By Sherry Mazzocchi
NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — Smoke, the uptown jazz supper club, is kicking off a month long festival celebrating Miles Davis’ 86th birthday. ‘Dreaming in Blue’ begins on May 26 and features 14 bands – with the musicians who played with the legendary trumpet player.
The festival touches on the myriad styles of Miles’ music – from the early era of cool jazz all the way to the jazz fusion sound of “Bitches Brew.” But the soul of the festival comes from the music of the 1959 album Kind of Blue.
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“’Kind of Blue’ was the best-selling jazz album of all time,” Frank Christopher, Smoke’s co-owner, told CBSNewYork.com.
Christopher said the hugely influential album represents just one of the many major innovations Miles conjured in his lifetime.
“He was always innovating, always pushing the envelope with his music,” he said.
On opening night, Miles’ birthday, trumpeter Jeremy Pelt performs along with bassist Buster Williams and pianist Larry Willis, who both played with Miles. Drummer Louis Hayes, who Miles wanted to steal away from Cannonball Adderley, rounds out the quartet.
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The festival also features the legendary Jimmy Cobb, the only surviving musician from Kind of Blue.
His sextet performs during the first week of June. Christopher said Cobb is the kind of musician who inspires younger generations to be better at their craft. “He’s 86 and still innovating,” he said.
Playing with Cobb are Pelt, pianist Mike LeDonne, bassist John Webber, Vincent Herring on alto sax, Eric Alexander on tenor sax. “Herring has the feel of Cannonball Adderley while Alexander echoes John Coltrane,” said co-owner Paul Stache.
Christopher and Stache spent months organizing the event. They wanted as many musicians who played with Miles as they could get.
“The hardest part was finding enough trumpet players. But we got almost everyone we wanted,” Stache said.
They also got Eddie Henderson, who had a close relationship with Miles. In addition to being a jazz trumpeter, he was also the first African American national figure skater and holds a doctorate in psychiatry.
“He’s an amazing player, said Stache. “Like Miles, he says more with one note than a whole chorus.”
The centerpiece of the festival is a staged reading of Christopher’s play, “Beyond Blue Light,” about a couple who meet and bond over the music in “Kind of Blue.”
“’Kind of Blue’ is the yin and yang of emotions. When you listen to it, it makes you happy if you are happy and sad if you are sad,” Christopher said. “It straddles joy and sadness.”
The album took jazz in a whole new direction. “But if you asked Miles about the importance of the album, he probably would have replied, ‘So What?’ which was a title of one of the songs,” Christopher said.
The 1970 album “Bitches Brew” took Miles in a yet another ground-breaking direction– the electric fusion phase. “That album put him in the rock ‘n roll hall of fame,” said Christopher.
Lenny White, the drummer on “Bitches Brew,” performs with his quartet on June 15th and 16th, along with trumpeter Wallace Roney, who studied with Miles.
Miles never stopped innovating, Christopher said. And the musicians who played with him never stopped playing.
“They practice and play all of the time,” said Stache. “These jazz cats out there are 150 percent dedicated to their music.”
The festival ends on with performances by the Tom Harrell Quintet on June 29th and 30. “Tom Harrell is a great soloist,” said Stache. “His sound and phrasing is similar to the way Miles plays. He has a beautiful pure sound.”
Yet somehow Miles still stands above all the rest. “You only have to hear one note,” Christopher said, “and you know it’s Miles.”
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