The web page of the Albion Beatnik Bookstore in Oxford, now closed (as usual) for business: muses and misspills on books, jazz, poetry, stuff like false flags and smoke screen: was randomly decrepit and proven to be more than neo-bankrupt: it was so analogue it was anal and now deceased.
The third Isle of Wight Festival took place in August 1970. With Bob Dylan as headline act the previous year (returning from voluntary exile and turning his back on America’s grander Woodstock alternative) and no act of similar stature available, the Festival programme included a galaxy of class acts, its net cast wide to catch the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, The Who, Joan Baez and ELP, amongst many others. A late addition to the bill was Miles Davis, riding high on the recent successful release of Bitches Brew (“a midlife crisis played out through experimental jazz,” said drummer Jack de Johnette) yet skirting with career danger as he had set his musical stool too far into thoroughbred rock territory for all to follow. Encouraged by his wife Bette, his rock and funk influences and friendships included Hendrix (whose music previously he had not know and with whom it was planned he should record), James Brown and Sly Stone. This rock courtship was a reinvention of himself, a much needed rite of passage as jazz became a minority sport, its venues and hinterland in retreat, assaulted by rock and a new style of recording technique that made jazz, with its berets and shades, flattened fifths and its coterie club land, rather old hat and dull. Hereafter Miles turned his back on any notion of jazz, surrounding himself with funk and the National Grid, wah-wah pedals and for this occasion a trumpet coated in black lacquer, his own customized variant of the Hendrix Stratocaster. Contracted to play an hour, he ambled nonchalant off stage after 34 minutes, casually collecting his red leather jacket; his group were rather taken by surprise and followed his cue in desultory fashion, Keith Jarrett the last to leave. The performance was received sensationally, and if the supposed attendance of 600,000 is a figure to be disputed (reputedly the largest crowd ever assembled for a jazz performance), it set Miles on a new orbit as he chased a new and young audience. After a lengthy hiatus and illness from 1975, his return to the public arena in 1981 saw him feted as a true rock star, the culmination of a near fifty-year career whose trajectory was always one of forward momentum and restless innovation.
Here is the Isle of Wight performance, a collage of riffs from his two previous electric LPs, the band in a state of heightened, often chaotic improvisatory mode. When asked what the piece should be called, Davis replied glibly “call it anything,” then collected his pay cheque and disappeared. As always, Miles does not fall back on technical acrobatics (his technique was only ever at best rusty, in later years shot to pieces), stands gladiatorial and bold throughout, bemused perhaps by the rapt stillness of the crowd, quietly confident in the thrust of his music and attentive always to the momentum of the moment. Miles’ blithe musical wind down and exit from the stage from 33:15mins is demure theatricality, understated and lackadaisical, so of the moment, so at one with his generous and creative spirit, that it leaves the taste of fulfilment and an aftermath of wonder.
In stock is Ray Foulk’s account of the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival, The Last Great Event With Jimi Hendrix And Jim Morrison. Published at £22.50, the book is on special offer here at £17.50. It is a good read.