the man, born into a wealthy St. Louis family, remained a resolute New Yorker.

      The movie delineates Davis’s creative explosion after scoring Louis Malle’s first film, during a long stay in Paris, where he hung out with Jean-Paul Sartre and Juliette Gréco, and experienced life without blatant racism for the first and last time.

      It’s strong on his two key quintets, the first centring on tenor-sax giant John Coltrane’s astral explorations—culminating in 1959’s totemic Kind of Blue album—and the second on Wayne Shorter’s peerless compositions.

      Most of that mid-’60s combo is still with us, as are a number of his cohorts in the electric-fusion groups he launched at the end of the Woodstock era, to get a piece of the rock-arena action. (Oddly, there’s no mention of Teo Macero, who produced most of his Columbia albums.)

      Also on hand are the late Frances Taylor Davis and other ex-partners, as well as several female music scholars, and Birth doesn’t pull punches regarding the blows Miles himself struck when his most violent demons took over.

      History is still sorting out what to do with these deeply flawed artists. Not everything they’ve left us is beautiful, but all of it is useful.