Innovation Ecosystem

The historical soundtrack for 1969

How Miles Davis disrupted the musical world

Photo by Richard Asinof

Photo of Miles Davis from the inside cover of the album, Bitches Brew

By Richard Asinof
Posted 7/29/19
With the upcoming Newport Jazz Festival, and no doubt numerous stories about Woodstock, here is a tribute to Bitches Brew by Miles Davis, an album that brought about a convergence of jazz and electric music, changing the world of music forever.
Have you ever walked into a store and discovered a song from Bitches Brew playing on the sound system? Will Herbie Hancock and Christian McBride play a Miles Davis tune from Bitches Brew at the Newport Jazz Festival this year? Is jazz taught in our high schools in Rhode Island as an expression of innovation and enterprise? How would the history of 1969 be taught from a woman’s historical perspective?
In the sweep of history, so much of what occurred is swept under the rug in the desire for a narrative that doesn’t rock the boat of American mythology. The interplay of the forces of darkness and light in 1969 offers an important window in our world in 2019, if there is an opportunity to create, share and learn from an alternative narrative.

PROVIDENCE – There is so much to remember about 1969, a year when the tectonic plates of American society and culture moved far part and shook the foundations of our national identity, not unlike the world we inhabit today in 2019. There was a constant flow from darkness to light, from light to darkness, like the phases of the moon.

It was a year that began with a major upheaval when the New York Jets, behind quarterback Joe Namath, won the third Super Bowl, defeating the Baltimore Colts, and with it, forever disrupting the equilibrium of the status quo in sports.

That same month, President Richard Nixon was inaugurated, and almost immediately, began an illegal campaign of bombing Cambodia, a neutral country, which would, several years later, lead to the victory by the Khmer Rouge and years of genocidal rage. Leaks about the Cambodia bombing led to the creation of the Plumbers, an effort to try and stop the leaks, starting the slide down a path to the dark side, Watergate and the eventual resignation of Nixon.

In the summer of 1969, the U.S. landed a man on the moon and Sen. Ted Kennedy drove off a bridge in Chappaquiddick, killing Mary Jo Kopechne. Light and darkness.

The moon landing, however, was considered the right stuff made of American heroism. Two books written about the moon landing, one by Norman Mailer, Of a Fire on the Moon, and Rabbit Redux, by John Updike, offer up a rich but dark tableau of the fading American dream in the fading American century. [Note to Phil Eil: If I were working as an adjunct faculty at a local university, I would teach a course about 1969, using those two books as texts.]

Mailer had begun the book after running and losing a quixotic campaign to become Mayor of New York City, teaming up with writer Jimmy Breslin, with the slogan of “Vote the rascals in.” Mailer’s deep dive into the moon landing was about the psychology of machines, the coming dominance of technology, the loss of the sense of smell, and the presence of dread in our lives, inventing his own psychology of the novelist, the navigator and the dream.

Mailer quoted President John F. Kennedy, in his 1961 speech about the nation’s commitment to place a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. “This is a new ocean, and I believe the United States must sail upon it.”

“Presumably,” Mailer wrote, “the moon was not listening, but if, in fact, she were the receiving and transmitting station of all lunacy, then she had not been ignoring the nation since. Four assassinations later; a war in Vietnam later; a burning of Black ghettos later; hippies, drugs and many student uprisings later; one Democratic Convention in Chicago seven years later; one New York school strike later; one sexual revolution later; yes, eight years of a dramatic, near-catastrophic, outright spooky decade later, we were ready to make the moon.”

Updike, through his character, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, tackled the demise of the manufacturing economy, through Angstrom’s employment working a linotype machine, the blossoming of white rage against blacks, and the fight to preserve the illusion of American power, at the same time portraying Angstrom as cognizant of his own impotence to stop the world from changing. “Thirty-six years old and he knows less than when he started. With the difference that now he knows how little he'll always know.”

Updike continues, sharing Angstrom’s thoughts: “The six o’clock news is all about space, all about emptiness: some bald man plays with little toys to show the docking and the undocking maneuvers, and then a panel talks about the significance of this for the next five hundred years. They keep mentioning Columbus but as far as Rabbit can see it’s the exact opposite: Columbus flew blind and hit something, these guys see exactly where they’re aiming at and it’s a big round nothing. The Salisbury steak tastes of preservative…”

Later on, Rabbit reflects on America: “America is beyond power. It acts as the face of God. Wherever America is, there is freedom, and wherever America is not, madness rules with chains and darkness strangles millions.”

A month after the moon landing in July, there was the Woodstock music festival in August, followed by the Charles Manson murders in Los Angeles. Light and darkness.

In September, John Lennon announced that he wanted a divorce from the Beatles. In October, the nation was captivated by the victory by the amazing New York Mets, who defeated the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series. It was also the time of the Moratorium against the Vietnam War, one of the largest nonviolent protests in the nation’s history. In Chicago, the conspiracy trial against the group of activists known as the Chicago Eight began in Judge Julius Hoffman’s courtroom. Light flowing into darkness.

In December, there was the Altamont Speedway Festival disaster, where the marketing efforts by the Rolling Stones to create a West Coast Woodstock faded in a bad trip.

A change is going to come
With the upcoming Newport Jazz Festival this weekend, my purpose here is to talk about music, in particular, the music of Miles Davis and his album, “Bitches Brew,” which was recorded a few weeks after Woodstock in 1969, to be released in 1970.

Ralph J. Gleason, the co-founder of Rolling Stone, wrote the liner notes to the album, in his iconic style of no capital letters. “listen to this. this music will change the world like the cool and walkin’ did and now that communication is faster and more complete it may change it more deeply and more quickly. what is so incredible about what miles does is whoever comes after him, whenever, wherever, they have to take him into consideration. they have to pass him to get in front, he laid it out there and you can’t avoid it. it’s not just the horn. it’s a concept. it’s a life support system for a whole world. and it’s complete in itself like all the treasures have always been.

Music, Gleason continued, “is the greatest of the arts for me because it cuts through everything, needs no aids. it is. it simply is, and in contemporary music, miles defines the terms. that’s all. it’s his turf.”

Earlier in 1969, Miles Davis had recorded, “In A Silent Way,” the forerunner to “Bitches Brew.”

For much of the next decade, the electric jazz found on these two albums redefined the world of jazz, giving birth to Weather Report, with Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul, Return to Forever with Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock with “Chameleon” on Head Hunters, and the Mahavishnu Orchestra with John McLaughlin.

Fifty years later, it remains, in my memory, in my remembered screenplay, the quintessential soundtrack for 1969. Listen for yourself.

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