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On MILES DAVIS and JACK JOHNSON: Highlights from Issue 20: Boxing

Highlights from Issue 20: Boxing

(L) Jack Johnson, 1910 (R) Miles Davis / Photograph by JIM MARSHALL


Friday, April 22, 2005

What follows are excerpts from two of our cover stories on Miles Davis and filmmaker Ken Burns, who discusses the life of Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion. The complete text can be found in Issue 20: Boxing


The Potent Presence of Boxing in the Life and Music of Miles Davis


In 1953, Miles had used his training in the ring to help kick his heroin addiction, emulating the discipline and determination of middleweight Sugar Ray Robinson. As Miles said, “Sugar Ray was one of the few idols I ever had.” Here, in 1955, Miles was focused on his music, and used boxing as a common experience to share with his friends and fellow musicians. One of them was David Amram. -- Ed.

Miles often had residencies at the Cafe Bohemia, then one of the best jazz clubs in Greenwich Village. The club was also a second home to Charles Mingus' group, which at that time featured French horn player and composer David Amram, a fistic specialist who had boxed during his two-year stint in the Army.

“By the time I met Miles in '55,” says David Amram, “segregation was over, but racism wasn't. Jazz remained a meeting place for a lot of us who had evolved beyond that.”

 Amram is standing in the back garden of a house near the Brooklyn Naval Yard, where his daughter Alana is hosting a New Year's Eve bash. As the final seconds of 2004 tick away, Amram, 74, pulls at a bottle of Dr. Brown's Black Cherry Soda while spieling with beatific gusto.

“Being an incredibly sensitive and proud person, boxing gave Miles a sense of self in that if it ever came to it, he could defend himself. The black experience in certain areas of society in the middle '50s meant you would stand up and fight if you had to, and that was respected. At the same time, there was an incredible amount of bluffing or camaraderie among musicians, including sparring sessions where you'd say what you would do, and at that moment when you'd get someone off guard, you wouldn't hit them. The point was you knew how to do it.

“Once I was at a party with Miles where some guy was really being a drag until, suddenly, somebody shut this jerk up with one quick word. And Miles turned to me and said, 'Gene Fullmer!' which was a reference to the one perfect left hook of Sugar Ray Robinson's that knocked Gene Fullmer out for the title in 1957.”



The Stop Smiling Interview with Ken Burns


In February, Ken Burns, the Emmy-winning director of The Civil War (1990) and Baseball (1994) aired one of his boldest documentary films to date, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson. In this excerpt of our 6,000 word interview, Burns discusses Johnson, the Texas-born pugilist whose endless hounding eventually led to a match and swift victory against reigning champion Tommy Burns in 1908, making Johnson the first black heavyweight champion of the world. It was the sporting world's efforts to find an able contender to reclaim the title that prompted the term, “The Great White Hope.” For more on Ken Burns' film, visit the official site. -- Ed.

Stop Smiling: Is Jack Johnson the ultimate tragic and yet optimistic underdog?

Ken Burns: Absolutely. Underdog. It almost goes without saying. This is a guy who is at the wrong race, with the wrong clothes. [At the turn of the 20th Century] there's already a gentleman's agreement that no black is going to play for the heavyweight title and there are lots of black fighters and they're sort of bumping up into one another in a traffic jam. They're fighting each other, but Jack Johnson follows the champion [Tommy Burns] around the world. Knocking on the door, insisting, begging, asking, pleading, cajoling, insulting, until finally some promoter offers the current champion 30,000 bucks. More than enough money to overcome his racial prejudices – Burns says, “I'll beat this nigger easily.” Of course, Jack Johnson works him and it's the beginning of the end. So, now you have to find a white hope who can wipe the golden smile off his face. When the greatest of white hopes fails, then you have to go after him for his personal life and ruin him professionally. In the end, he's still himself and when he goes to prison, he's still himself. He's not going to be defeated. I love the courage that Jack Johnson shows in the face of extraordinary. That makes it transcend an athletic, sexual, even racial story.

We have a writer, Geoffry Ward. He did a companion book after the film was done and the opening scene shows Jack Johnson at a hotel and Haley's Comet is going overhead and the hotel keeper wakes all the distinguished guests up so they can go out in the middle of the night to see the Comet go over. Jack Johnson won't get up. He says, “Look, Haley's Comet is coming back in 85 years. There ain't but one Jack Johnson.”

SS: Usually when you pick a film you said you want to pick a broad topic. Is it a deep personal interest in the subject that gets you going at first? What do you start to do — research-wise — to get started on a film?

KB: It's a gut and emotional response. I'm drawn to good stories and all I want to do is be a better storyteller. Each film is an opportunity to practice and try to get better and perfect the craft. When I read this simple little abstract 12 years ago, it got me going. I would read more, think about it more, and talk to people more. The more I thought about it and talked about it, the idea moved down into my heart and it's no longer an idea. It's imperative. “I have to make this film,” that's what you say. Then whatever you try to overcome is in the way of doing that, whether it's money, people's resistance to the topic, to all of the million problems in making a film. You surround yourself with really good people, talented writers and editors and producers and you work really hard together, like a family, to make it. I'm as excited about sharing this film as any film we've worked on.




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