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Pharaoh's Dance: The Making Of Miles Davis' Bitches Brew

In the 1960s, jazz was considered “commercially dead.” The most popular genre of the past three decades had finally given way to the more successful sounds of rock music.

By then, Miles Davis had already made significant contributions to jazz music. He laid the groundwork for cool jazz in the early 1950s with Birth of Cool, and in 1959 he released the best-selling jazz album of all time, Kind of Blue. Yet, his most groundbreaking work still lay ahead.  

In 1970, Davis released Bitches Brew, which has been described as one of the “most revolutionary albums in jazz history.” It’s also credited with “solidifying the genre known as jazz-rock fusion,” and sparking a resurgence in the popularity of jazz music. Read on to learn more about the making of this classic album and its lasting legacy.

Concocting a Cauldron of Bitches Brew
Bitches Brew was recorded at Columbia's Studio B over three days in the summer of 1969. Producer Teo Macero says, “With Miles, it was always about when he was available. He’d call me up in the middle of the night and say (Imitates Miles) 'Listen to this!' and he’d play something for 40 minutes on the phone!”

Davis intentionally assembled a team of 13 session musicians on very short notice, in order to capture a more spontaneous performance. Most of the musicians had never rehearsed the material, and some of them had never even heard it.

According to Davis“I brought in these musical sketches that nobody had seen, just like I did on Kind of Blue and In a Silent Way.”

These sketches were the only direction given to the players. They would typically include a tempo, maybe a few chords or notes he’d like to focus on and that’s it. Davis felt this “forced musicians to pay close attention to one another, to their own performances, or to Davis's cues, which could change at any moment.”

If you listen closely, you can actually hear Davis snapping his fingers to denote the tempo, or whispering notes to the musicians on some songs. He described the sessions in Miles: The Autobiography:

“I would direct, like a conductor, once we started to play, and I would either write down some music for somebody or would tell him to play different things I was hearing, as the music was growing, coming together. While the music was developing I would hear something that I thought could be extended or cut back. So that recording was a development of the creative process, a living composition. It was like a fugue, or motif, that we all bounced off of. After it had developed to a certain point, I would tell a certain musician to come in and play something else. I wish we had thought of videotaping that whole session. That was a great recording session, man.”

Drummer Lenny White recalls: Bitches Brew was like a big pot and Miles was the sorcerer. He was hanging over it, saying, ‘I’m going to add a dash of Jack DeJohnette, and a little bit of John McLaughlin, and then I’m going to add a pinch of Lenny White. And here’s a teaspoonful of Bennie Maupin playing the bass clarinet.’ He made that work. He got the people together who he thought would make an interesting combination... It was a big, controlled experiment, and Miles had a vision that came true.”

Much of that experimentation was due to the influence of producer Teo Macero: “I always encouraged him to use electronic equipment. If we didn’t have it, I’d order it. In the studio I was always free-flowing. I wanted things to really happen. I wanted things to be spontaneous. Because I knew from my past experiences what one could do with a raw tape.”

The Man Behind the Curtain
Macero and Davis already had a long history together by the time they worked on Bitches Brew. Macero started producing for Davis in 1958 on Milestones, and had worked on nearly every album since then, including the infamous Kind of Blue. By now, Macero had earned Davis’ trust, and was able to take some liberties in the editing process. In an interview with The Wire in 1994, Macero stated:

“I had carte blanche to work with the material. I could move anything around and what I would do is record everything, right from beginning to end, mix it all down and then take all those tapes back to the editing room and listen to them and say: ‘This is a good little piece here, this matches with that, put this here,’ etc, and then add in all the effects-the electronics, the delays and overlays. [I would] be working it out in the studio and take it back and re-edit it-front to back, back to front and the middle somewhere else and make it into a piece. I was a madman in the engineering room. Right after I’d put it together I’d send it to Miles and ask, ‘How do you like it?’ And he used to say, ‘That’s fine,’ or ‘That’s OK,’ or ‘I thought you’d do that.’ He never saw the work that had to be done on those tapes. I’d have to work on those tapes for four or five weeks to make them sound right.”

Macero edited the Bitches Brew sessions so heavily some of the session musicians didn’t even recognize the material after he was finished with it. Macero recalls:

“A couple of people came into the studio and said this stuff is dynamite. And I said “I know! But when we’re finished with it, it’s going to be even better… I knew that we had something. With all the electronics and the gimmicks. I don’t think he was aware of what really went on in the editing. A lot of the musicians would tell me they’d hear the songs on the radio and say 'Who the hell is that?' And someone would say 'That’s Miles’ new record.' And they would say ‘I was on that record! Is that what we did?’”

The Legacy of Bitches Brew
Bitches Brew was released by Columbia Records on March 30th, 1970. It was originally met with mixed reviews but won the Grammy Award for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album in 1971. It went on to become Davis' first gold-certified album, and eventually sold over a million copies.

Rolling Stone credits the album with sparking a resurgence in the popularity of jazz, and “opening the eyes of music-industry executives to the sales potential of jazz-oriented music.”

However, Davis often felt that he never got the credit he deserved. In an interview from 1973, Davis said “As long as I’ve been playing, they never say I done anything. They always say that some white guy did it.”

In his autobiography, Davis stated, “Some people have written that doing Bitches Brew was Teo Macero’s idea. That’s a lie, because they didn’t have nothing to do with none of it. Again, it was white people trying to give some credit to other white people where it wasn’t deserved, because the record became a breakthrough concept, very innovative. They were going to rewrite history after the fact like they always do.”

Regardless of his thoughts on who was credited for the success of Bitches Brew, Miles Davis will always be remembered for taking a chance and creating a new kind of art that helped to propel an important musical genre.   

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