Miles Davis; the behemoth that is fusion and experimental jazz. The man that stands in high regards in the world of jazz, he pushed the envelope of jazz into experimentation, making unique sounds, rhythms, and riffs that have never been played before in the realm of improvisational music. He truly bent the meaning of jazz with his album Bitches Brew and forever changed the landscape of what jazz is, and what it could be. He was a remarkable innovator. So it’s no coincidence that on a quiet night in San Francisco, in 1970, he took to the stage, opening for the Grateful Dead, and people were awe-struck.
Bill Graham was always pairing interesting acts together at his venues. He would have an R&B singer open up for a rock band, or a bluegrass band opening up for a jazz group, and so on. He was open to the idea of exposing people to music and letting one another influence each other. So on 4/10/70, he paired the then Miles Davis Quintet to open up for the Grateful Dead. Miles Davis was beginning to rise in notoriety at this point, having just released his revolutionary Bitches Brew album. Davis at the time, however, was having trouble finding a new audience for his music. Many people attending his shows were mainly blacks, with few others in the stands. But that changed after this show. Miles describes the night as follows...
“That was an eye-opening concert for me, because there were about five thousand people there that night, mostly young, white hippies, and they had hardly heard of me if they had heard of me at all. We opened for the Grateful Dead, but another group came on before us. The place was packed with these real spacy, high white people, and when we first started playing, people were walking around and talking. But after a while, they all got quiet and really got into the music. I played a little of something like ‘Sketches in Spain’ and then we went into the Bitches Brew shit and that really blew them out. After that concert, every time I would play out there in San Francisco, a lot of young white people showed up at the gigs.”
Many of the people were entranced by this new approach to jazz music, as opposed to the regular swing that was commonplace at the time. This was something new. Keep in mind that most of the songs on Bitches Brew came in around twenty minutes, so this open-ended improvisation was welcomed and heralded by the heads in the audience. Miles Davis also had a fondness for Jerry Garcia, stating in his autobiography that “Jerry Garcia loved jazz, and I found out that he loved my music and had been listening to it for a long time. He loved other jazz musicians, like Ornette Coleman and Bill Evans.“ Garcia learned something from Davis that night, he learned about the importance of silence, along with the concept of open playing. He said that “Nobody plays better holes than Miles, from a musician’s point of view.” Onwards, Phil, the ever-eccentric bassist, deep into all forms of theater, music, and art, was befuddled. Sitting and watching the quintet work their magic, Phil recalled in his autobiography Searching for the Sound:
“As I listened, leaning over the amps with my jaw hanging agape, trying to comprehend the forces that Miles was unleashing onstage, I was thinking What’s the use. How can we possibly play after this? We should just go home and try to digest this unbelievable shit. This was our first encounter with Miles’ new direction. Bitches Brew had only just been released, but I know I hadn’t yet heard any of it. With this band, Miles literally invented fusion music. In some ways, it was similar to what we were trying to do in our free jamming, but ever so much more dense with ideas – and seemingly controlled with an iron fist, even at its most alarmingly intense moments.”
He was truly humbled. The bassist, for one of the time’s biggest rock groups, was bowing down to the great Miles Davis. Billy too was amazed. He stated that they played “really free and loose” that night, but “couldn’t get Miles out of my ears.”
It’s an interesting night for sure. A legendary line up, for fans of both jazz music and jam music. The two improvisational greats sharing a stage, and truly giving fans a treat of the magic and spontaneity of improv music. Links to both shows, Miles Davis, and the Grateful Dead, are both provided below. For additional listening, Bitches Brew will cement the unique sounds and landscapes that Miles painted across the jazz scene, and will help understand new listeners on why his approach was so radical and different.
Bitches Brew: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SbCt-iXIXlQ