INTERVIEW: Vince Wilburn Jr, nephew of Miles Davis (Miles Ahead exclusive French screenings at the Nîmes Métropole Jazz Festival)

Vince Wilburn Jr.

VINCE WILBURN Jr is a drummer originally from Chicago, now based in California. The son of  Dorothy Mae Davis (1925-1996), he is Miles Davis’ nephew. He worked as both producer and sideman with Miles in the 1980’s. More recently he has been running the Miles Electric Band, and was also  Executive Producer of the Don Cheadle film “Miles Ahead”. Ahead of exclusive screenings of the film in France at the Nîmes Métropole Jazz Festival on October 22 & 23rd, Sandie Safont interviewed him about the film, and started by asking him about his memories of his uncle: 

LJN: You played the Nîmes Jazz Festival with Miles quite a few times back in the 80s. What was special about these gigs?

Vince Wilburn Jr.: I think it was in 85 & 86. I remember the huge Roman amphitheatre and the impression it had on the whole band. Uncle Miles always looked forward to playing in France. He was knighted in France and had a great admiration for the cuisine, the arts, the people and the audiences.

LJN:  What was touring with him like?

VW: We called it ‘Miles Davis University’. He wanted perfection but he wanted your voice. He had an uncanny way of hearing things in anybody. He used to say to us ‘I pay you to practice on the stage’, so we’d have a theme and we would play around it. You can prepare yourself but the beauty of improvisation is to create on the stage and follow the audience because you get that ‘back and forth’. He’d listen to every concert tape and he would call us up to his room and as a joke, if we played great, we could stay and have dinner with him. But if we didn’t sound too good, we’d go back to our rooms and figure it out! (laughs)

LJN: How old were you when you first got to play as a drummer with him?

VW: I was a teenager. But it rubbed off on me as a kid. I’d been watching Al (Foster) and Tony (Williams) and Jack (DeJohnette). Whenever Uncle Miles played in Chicago – where I grew up – my mum would take me to the gig and I would watch from backstage. I was always mesmerised by the drums and years later, Tony told Wallace Roney – the trumpeter – that he always knew I would be a drummer! And it’s Uncle Miles who bought me my first kit. He would send me records to listen to: James Brown, Buddy Miles, Charlie Watts, Otis Redding, Stax drummer Al Jackson…

LJN: How do you remember the way he was, and what effect did he have on you as you were growing up?

VW: He was very serious about the music – he sacrificed family – it was always the music first. He was an impeccable dresser – I’ve never seen anybody change outfits six, seven times a day! To him, music and clothes went hand in hand – I remember he used to say ‘I wanna rehearse this!’, meaning ‘I wanna try this on’ (laughs). His mind was always moving: be it art, be it painting, be it practising, listening to records, working on new music, swimming, boxing… a ‘double Gemini’, as he liked to call himself.

LJN: You were both his nephew and his sideman. How did that work?

VW: There was no nepotism. Either I could cut it or I couldn’t cut it. I had a band in Chicago called AL7 and during his retirement period, Uncle Miles used to call home and my mom would put the phone down so he could listen to the band and critique us at the end of the rehearsal. One day he said ‘You guys wanna come to New York and make a record?’ That was The Man With The Horn, produced by Teo (Macero) and George Butler.

LJN: So you and your band were – in a way –  the catalyst for his comeback?

VW: (laughs). I don’t want to take credit for it. When he was ready, that’s when he came back. And he came back with a vengeance.

Miles Davis and Vince Wilburn Jr. in the 1980’s

LJN: Don Cheadle’s “Miles Ahead” goes back and forth between Miles heyday in the mid-forties and his later period, ‘the silent years’ – 1975 to 1980…

VW: This was a period when he just didn’t want to play. He said he didn’t have anything to say. I would go up to New York and hang with him, watching sports on TV or going boxing. It’s not like he was out of touch with the world. He just chilled. He needed that time off and he got it. Don took liberties – the shooting scenes, the car chases… you have to bear in mind that it’s not a biopic, it’s not a documentary. It’s an entertaining movie.

LJN: There’s a song by Joni Mitchell that goes: « Every picture has its shadows and it has some source of light…’ What’s your take on the dark side of Miles shown in the film?

VW: There’s a dark side to each and every one of us but here again, Don and Steve Baigelman, co-writer on the film, took liberties. I dont’ consider it – when he retired – dark. I consider it a period when he didn’t have anything to say. What I’d like to share is that he came out of that. If we consider it ‘darkness’, he saw the light and he left this earth on top. A lot of people didn’t dig the positive side of it.

LJN: Don Cheadle’s directorial approach is bold and refreshing and his performance is outstanding…

VW: Absolutely. I’m the one who chose Don. To me, he was the only person who could play Miles. Then I picked Antoine Fuqua – The Magnificent Seven – to direct but Don felt that he was the only one who could tell the story. And so with the family’s blessing – Erin & Cheryl, Miles’ children, and myself – he got it. He cared and we felt that. On the set, he never came out of character even when he was directing – he was directing in Miles’ voice. He was Miles, on both sides of the camera and I hope he gets an Academy Award. I’m voting for him!

LJN: A few words about Fernando Pullum, Don’s trumpet instructor?

VW: Fernando does a lot of studio work here in L.A. He also runs his own Community Arts Center. The trumpet Don plays in the film was given to him by Wynton Marsalis.

LJN: The film also shows the dark side of the recording industry. Miles recorded extensively for Columbia. Was he in good terms with them all these years, though?

VW: I think his relashionship with Columbia – Legacy Recordings/Sony Entertainment Group now – was pretty cool, considering – he recorded over 80 records for them. Again, there’s liberties taken for the film and you have to have a story, so somebody takes Uncle Miles’music and he gets it back… like Don said : ‘some you can believe, some you don’t have to.’ But he didn’t mess around. He wanted to be treated with respect and get paid accordingly.

LJN: In the film, Miles called his music ‘social music’. What did he mean? Can you explain?

VW: He thought jazz was a racial term related to slavery. ‘Social’ was more appropriate because he wanted his music to reach the masses. He didn’t want it to be categorised.

LJN: That brings us to the soundtrack. We can hear Miles’ actual recordings as well as some originals, written by Robert Glasper and Don himself. How did they go about it?

VW: Robert composed the music based on what Don was sharing with him but it was up to Don to pick the music that moved the movie along, as a director does. Don’s a musician – he plays bass, trumpet, sax… and he wrote a few pieces, too.

LJN: Robert Glasper embodies the ‘new sound of jazz’ – i.e jazz and hip hop – which seems to echo the direction that Miles was going for on his 1991 album Doo-Bop, produced by rap artist Easy Mo’Bee. Was Robert Glasper your first choice, then?

VW: We wanted Herbie to score but he was super busy, so Don and I chose Robert because he’s technically efficient both in hip hop and jazz and we knew it would fit like a glove. We’re trying to bend and change the course of jazz – with all due respect for the jazz legacy and our giants. Let’s move it like Uncle Miles did! Let’s push it ahead! He taught us to keep an open mind and that’s what we’re doing. If he was still alive, I’m sure he would be playing with Rob (Glasper), Thundercat, Flying Lotus, Kanye, Lady Gaga… all of them were influenced by Uncle Miles! The legacy speaks for itself. All we do is push it along.

Special thanks to Stéphane Kochoyan and Stéphane Cerri for making this interview happen.

Vince Wilburn Jr will be touring France in 2017 with his 11 piece Miles Electric Band. More info HERE 

More info on the Nîmes Métropole Jazz Festival HERE

This interview also appears in French on Belgium’s Jazzaround HERE
LINKS: Review of the Miles Ahead soundtrack CDs by John L Walters
Vince Wilburn biography

Categories: miscellaneous

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