George Wein and Murray Lerner Discuss Bitches Brew Live

NOVEMBER 11, 2010

Michael Azerrad: What did you think of the music Davis' band played at the '69 Newport Jazz Festival?

George Wein: I didn't know anything about Bitches Brew at that time. They'd been rehearsing it and had maybe already recorded one side but they never said anything about it at the festival, to my knowledge. I never heard the expression. Then when we took Miles to Europe a year later, then they did the Bitches Brew thing. But I guess they were working on Bitches Brew before the 1969 festival. When I hired Miles [for the 1969 festival] I thought it would be with Wayne Shorter and Herbie and Ron and Tony. I guess they had dissolved that band by that time. The thing about the festival that I remember was that Miles always came to Newport and left as fast as he could. One year, he came up in a boat and he came from the boat and just got to the stage in time to play, left, and was back on the boat and got the hell out of there. This particular year in '69, I had a lot of rock groups. I had Led Zeppelin, I had the Mothers of Invention, I had Jeff Beck, I had Jethro Tull, Ten Years After, what's his name, the guy who had "higher, higher, higher"?

MA: Sly Stone.

GW: I had a lot of rock groups and I mixed them in with jazz. I had Sly and the Family Stone and The World's Greatest Jazz Band on the same show — a little ridiculous but it worked. We had more people than we ever saw in our lives because we turned the Newport Jazz Festival into a rock festival. And a lot of the rock artists were not happy about that. See, a lot of the rock artists in those days were real jazz fans and blues fans. Jimmy Page and he and Ian Anderson, they were jazz fans, and they wanted to be part of the jazz festival. Several of them said, eh, it's just another rock festival. But Miles, who never stayed, from the first day to the last, he stayed right on my shoulder. There's a photo somewhere of Miles standing next to me in the wings. He watched every group and he watched the response of everyone in the audience, who got the most applause, what music they were playing. He was studying. And that affected all the last years of his career.

MA: Some people think that whole period was calculated and insincere. Do you think so?

GW: I don't think so. I think later that was the case. But Bitches Brew, Tony Williams was very involved with that. Tony was always talking to Miles about, "man, you've got to get hip, you've got to get away from this type of thing, you have to get into what's happening." And that experimenting — Wayne Shorter, Jack DeJohnette, Dave Holland, they weren't necessarily rock musicians at that time. So I think they were experimenting with something they really believed in. Miles could still play in '69, his chops hadn't gone out. He couldn't play as well as people thought later on because he covered himself up with all the electronics around him and he'd play a note here and a phrase there, never took long solos. The later records, it's not the same as he played earlier. I think Bitches Brew was an attempt to create something — it was not a sellout. I think he was concerned with appealing to a younger crowd but I don't think it was a musical sellout.

MA: I get the same feeling. He was always into the cool thing.

GW: He wanted to stay alive and stay au courant. You'd go to his house and he'd show you his wardrobe — he had a closet with a hundred different jackets in it, the wilder the better. When we had him in Boston back in the '50s, he was wearing Brooks Brothers clothes because we took there to dress that way. So Miles went along with being in the scene. He wanted to walk into a room and have everybody look at him.

MA: At the time there was a lot of hyphenated music: folk-rock, jazz-rock. Was this eclecticism a new thing?

GW: Before that, you had Les McCann and Eddie Harris blending r&b with jazz, Herbie Mann doing "Comin' Home, Baby," the jazz critics rejected it but he was selling records. So that concept of jazz musicians relating to the more popular pop music was nothing new. I think Miles got into that very deeply. And of course Chick Corea got involved in it very deeply with his group with Al DiMeola. They used to say, don't play jazz festivals, and don't have your records in jazz bins. That was a big thing with a lot of jazz musicians who were crossing over because they knew where the money was, they knew where the market was. And all of them, the ones who are still alive, went back to playing jazz because that's where their soul is. Chick Corea, at one time, wouldn't play a jazz festival. But now you see him with a trio or solo piano and he's playing absolutely beautifully.

MA: Maybe one of the reasons you put rock into the festival…

GW: I was just going to tell you that. The Newport Jazz Festival was a major, major event. All of a sudden to became less and less meaningful. I was saying, what the hell is happening here? I'm reading in the underground press that Ginger Baker is a better drummer than Elvin Jones and Ian Anderson is a better flute player than Rahsaan Roland Kirk and I'm reading about the genius of the Mothers of Invention and I'm reading all this and I'm saying hey, I may have to do something with this music if I want my festival to stay alive. I called my friend Joe Boyd, who worked for me. I don't think he was working for me at that time but he had worked for me. I said, "Joe, which is these guys can really play?" So he picked a lot of these groups: Ten Years After and Jimmy Page with Led Zeppelin and the next thing I knew, I had the rock agents calling me, I could have been the biggest rock promoter in New England. And I did it because I absolutely thought my festival was dying — and it was. Attendance was going down, down, down every year. So I always call that year the nadir of my life, because after I played all those groups, I said never again. And while I have played rock groups once in a while, it never directed the whole program. It wasn't against the music — whether I like it or not is unimportant because some of them are good musicians — it was because I had no control over the festival. And I like to produce my festivals. That's what I'm doing now. I realized that at a rock festival, you're not producing, you're just paying the bills and trying to control the crowd and see that things go on, and you make some money, that's all. But I definitely sold out that year, no question about it. Because my festival was dying. But after that, I said, let it die, we'll keep struggling.

MA: A lot of musicians had gone into free jazz by this time. There were no free jazz musicians on that program.

GW: Miles certainly was not playing free jazz. Put it this way: I played Coltrane with Pharaoh Sanders, I played Cecil Taylor, I played Sun Ra, I played them all. And the crowds just were not paying attention. They would leave, they would get out of their chairs when they started to play. I was not a big fan of the music.

MA: Why could those two kinds of music co-exist on the same program?

GW: To me, a jazz musician, if he's a great musician, it doesn't relate to the fact that he's selling records. I don't think there's a great pop group that doesn't sell records. If they don't sell records, they're not great. Some of the great figures in the history of jazz, they never sold records. The Beatles sold more records in one year than Duke Ellington sold in all his life. So what are we talking about? We're talking about popularity determining greatness. If it doesn't sell, it's not good.

MA: But how could those two kinds of music be on the same bill?

GW: Because some of the rock players were very good. Jimmy Page was a great blues player. But when I saw the crowds and I saw Sly and the Family Stone, I said hey, this is not where it's at — for me, anyway. It's about what I want to do. If I was interested in money, I could have said, this is where it's at, and Premier talent would sell me everything on their list, and Premier Talent handled all those groups. Don Law and I talked about it — if I wanted to be the guy in New England, he never would have made it. But I didn't want it. The music was of course very important but I was not part of what was happening. I've never been part of what was happening.

MA: So there were musicians who were into rock and jazz. But were there fans who were into rock and jazz? Or were the two audiences very separate? Were there people who listened to Buddy Tate and Led Zeppelin?

GW: No, not too many. The jazz critics rejected rock completely. There was very little crossover with the fans too.

MA: So what did it mean when someone like Miles Davis started blending jazz and rock?

GW: I think the key figure in all that was not Miles Davis, blending jazz and rock. It was when Bob Dylan went electric at the [Newport] Folk Festival. Because the people before that were pure acoustic music lovers. While they weren't necessarily jazz lovers, it related because acoustic music was the thing. When Dylan went electric, you didn't have to be an acoustic fan [anymore] — their idol was Bob Dylan. Was Miles Davis a Bob Dylan? No, but he was very important in influencing other musicians. So that was his importance, influencing musicians, not necessarily the public. To this day, people write about Miles Davis, they write about the '50s and '60s, they don't write about what happened after that. Bitches Brew was an important album but after Bitches Brew, they're trying to make Jack Johnson… Columbia has hours and hours of tape. They're trying to sell them. I don't know if it's selling or not.

MA: What was the divide between jazz and rock fans? Was it strictly generational?

GW: The simplest answer is, it was an age thing, because rock was for young people. Rock was a happening — it was a social thing. It was part of the youth revolution. Rock music was part of the revolution against the norms of their parents. Bebop had been absorbed. Bebop, which was a revolutionary music in its time had been absorbed into the mainstream of jazz. It was an acoustic music: drums, bass, piano and a couple of horns. Who liked that music? Now, this was the end of the '60s, the young people from the '50s were the ones who were still going to jazz festivals, and the holdovers from the swing era. There were still many people from the swing era, and they remembered Duke Ellington and Count Basie. They were still very involved with the music. So yeah, age and generation were very, very involved.

MA: And rock was more of a popular music.

GW: Yes, and not to deprecate the brilliance of some of those people, because some of them are very brilliant — brilliant musically and brilliant intellectually. And they know some show business.

MA: Back in the '60s, the big catch-phrase was "don't trust anyone over 30." And on July 3rd, 1969, Miles Davis was 43 years old. Was it unseemly for someone that old to try to appeal to, as Otis Redding put it, "the love crowd"?

GW: Well, Miles was very consumed with being outrageous all his life. Turning his back on the audience was when it began. Miles always had that ability to be an iconoclast. He wanted to be a little different. So that was his way of life. And he was that way until he died.

MA: It is interesting that he still was cool.

GW: You have to understand something: Miles Davis was not a big commercial name in those days. Miles Davis could not sell out halls by himself. Miles Davis' legend sold out the halls later. Because Miles Davis was the… I'll put it this way: Chet Baker was the white Miles Davis. The legends grew up about them. Miles lived to exploit his legend. Miles Davis was a beautiful human being. He had a charisma about him that a lot of people love to write about. People grew up making love to Miles Davis' music. They were playing his records while they were in bed with their mistress or their lady or whatever. That's legend. He was the only one, the bebop era, that came out of it playing the melody that people could understand. When he played "On the Street Where You Live" or "Bye, Bye Blackbird" and then Kind of Blue, it was all simple, sweet music — but with a modern tinge. And that's where the legend grew. And when he himself enhanced the legend by his own flouting of the rules of showbiz… When people were cooperating, Miles wouldn't cooperate; when other people weren't cooperating, Miles would cooperate. That's putting it in simple words. I loved Miles. Miles and I were very close friends at the end. But boy, we had fights many times.

MA: Do you recall anything about his set at Newport in '69?

GW: Musically, I don't recall because it was so hectic. I didn't know what the hell was going on. I was concerned with not having a riot. I know Miles stood by me the whole time. I talked to him, I said, "What the hell are you doing here, man? You usually leave." But he wouldn't even talk to me — he was listening, he was observing. He wanted to be part of that world because that's where it was happening.

MA: What did you think when you first heard his electric music?

GW: I'll tell you exactly what I told Miles, and I remember these words exactly: "You know, Miles, I used to say there was no way I could get on the stand and play with you. But now, I think anybody could get on the stand and play with you." That was my reaction. That was exactly what I said to Miles. I can't say any more than that.

MA: Wow, what was his reaction to that?

GW: Miles, when I booked him in '56 for his comeback, he wasn't listed on the festival. I was in a nightclub in New York and I was walking out and there's Miles at the back of the club. It was Basin Street East or something like that. He says, "You're having a jazz festival up in Newport?" I said, "Yeah, Miles." He says, "You can't have a jazz festival without me." I said, "Do you want to be in the festival?" He says, "You can't have a jazz festival without me." He had a way of repeating himself, so end of conversation. I said, "I'll call Jack." And I called his agent but he didn't have a band. Monk was on piano and Connie Kay and Percy Heath, Gerry Mulligan and Zoot Sims and Miles, that was the band. And Miles was the hit of the festival. He put his horn right in the microphone and played "'Round About Midnight." That's when the Columbia ran up to sign him as fast as they could. That was his comeback. He wasn't even advertised for the festival because it was too late.

MA: What did you mean when you said, "anybody can get on the stand and play with you"?

GW: You have to have a special talent to play with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter and Ron Carter. The music that they were doing was rather… And now, any… I don't know, anybody could play. It wasn't as exclusive a club, put it that way. He knew what I was saying.

MA: So you didn't care for that era of his music so much.

GW: I liked the Kind of Blue band. I loved his melodic bands. He had such a beautiful… I love romance in music. I still do. A great song is a great song. I never got into the… It's too loud! I'd go to concerts to hear a group, I'd have to leave. The bass would be resonating in my stomach and in my chest. I leave as soon as I get that feeling. That's not the experience I want from music. I'm not looking for girls, to be part of a social thing, you know what I mean? I've got my other ways of getting my girls.

NOVEMBER 22, 2010

Michael Azerrad: The Isle of Wight, that's a pretty intense 38 minutes you captured there.

Murray Lerner: Yeah, it was. I don’t think it could have been much longer, in a way.

MA: What was that day like?

ML: It was very hot. We were worried about rain but the rain didn't come. We were sweating like mad though. The audience was so big and so contentious in a way. Joni Mitchell went before Miles Davis. Miles was an afterthought in the listings, I think. You see her backstage when Miles walks up. She felt she cooled down the whole thing. There were negative attacks on the whole festival as well as in the midst of some of the performances, like Joni's. But not Miles.

MA: Why is that? Why didn't they hassle Miles Davis?

ML: I don't think it was the kind of thing people would react to on an ideological basis or claim this is a sellout. And he's a pretty cool cat, Miles. What was there to attack, really? Nothing. I mean, he was so self-contained — what would you say? "Stop playing"? Or grab one of the performers? No, I don’t think you could do that.

MA: What did that crowd make of jazz or jazz fusion?

ML: I think that audience was open to a lot of different forms of experimentation. I think they liked it. It's obvious they liked it. That's one of the reasons they were quiet — they liked it. There was a big, sort of revolutionary moment when a person like that could play in front of such a large rock audience. That was really unusual. And we were worried about that, I must say. Now that I think about it, we were worried that someone would say "this is shit" or boo. But I don't think people do that with Miles. When he first started being electric, he had people attacking him, but of course [the crowd at the Isle of Wight] wouldn't have attacked him for being electric because that was what they liked. But some of the anecdotes in [the documentary Miles Electric]… some people threw stuff at him in Venice.

MA: Yes, it was a roll of toilet paper. Mtume told that story, and Miles said to him, "play through it."

ML: He's lucky it was just toilet paper. You know, the agent for the Isle of Wight was a fellow named Bert Bloch. Maybe they thought this was an opportunity for Miles. It's a slightly puzzling thing but I'm glad they came. We were worrying about it, because we were wondering, in making [the Isle of Wight '70 documentary Message to Love], the only meaningful criticism that I found was there wasn't enough Miles Davis. We didn't know whether it would appeal to that crowd. We only had a few minutes of Miles. A lot of reviewers said there wasn't enough. There was no criticism of him being in it — just the opposite. [Lerner reads running order of that day] Tiny Tim was after Joni but then Miles Davis.

MA: So Miles Davis followed Tiny Tim. Amazing.

ML: Right. That's interesting. An interesting line-up. But he was before all the heavyweights.

MA: Were there any negotiations involved in filming Miles?

ML: No. We filmed people unless they said no. We didn't ask. I'm serious. I think he just decided to do it. We were on the stage with cameras.

MA: What was it like to be on stage with those guys?

ML: Airto was interesting. I thought he was a little crazy but he was interesting. And he turned out to be really good. Airto was a revelation to me. Of course, Keith Jarrett was a revelation too. The others were great of course too, but I hadn't seen Airto or Jarrett before. Keith Jarrett liked the edit [of the Isle of Wight footage], otherwise he wouldn't have given the interview. He never gives interviews. But we had a great time with him at his house.

MA: I'm just so struck by the idea of this band getting up and playing challenging instrumental jazz in front of all those kids.

ML: But this was rock-jazz. It was electric. And it had this sensibility of weirdness that the rock people liked. So it was a perfect audience. Maybe a better audience than a jazz audience. And why is there that difference anyway? What about jazz isolates it? That's a question I don't get. It's either good music or it's not. The kids tuned into it very well. The fact that the keyboards were electric… You ask a really good question: why did they accept him? I think it was because it was weird and unexpected — and electric and everything that rock represented in its sensibility. And they just accepted it. I think it was maybe the context: there was Joni and then Tiny Tim, so maybe this was a refreshing change — both were not electric. I think the context in which he played was important. There was Joni, who had to calm down the crowd, and then Tiny Tim. Both of their sets were interactive and dynamic, if you know what I mean. They tried to interrupt her from playing and then she calmed the crowd down. She felt that she changed the whole atmosphere with her plea to the crowd. That could be. And then Tiny Tim came on and it was a like a campy acceptance — everyone went wild, and they were all waving and singing with him. You would have thought he was a big superstar. By contrast this was a totally different music. So the context in which he played was important.

MA: You were talking about why kids weren't into jazz. But that was a time when a generation was defining itself against the previous one. What better way than music?

ML: And this was like rock to them. It was definitely heretical in jazz. It was a brilliant move getting him there. Taking a chance but… They could have booed. They practically booed Kristofferson off the stage. But Leonard Cohen, a similar artist, they didn't. Who knows what creates a crowd's response. I wonder if Miles was scared. I don’t know. Joni Mitchell was scared, without question, before she went on.

MA: It's quite possible no one had ever played jazz to that many people at once.

ML: Or since. You know, if the crowd moves, there's nothing you can do about it. I was really scared of that. But no one died. At Woodstock some people died. People got taken to the hospital for drugs but no one died.

MA: Did Miles or any of the band hang out at the festival? Did they relate to any of the other musicians there?

ML: Not that I saw. I think they left very quickly.

MA: One of the things that strikes me is that, as many people as there were that day, the band seems very removed physically from the crowd.

ML: It's an interesting question: who did they play to? I think Miles probably didn't care much about the crowd, about playing to a crowd. And the others went along with him, I guess. The Who, I asked them. I think Daltrey played to just a little group in front of him. The other was thinking of projecting. I know Joni Mitchell felt the waves of negativism rippling toward the crowd. But at a certain point you can't do anything, you jus forget about it. Most of the performers forgot about the size of the crowd. They had to. They can't think about it.

MA: It seemed very hermetic. They are focusing.

ML: That's Miles. He doesn't play to the crowd and I think the others are in that same mood with him. That's what he brings to the music. That's jazz — isn't jazz hermetic, really? Miles really was the ultimate god of jazz for most of the people that came after him. As someone said, one note on his trumpet is worth a lot more than a lot of others. And it's true, he brings in that note at the right moment. It's incredible. I didn't understand Bitches Brew until I edited that film. I sort of liked it but I didn't react to it. But he was really good. Kind of Blue was incredible, but Bitches Brew was also incredible.

MA: What did you learn about that performance from editing it, as opposed to being there?

ML: That's a good question. Being there, I just reacted to the whole thing. I didn’t really understand it, except musically when I film I get involved in the music and I feel it as I'm filming. But when I edited it, I little by little saw — when Jarrett came in, when Corea came in, when Airto came in, as crazy as he was — I began to see the musical connections between them and I really felt it as I was editing it. That was the first time I saw that piece. The other performers I'd seen. In the editing I really felt how it went together. I think it's very hard to feel that about Bitches Brew — it's a very odd piece, You've got to train yourself to listen and listen and listen, The more I listened to it, Miles Electric, after that I really became sensitized to Miles' electric period. And I listened to all of it.

MA: The visuals of that performance — the sun going down and their clothes…

ML: I wonder if they talked that out. I don't know. Maybe someone discussed their dress.

MA: Maybe they just wanted to wear something that could be seen from a distance.

ML: Yeah, that could be, because Pete Townshend said to me that he wore a white boilermaker suit so he could be seen. For a while he did that. The light was going down and I think they felt that change of light. It was incredible — there were 600,000 people and as one of them said, 'You can’t think about 600,000 people.' Miles certainly didn't.


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