In 1986, Miles Davis turned 60. He celebrated the milestone in grand style: on a celebrity-filled yacht in Marina Del Rey, California. He was an international pop-star recognized everywhere, touring the world, performing in coliseums and sports arenas. He guest-starred on TV shows and appeared in commercials. He was making art, using colorful markers to draw stylized images of men, women, and musicians.
Miles was still pushing ahead with his music, trying out new songs, dance rhythms here and abroad, and something called hip-hop—all while towing the weight of a 40-year recorded legacy that the world constantly pushed him to revisit.
At the midpoint of the 1980s, Miles’ successful, 30-year marriage to Columbia Records was coming to an end. Since 1955, Miles’ recordings — including such era-defining timepieces as Kind of Blue, Sketches of Spain, Bitches Brew, his most recent titles— had been released by what many considered the Tiffany of record labels. But by 1985, the tight relationship was unraveling and in the middle of that year, producer Tommy LiPuma, then a Senior Vice President at Warner Bros., received a call from Miles’ manager at the time.
Miles signed with Warner Bros. only after checking out LiPuma up close. “Miles walked right up to me, nose to nose, lifted up his sunglasses and stared into my eyes,” LiPuma recalls. The two were a good match. LiPuma—who grew up playing saxophone in Cleveland in the late 1950s—knew Miles’ music with a sense of devotion. They shared a passion for the playing of Lucky Thompson, the saxophonist on Miles’ breakthrough recording ‘Walkin’’ in 1954. He surprised LiPuma with another revelation. “I was really interested in who had influenced him because I was so blown away with how Miles phrased shit. I thought he’d name another trumpeter. ‘Frank Sinatra,’ he told me. It made all the sense in the world.”
How to introduce Miles on the WB? Should his debut be with his road band, which at that time included his nephew Vince Wilburn, Jr., or should it focus on recent collaborations—recording with the pop group Toto, or jamming with Prince? Both approaches were attempted, as well as others. The seven albums he released on Warner Bros. comprise his last chapter as a recording artist. They also prove he was still considering all options, still exploring, when he died in 1991.