Jack Johnson, released on Feb. 24, 1971, might be the closest Miles Davis ever came to putting out a rock album. But to leave it there is to understate the magnificent accomplishment and importance of the record, which shows Davis at his most titanic, most relentless and most focused on establishing a foundational American music.
The genesis of the project - which was later retitled A Tribute to Jack Johnson - is deceptively simple: In 1970, Davis was asked by boxing manager and impresario Bill Cayton if he wanted to score a documentary about boxer Jack Johnson.
A kind of sorcerer in his own right, Johnson was more than the first African American to hold the world heavyweight boxing title, which he did from 1908-15; he was also, like Davis, a larger-than-life cultural icon and rebel. His exploits were legendary, perhaps none more so than his bout with recently retired ex-champion James J. Jeffries in the so-called "fight of the century" in 1910.
Jeffries was at that point undefeated and came out of retirement in his own words "for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro."
More than 20,000 people, mostly white, showed up to watch the fight, which was staged in an outdoor ring specially built for the purpose in Reno. Johnson didn't just beat Jeffries; he dominated him so thoroughly that Jeffries noted, remarkably, afterward: "I could never have whipped Johnson at my best. I couldn't have hit him. No, I couldn't have reached him in 1,000 years."
This was the kind of man Davis could get behind. And what kind of recording session would befit a legend of Johnson's magnitude? A sprawling, almost mythical one, in which Davis continued his own artistic journey and created a fitting tribute to the famed boxer. In 1969, Davis told Rolling Stone that he could create "the greatest rock 'n' roll band you ever heard." With Jack Johnson, he proved it.
In celebration of the 50th Anniversary of Jack Johnson, we proudly present this officially licensed screenprint by Kevin Tong paying homage to the iconic Prince of Darkness:
"Miles Davis' music is so original, colorful, vibrant, kinetic, and alive... my only goal was to try and capture at least some of that in this poster." - Kevin Tong