Local Musicians Jazzed To Be In ‘Miles Ahead’

Mar 25, 2016

Director-actor Don Cheadle stars as Miles Davis in "Miles Ahead"
Credit Sony Pictures Classics

Local musicians Joshua Jessen and J.T. Thigpen have played a lot of jazz – but never like what they did in “Miles Ahead,” the new movie about jazz icon Miles Davis.

Jessen and Thigpen play jazz in scenes with Miles Davis – as portrayed Oscar-nominated actor Don Cheadle, who also directed the film here two years ago this summer. The Cincinnati premiere is Saturday night. On Sunday night, Jessen and Thigpen tell me about their roles in the film at 7 p.m. on WVXU-FM’s “Around Cincinnati.”

J.T. Thigpen and Joshua Jessen in the WVXU-FM studio.
Credit John Kiesewetter

Jessen, a Clifton pianist and CCM grad, appears as Bill Evans, the legendary jazz pianist who recorded with Miles Davis on “Miles Ahead” (1957),  “Porgy & Bess” (1958) and “Quiet Nights” (1962).

Thigpen, a Madisonville upright bass player, plays Paul Chambers, known for his improvisations with Miles Davis on “Gone” from “Porgy & Bess” and “Blue in Green” from the “Kind of Blue” album (1959).

In the trailer, they’re seen playing with Davis at the New York’s Village Vanguard club (interiors shot at Northside Tavern, exteriors on Main Street) and the evening of Davis’ wedding to dancer Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi) in his home (an old Oakley church converted to a residence).

Although set in 1979 New York City, as Davis was ending his five-year self-imposed drug fueled “silent period,” the film flashes back repeatedly to his 10-year relationship with Frances Taylor. That’s where we see Jessen and Thigpen, who thought they’d just be extras in the film – not jazz legends. Here are some comments from our “Around Cincinnati” conversation:

JESSEN: “The pieces we’re playing are from the '50s and '60s. Most of both of our scenes were from the flashbacks, which happen in different parts of the film.  Sometimes he flashes back to his wedding night, where we played in a scene. We played with a trio in his house… There’s another scene where we’re at the Village Vanguard together playing.

THIGPEN: “I’ve always been a Miles Davis fan. In fact, my oldest son’s name is Miles, after Miles Davis.”

Miles Davis (Don Cheadle) playing at the Village Vanguard (Northside Tavern).
Credit Sony Pictures Classics

JESSEN:  “Don Cheadle studied the trumpet for years just to do this. He plays quite well, I must say. He doesn’t mess around. And he’s obviously studied Miles’ sound, which is impressive too.”

THIGPEN: “I understand why they want real musicians to play actors now, because who looks more comfortable behind an instrument than a musician? You ever seen ‘Casablanca’ where the drummer is playing a foot off the cymbals?

JESSEN: “So I get this call out of nowhere, just falling out of the sky. Can you come in and audition for this?... I was thinking it wouldn’t go further than that. I figured: How many people are trying out for this? How many are professional actors? So I went in for an audition, and played, and talked a little about my life experiences and some of my influences, Bill Evans being a big one. Then I left thinking I was totally satisfied. That’s where it ends. That was a good experience. And three weeks later I get a call: Hey, you’ve been cast as Bill Evans!"

THIGPEN: “When I got that call, that they wanted me to play Paul Chambers, I said, ‘No way, no way’… Paul Chambers set the bar on the “Kind of Blue” album for me, personally, in 1959. That set the bar. When I got that call, I thought it was going to be for an extra part.”

JESSEN: “The cool part is: I grew up watching these videos of Bill Evans, and I knew how he sits at the piano, and how he talks in interviews and things. Not for any reason other than I was interested in his music.”

THIGPEN: “(Josh and I) played on ‘Blue and Green.’  I did ‘Gone.’ ‘Gone’ was an amazing situation. We were in this studio, Refraze up in Dayton, and amazing old room. With unbelievable players. You may have seen it in some of the trailers. It’s a studio shot where we’re doing this tune from ‘Porgy and Bess’….

“As you cats probably know, in that original recording, there were a lot of flubs. We were going back and forth, and fixing and working, and we get that thing worked out and end up on the set to do this and we play it. Don, or Miles, is supposed to walk in and tell us to stop.  Well he does. He walks in and tells us to stop. He says, ‘You all are playing it too damn good! There are supposed to be some mistakes.’ It was fun. It was amazing.”

Minutes before Miles Davis (Cheadle) is arrested by a police office outside the Village Vanguard (shot on Main Street).
Credit Sony Pictures Classics

JESSEN: “What was crazy for me was that… we’re playing these scenes from the ‘50s. He (Don) is dressed up like the '50s. We are too. And you look around the room, and even outside, the cars are old, the storefronts are redone... You get inside this world, and you spend 12 hours there, you get lost in it, and you really feel like you’re in this moment.

“We had this scene where Miles gets beat up outside the Village Vanguard, and gets taken away (to jail) in a car. And Emayatzy and I run out, and we’re yelling at this cop, and there’s this whole angry crowd outside. They had to yell “Cut!” like 10 times to get everybody to calm down, because they get so lost in the emotion of the scene, because it feels so convincing. That was the weirdest part for me. It’s easy to be in these situations, and act in them, because you feel like you’re really in them.”

When we finished the “Around Cincinnati” taping, here’s what Jessen said:

JESSEN: “I wished we could have talked a little bit too about how awesome Don is to work with. He’s intense, man! To see him behind the camera, then run in front of the camera, and go back behind it -- he’s running back and forth looking at shots, but staying in character… The dude is incredible.”

So is the movie. Watch for my review shortly before the film opens in Cincinnati on April 15 (not April 22, as previously announced).  And don't forget to listen to my "Around Cincinnati" conversation with J.T. Thigpen and Joshua Jessen at 7 p.m. Sunday.