In 1970, Miles Davis recorded A Tribute to Jack Johnson as the soundtrack for a new documentary on the controversial Black heavyweight champion who dominated boxing at the beginning of the 20th century.
For writing inspiration, Davis trained at Gleason’s Gym in New York with Bobby McQuillan, a former fighter turned trainer. Davis had kicked his drug habit after McQuillan told him that he wouldn’t train anyone hooked on drugs.
“I had the boxer’s movement in mind, that shuffling movement boxer’s use,” Davis wrote in his autobiography, Miles. “They’re almost like dance steps, or like the sound of a train.
“Then the question in my mind after I got to this was, well, is the music black enough, does it have a black rhythm, can you make the rhythm of the train a black thing, would Jack Johnson dance to that? Because Jack Johnson like to party, liked to have a good time and dance.”
What emerged out of that study of boxing and yearning to know more fully the essence of Jack Johnson, his blackness, was a fusion of jazz and hard rock— just two tracks that ran well over 20 minutes each.
In spots, the unmistakable modal style of Miles in Kind of Blue and Milestones is evident on these tracks. Then there are loud accents of electric—electric guitar, electric piano, electric bass. It’s contemplative, fun, demanding, moody, Black. All 52 minutes, 28 seconds.
Davis’s liner notes to the Jack Johnson album reflect his admiration for the boxer.
“Johnson portrayed freedom—it rang just as loud as the bell proclaiming him champion. He was a fast-living man, he liked women—lots of them and most of them white. He had flashy cars because that was his thing. That’s right, the big ones and the fast ones. He smoked cigars, drank only the best champagne and prized a 7 ft. bass fiddle on which he’d proudly thump jazz. His flamboyance was more than obvious. And no doubt might Whitey felt ‘No Black man should have all of this.’ ”
Jack Johnson provided Davis a vehicle to express his artistic blackness in an intellectual way that his earlier work didn’t fully permit. Finally, Miles had a companion in Johnson to express his rage at a society reluctant to acknowledge the totality of his freedom.
In a 1962 Playboy interview, Davis was unsparing in his view of the ways in which whites viewed black people.
“White people have certain things they expect from Negro musicians — just like they’ve got labels for the whole Negro race,” Davis said. “It goes clear back to the slavery days.
“Every little black child grew up seeing that getting along with white people meant grinning and acting clowns. It helped white people to feel easy about what they had done, and were doing, to Negroes, and that’s carried right on over to now. You bring it down to musicians, they want you to not only play your instrument, but to entertain them, too, with grinning and dancing.”
Both Johnson and Miles resisted these stereotypical roles for Blacks. Miles turned his back on audiences. And Johnson would turn toward them with a flamboyance that could routinely get a black man lynched at the turn of the 20th century.
In Yesternow, the second track on the Jack Johnson album, Herbie Hancock on organ uses a modified version of the baseline from James Brown’s “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,” an anthem for the late 1960s and early 70s Black Power movement.
At the end of Yesternow, Brock Peters, who famously portrayed the character Tom Robinson in the 1962 film adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, performs a voice over summoning the spirit of Johnson.
“I’m Jack Johnson, heavy-weight champion of the world. I’m black. They never let me forget it. I’m black all right. I’ll never let them forget it.”
When friends and acquaintances took the streets to protest the grand jury decisions involving Michael Brown and Eric Garner, I turned on the Jack Johnson album.
Many of the protesters sounded like the voiceover in Yesternow. The police wouldn’t let Brown and Garner forget that they were Black. And many of the protesters weren’t going to let the world forget that they were Black—Black and Proud and ready to defend their freedoms.
President Barack Obama’s comments immediately after the Brown decision were viewed by some as not being black enough— not declarative and candid enough about what needed to be done to end police brutality against African-Americans.
I could hear Miles asking the question about the Brown and Garner cases, “does it have a black rhythm, can you make the rhythm of a train a black thing?”
As I watched on TV black men and women rumble angrily through the streets of Ferguson, Missouri on November 24, 2014 after the grand jury decided to not prosecute Darren Wilson for the murder of Brown, I felt Miles Davis coming through with the force of a train through this album with that shuffling movement that boxers use.