Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Connections to Don Cheadle’s Miles Ahead

News | Apr, 21st 2016

Doing justice to Miles Davis’s legacy is no small task. But Don Cheadle’s biopic and directorial debut Miles Ahead takes a creative and innovative approach to depicting the trumpeter’s life, focusing on a period in the late 70s when a reclusive Davis was not performing at all. The movie, now in theaters, was released on April 1st—the first day of Jazz Appreciation Month—and is connected to Jazz at Lincoln Center in a number of compelling ways.

From the beginning, Jazz at Lincoln Center encouraged the Indiegogo campaign that launched the project, which aims to “tell the story that Miles himself would have wanted to see, something hip, cool, alive and AHEAD.”

Once the project received the support it needed from fellow fans the world over, Cheadle set about becoming Miles.

“The trumpet is one of the meanest and hardest instruments that there is,” Cheadle, who played saxophone in high school, says. “The learning curve is very steep. I still practice every day.”

To play the character with a genuine connection to his art and craft,  trumpet lessons were in order. Cheadle asked his friend, Jazz at Lincoln Center’s managing and artistic director Wynton Marsalis, for help.

“No one can question Wynton’s love for all things jazz,’’ Cheadle told The Daily Beast. “The two of us can talk all day about every aspect of the music and he amazes every time with everything he knows.”

Phil Schaap, another crucial figure in preserving jazz, also played a part in Miles Ahead. Since 1970 Mr. Schaap has been on Columbia University’s radio station WKCR-FM 89.9. A man with encyclopedic jazz knowledge, Phil became Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Curator in 2001 and was a beloved teacher of Swing University classes until his recent retirement.

As a nod toward his knowledge and based off actual events, Cheadle created a cameo for Schaap in Miles Ahead. He plays himself in the film, a radio DJ who Davis rebukes with an angry phone call.

The connections continue. Heralded by Marsalis as “the future of the trumpet,” Keyon Harrold overdubbed Cheadle’s playing for the Miles Ahead soundtrack. An electric performer, Harrold will curate The Iconic Miles Davis in Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola this May as part of the Miles Davis Festival in celebration of what would have been Davis’s 90th birthday. The free and live webcast is available to all for Sunday, May 15th, just tune-in at 7:30pm and 9:30pm EDT at jazz.org/live.  

Cheadle’s commitment to jazz extends beyond Miles Ahead to the music and to encouraging future generations of jazz fans. In 2015 he attended Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Essentially Ellington competition and festival, an annual three-day jazz education event in which high school bands compete and are immersed in workshops, jam sessions, rehearsals, and performances in our hall.

With Jazz Appreciation Month in full swing and Davis’s birthday approaching, there’s never been a better time to celebrate Davis’s music. Don Cheadle and his collaborators’ thoughtful engagement with Davis’s legacy gives us a great opportunity to reconsider the life of a legend.

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