In the first degree, the new release documentary on visionary American trumpeter and bandleader Miles Davis is a music film. But it also offers a remarkable insight into how to motivate, inspire and work creatively with teams.

 In fact, “Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool” is probably worthwhile viewing for anyone with a role, responsibility, or simple interest in the development of others.

Davis is the black music icon whose late-’40s “Birth of the Cool” sessions ‘cooled’ the frenetic rhythms and complex harmonies of Bebop, the foundation of what we think of today as modern jazz. From the late 50s, he made a series of large ensemble records including the Spanish-tinged “Sketches of Spain”, long before the term World Music was coined. As the ’60s became the ’70s, he was in on the ground floor of jazz-rock and related fusion forms.

Davis, who died in ’91, was interested in the whole process of creative awareness, in how individuals open up to both their inner possibilities and those of the surrounding environment. Herbie Hancock, pianist in Davis’ so-called Second Great Quintet, tells Stanley Nelson’s camera: “‘Don’t lean on what you know’. What he was looking for was the stuff you don’t know.”

Davis led by example. Yet his ‘example’ was never the prescriptive, ‘Do like me’. It was, as musicologist Tammy L. Kernodle explains, “‘Do you, be you’”. More precisely, perhaps, become you.

The group dynamic went something like this: ‘If I do this, what will you do?’ Or better: ‘What can I say musically — what can I play? — that will enable you to find your way forward, in your own voice’. A lot of the time, Davis himself didn’t say much, his inflected language marked by a certain “m” and “f”-lettered adjectival monotony. But the meaning of his words, at least those we hear in the film, seems utterly clear. And he could be ghoulishly funny, the same adjective having different meanings depending on the context.

Fascinating in how Davis’ musicians became more like themselves, was that their contributions were unique to the collective project — to the particular ‘here and now’. Dave Liebman, another of Davis’ sidemen has said: “Almost to the man, most of us played a certain way with Miles that we never played again. Somehow he got you to do what he needed … and what you wanted.”

Nelson’s film features excerpts from Davis’s co-written autobiography spoken by an actor in Davis’ signature rasping whisper. Arriving with musical sketches to record “Kind of Blue”, an unalloyed masterpiece that is today the biggest-selling album in the history of jazz, Davis says: “I knew that if you’ve got great musicians, they would deal with the situation and play beyond what is there and above where they think they can.” For John Coltrane, the most important post-war saxophonist after Charlie Parker, “that was the door he needed to find his own identity,” Kernodle says.

So was Davis, clearly something of a Shamanic figure, so exceptional in his ability to activate talent, that there’s not much there for the rest of us to learn from? Certainly, he was one of contemporary music’s greatest visionaries. The way he ‘cooled’ Bebop, and the distinct personal sound he developed as part of that process, took him, as the critic John Clare described it, as close to pure originality as is possible in most art-forms.

But his broader, more earthly lesson was that as a team-playing leader, he had the self-awareness and confidence to believe in the liberating power of ‘the other’. He brought into his groups young musicians with attitude (black and white) not because they were like him, or conformed to some standardised ‘company package’, but because they were not and they did not.

In the language of personal development, he had a “growth mindset” (the phrase is US psychologist, Carol Dweck’s). He cultivated a formidable sense of what a given collective might be capable of, what the “complementarities” of a group of creative people, with attitude, might look like. Coltrane is the most famous example, whose maximalism threw Davis’ feline minimalism into stark relief.

Miles believed in both inward-looking reflective practice — “Sometimes you have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself” — and looking outwards, trusting one’s intuition and judgement. “You can get a direction like that when you see the right people,” he once said. “You automatically know that’s for you, y’know? In a matter of seconds.”

The regrettable in Miles, to put it mildly, lies in what “Birth of the Cool” shows of how he could be brutal towards his wives and girlfriends, some of whom mercifully speak for themselves in the film. Their compassion is remarkable. But it’s evident that, for Miles Davis, leading and working with teams, meant working and leading with men.  

Nelson doesn’t psychologise. But we learn that the little boy Miles witnessed domestic violence in the family home. We hear how, unprovoked, he was badly beaten over the head by a cop outside a New York club where he was playing in the late ’50s. His crime appears to have been smoking a cigarette. That he had just accompanied a white woman to her car, may not have helped.

* “Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool” opens in UK and German cinemas this week, French release will be soon.

Milestones

Birth of the Cool, 1949
Workin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet, 1956
Milestones, 1958
Kind of Blue, 1959
Sketches of Spain, 1960
Four and More, 1964
Miles Smiles, 1966
In a Silent Way, 1969
It’s About That Time, 1969
Bitches Brew, 1970
Agharta, 1975
We Want Miles, 1982
Decoy, 1984
Music from Siesta (with Marcus Miller), 1987