Fifty years ago, on Feb. 12, 1964, Miles Davis led a band through one of the most exciting gigs to ever take place at New York's Philharmonic Hall. The show was a cultural event: a benefit for voter registration in Louisiana and Mississippi at the high point of the the civil rights movement, and an unofficial homage to John F. Kennedy, who had been assassinated a few months before. And the recording of the evening would turn into not one, but two live albums: the ballad-based My Funny Valentine and the more frenetic Four & More.
Journalist and critic Colin Fleming considers this show one of three or four greatest concerts ever given. The irony, he says, is that the experience was miserable for the musicians, who'd had an argument just before showtime.
"Miles Davis is 37 at this point; his drummer, virtuoso drummer Tony Williams, is 18; Herbie Hancock, the pianist, is 23," Fleming tells NPR's Rachel Martin. "Davis says, 'We're doing this for free.' And he's rich — drives, like, a Ferrari. Everyone else is like, 'No, we're not doing it for free.' They have a big row, they go on, and basically they play this kind of speed-metal, punk, thrash-jazz, with Davis acting almost as conductor.
"They knew the setting and the moment was unique; they thought they were absolutely rubbish, though. It wasn't until they heard the tapes later that it was like, 'Oh, my. Wow. We absolutely nailed it.'"
For more on that night, click the audio link on this page.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Fifty years ago, on February 12, 1964, jazz legend Miles Davis led a band through one of the most exciting, accomplished, and singular gigs to ever take place at New York's Philharmonic Hall.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I know you agree it's been wonderful. How about if we hear it from Miles Davis and the gentlemen?
MARTIN: Journalist and critic Colin Fleming joins us from studios of member station WBUR in Boston, to talk about this seminal performance. Welcome to the program, Colin.
COLIN FLEMING: Thank you, Rachel.
MARTIN: So, Colin, you consider this to be one of the three or four greatest concerts ever given? That's high praise. How did this come about?
FLEMING: Well, most of the time, even if you have a classic live jazz recording, it's almost always a work-a-day gig, whereas this was an event. It was in Philharmonic Hall, for starters, which you wouldn't go there normally if you were a jazz man. It was where the New York Philharmonic played. It was for a voter registration in Louisiana and Mississippi, this being the high point of the Civil Rights Movement. And though this wasn't acknowledged, it was an homage really for JFK who have been assassinated, of course, just a few months before.
So two albums were cleaved from this very high stress, part with your breakfast kind of jazz gig.
FLEMING: One of them was a ballad based album called "My Funny Valentine." Now Miles Davis was no technical Dizzy Gillespie type of virtuoso, as a trumpet player. He was something of an emotional virtuoso and that resonated well with the event, because right from the opening - "My Funny Valentine" number of that particular album - there's a vulnerability to his playing that really lends itself to a kind of synergy between the musicians and the audience. And you can even hear that coming through on the tape.
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MARTIN: Miles Davis was at his career mid-point of sorts. What was happening for him in February 1964? How was his music changing at that point?
FLEMING: He was between what we call the first and second great quintets. The first one featured John Coltrane on tenor saxophone. The second one featured Wayne Shorter. So at this point, he was - I almost think of it, he was a shape shifter mage. He'd gone through so many different iterations of jazz. This is sort of like the chamber music era of jazz for him.
Now, it makes for a handy counterpoint with this show. There's a version of "Stella by Starlight" added. He recorded the same song in 1958. And when I think about that version, it's very coloristic. It's almost a kind of musical stained glass. And Davis's trumpet lines act as a kind of musical tracery even.
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FLEMING: When we come to the '64 Philharmonic version of "Stella by Starlight," which was a jazz standard from, of all things, a 1944 ghost picture called "The Uninvited." Davis's playing is more introspective. It's more melismatic. I think of it almost as blown glass in this instance.
There's this wonderful album that Charlie Parker, the alto saxophonist, recorded with a trumpet player called Fats Navarro. And Fats Navarro is a guy, but he had the unfortunate nickname of Fat Girl.
FLEMING: So he's playing the solo on this album and it's just an amazing solo. And someone in the crowd shouts out: Blow, Fat Girl. And he goes to a different level. This to me is Miles Davis's Blow Fat Girl moment...
FLEMING: ...albeit from a more introspective standpoint.
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MARTIN: So that's Davis's version of "Stella by Starlight," which was on the ballads album that came out of this performance. What about the other album? You mentioned that there were two that came about.
FLEMING: Yeah, there was a second one called "Four and More." And here's where things get a little odd. Before going onstage, Miles Davis - he's 37 at this point - his drummer, virtuoso drummer Tony Williams is 18; Herbie Hancock, the pianist, is 23. Davis says: We're doing this for free. And he's rich drives, like, a Ferrari.
FLEMING: Everyone else is like, no, we're not doing it for free. They have a big row, they go on, and basically they play this kind of speed-metal, punk, thrash-jazz, with Davis acting almost as conductor. It's almost like he's Karl Bohm doing that really crazy intense, live version of Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde." And it's just - it's like music you try to dance to if only it wasn't trying to lop your head off in a cut like "So What."
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MARTIN: So, when they're in this moment, do they no know they're doing something unique? Do they know that they are nailing this performance, that it would spawn these two albums?
FLEMING: They knew the setting and the moment was unique. They thought they were absolutely rubbish though. And they...
FLEMING: ...you know, went off the stage. And it wasn't until they heard the tapes later that it was like, oh my, wow - we just absolutely...
MARTIN: Not that.
FLEMING: ...nailed it.
FLEMING: And, you know one thing that's wonderful about the album, and the two albums, is that for people who are really into jazz or think they're not into jazz, it's really great gateway stuff. Because there's elements of jazz, of rock, of soul, of R&B, of blues, and you really - you can't even sometimes categorize it as straight-out jazz.
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MARTIN: Colin Fleming, he's the author of "Dark March: Stories for When the Rest of the World is Asleep." He's completing a novel about a reluctant piano prodigy called "The Freeze Tag Sessions." He joined us from the studios of WBUR in Boston.
Hey, Colin, thanks so much for walking us through this performance.
FLEMING: Thank you, Rachel.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.