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This column was written on June 14th, 2020.
Johnson portrayed Freedom – it rang just as loud as the bell proclaiming him Champion.
All forms of expression, whether artistic or not, are statements of values from the creator and are inherently political. If you can’t accept that and wish people didn’t have to be so political in their art, go fuck, and I can’t stress this enough, yourself.
In 1970, just about a year after Miles Davis recorded his groundbreaking jazz fusion album, In A Silent Way, he recorded the soundtrack to an upcoming documentary on the boxing champion, Jack Johnson. Johnson was one of the first black boxers who was “allowed” to box a white man and become the world heavyweight boxing champion, owned and operated several desegregated nightclubs in the 1910s, and was arrested, charged, and sentenced by an all-white jury for violating the Mann Act because of his relationships with white women before the Act was even passed.
In years, we’re about as removed from this record as Miles was from most of the events that made Jack Johnson a household name. But just like I feel that this album is as relevant today as ever, Miles felt a deep connection to Jack’s story. Not only as a trailblazer for Black Americans, shattering boundaries that White America fought (and still fights) so hard to uphold, but also as a victim of the system. In 1959, after releasing the masterpiece Kind Of Blue, Miles was beaten and arrested by the NYPD for not “moving on” from the steps of the club he was playing an Armed Forces Day benefit at (the Birdland, one of the most important Jazz clubs in Manhattan) after walking a white woman to her cab. Despite pointing out that he was on the marquee and had every right to be there, (“I don’t care where you work, I said move on! If you don’t move on I’m going to arrest you.” said the cop) Miles was beaten bloody and dragged off. From his autobiography:
For everyone that says it’s only about class and that if we pursue economic justice, racial justice will follow suit, you’re still as wrong as people who said that to Miles in 1959 were. As wrong as the people that said that to Jack Johnson in 1912 were. It doesn’t matter if you’re rich, a racist system is still going to abuse you if you’re not white. And then make you the villain for being angry. You’re the real racist for fighting against the system.
From Davis’ liner notes for the record:
Now I don’t know a whole lot about Jack Johnson and I’ve never seen the movie. But I can still really feel what Miles is trying to convey in his soundtrack. The first side, “Right Off” starts with a very rock and blues feeling electric guitar, drums and bass, that immediately invoke the presence that a man like Jack Johnson, a man like Miles Davis, always invokes when they walk into a room. He lets John McLaughlin’s guitar, Michael Henderson’s bass, and Billy Cobham’s drums tell the story for a few minutes, alternating between big fills and mellow lows until Miles comes in at about the 2 and a half minute mark. And he makes it clear that he’s the star here. His trumpet fills the space and reminds everyone that people like him are the reason we have jazz. The reason we have the blues. The reason we have rock n roll. Together, they build the song up to something truly magical. Until about 10 and half minutes in, everything drops out but Miles’ muted trumpet. Just long enough to remind you that hidden behind every jam that takes music to this kind of level, there’s a deep, solitary pain behind it. As much as Miles Davis was the coolest band leader who ever lived, he was still just a man. A man mistreated by the society that he made so much richer and better, just by expressing himself. But then it gets big again, and the party starts right up. For a few minutes at least. Until we get a similar bridge, this time with Steve Grossman’s sax and the bass, alone, but together. And this time, when everyone comes back in, Herbie Hancock adds his organ and it’s bigger and fuller than ever, together.
Miles always strikes a perfect balance between the highs and lows. The highs of his persona, the lows of how he was treated. The highs of his talent, the lows of everyone else’s appreciation. He saw a lot of kinship in Jack Johnson and fought against a lot of the same hateful bigotry. From his liner notes:
“Right Off” continues along the same kind of groove for a while, then about 18 and a half minutes in, until it completely changes into a heavy funk riff no one can see coming. This evolves into a groove that beautifully carries the energy of the song to it’s natural conclusion. Jack and Miles both knew that they could never become predictable or take it safe, otherwise the bigotry steeped in our culture would attack them at any opportunity they allowed. It didn’t matter that Jack was the champion of the world. Or that Miles was… well… Miles Davis. They couldn’t just be the best at one thing, they had to be the best at everything. As soon as Jack won the “fight of the century” and proved that white supremacy was a fallacy, Congress has to step in and outlaw fight films. The state stepped in to damage control the reputation of the white man. People couldn’t see that they could fight back; can’t let anyone get any ideas. Again, from the liner notes.
The second half of the record, “Yesternow” is a slower growth and more driving song. A bass melody carries the first half of it while the rest of the band peppers in phrases on top. For about twelve minutes, the band build upon this very minimalist idea until abruptly, everything stops and samples from In A Silent Way come in and remind you of the larger narrative that Davis is in the middle of. He’s still building jazz fusion, a brand new genre, just like Jack Johnson was building a new world for black athletes. But as soon as you start to fall into those comfortable, familiar habits, a new bass melody comes in. Harder, with more punch than before. The structure may seem the same on paper, but the comfortable familiarity is gone as the song jumps to a completely new place. Always keeping the audience on their toes, Davis reminds us how relentless his fight is and how he can’t let up for a second, otherwise they’ll just knock him out in the next round. The funk fades out and we’re left with a haunting trumpet melody, heightening the dissonance instead of comfortably resolving the album, and, as is becoming more and more clear every day, society follows suit. And as the final hints of melody fade out, we hear the only spoken words on the album, from the movie: