Miles Davis’ Nephew Recalls the Untold History of the Jazz Legend in ‘Birth of the Cool’

Vince Wilburn Jr. relives iconic uncle’s dark days in new doc premiering in LA tomorrow

Last Updated: August 29, 2019 @ 2:29 PM

Miles Davis vowed never to live in the past. He never even kept any of his old records in his house. He was known for changing his outfits five to six times a day. Every time the jazz icon picked up the trumpet, his focus was the future of his sound. Fortunately, the latest Davis documentary “Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool” — premiering in L.A. Friday at the Landmark Theater and various Laemmle theaters  Sep.6– offers more than a simple look at his immortal history. It peels back the curtain for an honest look at the man behind it.

“Uncle Miles sacrificed everything for music, music was first in his life,” Davis’ nephew Vince Wilburn Jr. tells TheWrap. In addition to producing the current documentary, Wilburn Jr. also co-produced the highly-stylized, 2015 biopic “Miles Ahead” starring and directed by Don Cheadle.

“People always think they knew Miles, but this film really depicts what the man was about. He was sensitive, he was harsh, he was rash, but all he was really trying to do was push music forward. He had to sacrifice to do it.”

“Birth of the Cool” (distributed by Abramorama) is a two-hour journey examining Davis’ life as a genius, a tortured soul and a devoted student of many styles of music beyond jazz, from Baroque to classical Indian. It also delves into his dark side offstage — his problems with depression, money, women and drugs — adding deeper context to the average fan’s understanding Davis’ demons and divine inspiration.

With full access to the Miles Davis Estate, the film features never-before-seen footage, including studio outtakes from his recording sessions, rare photos and new interviews. Quincy Jones, Carlos Santana, Clive Davis, Wayne Shorter and Ron Carter are just a few of the luminaries weighing in on Davis’ life and career. 

The voice of the documentary’s narrator Carl Lumbly affects a low raspy tone eerily identical to the legend himself, a trait Davis developed after a throat surgery gone awry. With an authentic voicing of inspiration, excitement and sorrow of his life, it’s as if Miles is speaking the truth directly to us.

As one of the few people in the world to actually have that experience with Davis, Wilburn Jr., a producer for the documentary, says “Birth of the Cool” offers a portrayal of his uncle’s life that is expansive, accurate and unflinching.

“We wanted you to know the sensitive side of him, the dark side of him and what made Miles Miles,” Wilburn Jr. said.

Directed by Stanley Nelson, the doc dutifully tackles all eras in Davis’ life from his time growing up as the middle child of an affluent black family in Alton, Illinois, to his time playing with Charlie Parker at Birdland, building his legend in Paris and innovating on the trumpet alchemizing funk and jazz in the ’70s. 

One period Wilburn Jr. knows the most about were the missing years between late 1975 to 1980 when Davis stopped performing and hardly ever picked up his horn. He remembers this era of depression depicted in the film where his famous uncle seemed disinterested in the skills that made him a legend. 

“My family is close-knit and Uncle Miles and my dad and uncles are all proud African American men and just to go to the house and see the curtains drawn, the ashes, cigarette butts and beer bottles, it was traumatic for me to see that,” Wilburn Jr. remembers. 

While visiting his uncle in New York as a child, the jazz legend would sometimes leave him alone in his apartment and be gone for two or three days at a time. “I would be there alone,” he recalls. “I just wanted him to play music.”

Wilburn Jr., the son of Miles’ sister Dorothy Mae Davis, grew up in Chicago and remembers watching his famous uncle on stage from the curtain wings as a five-year-old whenever his famous uncle would come to town. The music legend would often refer to him as “Neph.”

“I was too young to know the magnitude of the man, I just knew he was my uncle, he made music and everybody loved him,” he says. “Then as I got older and started getting into music and playing drums, I said I want him here forever if I could have him here.”

During Davis’ dormant, depressed period, Wilburn Jr. clung to those memories and savored every opportunity to learn from his uncle as he grew up and became a drummer himself. Occasionally Davis would tell him stories about how friend and bandmate Max Roach played so fast he made his lips bleed trying to catch up with him. In middle age, Davis never lost his wit, honesty or his harsh sailor’s tongue.

“Even when he stopped playing he would doodle on the trumpet here and there and I would be like ‘Uncle Miles that sounds great,’ and he’d say ‘F– you!’ because he knew it wasn’t,” Wilburn Jr. says with a laugh.

One thing Davis never lost was his ear for talent or ability to bring the best out of the players he assembled: John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock and Dizzy Gillespie among them.

By 1980, Wilburn Jr. had matured into an accomplished drummer and had a band that his uncle soon took interest in. Rehearsing inside his mother’s basement in Chicago, Davis would often call the house just to hear them play through the phone and critique them — a daunting prospect for any musician but one that ultimately paid off for the band.

“One day after three or four weeks I guess he saw something in us and he said ‘Do y’all wanna make a record?’ Wilburn Jr. remembers. Within days of the conversation, Davis flew his nephew and the band to New York to be part of the band assembled to record 1981’s “The Man With the Horn.” 

This period of resurgence for Davis is highlighted in the documentary. It spends considerable time on the latter era of Davis’ career and his collaborations with a new generation of musicians that included Marcus Miller, Prince and hip-hop producer Easy Mo Bee. 

He called Russell Simmons one day and had a string of DJs come by his apartment in New York and he was auditioning all these DJs to play with him,” Wilburn Jr. said. “He dug a Tribe Called Quest.” 

Currently, Wilburn Jr. says the estate is working with rapper Q-Tip on a remix for “In a Silent Way.”

During the dawn of MTV, Wilburn Jr. said Davis was a habitual viewer. Anything he heard or saw that he dug, he turned the sound up. “I lived with him in Malibu with my cousin Erin [Davis] and back then it was Scritti Politti, Cameo, Prince, Mr. Mister and he would turn something up that interested him, then he’d call the label up and the label would send him the records,” he said. 

Davis’ appreciation of pop music inspired him to cover songs like “Broken Wings,” “Human Nature,” and “Time After Time.” It’s no wonder that the length of his decades-long career in music is as admired as the music itself.

“How many cats you know who played with Prince and Charlie Parker?” Wilburn Jr. asked rhetorically. “That’s the range of where Uncle Miles was thinking — and past that.”

Though the documentary ends at Davis’ death from pneumonia in 1991 without focusing too much on the generations inspired by him in his absence, it’s a fact that pretty much goes without saying. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the recording of seminal crossover album “Bitches Brew” (1969) and the 60th anniversary “Kind of Blue” (1959) which is still the top-selling jazz album of all time. His role in the evolution of pop, hip-hop, EDM and myriads of yet-to-be-named genres stands as a testament to not only his legacy but the fans and people closest to him who keep it going. 

As a tribute to his late uncle, Wilburn Jr. recently recorded new tracks for the “Rubberband” Davis’ lost album shelved in 1985, with original producers Randy Hall and Zane Giles. The album will be released on Sep. 6 on Rhino Records. He’s also the bandleader for the all-star ensemble dubbed the Miles Electric Band featuring a rotating cast of top-tier musicians and Miles Davis alumni that frequently performs for schools of up and coming musicians.

“I can’t be Miles, but sometimes I have dreams of him, he comes to me and just smiles and disappears so I think I’m on the right track,” Wilburn Jr. said. At the end of the day, he says the best way he can honor his uncle, aside from producing documentaries like “Birth of the Cool” is to keep advancing his style and his music however he can. It’s how Miles would’ve wanted it.

 “I catch a lot of flack sometimes, but we as a family can’t keep re-issuing the same albums and songs. You kinda wanna take it someplace else, which is what he would wanna do…he’d probably be into Kanye or Thundercat, the Foo Fighters, Radiohead …who knows man?” 

“Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool” premieres on August 30 at the Landmark Theater (Director Stanley Nelson and Davis family members Vince Wilburn Jr. (Miles’s nephew) and Erin Davis (Miles’s son) will be present for opening weekend Q&A’s) and various Laemmle Theaters in LA on Sep. 6.

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