Montreal Museum of Fine Arts Opens Multimedia Retrospective of Jazz Musician Miles Davis


MONTREAL — Initiated and organized by the Musée de la musique with the support of the artist’s family represented through Miles Davis Properties, LLC, in association with the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA), “We Want Miles: Miles Davis vs. Jazz” is a multimedia retrospective exhibition devoted to one the greatest jazz artists of the twentieth century: Miles Davis (1926-1991). Bearing the same title as Davis’s 1982 live album, “We Want Miles” explores many of the greatest highlights of Davis’ exceptional life and career.

Tracing how Davis impacted the course of jazz several times throughout his life, and divided into eight thematic sequences arranged chronologically from his childhood in East St. Louis (MO), to his last concert at La Villette in Paris (1991), the exhibition features a wide range of exceptional works of art, archival materials, and objects many of which are on view for the first time. They include rare or previously unscreened concert film footage; original musical scores; examples of Davis’ trumpets and fellow band members’ musical instruments; original documents relating to his albums; stage costumes; vintage pressings of his records, as well as compelling personal portraits taken by legendary photographers Annie Leibovitz; Herman Leonard; William Gottlieb; Dennis Stock; Baron Wolman; Amalie Rothschild; Lee Friedlander; Bob Willoughby; Anton Corbijn, and Irving Penn, among others.

While the exhibition examines the many ways Davis pushed boundaries of jazz, an entire section will also be devoted to Davis’ work as a visual artist and feature a number of his original paintings. At first a means to rehabilitate his hand after a stroke, drawing and painting became a daily activity for Davis in the 1980s with select works appearing on his album covers. Further revealing Miles Davis’ reach beyond the sphere of music, the exhibition at the MMFA will feature a significant grouping of works, influenced by Davis, by contemporary artists, including: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Mati Klarwein, and Niki de Saint Phalle, among others.

Serving as an invitation to rediscover the music and the immense talent of an artist whose jazz innovations in the second half of the 20th century were profound in their scope and consequences, this initial venture into the realm of jazz continues the Museum’s exploration of links between the visual arts and music launched with Warhol Live (2009) and Imagine: The Peace Ballad of John & Yoko (2009).

Exhibition Themes

Miles Davis had an extraordinary flair for new trends and sounds, and for associating the finest contemporary, young musicians to his own creative force. According to Vincent Bessières, exhibition curator, “Every five years or so he would revolutionize his music. Starting in bebop, then the birth of the cool, then in large orchestras with Gil Evans and modern jazz with ‘Kind of Blue,’ then the so-called Second Quintet with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, and then going electric with ‘Bitches Brew’ and going into funk with ‘On the Corner…’ [You can] divide his music into periods like you would for a painter.” The constant evolutions and revolutions that characterized Davis’ musical output over his 40-year career will be illustrated and presented both chronologically and thematically as follows:

  • The early years and influences of St. Louis and musicians from New Orleans to Chicago to Kansas City that developed a “school” of trumpet playing that would leave its mark on his own sound;
  • His affiliation to the vanguard of the 1940s, bebop, with the blessing of its mentors Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker;
  • Opening the way to a new jazz — cool jazz through the novel arrangements and the “soft” quality of sound put out by his first orchestra, which Miles would then turn away from and towards the expressiveness of the blues, the lyricism of standards, along with the main advocates of hard bop (Horace Silver, Sonny Rollins, Jackie McLean, Art Blakey, and John Coltrane);
  • The first years with Columbia marked by the orchestral works of Canadian Gil Evans, his ambitious adaptations of Porgy and Bess and his recording of Sketches of Spain, as well as his modal exploration with the sextet, culminating in the masterpiece, Kind of Blue — the largest-selling jazz album in history;
  • The “Second Quintet” during the middle of the 1960s — influenced by young guns (Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams) — shaking the very structure of jazz, and ushering in a certain degree of rhythmic freedom without ever losing control;
  • The end of the 1960s marked by electric instruments, conceptual albums, and the influence of Jimi Hendrix, along with the future heroes of jazz rock (Joe Zawinul, John McLaughlin, Chick Corea);
  • The invention of afrofunk based on obsessive beats, and a saturated electric sound with strange undercurrents resulting from his collaboration with Indian musicians — a style with its finger on the pulse of popular music (Motown, James Brown and Sly Stone);
  • The rise of pop jazz, marked by new production techniques and synthesizers, his fascination with Prince, his covers of hits, and his close collaboration with Marcus Miller, who composed an entire album for him, Tutu, as a showcase for what had truly become his signature sound.

Image: Two paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat on display at the preview of the “We Want Miles: Miles Davis vs. Jazz” exhibit at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Thursday April 29, 2010, Montreal. The exhibit is a multimedia retrospective that traces the life and career of the jazz musical icon. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Paul Chiasson)