Miles Davis – and Laura Nyro – at the Fillmore East
I wrote this blog entry back in August, but somehow it was never posted. So, here goes.
I’ve been thinking about Laura Nyro recently. Why? She’s long been one of my favorite musicians and I periodically go through periods of heavily listening to her work. A few years ago, I played a couple shows of Laura Nyro songs, something I hope to revisit in the future (Billy Childs tells me that he always loved her music and is in fact working on a recording of Nyro songs).
So, why mention her in a book blog about my book projects about Mwandishi or Miles Davis? Well, it turns out that the four-night series of shows Miles played at the Fillmore East in June 1970, about which I have been writing, the band was the opening act for Laura Nyro.
What a fascinating juxtaposition. First came a high volume, tremendously intense two-keyboard (Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett), very electronic sounding show by Davis-Corea-Jarrett-Jack DeJohnette-Steve Grossman-Airto Moreira. This was followed at all eight shows by Nyro singing “Up on the Roof,” “Walk on By,” “Emmie,” and, presumably music from “New York Tendaberry” (1969) and “Christmas as the Beads of Sweat” (1970), which had been recently released.
Miles had made a friendly visit to the studio the year before, when “New York Tendaberry” was being recorded, but he declined to play on a track. Nyro was a big Miles Davis fan; he and John Coltrane were among her personal musical heroes. While this seems to go unmentioned, I hear hints of McCoy Tyner’s playing with Trane in Nyro’s piano during that period, particularly the pedal points and, amidst the triads and gospel-like suspensions, the fourth chords and that pop up. I could easily imagine a Coltrane version of “Lazy Susan” from her first album.
According to Nyro biographer Michele Kort, Nyro’s father Lou Nigro, remembers that the Fillmore was nearly empty for Miles’s warmly received sets, particularly in contrast with the tremendous ovations for his daughter. But then, so many important live recordings were made with few people in the house; Coltrane’s “Live at Birdland” is a case in point. The reopened Five Spot, where I first heard Ornette Coleman play in the 1970s (the original Five Spot was in a different Greenwich Village location) was a tiny room; if there were 100 people in the house when I was there, it would have been overwhelmingly full. New York Times critic John S. Wilson wrote that Nyro’s performance “won a steady round of acclaim, as she sang a program made up largely of her wry, perceptive songs of contemporary life in a high, husky, bittersweet voice.”
It had been Miles’s hope that young rock audiences would embrace his music. In his autobiography, Miles reports a substantial audience at his Fillmore West shows in April. Certainly, hundreds of thousands were on hand for his August 1970 set at the Isle of Wight. However, my recollection of hearing Herbie Hancock’s Sextet in a rock setting (July 1970, at the Shaefer Music Festival in Central Park, opening for Iron Butterfly), parallels Lou Nigro’s report. I found the audience to be, at best, indifferent, certainly stoned, very noisy and wandering around. Band members recall these kinds of shows as being no fun. But they did get at least their leaders’ names on big selling marquees and documented on recordings. It was no doubt largely a rock audience that purchased many of the copies of Davis’s “Bitches Brew” as well as Hancock’s “Crossings” when they were released. If you consider how the record companies marketed these releases, this seems to have been their target audience (a New York Times Sam Goody ad placed “Crossings” alongside new records by the Grateful Dead and Arlo Guthrie… but also Frank Sinatra!).
The irony, of course, is that the legacy of these shows is found in the recordings that we have the great fortune to listen to, again and again. The same is true of Laura Nyro’s work, which never received the kind of attention during her lifetime that it so deserved. But on those evenings at the Fillmore East, and at so many other shows, her adoring fans packed the houses. My first trips to the Fillmore remained a few months in the future, so I wasn’t in attendance at the Miles Davis/Laura Nyro show. My opportunities to hear her came later, in upstate New York, in the late 1970s and again, during her final performances in 1994. And what wonderful shows they were.