Miles Davis: The King of Cool

April 14, 2021


Filmmaker Stanley Nelson Jr. on the legacy of Miles Davis.

Stanley Nelson is a writer, director, and filmmaker best known for his documentary films on subjects that center and amplify the experiences of Black Americans. The latest addition to his filmography is "Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool," a career-spanning retrospective on the legendary artist which premiered at Sundance in 2019 — Nelson's 10th premiere at the esteemed film festival.

The acclaimed documentary received a nod for Best Music Film at the 62nd Annual Grammy Awards, and since made its television debut as part of the PBS series "American Masters" last February. Called "superbly crafted" and a "tantalizing portrait' by Variety, as well as "the Miles Davis doc we need" by Afropunk, "Birth of the Cool" is now available to stream on Netflix.

Davis was an innovator and cultural icon with an inimitable style, whose influence transcends genres, generations, and artistic mediums. Not only did he help launch the careers of other legends including John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, Marcus Miller, Jimmy Cobb, and Lenny White (all of whom appear in the film), he also inspired countless artists across genres and generations; Alicia Keys, Carlos Santana, DJ Premier, the Grateful Dead, John Legend, Lady Gaga, Madlib, Mos Def, Nas, and Q-Tip are just a few of the many musicians that have cited the jazz icon as an influence.

Downtown announced a deal to represent Davis' catalog in 2019, so we asked Nelson for his thoughts on why the prolific trumpeter's life and work is still in the cultural zeitgeist — nearly 30 years after his passing:

"One of the things that’s so fascinating about Miles is that he was so much more than just a musician. Miles was an icon, and his cool extended to everything in his world — the way he dressed, the way he looked, the cars that he drove — he always demanded excellence. His experience as a Black man living in America during the second half of the 20th century is very unique in some ways, and totally ordinary in others. As a storyteller, that intrigued me.


"Miles never got comfortable. He never copied anybody’s music, or anybody’s lifestyle. He incorporated everything he learned before and abstracted it. He made things grow in new and wonderful ways. He never settled.

"He never said, 'Let’s do a funk rock album.' Instead, he gave us 'Bitches Brew.' He didn’t say, 'Let’s slow down bebop.' He gave us 'Birth of the Cool.' To make those kinds of strides once would be amazing, but he changed the course of music and fashion at least four or five times in his career — and he did it without any compromises. Everything he touched was at the highest level, always."

Photos by Richard Rothman

A version of this story was first published in a print issue of the Downtown Journal, which is available to read in full on the Downtown Music Holdings website.