50 Years Ago: Miles Davis Fuses Jazz and Rock on 'Jack Johnson'

Jack Johnson, released on Feb. 24, 1971, might be the closest Miles Davis ever came to putting out a rock album. But to leave it there is to understate the magnificent accomplishment and importance of the record, which shows Davis at his most titanic, most relentless and most focused on establishing a foundational American music.

The genesis of the project - which was later retitled A Tribute to Jack Johnson - is deceptively simple: In 1970, Davis was asked by boxing manager and impresario Bill Cayton if he wanted to score a documentary about boxer Jack Johnson.

A kind of sorcerer in his own right, Johnson was more than the first African American to hold the world heavyweight boxing title, which he did from 1908-15; he was also, like Davis, a larger-than-life cultural icon and rebel. His exploits were legendary, perhaps none more so than his bout with recently retired ex-champion James J. Jeffries in the so-called "fight of the century" in 1910.

Jeffries was at that point undefeated and came out of retirement in his own words "for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro."

More than 20,000 people, mostly white, showed up to watch the fight, which was staged in an outdoor ring specially built for the purpose in Reno. Johnson didn't just beat Jeffries; he dominated him so thoroughly that Jeffries noted, remarkably, afterward: "I could never have whipped Johnson at my best. I couldn't have hit him. No, I couldn't have reached him in 1,000 years."

From there, Johnson continued onward, becoming perhaps the most famous Black person on the planet. He refused to take marching orders from anyone and enjoyed a lavish lifestyle with his boxing earnings. He loved jazz, fast cars, good food and beautiful women, and no one was going to tell him to be quiet about these things. This refusal to kowtow to the conventions of a racist society proved so frustrating that eventually the powers that be conspired to take him down. He was convicted by an all-white jury on trumped-up charges under the Mann Act (often used as a tool against African Americans) in 1913. After going into exile for seven years in Europe and South America, Johnson eventually returned to America in 1920 to serve a one-year sentence, after which he continued to live large until his death in 1946.

This was the kind of man Davis could get behind. And what kind of recording session would befit a legend of Johnson's magnitude? A sprawling, almost mythical one, in which Davis continued his own artistic journey and created a fitting tribute to the famed boxer. In 1969, Davis told Rolling Stone that he could create "the greatest rock 'n' roll band you ever heard." With Jack Johnson, he was going to prove it.

Davis' journey to that point is as legendary as Johnson's. After dropping out of Julliard, he had gotten his start playing in Charlie Parker's pioneering bebop quintet in the late '40s. By the '50s, he had a heroin addiction (which he overcame), was living large himself and had also begun to compile his own staggering catalog. He released more than 20 albums during that decade for the smaller Prestige, Blue Note and Debut record labels.

At the same time, in the late '50s and into the '60s, he began recording for Columbia, producing classic albums like 'Round About Midnight, Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain that cemented his reputation as one of the greatest musicians in American history. Throughout it all he remained a restless innovator, never content to stay still. He moved through bebop, hard bop, cool jazz and even more experimental modes. Eventually he became fascinated by the possibilities of electric music, particularly jazz and funk. He jammed with Jimi Hendrix and was particularly impressed by a Jan. 1, 1971, performance by Hendrix and the Band of Gypsys at the Fillmore East.

Six weeks after that show, in February 1971, Davis was in the 30th Street Studio in New York City, recording what would become Jack Johnson. To call the sessions sprawling is an understatement. They ran on and off through early June. The lineup of musicians who sat in was astounding: Steve Grossman and Wayne Shorter on sax. Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett on electric piano and organ. Sonny Sharrock and John McLaughlin on guitar. Ron Carter and Michael Henderson on bass. Billy Cobham and Lenny White on drums. And more.

The recording technique was pure Davis: sorcery, experimentation and an assault on all musical boundaries. Musicians wandered in and out. If you were in the building for another reason and Davis wanted you, he ushered you into whatever jam session happened to be taking place.

The genesis of one of the songs on the album, "Right Off," provides a great example. "The first time I met Billy Cobham was in the studio," remembered McLaughlin. "Miles was busy in the control room with [producer] Teo Macero, and ... I started a jam in E, just for fun. Billy joined in, then Michael Henderson started playing bass and we took off! Within a minute, Miles ran in with his horn and went on to play in a way I’d never heard before." The liner notes to the extended, five-CD The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions continues the story: "By chance, Herbie Hancock had arrived unexpectedly and started playing on a cheap keyboard."

The result of all this is an album comprised of two heavyweight tracks. "Right Off" runs 26:53, "Yesternow" clocks in at 25:34. Both were compiled by Macero out of several different studio sessions, as well as some unaccompanied solo work done by Davis the previous fall.

"Right Off" opens with a hard-driving groove that wouldn't be out of place on a Sly & the Family Stone or George Clinton record. Cobham's drum work is driving, while McLaughlin's guitar is snaky, violent magic. Davis comes in, playing almost against this at first, as if he's the jazz guy who can corral these rock 'n' rollers. And then, slowly, he builds into a series of long wailing riffs, matching McLaughlin's rock energy. As he does, the song takes on a life of its own. It passes into a mournful center section in which Davis reaches back to a sound akin to Kind of Blue's – as if he's trying to stitch together rock, jazz and his own musical history in a single song – before moving into a serious funk groove and then finding again its original hard funk drive, featuring some of the nastiest work of McLaughlin's career.

"Yesternow" opens contemplatively, with Davis playing in a direct but searching way, making one wonder if he's trying to work through the implication of the life of his subject and the song's title - that the "yesterday" and the "now" may not be so far apart. This almost mournful tone builds slowly but steadily, with Sharrock laying down thin, chord-based slabs on the guitar and drummer Jack DeJohnette keeping things aligned but still spacey. The song then slowly modulates into an overlaid series of musings, getting funky at moments and balladic at others, with clarinetist Bennie Maupin zigging and zagging in and out, and Corea laying down slender flagstones on the electric piano for the others to stand on.

And always, over all of this, is Davis, leading the others, cajoling them, pushing them forward with his relentless energy and innovation. He proves, among other things, that when he wanted to, he could absolutely put together a great rock 'n' roll band.

Jack Johnson represents a high-water mark for Davis, a perfect representation of the way he refused to drown from his own musical ability. This is summed up by an audio clip of actor Brock Peters portraying Johnson, which closes out "Yesternow": "I'm Jack Johnson, heavyweight champion of the world. I'm black. They never let me forget it. I'm black all right – I'll never let them forget it." It's an idea that might well stand for Davis, too.

Carlos Alves de Sousa