This month all over the U.S., people are celebrating the 40th anniversary of Miles Davis’s seminal album Bitches Brew and what would have been the legend’s 85th birthday. In 1987, Richmond Jazz Society hosted the man at Richmond’s Mosque Theater for what executive director B.J. Brown remembers as a “financial disaster but an artistic success.”
RVAJazz presents RVAJazzfest 2011
sponsored in part by Richmond Jazz Society
Saturday, April 9, 2011, 9pm.
Purchase tickets online
This month all over the U.S., people are celebrating the 40th anniversary of Miles Davis’s seminal album Bitches Brew and what would have been the legend’s 85th birthday. The Richmond Jazz Society — who has some Miles history of their own — is celebrating, too. In 1987, they hosted the man at Richmond’s Mosque Theater (now known as the Landmark Theater) for what executive director B.J. Brown remembers as a “financial disaster but an artistic success.”
To honor that concert, which suffered a blow to attendance numbers because of negative press leading up to the event when critics doubted that Miles would even show up, RJS is presenting a concert by a trumpeter who was extremely close to Miles. At their monthly Guest Educators Series in May, trumpeter Wallace Roney will perform.
Choosing Roney to perform accomplishes a few different things for RJS: they get to celebrate Miles Davis with a trumpeter who was one of the great’s only proteges and they get to present to their Richmond audiences a musical act with a historical hook.
“We always like to do what we can on the historical side to appreciate our jazz icons and legacy,” Brown said. “We like to show who’s out there keeping the tradition alive but from a young standpoint.”
Always looking for a Virginia connection, Brown said Roney has performed with Virginians saxophonist James Gates and bassist Clarence Seay, but this time it was all about his connection to Miles. “It was really his association with Miles that put him on the path,” she said.
The Miles concert took place during a time when RJS was struggling financially with little to no support from corporate sponsors but tons of it from members of the jazz community. Despite their budget, they were destined to make the concert happen. “Miles had just come out of one of his many retirements,” Brown said, “and this tour was promotion for the Tutu album. He was [coming from the] south heading north, and they were going to go right through Richmond. It was one of those things where you just call and ask, and he said yes.”
Brown and company began planning the event at the Mosque and decided an afternoon press conference would be a great opportunity for people to meet him and ask questions. “He figured we had a lot of gall to ask,” Brown said. “But he said yes!”
On the day of the press conference, the press, jazz musicians, and fans waited eagerly for him to arrive. “People came from all over,” she said, “because they couldn’t believe that Miles Davis was going to come to this press conference.”
A lot of the disbelief stemmed from the bad press that the event suffered, like the possiblity of Miles not showing up, or showing up but “coming out on stage to blow two notes and walk off,” or disrespecting the audience by turning his back to them.
“But we were determined,” Brown said despite the negative press. “It feels right, and we’re going to do this.”
Two and a half hours after people gathered at the press conference expecting the man, Miles showed up. “He walks into the chattering room, and silence,” Brown recalled. “Everyone was in awe.”
Miles answered questions in his normal, abrasive style. “He was funny in places, mean in places,” Brown recalled. “Everybody was scared but excited.”
“We were the only city during that tour that did not sell out the Miles Davis show,” she said, “because of the bad press we got, because there were people telling students that Miles wasn’t playing jazz.” Of the 3,500 seats at the Mosque, 1,150 of them were filled. “We literally almost lost the shirts on our backs.”
But no one who attended that concert was disappointed. The band played the entire Tutu album for two hours straight before returning for a thirty-minute encore. The sound was pristine since RJS hired Miles’s own sound company. The Richmond-based band Secrets that included saxophonist Steve Wilson, drummer Carter Beauford, and bassist Keith Horne, opened the set and had the audacity to play “Tutu.” “They played the hell out of it, too!” Brown said.
As for Miles’s set, “the band smoked,” Brown said. “I realized when he turned his back to the audience, it was to let a member of his band solo and so the spotlight would be on them. He was like the director of the orchestra.”
After the concert and despite what Miles’s agent said about the trumpeter speaking to no one, a line formed outside of his dressing room for autographs. “He opened the door and invited everybody into the dressing room,” Brown said. “Yes he did. He did everything opposite of what this agent told us. He was fantastic.”
A great concert went down in the books for Richmond, and the love for Miles hasn’t stopped.
“We’re just in the Miles Davis frame of mind,” Brown said. “I don’t care what anniversary it is or it’s his birthday month. We’re feeling it.”
photos: RJS archives