Photo by Carrie Brothers

I had expected to go into the Bitches Brew 40th anniversary panel a little like a fish out of water. I expected a room full of jazz fans and serious heads, getting deep on discussion that went way over my head. I wasn’t entirely wrong, but I was pleasantly surprised at the simplicity and candor with which the album and its cultural and technical context were passed around the room. There was much discussion of the recording sessions themselves, many reverent questions posed by those who hadn’t known Miles in his lifetime to those who had, and no shortage of reminiscing about the era of its recording; as trumpeter Wallace Roney, whom Davis mentored, recounted, “Bitches Brew was recorded 24 hours after Hendrix played the last note at Woodstock… so that was all going on at that time.” Other panelists included moderator and jazz scholar Ashley Kahn, DJ Logic, Davis’s son Erin and nephew Vince Wilburn Jr, and trumpeter Igmar Thomas.



The real standout for me, though, was Bitches Brew drummer Lenny White. It seemed like every time an anecdote ran long and extra funny and engaging, I looked up and it was Lenny, every time. White was particularly well positioned because much of the technical side of the discussion focused on the role of the drums on Bitches Brew. The panel seemed largely in agreement that the album represents a significant inflection point on the curve of transition between traditional 4/4 swing-feeling jazz and what White termed a “bass-forward, boom-smack bop interplay.”



Aside from the transitional role of the beat, a lot of questions came up about Miles and his process, specifically about the way he collaborated with producer Teo Macero. As very close relationships often are, theirs was full of tension, and full of trust. “Miles trusted Teo, he would leave and let Teo work his magic. Way before ProTools, they worked hand in hand. I think Teo knew Miles’ vision,” White said. While producers had previously performed similar duties to engineers, Macero was a pioneer of the augmented role of the producer in the final product of the album. Rather than simply recording sessions of improvisation, Macero in fact put the final album together, cutting and splicing with razorblades and eight tracks on tape. As Logic added, “I thought it was cool the way Teo was cutting and slicing, just piecing things together, getting musicians in the studio, taking a cut here, a sample there…”



While the discussion wended its way through diverse aspects of the recording process, the different figures involved, and the historical significance of it all, attention never veered far from the figure of Miles himself. In various reverent tones, musicians and friends spoke about what it was like to play with him, to even be near to his music and his life. In the final few minutes of the panel, White came through again with an anecdote reminding us just what, and who, we were there to talk about: “Miles was at some sort of a state dinner, with big dignitaries and whatever, and he was introduced to, I guess, a senator’s wife. And she said well, ‘Who are you?’ and he replies, ‘I’m Miles Davis, and I’ve changed music two or three times.’” And that dinner was before Bitches Brew.