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Aisles of Miles 

The Missouri History Museum pays tribute to East St. Louis legend Miles Davis

Standing before a photo of Miles Davis, taken in Copenhagen in 1964, Robert Archibald, president of the Missouri Historical Society, muses about this most enigmatic of jazz musicians. "There's a look of contentment," he says. "The sweat is still coming down his face. He's holding the trumpet in its case, and he looks like he did a good job and that he enjoyed doing it. He was such a complicated character, and not just in his music that keeps changing. There's this man who is, on the one hand, into being a strong, well-dressed black male figure, but under all that there's this turmoil. I don't know if I understand that very well. After all, he was born nine years after the East St. Louis race riots. He must have grown up with a sense that this could happen again; this could happen to you. But maybe the creativity just comes from being extraordinarily haunted."

What is most extraordinary about the Missouri History Museum's newly opened Miles Davis retrospective is precisely that sense of historical haunting. The sound of Davis' trumpet -- liquid and airy, elusive and suggestive but precise as a fingerprint, always marked by the complex contours of human life -- is not just the sound of individual genius. It's the sound of history: From the African-American migration to the Midwest at the turn of the century to the emergence of a vibrant black community in East St. Louis, the devastating race riots of 1917, the civil-rights struggle and the counterculture explosion of the '60s and '70s, Davis reflected the course of history; sometimes he seemed to be directing it. "You see history here through the eyes of an African-American man," Archibald says, "battling against stereotypes of how an African-American was allowed to engage an audience. This period did give Miles and others like him -- maybe as a precursor to the civil-rights movement -- at least musically, a way to stand up to people. It's as if he said, 'I'm not pandering to anybody. I'm my own man. If you want to pay to hear my music or if you don't want to, it's irrelevant to me.' And that took a lot of courage."

Taking nearly three years and almost $300,000 to complete, the ambitious exhibit began with the idea of celebrating Davis' 75th birthday. Despite Davis' eminence as a musician, nothing like the exhibit had ever been attempted. The retrospective sprawls through every period of Davis' life: Its design is protean and mysterious. The visitor is immediately immersed in a darkness punctuated by bursts of color on the walls and trapezoids of blue and red hanging from the ceiling. The exhibit begins with a short video montage of Davis performances, and the audio tour is likewise conceived as a montage, with rare interviews from Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Gil Evans and Davis juxtaposed against musical clips from all periods of Davis' career. Visitors can marvel at the sparkling silver drum kit of Davis' greatest drummer, Tony Williams, while listening to him scat along to Davis' intricate trumpet changes. You can hear Gerry Mulligan reflect on the seminal Birth of the Cool sessions, and you can stand before the very horn Davis played on Kind of Blue.

"The most important artifact here isn't a bunch of trumpets or stagewear," curator Ben Cawthra explains. "We have those things, and we love to look at them. The most important artifact is the music. We also learned there was a wonderful archive of interview material called The Miles Davis Radio Project. I edited down those tapes to 99 selections so that visitors could take the artifacts with them through the gallery and improvise their own jazz experience. They can choose what they want to hear."

To tell the Miles Davis story in St. Louis requires a comprehension of Davis' own ambivalent relationship to his geographic origins, especially the provincial, racist and, in his words, "country" aspects of St. Louis and the Midwest. "For Miles Davis, it was a paradox," Cawthra says. "He would say, 'I'm from St. Louis. We play the blues in St. Louis.' On the one hand, he is very proud to have come from St. Louis. 'Countryness' wasn't necessarily a negative. He understood that there was a lot of country in the black population. That population had just arrived from Arkansas, Louisiana or Tennessee. He knew who those people were. His father was originally from Arkansas, and via dental school at Northwestern [University], he went to Alton and came to East St. Louis to serve a black population that had grown and needed teachers, doctors and dentists. Those people came up from the country, and their hipness was in the great music they brought, the blues and gospel. There's a lot of gospel in Kind of Blue. There's another 'countryness' that's racist, those who didn't get the music or who could run a racist nightclub like Club Plantation. He saw that, too."

Davis left St. Louis, of course, but some of his most enduring music echoes with the history of the blues, gospel and R&B that he associated with his native soil. When he finally broke with the established acoustic conception of jazz, he didn't pursue the directions laid out by the avant-garde of Ornette Coleman or John Coltrane. Instead, he turned toward the most popular forms of African-American music: electric blues and R&B. "Whenever he reaches a point of creative impasse, he turns to the blues," Cawthra says. "In 1968 and 1969, he's listening to James Brown and Sly Stone. He wants to one-up them. He brags about being able to put together the best rock & roll band in the world. When in doubt, he finds a way to head back home. That's what In a Silent Way is about. [Opening track] 'SHHH/Peaceful' is a migratory theme. What's he trying to get when he plugs into a wah-wah pedal? It's an electric-guitar sound. One of his last recordings is the Hot Spot soundtrack; on it, Davis, Taj Mahal and John Lee Hooker do this free-blues playing."

Providing a companion piece to the exhibition, the Missouri Historical Society has published Miles Davis and American Culture, a book that illuminates, in a series of adroit, graceful essays, just how Davis' story is also the story of modern American history. "I have no experience with doing museum books," editor Gerald Early explains, "but I'm aware of the kind of book that usually accompanies exhibits. We wanted something with more significance. We realized that this was a path-breaking exhibition, and we wanted something with more staying power.

"Miles forces you to look at the whole post-World War II period in a different way," Early continues. "Looking at that period through jazz is going to change your perspective, regardless of the race of the musician. If you were to look at the era through Stan Kenton, you would look at it differently. But with an African-American jazz musician, it puts a different set of complex lenses on history, especially because there was such a great public drama about race and race problems in the U.S. at the time. You're also looking at an artist who is performing an art that's difficult to perform at a time when the art is losing its audience. In one sense, you're getting a success story -- Miles was successful. But you're also getting a tragic story. It might be overstating it to say that what happened to jazz from 1945-1970 was a decline and fall, but there was a major decline in the public appreciation and understanding of the art form. And so Davis becomes a symbol of so much else that's going on. His music takes on a wider social, cultural and political resonance."

Davis may have been infamous for turning his back on his audience when he played, but he never turned away from the social, cultural and political conflicts that defined his era. He confronted them without mercy. Since World War II, only Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan have, as popular artists, taken the stage of history and culture the way Davis did. But neither of them, as epic as their histories may be, challenged the deepest of American dilemmas -- racism -- as Davis had to. Many other jazz musicians of his generation, finding both commercial success and social freedom in Europe, retreated from their native land. Davis couldn't. A quintessential American pugilist (a pair of his boxing gloves hangs in the exhibition), he gave history no quarter. "That's what makes Davis so fascinating," Cawthra says. "In his music, there's a running argument over what it means to be a jazz musician, what it means to be a hero, what it means to be an American."

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