Don Cheadle and Jazz Trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire Talk Bringing Miles Davis' Sound and Story to the Big Screen
Filled with shootouts and high-speed chases, Miles Ahead, the new film starring and directed by Oscar nominee Don Cheadle, isn’t your average music biopic -- but Miles Davis wasn’t your average musician. “I thought, ‘If I was going to do something with this person, who’s probably one of the most creative human beings ever to walk on the planet,’ ” says Cheadle, a first-time director, “‘that it would have to feel impressionistic, improvisational, wild, over-the-top. It would have to feel how I feel when I think about Miles Davis.’ ” Instead of a linear retelling of the late trumpeter’s life and career, the film (set to be released in theaters April 1 through Sony Pictures Classics) centers on the prolific legend’s unlikely late-’70s hiatus, between his groundbreaking rock-fusion work in the early ’70s and his ’80s pop comeback; earlier highlights and lowlights (his violence toward first wife Frances Davis, a 1959 beating by New York police) are touched on only in feverish flashbacks. His 1991 death at age 65, after mounting health problems, is omitted altogether.
While Cheadle tried to channel Davis’ unorthodox journey on film (with the full support of the Davis estate), trumpet player and composer Ambrose Akinmusire is leading the way for those using it as musical inspiration. The 33-year-old Oakland, Calif., native has proved he’s one of few contemporary jazz artists to take up Davis’ forward-thinking mantle with his critically acclaimed Blue Note albums, including 2014’s The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier to Paint. Akinmusire and Cheadle, 51, discuss what it took to bring Davis’ game-changing sound and story to the big screen.
Akinmusire: You may not remember this, but I was doing a record with [Davis’ longtime drummer] Jack DeJohnette about five years ago, and I looked up and you were in the sound booth. I was like, “Is that Don Cheadle?” When we got out of the session, you weren’t there anymore. Were you already doing research then?
Cheadle: I was. It was about 10 years ago when this all began. The movie has gone through many different iterations since back when I was watching you and Jack in the studio.
You learned to play trumpet for the role. Are you still playing? What has been the hardest thing about it?
Yeah -- I have my trumpet with me right now. Other than making a sound that I can stomach, it’s the time away from it, how you feel like you have to start all over again every time. It’s much harder than anything I’ve ever tried before. Like with basketball, if I don’t play for a year I’ll be missing shots, but I’m not going to throw the ball over the backboard. With trumpet, if I pick it up and I haven’t been playing, it’s like, “Did I ever know how to make sound on this?”
Yeah, man. And that doesn’t ever change. I make sure I touch that horn every 12 hours. If I skip a day and pick my horn up, it hurts for the first 30 minutes.
Oh, my God, so I don’t have any shot! (Laughs.)
In the score to the film, some of the audio is actually Miles Davis, and some is [contemporary trumpet player] Keyon Harrold. How did you come to that decision?
Whenever we could we used the actual recording, because that’s Miles. For all the original music, we were actually playing stuff on set -- it just wasn’t good enough. So they overdubbed our playing. Keyon had to look at the footage and figure out how to play improvisationally while also matching what we were doing. They performed magic.
What? I thought it was the other way around.
Because that way makes sense. But the way we did it, instead of me listening to him play and learning his fingerings, it was all improv. That way, when we were shooting, it wasn’t locked in -- I was still reacting to the music happening around me. Keyon had to go in after and play over it, which is impossible. But he did it.
Wow, that’s amazing. It was spot-on, and what Keyon’s playing is not easy.
No, it isn’t. I learned all of [Davis’] solos, too. I’m not using my sound because obviously Miles sounds better, but I’m playing.
Through the whole process, did you ever feel pressure to make the film Hollywood-friendly?
I didn’t. I did want to make it something people could be entertained by, as opposed to making a film where if the audience doesn’t know Miles’ music or even what jazz is, there’s nothing there for them. Why would they want to see that movie? Instead, it’s for people who have no connection to him, other than that maybe they’ve heard Kind of Blue in the background of a party and asked, “Oh, what’s that?” That’s a lot of people’s relationship to him. They don’t even know that he touched so many different genres and created so many new leaders. I didn’t know how to put everything in and not have it feel like a junior documentary. So I tried to make a film to be what Miles was, rather than just a checklist of his accomplishments. I also wanted to externalize the process that an artist like Miles Davis might go through when he hits writer’s block. When he has been silent for five years and then goes, “What do I say?” You could have somebody sitting at a piano and playing chords, tearing up notepaper and throwing it over his shoulder, but the creative process also can be inherently undramatic. All the other stuff that goes into what you create -- racism, record-label conflicts, people stealing your ideas -- ultimately, those are the interesting things to me.
That’s the thing I really appreciated about the movie. A lot of people are like, “You’re so lucky to be able to be a musician.” Yes, I am -- but you don’t know what it’s like to be arguing with the label or see the racist encounters I have in certain countries. All those things really make up the music and the artist. What was the most surprising thing you learned about Miles?
I guess what I kept seeing over and over was his refusal to sit still musically. His never-ending search for the next thing -- good or bad, successful or not. As opposed to going, “Well, that works. Now let me do it a bunch of times,” he went places that were repulsive to people -- like those who say, “I don’t f--- with Miles after 1968. I don’t even listen to that shit.” They believe he abandoned them. But it doesn’t appear, to me, that Miles cared.
When people ask me who my biggest influences are, I always say the same two people for that exact reason: Miles Davis and Joni Mitchell. They were willing to say that who they were yesterday is not necessarily who they are today. For me, that’s one of the biggest roles of an artist. To be at the forefront of change.
Yeah, and if you’re not trying to do that -- if you’re not trying to push it -- what are you doing? Miles was trying to be a consistently relevant artist. I imagine if he were working today, he would probably get Kamasi Washington to come over and play with him, or Kendrick Lamar or Jack White, whoever. He would still be trying to figure out how to connect what’s happening right now through his creative process. I think that’s a lesson for everybody, no matter if you’re an accountant or a teacher or play trumpet. Get better. Don’t keep doing the old thing. Keep doing the next thing.
Maybe one day we’ll sit together and you can show me how to have a better relationship with my trumpet. Unless it’s a time when you’re in a bad relationship with yours -- then we’ll just commiserate together.
--Introduction by Natalie Weiner
This story will appear in the March 25 issue of Billboard.