Kind of Blue: Miles Davis on DualDisc
An interview with Seth Rothstein, V.P. of Jazz Marketing at Sony Legacy and the curator of the Miles Davis catalog on Columbia.
I find it a somewhat ironic testament to Miles Davis that here we are in 2005 celebrating a major milestone of an artist who, at least on the surface, always seemed reticently nostalgic. However, there is one interesting sidebar to that. In the words of Davis' biographer, Ian Carr, "The truth of the matter is that Miles often looked back, but always moved forward. That's the key."
Davis had been actively recording since the mid 1940s. His earliest efforts included work with Charlie "Bird" Parker's Rebeboppers, Benny Carter, Billy Eckstine, Coleman Hawkins, and Billy Eckstine's orchestra. Davis' rapidly maturing chops led him to form and lead his own nonet by the fall of 1948. This legendary combo created the first definitive Miles Davis musical statement with the groundbreaking Birth Of The Cool (1949). The release of that album also triggered an uncanny and possibly subconscious pattern. Exactly every ten years for three consecutive decades, Davis and his assemblages all but reinvented the boundaries of jazz. Those respective transformations yielded the epics Kind Of Blue (1959) and Bitches Brew (1969).
At the epicenter of Davis' continually renewed creativity was the unprecedented freedom given by Columbia Records. Their relationship began when the label's staff producer George Avakian signed Davis nearly half-century ago, on October 27, 1955. At the time, the trumpet player was under contract with the smaller, independent Prestige imprint. As the story goes, the encounter between Davis and Avakian on July 17, 1955 was quite by chance. Davis was just leaving the stage of the Newport Jazz Festival after a particularly rousing set. While their oral exchange may have been brief, it led to one of the most fruitful associations in the history of recorded music.
To mark the golden anniversary of that fateful meeting, Columbia/Legacy Jazz is in the middle of a year-long homage to the music of Miles Davis. For some, the half-dozen hours of previously unissued concert material to be released this fall on the six-disc Miles Davis: The Cellar Door Sessions 1970 (2005) will be the program's pi?ce de r?sistance. Yet that is merely one phase in the extensive four-part reissue campaign.
Practically fifty years to the day since Miles Davis and George Avakian's agreement at the side of the Newport stage, CrutchfieldAdvisor caught up with Seth Rothstein, Sony Legacy's Vice-President of Jazz Marketing. I like to think of him as the man behind the man with the horn. Rothstein likewise heads up the team whose work with Davis' voluminous catalog has earned no less than eight Grammies. As Rothstein runs down the voodoo that he and his staff have in store for the upcoming months, I'm sure they are making room on their trophy shelf for their next batch of deserved lauds and plaudits.
Here's the score so far:
- Miles Davis & Gil Evans: The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings (1996) - Best Historical Album, Best Album Notes and Best Boxed Recording Package. (This is only the second occurrence in Grammy history that all three awards have been bestowed upon a single project.)
- Miles Davis Quintet 1965-'68: The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings (1998) - Best Album Notes.
- Complete Bitches Brew Sessions (1998) - Best Boxed Recording Package.
- Miles Davis & John Coltrane: The Complete Columbia Recordings 1955-1961 (2000) - Best Boxed Recording Package and Best Album Notes.
- The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions (2003) - Best Boxed Recording Package.
On the afternoon of April 20, 2005 we caught up with Rothstein at his Manhattan office. It was there we got him to reveal the secrets behind the series' unparalleled success, as well as their plans for this year's 50th Anniversary and beyond.
LP: First off, thank you for spending time with us. Let's give readers a bit of information about your background and involvement with Sony/Legacy.
SR: I've been here for almost ten years and came in [at a time] when a new regime of quality, seriousness and scholarship began [at Legacy]. That's really what I consider the first [time the label] approached the jazz catalog artfully. My exact title is Vice-President of Jazz Marketing and within Legacy, I am the only genre specific person here. In terms of my personal background, I was aware of serious jazz at a very young age, as my father was a trumpet player and [had been] hanging out on the scene since he was 12 or 13. He is 81 now, so he saw everything, including the swing era, bop, hard bop, the avant-garde, and free jazz. He saw things early like Paul Whiteman and Louie, Fletcher Henderson, all the big bands. I know that he was at the very first bop gig when Dizzy opened there in late '44, [which was] the very first bop booking on 52nd Street. So, this all came very naturally to me. I was in the Village Vanguard when I was three and four, so this music is not just something that I kind of stumbled upon in college or in my 30s. I am 43 now, but I have really been into the music since I was three. For me, it was just as natural as the kids growing up now listening to 50 Cent or Mariah Carey.
LP: It blows my mind to think that there are college kids who don't know what vinyl is and never put a needle on a turntable.
SR: I think that is a symptom of a very serious thing facing the music industry, especially the catalog divisions [of record companies]. You have no sort of LP nostalgia and, even now, younger kids don't have CD nostalgia, so [they] never really understood the concept of creating an album. Now kids just want maybe one song off a top record as a ring tone or something. It's very hard out there to sell good music.
LP: What obstacles are you facing in trying to get Miles into the consciousness of the newer generations of music appreciators?
SR: Retail is diminishing. That's really a killer. The work that I sort of have to do is outside of the brick and mortar locations, getting Miles into gift shops, getting Miles on the internet, etc. At one time, there were many deep catalog retailers. There was Sam Goody's and Camelot. Of course, we can't forget the "Mom and Pop" stores, which really cannot compete anymore against chains, so they're gone. What you have left are three basic accounts for deep catalog - what I mean is [they] basically take everything. [Currently] there's Tower, Barnes and Noble, and Borders. Borders has 425 stores and they're very, very supportive.
LP: Do you think that Miles is one of those artists that will make the transition onto people's iPod's?
SR: Well, I hope so. It depends also on the age of people. It's certainly not going to be on the iPod's of the 13 to 18 year olds. In some cases, sampling in the past has worked, and in some cases it hasn't. Sometimes I have thought that it was a fluke, like the Us 3 record on Blue Note. If you look at so many other jazz remix projects, they don't carry over. But Miles has a lot of things going for him and probably the two greatest things are inherent in his music and his mystique. Those things can carry you far.
LP: I know that in 1971 Miles issued a two-part suite accompanying the Jack Johnson biopic. I found it a telling sign of Miles' influence that in 2005, his music was again among those chosen for the Ken Burns documentary on the boxer.
SR: Well, Miles' probably second greatest love after music was boxing. Sugar Ray Robinson was his absolute idol. Miles always drew the connection between music and boxing. He always saw boxing as an art form - it had a rhythm, it had a pacing, it had a tempo, it had cool moves. Also, the greatest boxers in the history of the sport were always black.
Miles always used to work out at gyms, that was his thing. That was how he kept in shape. There was an old, classic, sweaty, damp, ugly boxing place that Miles would go to and that's how he kept in shape. He loved it. That's why, when we did the Jack Johnson box, I went to [noted photographer] Jim Marshall for those photos. It's not a stretch at all. I can't remember the name of the magazine that just came out and they did a story about Miles and boxing. On Jack Johnson he really wanted to get what he called a shuffling feeling rhythmically, which is sort of like a train or a boxer.
Miles was infamous for not going backwards. Keith Jarrett had a story where, one day, he asked Miles backstage, "Why don't you play those beautiful ballads anymore?" Miles' answer to Keith was, "because I love them so much." Or, I think Gary Bartz tells the story where he's listening to Charlie Parker with Miles and Miles says, "What's that?", and he says, "It's you Miles, with Bird." And Miles says, "I can't listen to myself anymore."
LP: Yet, as is obvious by the success of reissues such as the DualDisc edition of Kind Of Blue that Sony just released, listeners old and young still have consideration of what a singular musical statement is in 2005.
SR: In terms of that specific album, you are correct and frankly I don't quite understand it. I am the marketing guy here, but I take no credit for why that album does what it does. It's a phenomenon. I compare it to Charles Lloyd's Forest Flower: Live In Monterey (1966), which sold millions, or Coltrane's A Love Supreme (1964). There's no rhyme or reason, there's no real marketing thing. I mean, Nora Jones was a complete phenomenon. She's basically a singer/songwriter, and her first record sold like 22 million globally. I thought, "That's just a mistake." [But it was] a phenomenon.
It's just one of these things that I don't think anybody can really take credit for. It may be just word of mouth. Maybe somebody shows up at a jazz department and says, "I know nothing about jazz, where do I start?" And I'm sure that one of the three or four albums [suggested] is Kind Of Blue, [along with] Dave Brubeck's Time Out (1959) and Coltrane's A Love Supreme. That's the only thing I can say, because you know, Miles made 20 other masterpieces - all with great musicians, all very listenable. So I don't get it. But that's cool. Jackie McQueen said, "I just don't understand why Kind Of Blue is the album that everybody buys. Everything Miles made was a masterpiece."
[That] includes his stuff on Prestige and his sideman work with Bird [aka Charlie Parker] on Dial. Miles has 40 good records in his catalog. Beats me.
LP: Do you have any other DualDiscs planned?
SR: Well, it is just sitting in the warehouse, but we have completed a really brilliant documentary, to me, much better than Kind Of Blue, on Dave Brubeck's Time Out.
LP: I'm sure it'll be worth the wait. In terms of Miles Davis' 50th Anniversary campaign, Sony has once again pulled out all the stops. Over the course of reissuing the whole catalog, the overall project has already won eight Grammy Awards since 1996. So, for you, what are the highlights and stated goals on this specific reissue campaign?
SR: Well, with Miles it's like a two-fold approach. The music you don't have to worry about, it's all great, if you don't mess with it and just present these things as well as they can be presented, with the greatest sound, very interesting bonus material, and great liner notes.
The last [few] years I have been mostly hiring musicians to write my liner notes. I don't put out a Dave Brubeck reissue without him writing an essay for me, for example, [the same with] Herbie Hancock. If the people are not alive, I go to other musicians that were on the session. But with Miles, well, the music kind of takes care of itself.
The other facet that Miles has, unlike many jazz musicians, is a sort of aura, a mythology, a mystique. I try at the same time to sort of play that up. If people's ears are not so open, you can always count on Miles' coolness factor. I think that is very important. If you check out the April '05 issue of the magazine Fader, they put Miles on the cover and the back cover and about 15 pages inside. They do it in a way that is about as good as it can be done from a sort of aesthetic, mythic kind of standpoint. It's like everything [else] that is in this one magazine, because it's very glossy and very beautifully laid out. It really looks like they gave 10 or 15 pages to Miles in [the equivalent of] Vogue or Elle. If you pick that up, it is pretty much the epitome of what I've been trying to do with him, because he comes to the table with that anyway. He is a cool-looking, handsome guy who dresses unbelievably no matter what he's wearing and always had this kind of aloof quality which just sort of draws people in. He looks like a guy who just doesn't give a shit. Not about the music, but about what he's doing on stage. I think the greatest photos of Miles, and they are common, are the ones where he's not even looking at the photographer. He's sort of in his own world. That's how he was.
The other thing with him which you can't do with other musicians in our catalog is, [due to] his constant changes and transitions, segment his career into these box sets. You can't do that with other people who basically play the same style their whole lives. A guy like Dizzy Gillespie, an absolute innovator, was a bop player until the time he passed away. Miles, who probably wasn't as big as an innovator in creating a new language for the trumpet as Dizzy was, was just doing something different every 3 to 5 years. So he is somebody you can document the period, and then move on to another period and keep it going for 30 years, which is the time he was here with Columbia basically.
LP: What precipitated his move from Prestige to Columbia?
SR: He knew Prestige was an independent and, at that time, there were two massive corporate labels: one was RCA and one was Columbia. Miles knew that Columbia was the machinery. That's where Duke Ellington was, Dave Brubeck, Errol Garner - all of those guys. All very high profile people. George Avakian, the A&R man at that time, wanted him [on the label] very badly. George saw Miles in 1955 at a Newport performance and said, "I want to sign you." So he had to work out a deal with Prestige where George would begin recording Miles, but not releasing anything until his Prestige records were finished and released. So the actual recording of Miles began when Miles was at Prestige, but the release came post the end of his contract, which I believe was February 18th of 1957.
LP: So there were no gaps at that critical juncture? He was right on the precipice of Kind Of Blue at the time and it would have been critical to document that.
SR: Absolutely! [This is when] Coltrane was in the band and his rhythm section was amazing. Then, later on, Cannonball [Adderley] came in and the new rhythm section of Bill Evans, Paul Chambers, Jimmy Cobb [who replaced Red Garland], and Philly Joe Jones. It was a very smooth transition. Miles is very well documented from 1945 until basically his death.
LP: Was every note he was playing, especially live, recorded or are there holes?
SR: We don't really know. We do have a ton of unreleased Miles live material. We've had a ton of unreleased studio material, which has been appearing on a lot of the boxes. I think our next box set, the six-disc Miles Davis: The Cellar Door Sessions 1970 (2005), is a perfect example of that. [Note: the collection is currently scheduled to be released in September of 2005.] They performed for four nights at the Cellar Door in Washington, D.C., and currently the only material that came out of that were four songs on the double LP Live-Evil (1971). So, we're going from 80 minutes of issued material to maybe seven hours of unissued material, and the guys in the band weren't even aware that they were being recorded. For the new box set, I went to them all. Anyone who was still alive, everyone except for Miles, and they all gave me an essay: Jack DeJohnette (drums), Gary Bartz (sax), Keith Jarrett (organ), and Michael Henderson (electric bass). Oh yeah, and one night (December 19, 1970), John McLaughlin (guitar) sat in too.
LP: Do you have other tapes from that same era that were not as good, or you'll just get to them when you get to them?
SR: Well, from the Cellar Door, we couldn't put out the complete material because there were some acoustical problems one night. But we do have other things. In fact, we've already put out It's About That Time: Live At The Fillmore East (March 7, 1970) (2001). That has slightly different personnel and I think that was a totally unreleased concert. There is always the chance that we can go out and purchase material if it was recorded well and if it falls under our contract period. In fact, that is what we're doing with 'Round About Midnight: Legacy Edition [due in stores at the end of May '05]. So on the second CD, we actually just went out and purchased a full concert at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium in February of 1956. [The show has] the same personnel of Coltrane (sax), Philly Joe Jones (drums), Red Garland (piano), and Paul Chambers (bass).
LP: Monk is on one of those tunes, isn't he?
SR: Well, no actually. What you might be thinking of is that the second CD begins with that infamous 1955 Newport performance when Miles played "'Round About Midnight," which we mentioned before. Miles was really not in great shape at that time, and he didn't have a working band. He asked George Wein if he could sit in. Monk (piano) was with him and I think Zoot Simms (sax), Gerry Mulligan (sax), Percy Heath (bass), and Connie Kay (drums). That was in July of '55 and literally right after he had performed "'Round About Midnight," he got off the stage. That's when Avakian went up to him. Actually, Miles went up to Avakian and said, "Hey George, sign me man." George's brother, Aram, who is a filmmaker and photographer, told George, "You should do it." And that's the story.
LP: Weren't there some issues with producer Teo Macero at one point when Miles joined Columbia?
SR: Oh yeah, sure. You know, Miles could be temperamental, he was human. For example, they would put out an album cover and there would be a white woman on the cover, and Miles said, "I don't want that." They would change the cover for him, things like that. It's actually great the way he handled himself.
There was a period of time when he and Teo kind of fell out. He just said, "I ain't working with you any more." That was during the Seven Steps To Heaven (2004) box set that we just put out last fall. Most of it is live recordings, from France, Berlin, Tokyo, Europe. I think the studio stuff is on the West Coast. I don't think Teo was there. Then, when Miles started getting into funk and electronica and all that stuff, him and Teo were absolutely inseparable. He would say things in his liner notes like, "Once again, Teo nailed it." Teo had all these very futuristic editing concepts Bitches Brew (1969), A Tribute To Jack Johnson (1971), and things like that.
LP: Speaking of collaborations, I always wondered what would have happened if Monk had linked up with another keyboard innovator, such as Sly Stone, or somebody like that.
SR: Monk, essentially a genius, stayed Monk. But, like Charlie Parker, who knows what would have happened. Maybe he would have just gone on playing bop like Dizzy Gillespie or Bud Powell. Not many musicians moved like Miles. Even a guy like Sonny Rollins, who basically played in a hard bop style and then, when he started hearing Ornette [Coleman], 'Trane, and people like that, he sort of tried to play in a very avant-garde way. It just didn't sound natural to me. Like on those impulse! records East Broadway Rundown (1966), or the RCA recording when he's playing "Body and Soul" with Hawkins and Rollins - it gets very abstract and it doesn't really sound natural to me.
LP: Are there any things that you have wanted to do with the series thus far that you haven't been able to do for a specific reason, personal or professional?
SR: When we did the Essential Miles Davis (2001) two-CD set, we did represent all seven labels that he recorded for, which is very good. That's the first time that's been done. We had Savoy and Dial, then Prestige, Columbia, Warner Brothers, Blue Note - I think it was seven labels in total. That was fantastic. Of course, as we go through each box set, afterwards we always release the individual LPs that comprised that era or period or group. So, the box sets are great, the individual CDs are good, and then we've created all kinds of interesting compilations. Some of them are really banal, but they sell like crazy, like Love Songs (1999), which I put together in an hour on a weekend. I put a floral concept cover on it and that record in the United States has sold over 300,000 copies. It's crazy. Overseas it sold another 250,000 copies. So we're talking about 600,000 units on just a compilation that literally, I sat in my house for an hour and threw together.
LP: Was that the first Love Songs?
SR: It was the absolute first that had the floral cover on it. I think the first Love Songs was a Billie Holliday, but it had a photo of her which we later modified to have a floral cover — same repertoire, just different cover. But when I did the Miles, I did not want to picture him on the cover. I wanted to just put some flower petals. That was never done here before, and then afterwards we didn't really use petals anymore, we did the actual flowers themselves. It's a great series. It does very well for us on certain parts of the year like Valentine's Day and Mother's Day and things like that.
LP: And it spans genres, I mean they have an O'Jays.
SR: Everybody is on that, that's right. So, we have done that with Miles and we've had remixed projects by Bill Laswell. Miles gets sampled all the time by other labels in the Hip Hop world. We have an album I should mention to you that was originally set for July, but I don't know if we're really going to have it completed. It started out as just a catalog record called Evolution Of The Groove, and it was supposed to take songs from his LP's, starting from the first time that there was ever the groove/funk element in Miles' music. Maybe from a record like Filles de Kilimanjaro (1968), where he first started messing around with electronica and stuff. This was supposed to trace the course of funk into his 80's material. But we weren't going to licence anything from other labels. Then, somebody mentioned that maybe at the end of this record we should actually have two remix tracks by different people. They sampled Miles' raspy voice and it's great but, they are not finished yet. Another track, which I don't remember the name of, is something Carlos Santana plays over. So the record will basically be all catalog titles already known by people with the last two [being] remixes or reconstructions.
LP: Were there professional collaborations between Carlos Santana and Miles or just a mutual appreciation society?
SR: That is a very interesting question, because I know that Prince and Miles did record something. I don't know where it is, it could just be bootleg stuff. If I had to guess, I have a feeling that Carlos and Miles never played together. It's just that Carlos' all time favorite musician without any doubt is Miles. That's why I went to him with Bitches Brew and he wrote the introduction for that box. If you go back to it, it's a really nicely done thing.
LP: You can really hear in those early Santana records, he might as well be there.
SR: Sure, just like you can hear Jimi Hendrix in Miles' music. There are so many people that you could hear Miles' music in, that was just a fantastic time. That's why I truly love all of Miles' periods. The only period I'm not in love with is when he came back after retirement. That to me was just kind of pedestrian. The musicians were not of the same calibre.
LP: Things had changed. Jazz had moved to a very weird place by that point. It would have truly been interesting if jazz had gone the direction of say, Sun Ra. Then what would Miles have done? Again he would have blown our minds.
LP: There was that lull in the early 60's for Miles in the studio that we referred to earlier. When listening to the recent reissues of Miles In Berlin (1965), "Four" & More (1966), and Miles In Tokyo (1969) in the context of what he did on Columbia, what was he trying to do with those records post-Coltrane?
SR: Well, I think this is common knowledge, I don't think I'm saying anything revolutionary. After Coltrane, Bill Evans, and Cannonball left there was a massive transition. I think that Miles either knew it or he didn't know it. He liked Victor Feldman, but I think Victor wanted to stay on the West Coast. And, he found Herbie Hancock. He wanted somebody to replace 'Trane. For him, Hank Mobley was a little too perfect, and George Coleman may have been a little too conservative.
LP: Let's wrap up our conversation with Miles' 50th on Columbia. What statement, if any, are you trying to make with this specific anniversary?
SR: For us, it's a cornerstone. Perhaps it's not as big of a consumer thing. I think the importance of it is just that here is a man who recorded [on the label] for thirty years. For fifty years, his music is still amazingly fresh and contemporary and still visionary. I think it is another way to introduce people to a guy who spent thirty years on one label — which is almost unheard of. Very few artists have that. Other than Stan Getz' relationship with Verve, I can't think of anyone else, other than maybe Keith Jarrett on ECM. I created an insert [for the latest batch of reissues] which I called the Top Ten Must-Have CDs of Miles Davis. This is kind of a basic primer for folks who might not know where to start, and what I am trying to do is get people to discover Miles beyond just Kind Of Blue. Incidentally, the DualDisc version [of that album] is selling quite well, about 500 copies a week since it was issued — which isn't bad for a record that was released in 1959.
LP: I really respect your choices on that insert. You've done in essence what the Mom and Pop record stores used to do, giving the listener an insider's guide to Miles. Newer generations really don't have an outlet for that anymore.
SR: Right. That is exactly what I am trying to do, because I want folks to explore the other facets of what he had to offer. We are also doing a huge image-oriented campaign that will feature Johnny Cash, who is also celebrating the 50th anniversary of his first recording. I think it will work well -that is, to have these two guys together, as they both supersede music and have attained mythological iconic status. You'll see them crop up in some unlikely places, like Esquire, New York Times Magazine, and Fader.
LP: In the final analysis, I guess it is about preachin' beyond the choir.
Again we extend our thanks to Seth Rothstein from Legacy Jazz.