Format: 4 CDs
At the dawn of the 1960s, trumpeter Miles Davis -- then 33 -- was on the cusp of reaching a new level in his career. Five years into a lucrative recording contract with Columbia Records, he was, along with Duke Ellington, the only black musician in the upper echelons of the prestigious label’s roster. His band -- featuring saxophonist John Coltrane, pianist Wynton Kelly, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Jimmy Cobb -- was a popular attraction throughout the US. Supplemented by saxophonist Cannonball Adderley and pianist Bill Evans, the band had released Kind of Blue four months earlier, and the album was already garnering the critical reception that would eventually make it one of the most respected recordings in the history of jazz. Outside of music, Davis was being cited by cultural observers like Playboy magazine as an icon of sartorial and behavioral style. He wore tailored Italian suits, drove a Ferrari, lived in a three-story brownstone on New York City’s Upper West Side, and was married to an equally fashionable former Broadway dancer.
But Davis still had other challenges to conquer. Although he had appeared in Europe, he had never headlined with his own group there. Davis also knew that performing in European concert halls could be used as a lever to move him beyond the nightclubs where he plied his trade in his home country. As he reflected in later years, one incident, just eight days after Kind of Blue was released, fueled his desire for greater respect.
On the evening of August 25, 1959, Davis was lounging between his band’s sets outside the Birdland nightclub on Broadway in Midtown Manhattan. Having escorted a white woman to a taxi at the curb, he was approached by NYPD patrolman Gerald Kilduff and told to “move on.” When the musician replied that he was leading the band at the club, the confrontation escalated to the point where Davis was bloodied by a detective’s nightstick. Davis was taken into custody and charged with assault. Photographs of the wounded Davis, accompanied by his wife, Frances, appeared in New York City newspapers the following day -- an incendiary image as racial tension escalated in the country.
In January 1960, Davis was acquitted of the charges, but his desire to rise above the racism ingrained in the US had never been stronger. A proud man who grew up on the horse ranch owned by his father, a dentist, Davis was reminded that his status wouldn’t let him escape racially motivated police violence.
Around the same time, Davis received an offer from impresario Norman Granz to co-headline a lengthy European tour with Canadian pianist Oscar Peterson and saxophonist Stan Getz. Beginning in Paris on March 21, the tour would visit 20 cities, ranging as far afield as Oslo, Norway, and Milan, Italy. This was the type of opportunity that Davis sought. Understandably, he wanted to make an impression.
But Davis had a problem. His band, already diminished by the departure of Adderley in the fall of 1959, faced another desertion.
Coltrane was also on the verge of a substantial elevation in his career. Recruited by Davis in October 1955, when he was 29, the saxophonist had been restlessly searching for new forms of musical expression. Already an extraordinary improviser when he made his debut with Davis’s quintet, by 1959 it was clear that he was a singular artist who was re-defining both the saxophone as a jazz instrument and many people’s understanding of how harmony could be employed.
Davis had fired him in 1957, when Coltrane was in the grasp of heroin addiction, but the saxophonist had overcome his drug habit during his time with pianist Thelonious Monk and rejoined Davis’s band stronger than ever in January 1958. His practice regimen had already become legendary; at clubs, between sets, he could be found backstage, practicing scales. Onstage, his solos became increasingly longer, as he drove his horn through torrents of notes and complex chord changes -- an approach that critic Ira Gitler famously termed “sheets of sound.” Increasingly, while he admitted that Davis’s group allowed him unprecedented freedom, Coltrane was feeling that he wanted to form his own band. In January 1959, while Davis’s band was at Birdland, Coltrane told fellow saxophonist Wayne Shorter that he planned to leave.
A year later, Coltrane’s restlessness had escalated to the point where he formally gave Davis his notice. When Davis told him that the band was booked to headline in Europe, Coltrane balked.
“Trane didn’t want to make the European trip and was ready to move out before we left,” Davis wrote in the autobiography he co-authored with Quincy Troupe in 1989. “If he had quit right then he would have really hung me up because nobody else knew the songs, and this tour was real important. He decided to go with us, but he grumbled and complained and sat by himself all the time we were over there.”
Looking back from the distance of 48 years, Cobb -- the sole surviving member of the band -- can’t say what made Coltrane change his mind.
“I don’t know if Miles had to beg him to do that tour or what,” Cobb told me in a phone interview earlier this year.
The elderly drummer does know that it seemed that Coltrane hadn’t really prepared for the three-week sojourn. Cobb says his bandmate traveled with just a small airline flight bag that contained an extra dress shirt and his toiletries.
Another musician who was meant to be in the band failed to even make the plane. Davis intended on playing a number of the songs from Kind of Blue, and without Adderley he needed another voice to fill out the group’s sound. During the closing weeks of that winter Davis had selected vibraphonist Buddy Montgomery, the younger brother of guitarist Wes Montgomery, and he had played a number of dates in California. But Montgomery hated to fly, and the prospect of a trans-Atlantic flight was too much for him; he made it as far as the departure lounge of New York City’s Idlewild Airport before he bailed on the tour.
So Davis, Cobb, Kelly, Chambers, and a disgruntled Coltrane boarded the flight and headed for Paris.
Although he had never headlined as a leader in Paris, Davis was already revered there. An early hero of the French New Wave movement, in 1957 the trumpeter improvised the soundtrack to director Louis Malle’s thriller Ascenseur pour l'échafaud. Also, since 1949, when he first played in Paris in an all-star group, Davis had maintained a love affair with French actress Juliette Gréco, and he was outspoken about his respect for France.
Despite his longstanding membership in Davis’s band, Parisian jazz fans were not as familiar with Coltrane -- at least not the Coltrane who would arrive onstage at L’Olympia Theater on March 21. As the saxophonist told Swedish musician Erik Lindgren in a radio interview that is included in this four-CD set, he had “a whole bag of things I’m trying to figure out.”
Even his landmark album, Giant Steps, which had been released in the US six weeks earlier, only hinted at how Coltrane was radically reworking his approach to harmony and changing the tone of his horn. As Cobb told me this year, what Coltrane was working out in concert with Davis was not always appreciated. The drummer laughed as he recounted the time during the winter of 1960 that a woman jumped up at a show and yelled at Davis, “Make him stop.”
The opening Paris concert, recorded for broadcast by the Europe 1 radio network, begins benignly enough with Cole Porter’s “All of You.” The piece starts at a moderate pace, with Davis playing muted trumpet at his lyrical best, leaving lots of space between his phrases. Coltrane steps to the microphone at the four-minute mark, and for the first three minutes of his solo he sounds little different than he had on earlier dates with Davis. By 7:50, however, it’s clear he is taking the song into uncharted territory. He begins turning phrases in on themselves, sounding gruff and urgent. At 8:40 he starts to introduce some harsh-sounding overtones, rocking back and forth on notes and bending his tones. It’s impossible, of course, to listen with virgin ears, but judging by the derisive whistling that erupts at this point one might surmise that some in the audience thought Coltrane resembled a squeaky barn door blowing in the wind.
Yet for all the opposition that can be heard, others are clearly digging it. When the song ends the cheering drowns out the naysayers. It’s clear, though, that this moment represents as deep a musical schism as would occur five years later when Bob Dylan took The Hawks on tour with him to Britain and France, or for that matter, 47 years earlier when Igor Stravinsky debuted The Rite of Spring.
The band moves on to a new piece, “So What,” from Kind of Blue. The tempo is up, and Davis is playing more assertively and muscularly than he would again until the late ’60s. Cobb is demonstrating why Davis chose him for this band over the longstanding incumbent, Philly Joe Jones. His rippling accompaniment and crisp fills are exceptionally propulsive. Once again, Coltrane comes out of the gate with a radically arpeggiated and aggressive solo filled with hoarse cries and long skeins of notes.
Throughout the two Paris shows -- seven songs in all -- the dynamic remains the same: Davis plays emotive, air-filled passages, and Coltrane responds with long, abstract choruses, with only oblique references to the material at hand.
The following night, at the Konserthuset in Stockholm, Sweden, the group sounds much different. They waste no time jumping into the new material, beginning with a jaunty version of “So What.” Coltrane’s solo, while still raw-toned and fiery, is more linear. The remainder of the opening show -- versions of Davis’s “Fran Dance” and his repertoire standard “Walkin’” -- stay in that vein, with Coltrane pouring out torrents of notes but maintaining the logic of the versions audiences had heard on recordings.
The second Stockholm show illustrates just how advanced the quintet was; clearly these are five musicians fitting their individual ideas together, but they are individuals who occasionally pull at the center of a composition -- stretching the meter, inserting odd changes, leaving unexpected pauses -- as if to test the tensile strength of the material and the unit’s ability to keep it moving forward. Davis’s second great quintet -- with Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams -- would become famous for this, but this band was also pushing at boundaries.
On March 24, the tour landed in Copenhagen, Denmark, and yet another face of the band emerged. The version of “So What” is even brisker, with Davis crossing over with Coltrane rather than simply handing off to him. Instead of exploding, the saxophonist begins by taking things down a notch and then reeling off a solo that sounds like it could move into another dimension but maintaining focus and direction. On the version of the standard “On Green Dolphin Street” that follows, Coltrane sounds more like a bopper than a revolutionary, playfully toying with the harmony while still coloring within the lines. Again, on “All Blues,” another new song from Kind of Blue, he sticks relatively close to his recorded solo for the most part, only exploring his new territory toward the end of his five-minute solo.
Like the Paris show, the Stockholm and Copenhagen shows were recorded by the state radio networks, but getting the best source material proved to be a challenge for Steve Berkowitz, who co-produced the set along with Michael Cuscuna and Richard Seidel. He had high-quality quarter-inch tapes of Paris and Stockholm, but the Danish show had a phasing problem. Eventually, he located the original recording and had a digital transfer made just in time to make the deadline for mastering the set by Mark Wilder at Battery Studios, in New York City. Those who have heard the various unauthorized recordings of shows from the tour -- and there have been many of those -- will be pleasantly surprised. The separation is excellent, and Davis and Coltrane are well-miked. The recordings lack the kind of depth most listeners have come to expect from live concerts, but the entire band can be heard. The audience sound is good enough that you can’t miss the divisive response to Coltrane.
Following the tour, Davis and Coltrane went their separate ways. On May 3, 1960, Coltrane debuted his own group at New York’s Jazz Gallery, and six days later Davis opened at Philadelphia’s Showboat with veteran bop saxophonist Sonny Stitt in Coltrane’s spot. Davis, always proud, was loath to expose his feelings about Coltrane’s departure, but 17 years after the tour -- a decade after Coltrane’s premature death from liver cancer -- he let his guard down to a friend. Two years into what would become a six-year self-imposed exile from music, Davis dropped by Eric Nisenson’s apartment in Manhattan. A journalist and book editor, Nisenson had befriended Davis just as the trumpeter slipped out of the public view, and he played the roles of both biographer and sometime drug source. Nisenson had obtained one of the early bootlegs of the European tour, and when Davis visited he decided to entertain his friend by playing it. Always mercurial, Davis’s mood suddenly darkened, and he averted his eyes, which had teared up.
“Why’d you play that, Eric?” Davis snarled in his signature raspy whisper (the product of a failed throat operation in the early ’50s).
Reflecting on that exchange, years after Davis’s death in 1991, Nisenson told me that he realized then how much Coltrane had meant to the trumpeter. And he remembered another fact -- in his house on West 77th Street, Davis kept only one photograph of another musician: Coltrane. Their chemistry could not be matched, and it’s on display in all its Technicolor glory here.
. . . James Hale