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"Miles Davis: Birth of Cool" at the DFT, 5 Things to Know

By Gary Graff
ggraff@medianewsgroup.com, @GraffonMusic on Twitte

Posted: Thursday, October 17, 2019

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When it comes to making documentary films, Stanley Nelson Jr. doesn't need anyone to blow his horn.

The New York-born director and producer has won three Primetime Emmy Awards and received a National Humanities Medal in 2013 for works about the 1961 civil rights Freedom Ride, cult leader Jim Jones, Emmett Till, the Black Panthers and more. He also co-founded Firelight Media, a nonprofit that supports emerging documentarians.

Nelson has been traveling the world recently with "Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool," his insightful chronicle about the famed jazz trumpeter, which opened in New York and Los Angeles during August and will be at the Detroit Film Theatre on Friday and Saturday, Oct. 18-19. It's a labor of love, and something Nelson, 68, is happy to make some noise about.

Nelson began working on "Birth of the Cool" about three years ago, when he approached PBS' "American Masters" series with the idea, which led to other studios (Abramorama and Eagle Vision) getting involved. "It was full steam ahead," Nelson says by phone. "It came together really quickly and it was just my honor to make a film about Miles."

"Birth of the Cool" is marked by extensive and insightful interviews with other artists, such as Quincy Jones, Wayne Shorter, Carlos Santana, Ferndale native Ron Carter and more, as well access to rare footage and other materials held by Davis' family. "They kind of approved me as the director," Nelson says. "That was kind of nerve racking, sitting in front of three or four members of the family while they scrutinized me. But it worked out, and having the goodwill of the family always helps."

Nelson says that, for him, the Davis story "changed massively" as he put the film together. "We knew we wanted it to be a biography of Miles and use a lot of music and cover all the different periods of his life. But one thing that happened is we found there was a real thread to Miles' life. His music and what was going on his life were connected, which makes sense. Miles grows up as a kind of a rich kid but under segregation in East St. Louis. We kind of connected the dots. It doesn't justify, but it explains some of the bitterness and the angry side that Miles could sometimes have."

Another revelation in making the film, Nelson says, was "how important women were in his life and his music. Even though he oftentimes had abusive relationships, women were really important in Miles' life and in his music."

Nelson says he's been pleased with the reaction he's received so far from those who have seen the film. "It's just been incredible. Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter showed up to the premiere in L.A. and did an impromptu Q&A with me. We've been getting great ovations and people coming who love Miles as much as we all do. The whole thing has just been incredible, very rewarding." "American Masters" will air the film during early 2020, with a home video release after that.

"Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool" will be shown Friday and Saturday, Oct. 18-19, at the Detroit Film Theatre in the Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward Ave. Director Stanley Nelson Jr. will hold a Q&A after the 8 p.m. Friday screening. Call 313-833-7900 or visit dia.org.

Web Site: www,dia.org

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