It would be difficult to overstate the impact that renowned jazz musician Miles Davis had on the trajectory of music in the 20th century. Today in Chicago, a new fine-art exhibition entitled Next Level Badass: Francine Turk & Miles Davis seeks to preserve and translate Miles' legacy for a new generation.
The exhibition features work by visual artist Francine Turk, who joins Oscar-nominated actor Don Cheadle and Grammy-winning jazz pianist Robert Glasper as one of the few artists granted creative reinterpretation rights by the Davis family.
Much like Cheadle did with his 2015 biopic Miles Ahead, and Glasper did with the reinterpreted sounds of his recent album Everything's Beautiful - for which Turk designed the album art - Turk delved deep into Davis' history to try and do the legendary musician justice.
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"The plethora of information out there about him had me floored," the visual artist tells Billboard over the phone. "His life was so rich - the relationships with other artists and musicians from Jimi Hendrix to Bob Dylan to Prince, the stories from his family… It's quite a tapestry."
Though Turk acknowledges feeling almost overwhelmed with a sense of responsibility to "do right by" the Davis family, Miles' nephew Vincent Wilburn Jr. seems to feel completely at peace with the choices he and the other executors of the estate have made in preserving Miles' legacy.
"I feel my uncle speaks to me; he comes to me in dreams. And I think we're doing right, because we do it tastefully and methodically," Wilburn says on a call from his home in L.A. "It's a spiritual and instinctual process. We don't know where he would be now in his career, but we try to gauge what he would favor and not favor."
Turk's numerous interviews with the family and unprecedented access to Miles' sketchbooks and private journals resulted in the widely varied show opening at Expo Chicago today. While Davis is best known for his instrumental and compositional prowess, the fact that he began experimenting more with visual art later in his life provided plenty of source material for Turk to riff on in her own reinterpretations.
"He had this very natural ability to compose a page," she explains. "They say that was his best talent, that he was a master composer. He was also known for the way he used space in music - it was very much about the notes he didn't play. So I paid a lot of attention to the areas he left blank on a page."
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Four distinct bodies of work are represented in the exhibition honoring Davis. One series collages notes Turk took on stationery from the legendary Chateau Marmont, the hotel in which Davis and his first wife Francis lived, with fragments from Davis' sketchbooks. Another riffs on the imagery of Jean-Michel Basquiat, with whom Davis shared mutual admiration; a third draws from graffiti imagery and references Davis as the "golden thread" running through many musical shifts and history-altering artistic relationships over the course of his five-decade career. The last body of work in the show is the series of "badass portraits" from which the exhibition derives its name, featuring large-scale portraits of music icons from Miles himself to collaborators and friends like Hendrix and Dylan.
Turk and Wilburn both expressed hopes that the exhibition might serve as a bridge between Davis' extraordinary legacy and a generation too young to remember him. "I would love an 18-year-old to walk into the show and to walk out knowing that To Pimp A Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar exists because of Miles Davis," Turk says. "There are all these themes in his life that are relevant to a young generation - like the fact that Miles was beaten by a New York City police officer and that stuff is still going on today - and I feel like they need to know who this man was, and with any luck at all be inspired by his legacy."
Wilburn concurred that if the exhibition could inspire those who see it, he would consider it a success.
"I hope it inspires kids in Chicago to put down the guns and walk away from all this violence," he says. "Pick up a paintbrush, pick up a book, pick up an instrument, you know? I hope it inspires people of all walks of life - like Uncle Miles' music did, and continues to do."