Looking Back On 'Bitches Brew': The Year Miles Davis Plugged Jazz In

Aug 21, 2019
Originally published on August 21, 2019 8:14 pm

Fifty years ago this August, Miles Davis assembled a group of musicians to record the sprawling, groundbreaking album Bitches Brew. With the sounds of Jimi Hendrix, Sly & the Family Stone and James Brown in his head, Davis plugged in and brought these electric rock sensibilities to jazz. Jazz Night in America host Christian McBride says the album's enigmatic sound was a departure for Davis — one that has rippled throughout music ever since.

"It's not really rock, it's not really funk, it's not really jazz," McBride says. "Most people would say jazz doesn't really involve loud guitars or electric piano. All of that stuff was recent in 1969."

McBride points out that Bitches Brew also showcases Davis experimental nature with the studio itself. "If you hear Miles' trumpet, it's on a tape delay," he says. "You never heard that on a jazz album before."

As McBride describes, Davis gave his band very little instruction during the Bitches Brews studio sessions. Whereas jazz is based on some sort of structure or form — some chord changes, a melody — Davis went into the initial session with only a few snippets of music for his team to work with.

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Though it was an adventurous departure for Davis, Bitches Brew was not automatically hailed as a jazz game changer when was released in March of 1970. In fact, McBride says, its controversial name and sound turned some jazz purists off.

"A lot of people felt that he was an artistic traitor," McBride says. "But I think that there were a number of college kids who were listening to progressive rock [and] soul music who absolutely loved this record."

After the album's release, it turned jazz musicians into rockstars. For years, musicians would always seem to follow where Davis was going. Sidemen of Davis fully embraced the musical shift and helmed their own successful fusion bands — from Chick Corea with Return to Forever and Wayne Shorter with Weather Report to Herbie Hancock with The Headhunters. Even in the five decades since its release, Bitches Brews remains the gold standard for jazz fusion. Artists like Thundercat and Robert Glasper carry on the legacy of Davis' experimentation.

"I'm not sure if jazz ever got unplugged," McBride says. "I think that once a seminal album like Bitches Brew, which really did inspire a whole new generation, that never died."

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Fifty years ago this week, Miles Davis and his band recorded a sprawling improvisational album. It was called "Bitches Brew," a swirling concoction of electric guitar, electric piano and special effects that signaled that jazz had finally plugged in.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS' "SPANISH KEY")

CHRISTIAN MCBRIDE, BYLINE: This album is mysterious. This album is spooky.

CORNISH: That's Christian McBride, bassist, composer and host of NPR's Jazz Night In America. He says the album's enigmatic sound was a departure for Davis.

MCBRIDE: It's not really rock. It's not really funk. It's not really jazz. Most people will say jazz doesn't really involve loud guitars...

(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS' "SPANISH KEY")

MCBRIDE: ...Or electric piano.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS' "SPANISH KEY")

MCBRIDE: All of that stuff was recent in 1969.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS' "SPANISH KEY")

MCBRIDE: You're also hearing experimentation with the studio. If you hear Miles' trumpet, it's on a tape delay.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS' "BITCHES BREW")

MCBRIDE: You never heard that on the jazz album before, like an echo.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS' "BITCHES BREW")

MCBRIDE: That's something you only heard on a rock albums.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS' "BITCHES BREW")

CORNISH: So how did Miles Davis approach this recording? What did he tell his band and sidemen as they sat down to a song like this?

MCBRIDE: Miles gave very little instruction. Everything in jazz or in improvised music is based on some sort of a structure, some sort of a form, some chord changes, a melody. Whereas during this session, Miles just kind of came in with couple of snippets, maybe a piece of sheet music with, like, four bars written out, and then you just do what you do.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS' "JOHN MCLAUGHLIN")

CORNISH: So not everyone listened to this and heard music, right?

MCBRIDE: Right.

CORNISH: I mean, the initial reaction was not, oh, this is good music.

MCBRIDE: Right. Miles Davis had established himself as such a particular type of bandleader, such a particular type of musician, and then many people saw "Bitches Brew" as this complete 180-degree turn. A lot of people felt that he was an artistic traitor. He was turning his back on this great art form that he helped to develop. A couple of years before that, the same thing happened to Bob Dylan when he played something as simple as an electric guitar. You know, people turned on him. You know, how could you do this? But I think there were a number of college kids who were listening to progressive rock, soul music, who absolutely loved this record. And the president of Columbia Records at that time, a fresh face named Clive Davis, also liked this record a lot because he saw the potential for Miles to get a new audience and move in to some new territory.

CORNISH: Can you talk about the name? Because not only was the album controversial, but the name "Bitches Brew" was controversial, right? I mean, this did not go over well.

MCBRIDE: (Laughter) It still is in many cases.

CORNISH: Yeah, and still is.

MCBRIDE: Yeah. The year before this record was recorded, Miles married Betty Davis, and Betty was 20 years Miles' junior. And Betty is into Jimi Hendrix. She's into Sly Stone. She's into Cream. She's into James Brown. And she's turning Miles on to these new sounds. And in fact, Miles originally wanted to call the album "Witches Brew." It was Betty that suggested, no, just go all the way. Call it "Bitches Brew." People talk about Miles being the fiery one. No. Betty was the one that sort of navigated Miles' ship at that time.

CORNISH: Now, I want to ask about what happened to the musicians who were involved in the years after...

MCBRIDE: Yes.

CORNISH: ...Because they helped develop the fusion bands in the years that followed - right? - whether that's Chick Corea, Return To Forever, Wayne Shorter, Weather Report. And then there are other musicians who kind of carried forward this legacy or this spirit - right? - in terms of the fusion sound. And I'm thinking of someone like Herbie Hancock and The Headhunters.

MCBRIDE: Yes, indeed.

CORNISH: Here's the song "Chameleon."

(SOUNDBITE OF HERBIE HANCOCK AND THE HEADHUNTERS' "CHAMELEON")

CORNISH: I listened to this song a lot (laughter) in college.

MCBRIDE: Oh, it was a huge hit.

CORNISH: I don't know how I got a hold of it, but, you know, it was just kind of funk fun, a little bit silly.

MCBRIDE: I think he got some of the same response that Miles got (laughter) from when he did his electric recordings.

CORNISH: Which is what is this? And what are you doing? And is jazz dead?

MCBRIDE: Right. What are you doing?

CORNISH: Yeah.

MCBRIDE: You're a jazz guy. What are you doing making this funk recording? Are you crazy? Herbie's like, yeah, I'm crazy like a fox.

(SOUNDBITE OF HERBIE HANCOCK AND THE HEADHUNTERS' "CHAMELEON")

CORNISH: How long did jazz stay plugged in?

MCBRIDE: I'm not sure if jazz ever became unplugged. There are certain parts of the music that got more attention than others. Like, for example, in the '80s, when Wynton Marsalis came around and what they call neoclassical jazz artists came on the scene and became very, very popular, there was still a lot of electric jazz going on at that time. So I think that once a seminal album like "Bitches Brew" came along, which really did inspire a whole new generation, that never died.

(SOUNDBITE OF HERBIE HANCOCK AND THE HEADHUNTERS' "CHAMELEON")

CORNISH: I want to talk about some artists of today. People look to Thundercat, for instance, or Robert Glasper and hear some of the legacy of Davis' experimentation. Can you talk about the connection?

MCBRIDE: I think there are a lot of really amazing artists out there who are doing some things with acoustic jazz, electronica, funk, fusion, whatever you want to call it. But Robert Glasper was probably the first person that comes to mind because when he first came on the scene, he established himself as a straight-ahead jazz artist...

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBERT GLASPER'S "RISE AND SHINE")

MCBRIDE: ...And then, in many people's eyes, took a turn.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBERT GLASPER SONG, "CHERISH THE DAY")

MCBRIDE: And I know a lot of people in the jazz world don't like that (laughter) you know, but it's working for him, so, hey, right on, brother.

CORNISH: Do you think jazz is more forgiving than it used to be?

MCBRIDE: I think so. I really think so. Inside the last 50 years, there have been so many artists that do so many different things. You think of the people who came out of Miles Davis' groups at that time, somebody like a Herbie Hancock or a Chick Corea. They're always changing. They go back to doing their straight-ahead. They do a little funk. Chick Corea has, like, 41 bands on the road right now, you know, all doing different things. You know, a lot of music has happened in the last 50 years. So I think as time progresses, you're going to hear more artists experimenting with a lot of different things.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBERT GLASPER SONG, "CHERISH THE DAY")

CORNISH: Well, Christian, thank you so much for walking us through it and helping us, you know, understand the bridge between these songs and these artists.

MCBRIDE: It's always a pleasure to speak with you, Audie.

CORNISH: Christian McBride - bassist, composer and host of NPR's Jazz Night In America, which just released a full episode about "Bitches Brew," which you can hear at npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHERISH THE DAY")

LALAH HATHAWAY: (Singing) Cherish the day, won't go astray, won't be afraid, won't catch me running, oh no, cherish the day, won't go astray. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.