Reading Bitches Brew

Tonight: I’ll be reading from Bitches Brew at WORD Bookstore in Greenpoint—I’m sharing the event with Bryan C. Parker, who is bring his own 33 1/3 book on Beat Happening, and series editor Ally-Jane Grossan will be hosting. We’ll be spinning some music, and there will be some trivia with, I believe, modest prizes available. There will also be time to drink beer down the street afterwords.

Next Wednesday, 11 November: I’ll be at Spectrum for a Bitches Brew listening party. I’ll read from the book, talk about the music and about Miles Davis, and we’ll also listen to the entire record, either off vinyl or the Mobile Fidelit Labs SACD pressing (which is amazing), depening on what Spectrum’s Chief Science Officer, Lawrence de Martin, recommends—the great sound system there is his creation.

I’ll sign books at each event, and at Spectrum will have copies on hand to sell (cash only please). See you there.

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Modern Miles

(The following is an adapted excerpt from Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, published 22 October by Bloomsbury Academic. Buy it from a bookstore near you, or order from Amazon)

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. 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. 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 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,” 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, or the music Cannonball Adderley 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, 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 or 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.

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Talking Bitches Brew

Last week, I sat down for an interview with boice-Terrel Allen (he took that snazzy picture of me with Elvis Costello) for his excellent Talk Music with boice podcast, and talked about Bitches Brew, the album and the book, and how I got to the point of putting the words down on paper. I think it’s interesting and informative, and boice is an excellent person who is a pleasure to spend time with.

You can listen to us talking Bithces Brew here, check out his site here, and subscribe (for free) to his podcast through iTunes. His series is excellent and spans a wide-range of styles and personality, I recommend it highly.

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Miles Davis Week – Day 3: Do As I Say, Not As I Do

Day 3 of Bitches Brew blogging




Jazz history is the story of musicians and bands and the records they made, and it can be charted as a family tree. Jazz is an oral tradition, and even though it has now been heavily institutionalized (fundamental to the music’s economic survival, but not necessarily an aesthetic benefit), it remains so, and is pretty much the only still-living thing we have in the West that approximates the Homeric tradition.

From the very beginning, musicians led bands and made records, and the sidemen went on to lead their own bands and make their own records, and on and on. Miles is arguably unequalled in his importance as a bandleader in jazz history, going by his sidemen and collaborators: Lee…

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Miles Davis Week – Day 2: The Lost Quintet

Day 2 of Miles Davis blogging



One of the compelling mysteries about Miles Davis’s music in the late 1960s is how got from here to there, from the formally free, but still idiomatic music of Nefertiti, Miles in the Sky, and Filles de Kilimanjaro, to In a Silent Way, then Bitches Brew. Miles in the Sky and Filles de Kilimanjaro are transitional in that they add soul, funk and rock elements to what Miles was doing, and Filles starts exploring extended duration, but the music is within reach of what others like Lee Morgan and Herbie Hancock had been doing contemporaneously.

The key is there on Filles, although the record doesn’t really sound like it—two of the five tracks…

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Miles Davis Week – Day 1: Music To Read Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew By?

Day 1 of my Miles Davis blogging



Music to read Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew by?

Maybe so. 33-1/3 books, who have their own Spotify account, asked me if I wanted to put a playlist together for them as part of Bitches Brew week here at 333SOUND. Of course I said yes, I’m no fool. Then I started to put it together. Countless man hours later …

This is actually the third version, once revised. What began as a mix of music that come before and after Bitches Brew, from Miles and others, turned into (after seemingly endless listening and hemming and hawing) a limited playlist that relates to my book chapter “Directions in Music by Miles Davis.” The purpose of that chapter and…

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Master Brew


Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, by yours truly, drops one week from today—22 October. You’ll be able to pick it up at any well-stocked bookstore in your area (here’s a list of bookstores that carry the series, although there are certainly book sellers who are not on the list), and of course you can still pre-order it, at a discount, from Amazon.

There will also be a handful of book events, and if you come to one I will sign your copy! You can catch me talking about the book, about Miles, and playing some of the music at:

  • October 26: BookCourt in Brooklyn.
  • November 5: Word in Greenpoint, where I’ll be appearing with Bryan C. Parker, who wrote the 33 1/3 on Beat Happening (buy his book too!), and series editor Ally-Jane Grossan.
  • November 11: Spectrum—this is a special event, a listening party, where we will listen to Bitches Brew on vinyl through Spectrum’s state-of-the-art sound system. There’ll be book talk too, and I’ll have copies to sell at a discount (cash only).
  • November 20: Librarie Drawn & Quarterly in Montréal, with more music, Miles, and book talk. I’m already expecting a good crowd of Miles Davis fans.

I hope to see you at any these events, but if you can’t make it, do buy the book. It’s good. And it’s Miles.

I sign an advance copy of Miles Davis' Bitches Brew for Elvis Costello.

I sign an advance copy of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew for Elvis Costello.

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Join The Club

Over at 333sounds, my editor announced that there will be a new open call for book proposals, with notice and guidelines going up at the end of June, and proposals dues in early August. Time to get your shit together.

Series Update/Open Call News/You’ll Want to Read This One:



Dear Readers,

For the past 11 years we’ve been publishing these tiny little books on the best-loved (sometimes hated), most popular and often most misunderstood albums in pop, rock, soul, hip-hop and electronic music.

And we’re still going VERY strong. Thanks to an amazing crop of books over the past two years, the 33 1/3 series re-launch under Bloomsbury Academic  has been a huge success. Special congratulations are due to Jordan Ferguson for his book on J. Dilla, which was our bestselling title in 2014. And of course to Carl Wilson for his book on Celine Dion, our bestselling title overall.

Around this time last year I posted, on this here blog, an announcement of the open call for new 33 1/3 proposals.  As you may know the titles in the series are selected from proposals submitted from writers around the world. I received over 400 submissions and selected 14 titles to become books. The first of those is already ready and will be available May 21st. That’s Koji Kondo’s soundtrack to the Super Mario Bros video game by Andrew Schartmann. Around then we’ll also publish 33 1/3rds on Devo’s Freedom of Choice by Evie Nagy (with a forward by Fred Armisen) and the Dead Kennedy’s Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables by Michael Stewart Foley.

I’ve got tons of excellent manuscripts coming down the pike and I’m happy to announce that…

the next open call will be posted on at the end of June 2015 with proposals due in early August 2015.

I hope this late summer date will give a lot of you writers/teachers more time to formulate your proposals. Please don’t submit proposal before the official start date as they will not be considered.

As always, the guidelines will generally be the same as last time: you can find those here.  I’ll try and respond to any additional queries in the comments below but please note that I can’t respond to every email I receive.

Did you know that 33 1/3 makes up a very small part of the Bloomsbury Academic music list and in addition to the 33 1/3 series, we publish really neat books in popular music and sound? If you like Kevin Dettmar’s literary take on Gang of Four…then you might like Simon Warner’s Text and Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll. Like Marc Weidenbaum’s book on Aphex Twin? Then you might like eldritch Priest’s Boring Formless Nonsense: Experimental Music and the Aesthetics of Failure.

And in case you haven’t heard, we’re publishing a textbook called “How To Write About Music” this month that I co-edited with Bee Thousand author Marc Woodworth. You might want to pick up a copy since there’s a chapter called “How Pitch a 33 1/3.” Just sayin.

All the best from your faithful series editor,


A Bitches Brew Reading List

I’m of course personally excited to be writing the 33 1/3 book on Bitches Brew, and on the most selfish level it’s the perfect reason to either reread my favorite books on Miles or else read ones that are new to me, for information, critical thinking and the overall context of the music. Here’s my current reading list (in no particular order):

  • Miles: The Autobiography, Miles Davis with Quincy Troupe
  • Miles Davis: The Definitive Biography, by Ian Carr
  • So What: The Life of Miles Davis, by John F. Szwed
  • Milestones: The Music and Times of Miles Davis, by J.K. Chambers
  • The Studio Recordings of the Miles Davis Quintet, 1965-68, by Keith Waters
  • Downbeat Hall of Fame Series, The Miles Davis Reader, by Frank Aklyer
  • Running the Voodoo Down: The Electric Music of Miles Davis, by Phil Freeman
  • Miles Davis Reader, edited by Bill Kirchner
  • It’s About that Time: Miles Davis On and Off the Record, by Richard Cook
  • The Miles Davis Companion: Four Decades of Commentary, edited by Gary Carner
  • Miles Davis and American Culture, edited by Gerald Early
  • The History of Jazz, by Ted Gioia
  • Birds of Fire: Jazz, Rock, Funk and the Creation of Fusion, by Kevin Fellezs
  • You’ll Know When You Get There: Herbie Hancock and the Mwandishi Band, by Bob Gluck
  • The Cool School: Writing from American’s Hip Underground, edited by Glenn O’Brien
  • Birth of the Cool: Beat, Bebop, and the American Avant Garde, by Lewis MacAdams
  • The Birth (and Death) of the Cool, by Ted Gioia

You can see the whole list collected here. I’m also deeply curious about Enrico Merlin’s Bitches brew. Genesi del capolavoro di Miles Davis, but I’m wary of getting bogged down in the translation when I should be writing (and if there’s anyone who would like to tackle that for me, I’ll provide a copy of the book as well as acknowledgement and gratitude). Aaaaaaaand, I just discovered this, which appears to be a dissertation set for publication early this year. I imagine the price will drop from $50, but this type of academic book is usually priced out of the market for the general reader.

If you have any reading suggestions or discoveries, let me know in the comments.

It Is In The Brewing Luminous: "Bitches Brew" Buying Guide

UPDATE: Now that I’m writing a book on this album, it’s an ideal time to revisit and revise this previous post from way back when, four years ago, at the 40th anniversary of the release of Bitches Brew. The most important new information is that the burning set in the video, which had previously only been available through the expensive and extravagant Collector’s Edition, can now be had digitally and reasonably over at Concert Vault, for the price of membership plus $5.00. It’s a must-hear, must-have concert.

Soundcheck had a smackdown over which classic recording from Miles Davis was more influential, Kind of Blue or Bitches Brew? There’s really only one possible answer. Kind of Blue is a great, beautiful record, but it’s influence has been relatively slight. Miles’ introduction of modal playing didn’t even shift Coltrane and Cannonball, on the same record, away from their intense and joyous running of changes, and while pretty much every jazz musician who goes through any kind of organized pedagogy works with modal practice and playing (I did in the High School program at Eastman), it never really became a school or style, rather just another tool in the kit.

Fifty years later, Kind of Blue has become an object of popular worship, and that’s problematic. Yes, the music is great and gorgeous, but it seems that what has become more important is the style, the stance, the atmosphere. The record has become a symbol of a certain kind of hipness, a badge of the listener’s qualities, especially the ones (s)he imagines for her/himself. The actual music tends to get lost in the fog of echt-cool. No one seems to actually hear how Coltrane eschews the scales to produce his marvelous vertical solo on “Blue In Green,” perhaps the finest moment in the saxophonist’s career. It’s less an album today than an icon, and icons are made to be broken.

Bitches Brew is the iconoclastic answer, a recording that has had a profound influence on musical culture, from jazz to pop styles and, I believe on the broad range of improvised music that has been practiced across the world over the last forty years. It has none of the seductive style of the previous album, but it doesn’t confront the listener. It presents its powerful, uncompromising stance with an invigorating indifference, with such powerful yet lightly worn confidence in its own qualities that it feels itself beyond criticism, beyond hip, beyond cool. It doesn’t need you to like it, but it knows you need it to like you. It’s also, in its own way, a beautiful record. The question with the recording is not its influence but which package to buy?

There is the 2 CD standard set (and comparable download) that is the original recording along with the bonus track “Feio.” There is also the Complete Bitches Brew Sessions box set, which augments the original with separate tracks, comprising a total of 4 CDs, but those can also be found on Big Fun, although with the box you get a dense, detailed booklet. Unlike the Complete In A Silent Way Sessions, though, there is no material that gives any idea of how the tracks on the original release were actually put together, and the studio process, especially Teo Macero’s tape editing, was integral to the music, which is a combination of tremendous playing and tremendous after-the-fact musical construction.

This basic decision is now complicated by Sony’s production of two new and different editions, the Legacy one and the Collector’s Edition . The latter, an extravaganza priced in the three figures, is packed with a CD edition of the record plus a vinyl pressing of the record plus audio and DVD of the same material in concert plus a book, a “memorabilia envelope” and a poster! Okay! If you have the money to spend, you’re welcome to it, but I think the best choice is the Legacy edition. It’s a 2 CD/1 DVD collection, with the original recording plus material that has long been unavailable (and is on neither the standard edition or the Complete one), single-length edits of “Miles Runs The Voodoo Down,” “Spanish Key,” “Great Expectations” and “Little Blue Frog.” I wonder how often those were heard on jukeboxes? And although there’s no live audio, the DVD is a concert from Copenhagen in 1969, in excellent sound and vintage videotape, the band comprised of Miles, Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette burning darkly through some of the best of his late ’60s material. The only thing missing is a reprint of the original liner notes from Ralph J. Gleason in an otherwise fine booklet from Greg Tate. Overall, it’s fantastic.

That alone was worth the cost for me in duplicating my standard set and is certainly the one to get for anyone who doesn’t yet have this music (the iTunes download appears to include the video portion as well) and is highly recommended even for those who do, especially considering the price, at least at J&R last weekend, was $16.99. And for those who don’t yet have this music, why the hell not?

Bitches Brew is one of the great archives of recorded music, a work that has one foot in popular styles, rock and funk, and the other in some of the most intellectually and aesthetically experimental music of the 20th century. It does the impossible, it brings together the strains of American popular musical culture – blues, rock, jazz, funk – parsed through the sieve of musique concrète into the ultimate Platonic emulsification. It’s enthralling and even a bit disturbing, it seems to spring from some ancient collective consciousness that Miles has directed all the musicians to tap into. There’s some secret language that they understand intuitively, they don’t translate it but let us listen in on their conversation. The sound, especially on the title track, can be shattering, Miles trumpet crying out from some far off, mysterious, even frightening land. The “B” disc of the old LP set is slightly more straightforward, with the rave-ups of “Spanish Key” and “John McLaughlin,” the slow burn of “Miles Runs The Voodoo Down” and the repose of “Sanctuary,” with its hints of “Stella By Starlight.” That’s as close as the album gets to song form, though, and that’s why it still sounds as fresh and daring as always. Musicians working in popular forms, even at the creative end of jazz, still have problems breaking loose of song form while maintaining some kind of clear organization. Bitches Brew manages that feat for its duration and that’s because of Miles as bandleader, filling the chairs with cats who can follow his principles. Holland and Harvey Brooks lay down geological bass lines, DeJohnette and Lenny White define the spaces in time, Chick and Joe Zawinul play some of the darkest electric piano on record, McLaughlin, Shorter and Bennie Maupin add smears of color and pithy solos to support the leader. There’s space, density, motion, the music never resolves, but instead of leaving us frustrated and unsatisfied, we just want to come back for more. Dig it.