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Jack Johnson: Miles Davis Goes The Distance

Note: This article originally ran on October 30, 2003 at Blogcritics.org, where I was among its earliest and most prolific contributors. I wrote numerous essays, interviews and product reviews there until about 2009 or so. At some point in late 2017, the current management at Blogcritics chose to remove all of my articles without notifying me, and have yet to respond to my email requests for an explanation, or to let me know how to restore them there. (Accidents happen on the Internet; perhaps it was just a glitch?) In the interim, I will slowly be reposting my more interesting pieces here.

I'm reposting this review of Miles Davis' A Tribute To Jack Johnson in honor of the legendary prize fighter (1878-1946) being pardoned by President Trump on Thursday. While this 2003 review focuses on the then-new box set of the albums' lengthy sessions, unless you're a Miles Davis completest, the single album that emerged from those sessions should do you fine.

Muhammad Ali once said, "I am the greatest!", and set out in the boxing ring to prove himself just that. In 1969, Miles Davis (an amateur boxer himself) said, "I could put together the greatest rock 'n roll band you ever heard."

And Davis did just that on A Tribute To Jack Johnson, the soundtrack to a long lost documentary about a legendary prizefighter from the turn of the 20th century. As Marshall Bowden wrote in his outstanding review of the new box set:

That Miles Davis should have been drawn to the figure of Jack Johnson is no surprise. Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion and star black sports figure, fought during the early 1900s, at a time when racism was de rigeur and jazz music was only beginning to develop. Johnson liked the high life, enjoyed fast cars and liked women, particularly white women. While Miles preferred black women, he certainly appreciated beautiful ones, had sartorial style, liked his home to be well appointed and modern, and also adored fast sports cars. Much has been made of the fact that Miles was born into a middle class background (his father was a successful dentist) but that only seems to have made the racism that he encountered that much more unpalatable, and Davis did encounter his share. The well known incident that occurred in front of Birdland, when Miles was hassled by police for standing outside the club and took a blow to the head from a white detective, seems to have set him firmly on the path of not taking any crap from anyone, an attitude that was certainly in line with that of Jack Johnson as well as boxers that Davis had seen during his lifetime.