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'Bitches Brew' At 50: Why Miles Davis' Masterpiece Remains Impactful

Miles Davis

Photo: Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images

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'Bitches Brew' At 50: Why Miles Davis' Masterpiece Remains Impactful

Five decades later, Davis' revolutionary, GRAMMY-winning classic is as powerful and relevant as ever

GRAMMYs/Apr 5, 2020 - 12:01 am

Fifty years on, Miles Davis' classic Bitches Brew still sounds conjured from a cauldron. For the next step in his electric journey, Davis took his lineup from his moody, celestial 1969 album, In A Silent Way—saxophonist Wayne Shorter, guitarist John McLaughlin and keyboardist Chick Corea—and augmented it with new blood, like drummer Jack DeJohnette, bass clarinetist Bernie Maupin and keyboardist Larry Young.

This, Davis said in his 1989 autobiography, "Miles," was all in order to embrace the zeitgeist. "1969 was the year rock and funk were selling like hotcakes and all of this was put on display at Woodstock," he wrote. "And jazz seemed to be withering on the vine … I wasn't prepared to be a memory yet." With producer Teo Macero splicing loose takes into vertigo-inducing collages, Bitches Brew moved less like dance music than undulated like a paramecium.

Every aspect of Bitches Brew—its teeming, extemporaneous playing, its speaker-toggling production, its head-shop album art—altered popular music in some form. "A lot of people felt that he was an artistic traitor," six-time GRAMMY-winning bassist and composer Christian McBride explained to NPR in 2020. "But I think that there were a number of college kids who were listening to progressive rock [and] soul music who absolutely loved this record."

For one thing, Bitches Brew, which notched Davis a GRAMMY for Best Jazz Performance - Large Group Or Soloist With Large Group in 1971 and was inducted into the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame in 1999, launched three bands critical to jazz fusion: Return To Forever, featuring Corea and Brew drummer Lenny White; Weather Report, with Shorter and Joe Zawinul; and Mahavishnu Orchestra, led by McLaughlin; all of which formed at the top of the new decade.

Davis first encouraged McLaughlin to spread his wings after a 1970 gig at Lenny's On The Turnpike, then a jazz club in Boston. "Miles turned to me and he said, 'It's time you formed your own band, John,'" McLaughlin recalled to Guitar.com in 2016. "I had to do it, if just to justify his belief in me." 

A month later, Czech bassist Miroslav Vitous asked McLaughlin to join a new project he was starting with Shorter and Zawinul. "I thought, 'Wow, that's great, but I'm under orders!'" McLaughlin said. He declined Vitous' offer in order to form Mahavishnu Orchestra; Weather Report never hired a full-time guitarist.

For Corea's part, he was "coming off of two-and-a-half years of playing with Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter and Jack DeJohnette and Dave Holland, where the music was highly experimental, wild and edgy," he told JazzWax in 2011. "That experience took me into new interests along with Dave."

Bitches Brew's visual aesthetic, too, fed inspiration back into the psychedelic movement that spawned it. Davis commissioned German painter Mati Klarwein to paint the album's surreal cover art; six months after the album's release, Santana used Klarwein's 1963 painting, "Annunciation," for the cover of their classic album, Abraxas. (For the cover of his 1971 album Live-Evil, Davis rehired Klarwein, who would go on to license paintings to Buddy Miles, Earth, Wind & Fire, The Mooney Suzuki and other artists before his death in 2002.)

From its provocative title to its explosive sound, Bitches Brew was a whole package; it gave its genre an electric shock when it needed it. Just as its creator intended, the album also "[sold] like hotcakes": As Davis' highest-charting album, Bitches Brew peaked at No. 35 on the all-genre Billboard 200 chart in the U.S.; securing his first-ever gold record in 1976, the album has since gone platinum. On a grander scale, it proved to executives that jazz—then seen as tired and retrogressive as rock exploded—could be commercially viable into the next decade.

"We've found that the young audience that accounted for the rock success of the Sixties has kept its buying habits in the 1970s," Vernon Slaughter, then the director of progressive jazz music marketing at Columbia Records, said about Bitches Brew's impact when speaking with Rolling Stone in 1978. Bruce Lundvall, then the president of the label's domestic division, concurred: "We saw the jazz area opening up to a broader public."

But even today, Bitches Brew's ripple effect has touched the burgeoning crossover jazz scene, particularly for Teo Macero's production. "The whole concept of looping improvisation and chopping up samples definitely shed a light on hip-hop," rapper, drummer and producer Kassa Overall told JazzTimes in 2020. "That's exactly what I'm doing with my music."

Saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, who plays in The Comet Is Coming, Sons Of Kemet and Shabaka And The Ancestors, was most influenced by the freedom Davis gave his musicians on Bitches Brew. "That tension [between jazz players] is just not there," he marveled to TIDAL Read in 2020. "Everyone has space not just to contribute their own ideas, but to develop them for as long as it takes to realize them."

Soon after Davis finished Bitches Brew in 1970, legendary concert promoter Bill Graham asked him to open for the Grateful Dead at the Fillmore in San Francisco—a gig that could have been a bridge too far for a jazz act. "The place was packed with these real spacy, high white people," Davis remembered in his autobiography. "When we first started playing, people were walking around and talking." 

But when "we went into the Bitches Brew shit," he wrote, "that really blew them out."

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Recordings By Janet Jackson, Louis Armstrong, Odetta & More Inducted Into The National Recording Registry

Janet Jackson

Photo: Christopher Polk/Getty Images

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Recordings By Janet Jackson, Louis Armstrong, Odetta & More Inducted Into The National Recording Registry

Selections by Albert King, Labelle, Connie Smith, Nas, Jackson Browne, Pat Metheny, Kermit the Frog and others have also been marked for federal preservation

GRAMMYs/Mar 25, 2021 - 02:37 am

The Librarian of Congress Carla Haden has named 25 new inductees into the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress. They include Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation 1814,” Louis Armstrong’s “When the Saints Go Marching In,” Labelle’s “Lady Marmalade,” Nas’ “Illmatic,” Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration,” Kermit the Frog’s “The Rainbow Connection” and more.

“The National Recording Registry will preserve our history through these vibrant recordings of music and voices that have reflected our humanity and shaped our culture from the past 143 years,” Hayden said in a statement. “We received about 900 public nominations this year for recordings to add to the registry, and we welcome the public’s input as the Library of Congress and its partners preserve the diverse sounds of history and culture.”

The National Recording Preservation Board is an advisory board consisting of professional organizations and experts who aim to preserve important recorded sounds. The Recording Academy is involved on a voting level. The 25 new entries bring the number of musical titles on the registry to 575; the entire sound collection includes nearly 3 million titles. Check out the full list of new inductees below:

National Recording Registry Selections for 2020

  1. Edison’s “St. Louis tinfoil” recording (1878)

  2. “Nikolina” — Hjalmar Peterson (1917) (single)

  3. “Smyrneikos Balos” — Marika Papagika (1928) (single)

  4. “When the Saints Go Marching In” — Louis Armstrong & his Orchestra (1938) (single)

  5. Christmas Eve Broadcast--Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill (December 24, 1941)

  6. “The Guiding Light” — Nov. 22, 1945

  7. “Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues” — Odetta (1957) (album)

  8. “Lord, Keep Me Day by Day” — Albertina Walker and the Caravans (1959) (single)  

  9. Roger Maris hits his 61st homerun (October 1, 1961)

  10. “Aida” — Leontyne Price, et.al. (1962) (album)

  11. “Once a Day” — Connie Smith (1964) (single)

  12. “Born Under a Bad Sign” — Albert King (1967) (album)

  13. “Free to Be…You & Me” — Marlo Thomas and Friends (1972) (album)

  14. “The Harder They Come” — Jimmy Cliff (1972) (album)

  15. “Lady Marmalade” — Labelle (1974) (single)

  16. “Late for the Sky” — Jackson Browne (1974) (album)

  17. “Bright Size Life” — Pat Metheny (1976) (album)

  18. “The Rainbow Connection” — Kermit the Frog (1979) (single)

  19. “Celebration” — Kool & the Gang (1980) (single)

  20. “Richard Strauss: Four Last Songs” — Jessye Norman (1983) (album)

  21. “Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814” — Janet Jackson (1989) (album)

  22. “Partners” — Flaco Jiménez (1992) (album)

  23. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”/”What A Wonderful World” — Israel Kamakawiwo’ole (1993) (single)

  24. “Illmatic” — Nas (1994) (album)

  25. “This American Life: The Giant Pool of Money” (May 9, 2008)

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Press Play At Home: Watch Dodie Perform A Morning-After Version Of "Four Tequilas Down"

dodie

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Press Play At Home: Watch Dodie Perform A Morning-After Version Of "Four Tequilas Down"

In the latest episode of Press Play At Home, singer/songwriter dodie conjures a bleary last call in a hushed performance of "Four Tequilas Down"

GRAMMYs/Jun 24, 2021 - 07:38 pm

"Four Tequilas Down" is as much a song as it is a memory—a half-remembered one. "Did you make your eyes blur?/So that in the dark, I'd look like her?" dodie, the song's writer and performer, asks. To almost anyone who's engaged in a buzzed rebound, that detail alone should elicit a wince of recognition.

Such is dodie's beyond-her-years mastery of her craft: Over a simple, spare chord progression, she can use an economy of words to twist the knife. "So just hold me like you mean it," dodie sings at the song's end. "We'll pretend because we need it."

In the latest episode of Press Play At Home, watch dodie stretch her songwriting muscles while conjuring a chemically altered Saturday night—and the Sunday morning full of regrets, too.

Check out dodie's hushed-yet-intense performance of "Four Tequilas Down" above and click here to enjoy more episodes of Press Play At Home.

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Apple Music Exclusive: Watch Classic GRAMMY Performances

Whitney Houston, 29th GRAMMY Awards

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Apple Music Exclusive: Watch Classic GRAMMY Performances

The Recording Academy teams with Apple Music to offer historical GRAMMY performances by Miles Davis, Marvin Gaye, Whitney Houston, Shania Twain, Kendrick Lamar, and more

GRAMMYs/Nov 24, 2017 - 07:00 pm

To celebrate the GRAMMY Awards' 60th anniversary and the show's return to New York for the first time in 15 years, the Recording Academy and Apple Music are bringing fans a special video collection of exclusive GRAMMY performances and playlists that represent the illustrious history of Music's Biggest Night.

Available exclusively via Apple Music in a dedicated GRAMMYs section, the celebratory collection features 60-plus memorable performances specifically curated across six genres: pop, rap, country, rock, R&B, and jazz. 

The artist performances featured in the collection include Marvin Gaye, "Sexual Healing" (25th GRAMMY Awards, 1983); Whitney Houston, "Greatest Love Of All" (29th GRAMMY Awards, 1987); Run DMC, "Tougher Than Leather" (30th GRAMMY Awards, 1988); Miles Davis, "Hannibal" (32nd GRAMMY Awards, 1990); Shania Twain, "Man, I Feel Like A Woman" (41st GRAMMY Awards, 1999); Dixie Chicks, "Landslide" (45th GRAMMY Awards, 2003); Bruno Mars and Sting, "Locked Out Of Heaven" and "Walking On The Moon" (55th GRAMMY Awards, 2013); and Kendrick Lamar, "The Blacker The Berry" (58th GRAMMY Awards, 2016).

The 60th GRAMMY Awards will take place at New York City's Madison Square Garden on Sunday, Jan. 28, 2018. The telecast will be broadcast live on CBS at 7:30–11 p.m. ET/4:30–8 p.m. PT. 

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Herbal Tea & White Sofas: Why Dead Poet Society's Jack Underkofler Has The "Least Picky" Backstage Rider

Jack Underkofler

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Herbal Tea & White Sofas: Why Dead Poet Society's Jack Underkofler Has The "Least Picky" Backstage Rider

In the latest episode of Herbal Tea & White Sofas, learn why Dead Poet Society lead singer Jack Underkofler is committed to having the world's most reasonable backstage rider

GRAMMYs/Jul 8, 2021 - 12:26 am

Some artists make larger-than-life demands on their tour riders—hence the classic urban legend about Van Halen requiring the removal of brown M&Ms. 

For their part, Dead Poet Society have decided to take the opposite tack, as their lead singer, Jack Underkofler, attests in the below clip.

In the latest episode of Herbal Tea & White Sofas, learn why Dead Poet Society's Underkofler is committed to having the world's most reasonable backstage rider—including one ordinary pillow to nap on.

Check out the cheeky clip above and click here to enjoy more episodes of Herbal Tea & White Sofas.

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