Don Cheadle On Miles Davis And Race In Hollywood Cheadle wrote, directed and stars in the new film Miles Ahead, which sees a late-career Miles Davis struggles to reconnect with his muse. Read his extended conversation with Michel Martin.
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What Does Genius Look Like?

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What Does Genius Look Like?

What Does Genius Look Like?

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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That's the one-of-a-kind sound of Miles Davis on trumpet taken from the number-one selling jazz album of all-time, "Kind Of Blue." But behind that smooth sound was a roiling personality, an explosion looking for a place to land. Sometimes it exploded in music that defied convention, other times in mean and abusive behavior towards the people in his orbit. Somehow, actor Don Cheadle manages to capture all of this in a new film he also wrote, produced and directed called "Miles Ahead." And Don Cheadle is with us now from our studios in New York. Welcome Don Cheadle, thanks so much for speaking with us.

DON CHEADLE: Thank you.

MARTIN: The frame of the film is this five-year period when Miles Davis famously released nothing.


MARTIN: And he kind of lost his muse during those years - you know, partly it was him - some health issues, some drug issues. And then a part of the problem was recovering from a nasty breakup with his wife, Frances Taylor. So I wanted to ask why you picked that period.

CHEADLE: Because it's very intriguing to me when you're looking at the life of a man who was so prolific and had such an impact on music just to go silent. What happens during that period of time? How do you get out of it? What's going on while you're in it? What do you say when you're finished with it? Are you going to be finished with it?

MARTIN: This is where you, as Miles, are talking to a journalist played by Ewan McGregor. And you - the two of you - you're at the piano and you're talking about one of the ways that Frances Taylor influenced Miles. And I'll play that clip, and then we can talk about it.


CHEADLE: (As Miles Davis) Frances loved Chopin.

EWAN MCGREGOR: (As Dave Brill) Yes, she looks like a classic chick.

CHEADLE: (As Miles Davis) That's all we ever play at the house, you know? Classical music - Chopin, Stravinsky, you know, we throw on some Ravel. I studied all them cats, man, broke down their compositions - these revolutionaries, innovators pushing back at that standard classic bag. Chopin was all about improvisation.

MARTIN: I just - there are so many things I want to talk about here but I don't even - gosh, can we scratch the surface? - but you really get a good look at his genius for orchestration. And you really helped me start to try to understand his art.

CHEADLE: You know, it was very tricky to show "genius," quote, unquote. What does that look like? So we kind of wanted to make sure that the philosophy was in there. You know, Miles was somebody who went to Juilliard for a year and then left it because it really wasn't what he was attempting to do. You know, it's funny, he got an A in piano I think and got a C in trumpet when he was at Juilliard, which is interesting. You know, so he was always someone who really understood composition and understood form. And you hear it when he moves away from, you know, kind of bebop and hard bop and starts working with Gil Evans and Nanette (ph) and these different voicings with these instruments that are not classically thought of as being jazz instruments, you know?

MARTIN: Now, you've played saxophone for years and years, as I recall. But did you learn to play the trumpet for this role?

CHEADLE: Yeah, I did. Yeah, and...

MARTIN: I'm sorry, I'm just having an inferiority complex moment here. I'm sorry (laughter).

CHEADLE: No, no.

MARTIN: I'm just - I'm trying to think how nerve-racking was that - or was there? Maybe you're just gangster like that.

CHEADLE: No, no, no. I'm neurotic like that. I learned to play. But obviously, when we're playing and we're using Miles, we're using Miles's sound. It's not going to be Don Cheadle trying to sound like Miles Davis. We use Miles when it's Miles. But I am under there because as well as being kind of a pet peeve of mine when I see actors in movies where they're supposed to be playing musicians and don't really have any understanding of their acts, also, it's - I wanted to understand viscerally for myself what Miles went through so that I'm probably as good as Miles was when he was 9, you know, or 10 years old.


MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Don Cheadle. He plays Miles Davis in a new film he also wrote and directed. It's called "Miles Ahead." Something I saw you say in an interview with - I think it was Rolling Stone where you said that you had to have a central white character in order to get the film financed. And - you know, seriously?

CHEADLE: Well, I guess what I could have also said is I could've cast an Asian actor were we to have centered the film in China or Japan and I was getting money from Chinese investors or Japanese investors, you know? I could've had a big French actor if we would've been able to sell a big part of the movie to France. That's how these movies get put together. No one specifically said to me go hire a white actor or you can't make this movie. But we understood what we needed to do to get a green light. And once Ewan signed on, the thing started to roll downhill for sure. We started to see - get momentum...

MARTIN: Are you saying that's because of the way this country operates, or are you saying that it's because the world culturally, for whatever reason, needs to see white people in leading roles in order to be OK with a movie?

CHEADLE: A little more nuanced than that. And I don't think it's binary. I think that it's purely from a sales component. It's a risk-averse business. We also had to shoot in a city where there was a rebate so that we could have money coming in. I had to crowdfund. You know, I had to spend my own money. I had to call my friends, people's uncles and nephews and cousins threw in. So all of these ancillary ways to "get there," quote, unquote, are the ways that you get there. Does it make it somehow, quote, unquote, "right or wrong?" I don't think we're dealing in a right or wrong. We're dealing with the realities and the vicissitudes of this business.

MARTIN: You lived with this project for a long, long time. And now that it's done, how do you feel?


MARTIN: Tired? OK...


MARTIN: I believe you.

CHEADLE: Yeah, it was a lot. You know, it's very - you feel very vulnerable when you do something like this. Like, there's no one - I could never point to that movie and say yeah, well, I wanted to do this but this person wouldn't let me, you know? You know, there's no place for me really to hide. Like it or love it, that's me. You know, we closed the New York film Festival. And I was sitting across from my daughter who's 19 years old now, and she could kind of see the nervousness and, you know, the anticipation, the anxiousness all over me. And she dad, you know, isn't this great? I was like, I don't know. She's like, what do you mean? You're here. She says I remember sitting on your lap as a 10-year-old and you working on the script and doing notes and listening to the music, and driving with you in the car on the way to school and we're listening to "So What" and "Miles Smiles" and "Bitches Brew" and just - you've just been living this for so long and you're here. Try to feel great, dad. And I was like, OK. I'm just going to try to feel great. Thank you my daughter for, you know, no getting my head right.

MARTIN: Get my head right.


MARTIN: That's Don Cheadle. He is the - as he just told you - the actor, writer, producer and director behind the new film "Miles Ahead." You didn't do the hair too, did you?

CHEADLE: No, I let somebody else do that.

MARTIN: The hair is crazy, too.

CHEADLE: Thank you.

MARTIN: He spoke with us from our studios in New York. Don Cheadle, thank you so much for speaking with us.

CHEADLE: Thank you.

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