In an era awash in commodified violence and gore—death metal and dark industrial, serial killer studies, Headline News Network, embedded war reporters—the opening seconds of Miles Davis’s album, Bitches Brew, remain the single most ominous thing in the infinite man-years of experience and consumption that pop culture has produced.
LP 1, Side A, Track 1: “Pharaoh’s Dance.” The first sound is Jack DeJohnette, one of two drummers, coming out of the right channel, keeping a quiet, insistent beat with quarter-notes on the snare and eighth-notes on the hi-hat. A quick bass drum rhythm—still quiet—near the end of two bars announces Chick Corea’s entrance on the electric piano. Also in the right channel, Chick is one of three keyboard players on the track (still waiting to enter are Larry Young in the middle and Joe Zawinul in the left channel). He’s playing a short, repeated fragment that might turn into a longer melody if the music were given enough time to develop.
But that doesn’t happen. Bennie Maupin’s bass clarinet and the electric guitar of John McLaughlin quickly join in with their own insistent repetitions. Lenny White taps his hi-hat in the left channel. Zawinul picks up the theme, such as it is. Young fills in a chord.
There’s no climax, no building to something greater and more developed. Almost immediately, the music comes to a halt, collapsing. Dave Holland answers with a rising arpeggiated octave on the acoustic bass. If this were all louder, the music might be representing an argument. The watchword, though, is quiet—the voices are all at a murmur, yet they carry a weight of intensity, as if the thing they are trying to articulate is just past the edge of language. There’s no identifiable hint of a song, the music sounds ritualistic. The way it whispers, the way it seems to follow the rules of a trance, the way it does not reach, or even seek, finality, make it existential.
I was probably fifteen when I first heard the record, down in the basement at my friend R’s house, after high school. It might have been his record, or it might have been his parents’ (they had a decent jazz collection). We played together in the school band (he played trumpet and I flute, and later baritone and tenor saxophones), and we were getting into jazz. For us, that path started with the contemporary leaders of fusion: Corea and his Return to Forever band, Stanley Clarke and his tremendous School Days album (one early, memorable concert we saw was Clarke, with Tower of Power as the opening act, but our very first concert was Jack Bruce and Friends in 1980), Chameleon and Thrust from Herbie Hancock.
Working backwards, we had found our way to a little bebop, but mainly to the first great Miles Davis Quintet, with John Coltrane on tenor, Red Garland at the piano and the incomparable rhythm section of Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones, bass and drums. We were astonished that Birth of the Cool came from the same man. Miles’s restlessness confused us. We listened to a lot of great musicians who lit a fire when they were young, then stoked those same embers successfully for decades. We heard Sonny Rollins take apart his own playing and put it back together again in a new way, but no one else did what Miles did, shed one style after another—and not just styles but revolutions! He had a seeming discontent with success, and when other musicians began to follow his lead, he had to do something different.
It’s no exaggeration to say those opening bars disoriented us. We had trouble comprehending them. R would pick up the needle after those several seconds, put it back at the beginning, and we would try to listen again. After a few more times, we would stop and sit and talk and think. What disturbed us was not just the ominous tone the music carries with it like a bulldozing, inexorable force, but that we didn’t understand what was happening, how the music was made, how people could play that way, how they could think that way. Excavating my memory and imagination retrospectively, the sensation was like what the first encounter with a living alien civilization might be like, recognizably sentient beings communicating in a language that can express the most advanced concepts via what appear to be atavistic materials. Bitches Brew challenged the neat certainties of our youthful outlook.
We were playing jazz halfway decently already, and we understood tunes and chord changes and fitting a solo into that context. We knew how to organize our shit. But Bitches Brew, we could not understand how it was organized; we could not understand how each note determined the next one. It wasn’t haphazard, it made sense, and the fact that two bassists, two drummers and three keyboardists could play simultaneously, making the same music and keeping every note clear, was proof. It was the sound of a brilliant, profoundly restless musician, tired of his past and dissatisfied with the direction of the music he heard around him, using more than a little violence to force open a new path.
We were fifteen, so what did we do? We turned our sunglasses upside down and talked about the record among our friends while we made sure that we did so in crowds, so that our peers could overhear how cool we were. And we listened, because the dark beauty of the music and the unlimited possibilities it promised were irresistible.
Bitches Brew is a great work of abstract music inside the sounds, beats, and riffs of commercial music, and one of the most unique documents of the recorded era. The effect the album had on jazz and rock was shattering, disruptive in ways that make an abject mockery of the contemporary vainglorious use of that word by people who only wish to make money. Bitches Brew is like Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and Le Sacre du Printemps, works of craft and imagination that slammed the coffin lid on an old way of doing things and opened up an entirely new universe of aesthetic and technical possibilities. Like those works, it is both carefully organized and roughly made, it borrows from materials and methods that came both before and from outside the tradition in which it appears. The album, the picture, and the ballet composition stand alone as masterpieces while also eliding important transitions in cultural history. Each of these works is made with a confident mastery that juxtaposes fixed result with unsettled form: Picasso’s painting is literally unfinished, Stravinsky’s virgin returns with the cycle of the seasons to dance herself to death, Bitches Brew, like a baseball field, never comes to an organic end, it is arbitrarily limited to the physical side of an LP.
In defiance of every prescribed notion of how pop, rock and jazz were (and are) supposed to go, Bitches Brew resolutely rejects musical resolution. There are tracks, but there are no songs, no double-bar lines, nothing to neatly round off the end of a stretch of music. There are only two tracks on the entire first LP of the set, “Pharaoh’s Dance,” at twenty minutes, takes up the whole of side A, and the B side is packed with the twenty-seven minutes’ duration of the title track, twenty-seven minutes of music far darker and more threatening than what’s heard on the obverse.
Aesthetically there had been nothing like it before, and little like it after (Miles’s own fecund electric period would produce music that touched on concepts from Bitches Brew, but nothing that was as revolutionary). One reason is that the record accomplishes something that is supposed to be impossible in the era of late-capitalism, where anything that is not yet monetized and commodified strives to be branded and sold: Bitches Brew is some of the most experimental, avant-garde art music made in the history of Western culture—and the record was a broad commercial success. One of the best selling albums Miles Davis ever made, and thus one of the best selling jazz albums ever made, it sold around a half million copies in 1970, when it was released, and had sold 1,000,000 copies—platinum, baby—as of 2003 (not counting the continued reissues of various archival packages, nor the number of plays through streaming services).
Bitches Brew has been a sub rosa presence in rock and jazz ever since, seething, spreading slowly. Forty years after, the ideas and possibilities that it tossed out into the world are still rippling out along the surface. For a work with such an immediate, even physical, effect, that’s an unexpectedly long gestation.
One reason for that, correct though superficial, is the music is rock, not jazz, and therefore, as the more reflexively reactionary critics like Stanley Crouch suggest, it is shallow, vulgar, cheap, a sell-out with no aesthetic value. True enough, the music is rock, and it sold; even mediocre records by mildly popular rock groups sell better than jazz, and did in the 1960s. Even taking into account Davis’s relative superstardom, he wasn’t making money like rockstars were. Davis, like every other highly skilled professional musician (and like Mozart and Beethoven) wanted to get paid, and he envied the financial rewards that went to the likes of Jimi Hendrix. So he made a rock record. He sold out.
But of course he didn’t sell out, and he didn’t make a rock record. If rock is just a 4/4 beat and an electric guitar, those are all over the album. But music is defined not by instruments, but by how they are played and used, what is made with them. Bitches Brew is resolutely experimental music making, exhilarating and discomfiting, depending on the listener.
By 1969, the jazz world had found some way toward accommodation with “The New Thing,” ten years after Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz, but much of that music was still based in tunes, though the playing extrapolated freely from them. Structural avant-gardists like Cecil Taylor weren’t laying down the pulse, beat and groove that Miles was. Soulful, funky jazz like Lee Morgan’s records (many made with a commercial formula), or the music Cannonball Adderley (who had been in Miles’s previous groups and had hired Zawinul for his own band) was putting out were firmly inside song-structure. Hendrix, as soaringly creative as he was, worked within the limits of the blues, soul and rock music. Tony Williams’s contemporaneous Lifetime band was playing rock—they were the first fusion band—along with jazz (Williams swings heavily on their debut album, Emergency!), but Miles wasn’t making rock, even with Lifetime guitarist McLaughlin, an essential part of the Bitches Brew sessions, second only to the leader himself.
Or, second to the leaders. Bitches Brew would have been impossible without the contributions of producer Teo Macero, Miles’s longtime, essential collaborator in the recording studio from the time the trumpeter signed with Columbia records. Macero made the record with Miles. Miles played and guided the band, while Macero composed the album by fitting together stretches of the tape recordings into—what? Some kind of finished form.
Razor blade, splicing block, tape: basic tools at any recording studio of the time, but normally used to fit the best sections of different takes of a song together into the ideal version to go on a record. Anathema in the jazz recording session, which valued the live take, the band playing together from start to finish. Play a few versions and choose the best one at playback to put in the can.
Bitches Brew was recorded in Columbia’s studios on 30th street in Manhattan. Travel a few miles uptown from there to the West Side, and you reach the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Studio. In 1969, you would find razor blade, splicing block and tape there too. They were used to literally shape a piece of finished music out of physical material, pieces of recording tape with the magnetic particles arranged to hold captured sounds of any kind. A solid music, a musique concrète, composed at the very edge of experimental classical music.
Macero made Bitches Brew the same way. There were no real charts for the producer to follow, just a few sketches from Miles, his own reworking of Zawinul’s “Pharaoh’s Dance,” recorded fragments that were sorted by quality and combined to make something that the musicians never heard but that Miles and Macero imagined in their heads. The three-day session was just the band playing while Miles, in his inimitable style, prodded them and intimidated them into giving him something interesting, something new. The reels of tape rolled, the music was captured as raw material, cut and spliced into an album. What came out was the avant-garde with soul and a beat, musique concrète you could dance to, rock that blew away the complacency of jazz, and jazz that mocked the limitations of rock. Hated by those who love it, loved by those who hate it, all of these, none of these, more than these. There is literally no other recording anything like Bitches Brew, and there is little in our outside music like it: an absolute document of a moment in culture that sharply, even brutally, separates what had come before from what might still come after.