(The following is an adapted excerpt from
Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, to be published
by Bloomsbury Academic on October 22.)
Bitches Brew is a great work of abstract music inside the sounds, beats, and riffs of commercial music, and one of the most unique documents of the recorded era. The effect the album had on jazz and rock was shattering, disruptive in ways that make an abject mockery of the contemporary vainglorious use of that word by people who only wish to make money. Bitches Brew is like Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and Le Sacre du printemps, works of craft and imagination that slammed the coffin lid on an old way of doing things and opened up an entirely new universe of aesthetic and technical possibilities. Like those works, it is both carefully organized and roughly made, it borrows from materials and methods that came both before and from outside the tradition in which it appears. The album, the picture, and the ballet composition stand alone as masterpieces while also eliding important transitions in cultural history. Each of these works is made with a confident mastery that juxtaposes fixed result with unsettled form: Picasso’s painting is literally unfinished, Stravinsky’s virgin returns with the cycle of the seasons to dance herself to death, Bitches Brew, like a baseball field, never comes to an organic end, it is arbitrarily limited to the physical side of an LP.
In defiance of every prescribed notion of how pop, rock, and jazz were (and are) supposed to go, Bitches Brew resolutely rejects musical resolution. There are tracks, but there are no songs, no double-bar lines, nothing to neatly round off the end of a stretch of music. There are only two tracks on the entire first LP of the set “Pharaoh’s Dance,” at twenty minutes, takes up the whole of side A, and the B side is packed with the twenty-seven minutes’ duration of the title track, twenty-seven minutes of music far darker and more threatening than what’s heard on the obverse.
Aesthetically there had been nothing like it before, and little like it after. One reason is that the record accomplishes something that is supposed to be impossible in the era of late capitalism, where anything that is not yet monetized and commodified strives to be branded and sold: Bitches Brew is some of the most experimental, avant-garde art music made in the history of Western culture—and the record was a broad commercial success. One of the best-selling albums Miles Davis ever made, and thus one of the best selling jazz albums ever made, it sold around a half million copies in 1970, when it was released, and had sold 1,000,000 copies—platinum, baby—as of 2003. Bitches Brew has been a sub rosa presence in rock and jazz ever since, seething, spreading slowly. Forty years after, the ideas and possibilities that it tossed out into the world are still rippling out along the surface. For a work with such an immediate, even physical, effect, that’s an unexpectedly long gestation.
One reason for that, correct though superficial, is that the music is rock, not jazz, and therefore, as the more reflexively reactionary critics like Stanley Crouch suggest, it is shallow, vulgar, cheap, a sell-out with no aesthetic value. True enough, the music is rock, and it sold; even mediocre records by mildly popular rock groups sell better than jazz, and did in the 1960s. Even taking into account Davis’s relative superstardom, he wasn’t making money like rock stars were. Davis, like every other highly skilled professional musician, wanted to get paid, and he envied the financial rewards that went to the likes of Jimi Hendrix. So he made a rock record. He sold out.
But of course he didn’t sell out, and he didn’t make a rock record. If rock is just a 4/4 beat and an electric guitar, those are all over the album. But music is defined not by instruments, but by how they are played and used, what is made with them. Bitches Brew is resolutely experimental music making, exhilarating and discomfiting, depending on the listener.
By 1969, the jazz world had found some way toward accommodation with “The New Thing,” but much of that music was still based in tunes, though the playing extrapolated freely from them. Structural avant-gardists like Cecil Taylor weren’t laying down the pulse, beat, and groove that Miles was. Soulful, funky jazz like Lee Morgan’s records, or the music Cannonball Adderley was putting out were firmly inside song-structure. Hendrix, as soaringly creative as he was, worked within the limits of the blues, soul and rock music. Tony Williams’s contemporaneous Lifetime band was playing rock—they were the first fusion band—along with jazz, but Miles wasn’t making rock, even with Lifetime guitarist McLaughlin, an essential part of the Bitches Brew sessions, second only to the leader himself.
Or, second to the leaders. Bitches Brew would have been impossible without the contributions of producer Teo Macero, Miles’s longtime, essential collaborator in the recording studio from the time the trumpeter signed with Columbia records. Macero made the record with Miles. Miles played and guided the band, while Macero composed the album by fitting together stretches of the tape recordings into—what? Some kind of finished form.
Razor blade, splicing block, tape: basic tools at any recording studio of the time, but normally used to fit the best sections of different takes of a song together into the ideal version to go on a record. Anathema in the jazz recording session, which valued the live take, the band playing together from start to finish. Play a few versions and choose the best one at playback to put in the can.
Bitches Brew was recorded in Columbia’s studios on 30th street in Manhattan. Travel a few miles uptown from there to the West Side, and you reach the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Studio. In 1969, you would find razor blade, splicing block and tape there too. They were used to literally shape a piece of finished music out of physical material, pieces of recording tape with the magnetic particles arranged to hold captured sounds of any kind. A solid music, a musique concrète, composed at the very edge of experimental classical music.
Macero made Bitches Brew the same way. There were no real charts for the producer to follow, just a few sketches from Miles, his own reworking of Zawinul’s “Pharaoh’s Dance,” recorded fragments that were sorted by quality and combined to make something that the musicians never heard but that Miles and Macero imagined in their heads. The three-day session was just the band playing while Miles, in his inimitable style, prodded them and intimidated them into giving him something interesting, something new. The reels of tape rolled, the music was captured as raw material, cut and spliced into an album. What came out was the avant-garde with soul and a beat, musique concrète you could dance to, rock that blew away the complacency of jazz, and jazz that mocked the limitations of rock. Hated by those who love it, loved by those who hate it, all of these, none of these, more than these. There is literally no other recording anything like Bitches Brew, and there is little in or outside music like it: an absolute document of a moment in culture that sharply, even brutally, separates what had come before from what might still come after.
GEORGE GRELLA is the Rail’s music editor.