The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions: Bringing Miles’s Rock and Roll/Funk Fantasia into Focus

The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions represents a stunning crossroads where boxing, the Black Power movement, the development of rock music as an expression of vast changes in American society, the electronic amplification of jazz, and Miles Davis all came together. That the music heard on this newly-released 5 CD set was boiled down to a mere hour’s worth of a soundtrack album, with snippets turning up on Live-Evil and Get Up With It, is amazing. Listening to the music here, most of which has never been released previously, is like finding out something new about someone you thought you knew well.

That Miles Davis should have been drawn to the figure of Jack Johnson is no surprise. Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion and star black sports figure, fought during the early 1900s, at a time when racism was de rigeur and jazz music was only beginning to develop. Johnson liked the high life, enjoyed fast cars and liked women, particularly white women. While Miles preferred black women, he certainly appreciated beautiful ones, had sartorial style, like his home to be well appointed and modern, and also adored fast sports cars. Much has been made of the fact that Miles was born into a middle class background (his father was a successful dentist) but that only seems to have made the racism that he encountered that much more unpalatable, and Davis did encounter his share. The well known incident that occurred in front of Birdland, when Miles was hassled by police for standing outside the club and took a blow to the head from a white detective, seems to have set him firmly on the path of not taking any crap from anyone, an attitude that was certainly in line with that of Jack Johnson as well as boxers that Davis had seen during his lifetime.

Davis was in a highly productive and inspired mode at this time, a mode that had started with the recording of In a Silent Way and continued through Bitches Brew. He also made a big switch with his live bands, moving from the repertoire he had been playing, which was comprised largely of music he’d created with his second great quintet between 1963 and 1967, to the new material he was recording. His live bands changed personnel more frequently, with Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, Michael Henderson, Jack DeJohnette, Dave Holland, Steve Grossman, Gary Bartz, and others moving into and out of the band at various times. “I was seeing it all as a process of recording all this music” said Davis, “just getting it all down while it was flowing out of my head.” In A Silent Way had been a bellwether, signaling that changes were afoot, not only in Davis’ performances of his new music, but in the very methods that were used to create that music in the first place. Both In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew were recorded in small sections, with Davis directing the musicians and allowing them to play freely without worrying about what the final mix for release would be like—in fact, many times the musicians had no idea what would or would not be released. Davis and producer Teo Macero then constructed the final tracks from these performances. On In A Silent Way they took shapeless but incredible segments of music and spliced the performance together to create a piece that had form and structure. The technique was used again on the Bitches Brew album, both on Joe Zawinul’s “Pharoah’s Dance” and on the title track.

The album A Tribute to Jack Johnson, the soundtrack to the William Clayton-directed film of the same name, was probably the end of the high point of the Davis/Macero edited recordings cycle. The same approach was applied to live recordings such as At Fillmore and to source recordings done at Washington D.C.’s Cellar Door club, resulting in the album Live-Evil. The results were decidedly mixed, with the continuity and structure of the live performances missing. But on Jack Johnson, the producer was able to take what was essentially a studio jam and turn it into the best melding of jazz, funk, and rock music of all time. Considering the furor that Bitches Brew had caused, it is amazing today to consider that Jack Johnson sank without a trace when it was released more than a year after it was recorded, in the summer of 1971. By that time, Miles had rolled his electric band out to live audiences, performing at Fillmore East and West as well as at other important venues, generally as an opening act for some of the most successful rock bands of the day. At the end of August 1970 Davis performed at the Isle of Wight Festival, one of the major rock festivals held in the wake of the successful fests at Monterey and Woodstock. The sessions that are represented on this box set, all recorded between February and June of 1970, were Davis’ last recording sessions until 1972, when he recorded the sessions for his highly controversial On the Corner album. Consider this, though: by the time the public heard the recording Bitches Brew (released in April 1970) Davis was already unleashing a much more heavy electric sound on audiences at the Fillmore West (released unedited as the Black Beauty album). And, three days before this performance, he had recorded most of the source material that would be edited into the Jack Johnson album—material that was based much more on straightforward rock and funk concepts with fewer free jazz leanings and which would represent probably his most accessible music until his return to the scene in 1981 after a self-imposed five year silence. In other words, by the time the record-buying public heard Bitches Brew, Davis had already moved another several steps ahead. No wonder the public was unable to keep up with him during this tumultuous period—the man simply had too much music, and too many ideas spilling out of his head for the slow-moving recording industry to keep up with.