don-cheadle-miles-ahead-trailer

When you set foot inside the St. Regis Hotel, you’re transported to a different time and age. Bronze pops within the hotel, the bar is saturated with oak and ‘60s style decorum. It feels like a mix of modern hotel display and some of the intoxicating locales once populate by the likes of Sinatra & Sammy Davis. It only makes perfect sense that here is where we sit down and attempt to discuss the widespread legacy of Miles Davis.

Davis, the trumpet player who is essentially Mozart for brass players has a film about him in theaters now, the colorful and intricate Miles Ahead starring and directed by Don Cheadle. It’s been called Cheadle’s passion project and gauging his intricacies and mannerisms in the film, it’s an accurate tag. Miles Ahead is a non-traditional film about a prodigy who rose to insane heights, became attached and pained by the loss of his muse and for years remained silent. In a way, it’s a film about any creative who’s hit a proverbial wall. Davis is more like a boxer than anything else in the film, a man fueled by fire and steadily combatting the people who want to deny him the power to control it. On his terms.
So, the journey to discover Miles Davis led to a sit down with arguably the two individuals closest to him in his later years: his son Erin & his nephew, Vince Wilburn, Jr. When all of us meet inside the hotel’s snazzy restaurant, I begin noticing how much of Miles’ blood is in the both of them. Erin has slicked hair, worked in via a pomade, tattoos that cover his wrists and arms and a thin voice that sounds perfectly wound up to spool out anecdotes. Vince, more chocolate with a slender face speaks in a charcoaled baritone that gives every word a thud. Joining them at the table were Keyon Harrold, the trumpet player in D’Angelo’s band The Vanguard and the sound of Cheadle’s trumpet in the film and William “Bill” Hightower, the man who purchased the script and helped get Miles Ahead rolling. He, unlike anyone else in the room is a middle-aged white man with white hair and a slight pouch.

This is their story, all centered around being inside of a ritzy restaurant conjuring up memories and moving forward. And at first, all they wanted to talk about was Prince.

I had an entire template of how I wanted to do this, discuss the movie, legacy, etc. Then Prince dies and my whole thing is gone.
Vince: Like Maurice [White], when you get news like that, you want it be a rumor. I have a thing about calling a source up to know whether or not its true, but knowing that it’s factual. With Maurice, I called his brother Bernie, who’s a family friend of ours. With Prince, I called Dave Hampton who worked closely with Prince and he’s also a family friend of ours. When he confirmed it — my heart sank. Erin, you saw him in Paris, right?
Erin: Yeah, a couple of years ago, yeah.
V: And uncle Miles loved him. And he loved uncle Miles. It’s tragic. My cousin on my dad’s side, he went to high school with him. They were on that basketball team. Prince was the point guard! He had some skills!
It’s a weird feeling because I remember where I was when Michael Jackson died. The world stopped. My dad wanted to hear “Human Nature” by Miles Davis first thing for a reason. Is it weird when you hear of people you grew up and worked with, does it make you question your own mortality?
E: No, because with Prince I didn’t want to know why he passed away. Cause the last time I saw Prince, he was on SNL killing it! I thought I heard he was in the hospital last week…
Keyon: He had the flu for like the last three weeks or so…
E: Yeah, so I was confused. And it’s so final. You can’t see Prince anymore. You can’t see Michael Jackson anymore. You can’t see David Bowie anymore. You can’t see Maurice White, but I mean you haven’t seen for Maurice for a little while but … it just does. It’s just sad. Also you have to celebrate that.
K: I posted something today saying, “The Artist, Forever”. I was fortunate enough to sit-in with him a couple of times, with Common & Alicia Keys. And he was celebrating Common doing Song In Major Keys. This was when “The Light” was big. Purple man … little man. [Laughs]
V: I was telling Bill that earlier.
But, we’re celebrating something big here. About this film, Miles Ahead. So, when did Don first approach you –
E & V: Whoa, whoa, we gotta tell this right. You gotta get the whole story. [Laughs].
V: 2006 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Erin & I are backstage and after you’re presented with the award, you have to go backstage and talk to the press. When someone asked who would we want playing Miles in a movie, we said Don Cheadle. We didn’t even know Don Cheadle. But in Devil In A Blue Dress, he played a character named Miles. And he had a lot of “Miles-isms”. And we bounced scripts back and forth, they already were going back and forth. Wesley Snipes was talking about doing something…
E: He wanted to go back to when he passed away, like those years up until now. There were many people who optioned the rights to the film, a couple different scripts. Bonnie Bruckheimer was involved for a while. Walter Yetnikoff, Steve Ross, Snipes. Different people. Nothing happened. We were getting pitched a lot and none of them were that good. Then we decided to turn it around. We hired Darryl Porter, who produced Menace II Society and Dead Presidents and he turned around. He & Vince started going to studios, pitching to them. Bill, you gotta say it.
Bill: [in deadpan “white guy” voice] “So how do you see Miles Davis?” [Laughs]
Vince: “Explain to me Miles Davis!” And I kept telling Don, ‘I don’t have the patience for this.’ Because I can’t even explain someone as prolific as my uncle. So that’s why we got people like Bill Hightower to cut checks.

don-cheadle-miles-ahead

B: That’s my fifteen seconds. [Laughs]
E: Hold on, let me introduce you. So Don is now attached with us to the project. It has no real legs. He hired two screenwriters to write the script and he didn’t like it. I read it and I said it was ‘aight’. So he still said he wanted to do his version. So he gets Darryl to call Bill A. Hightower and …
B: Well, Darryl Porter had a partner in Aaron Geller, who’s from Houston. Porter/Geller Entertainment. Geller calls me and tells me there’s a project I need to be involved in. It’s about Miles Davis, who I tangentially knew of, Don Cheadle who I definitely knew of, Miles Davis’ family & the music and we need somebody to write the check for the screenplay. It was $150,000. I asked what were the terms? He said, ‘You get a percentage of the movie and when the movie starts production, you get your $150,000 plus 20% back’. So that’s $180,000 and I figured that’s a great investment. That was in 2010. Erin as a great pitch man kept saying, ‘90s baby!’ The film didn’t start production until 2014. And still, nice return, I got my money back. So that’s my 15 seconds of why I’m here. I learned a lot about the movie business, how contrived and manipulative it is and there’s no reason why this movie took four years to make.
In general when you’re dealing with musicians, you have to work with the artists to get the music right.
B: Oh dealing with Sony on that was a non-issue. It was frustrating to hear all the people ask, ‘what, Miles is gonna get shot in the leg? what?’ It was a courageous, out of the box screenplay. There are plenty of out of the box screenplays that have worked. We found the money, got the screenplay & here we are.
Why is this movie not in the same theme as paint-by-number biopics?
V; It was Don’s decision. He wanted to – what interested him was the period when Uncle Miles had nothing to say. You don’t want to call it retirement, but a quiet period. That’s what Don as a director focused on more than Don the actor.
E: He didn’t want to make this a run-of-the-mill biopic, he wanted to make a movie Miles wanted to star in. He wanted a movie that would make Miles say, “Wow, that’s my life, a documentary with Don Cheadle starring in it.” For me personally I wasn’t prepared for that type of treatment. Don was very convincing. He had plenty of reasons, he didn’t want to make it boring or cradle to the grave. He wanted to know why this man stopped playing. A man who changed music all these times, fusing rock & roll & jazz, his fashion, the loves of his life, his cars, playing with Herbie [Hancock] and people want to know why he stopped playing. And I agree with Don, its a good place to start.
It makes for a far more interesting story.
E: I would love to see somebody try to re-create what it was like to play with Bird (Charlie Parker) and Dizz (Dizzy Gillespiee).
I don’t think they appreciated the Forest Whitaker film about Charlie Parker years ago.
E: The one with Clint Eastwood. 
B: Let me interject here. I met Don Cheadle, I remember exactly when it was. It was the 2010 Final Four here in Houston. I sit down next to him and I was all tongue tied because, it’s Don Cheadle, right? He put me at ease and then began to tell me the story of what he wanted the movie to look like. This was 2010. The movie I saw last night? Pretty damn close of what he wanted the movie to look like. Sometimes you have movies like that. Like Caddyshack. Caddyshack was supposed to be about the caddy and instead it’s about the gopher [table laughs]. Editors took all that film and turned it into something completely different than originally intended. And Caddyshack’s a great film. Point is, Cheadle had this vision and he wasn’t going to be denied that vision. Maybe there was some rigidity there but there was a commitment and he put his heart & soul into it.

Keyon, when did they hit you? And tell you that you were going to be part of this film?
K: Well, Rob (Robert Glasper), your fellow Houstonian called me and told me we were working on this movie. Had me working on some demos that I thought were for Don or something. I didn’t know it would turn into this. And I’m still scared just listening to it, you know? Standing on the shoulders of the greatest? That is not the easiest thought process. As to can I deliver this, can I deliver convincingly, is Erin gonna be cool with this? Is Vince gonna be cool with this? So from there to thinking that to be sitting with these guys, eating with these guys, I play the trumpet too, we’re talking about Miles, I’m totally [stretches hands out] like this? Rob could have called anybody. I would have said Wallace (Wallace Roney), the heir apparent, no problem. But, I don’t know what that is, but I’m happy for the opportunity.
E: I think Rob Glasper, he has his own style of doing things. Which isn’t to say he’s like Miles but he has his own way of doing things that’s like Miles. Like, ‘I’ma go get Keyon.’
K: We’ve been playing together since we were 16-17 years old.
V: Fearless.
E: Keyon just killed it.
V: You were talking your dad’s song, “Human Nature” right? I played drums on that. And I didn’t have time to think about it.
You’re kidding me. No way.
V: That’s me counting it off. I didn’t have time to think, ‘oh shit i’m about to be playing’. [Erin nudges him to tell the story] Well, somebody walked off the session cause they didn’t like what Uncle Miles was playing. So we swapped the kits out before he left. I used Buddy Williams’ kit from New York. We called Buddy to make sure it was OK and then Miles tells me, ‘We’re about to cut, you ready?’ And sometimes you just have to do it.
E: I mean Keyon, he’s keying stuff that Don’s fingering, there’s no charts there’s no … he called him “a mugician!” So in that respect, Rob picked the guy he wanted. Keyon killed it. Don loves Keyon. We love Keyon. I can’t speak for Aaron Geller but I can speak for Bill on working on this…
V: Who’s also fearless.
B: So you’re confusing ignorance with fearlessness. [Table Laughs] I had no idea what I was getting into!
E: But that four year thing, nobody could predict that. Bill saw the stats of what we were getting into. The numbers, the family, the principal, y’know … got involved. He’s gonna be the Texas Harvey Weinstein right here.
B: I’m financing another screenplay. It’s in my blood now. It’s um, Indiana Jones meets Lord of the Flies about Oak Island, you know where the pirates buried treasure? It’s called Sea Red with an up-and-coming producer named Andy Hines.
I think all of this is surreal. Erin, do you have any favorite memories? I know it’s a very generic question but as fan I gotta know.
E: In 1985, he asked me to go on the road with him. I was 14. He asked me if I wanted to go on the road with him. I said, “sheeiiiit”, and Vince was playing drums for him. Vince must have been like 9 or something. So they fly me to Oakland or San Francisco or whatever and they’re playing at Berkley. And I’m sitting in the wings and Vince starts playing. It was like fireworks for me. When I was younger I’d see him play and not get it, like ‘what is going on?’ But that just changed my whole world. Everything I saw on MTV and heard on the radio, nothing compared to that. It has all the power of rock & roll, all the finesse … but it has people who studied music, who know what they’re playing and they’re playing it for a reason and it’s so thought out. What impressed me was the eye contact. I saw many a rock concert and never saw anyone look at each other. Cause most of the time they’re mad at each other! He conducted the band from the stage! And Vince is playing and Darryl Jones is playing bass, he now plays for the Rolling Stones. Um, John Scofield was playing guitar, Bob Bird was playing the sax, Robert Irving III was playing the keys and Steve Thornton was playing percussion.
My God you have an impeccable memory.
E: I never forget any tour I’ve been on. Then the next night they were at the Hollywood Bowl. But me watching them start that show, I’ll never forget that.
Vince, you do have one?
V: One? One’s tough. Just being around him, taking it all in. It was an experience. He told me I couldn’t have a phone. I was living with Erin and the phone was underneath the bed and started ringing. He said, “Nephew, you hear a phone?” [Table Laughs] “No Uncle G,” I was so scared, so nervous. “You don’t hear a phone ringing?!”
He was the first person up, last person to go to sleep at night. Change clothes four-five times a day, look up he’s got another outfit on. But his mind work, it’s just … a creative mind. He was like a superhero. And I miss him.
Keyon, you may not have any direct memories but getting to know Don, Vince, Erin, playing in the movie, this was like fantasy rock camp, no?
K: It’s amazing because it’s direct correlations. I’m a big fan of knowing you can only go as far forward as you go back. Hearing the direct stories from these guys is very very real to me. Miles is from East St. Louis, St. Louis is just separated by the water. I’m from there, my cousin Quincy Troupe wrote the autobiography, Eddie Randall is my cousin, one of Miles’ first bands so you know…
This is the scary Six Degrees of Separation I’ve ever sat in on.
V: Last night with Marvin, Marvin Spicer who’s my teacher in Chicago … Key and his brother know. His brother is Emmanuel Harrold who plays with Gregory Porter, killer drummer. It’s heavy. It’s…
Through the music, you’ve had the most insane family reunion ever, no?
V: Just think. It’s in the planets. Nothing’s a mistake. With Bill, another cousin.
A far distant cousin.
B: Oh, I’m black. [Table Laughs]
V: It’s all relative.

This interview was originally published in Houston Style.

One Response

  1. Keyon Harrold feat. Bilal & Big K.R.I.T. - "Stay This Way" » Day & A Dream

    […] Last May, we spoke to Keyon Harrold about his participation in the Miles Davis’ biopic, Miles Ahead. He remarked about sitting in on Prince sessions with Common & Alicia Keys. About how Robert Glasper roped him in to perform for the film as well. To him, this was working with Miles, the Miles Davis. ” I’m still scared just listening to it, you know? Standing on the shoulders of the greatest? That is not the easiest thought process,” he said. […]

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