Miles Davis: The Making of ‘Tutu’

The long road to making Miles Davis’ album Tutu, his first recording for the Warner Brothers label, influenced by Prince and Marcus Miller.

Tutu, released in 1986, was a controversial album among jazz fans, but it reinvigorated Miles’ career, providing him with a fresh audience for his live shows and extending his recorded legacy into the next decade. For Warner Brothers, Tutu provided the splash that was needed for the debut of their new, famous recording artist

by Marshall Bowden

This is Part One of 2 Parts | Read Part 2

In 1985, Miles Davis signed a contract with Warner Brothers, ending his thirty-year relationship with Columbia. Miles wanted to take a definitive step forward and do something new to revitalize himself and his playing, and he also wanted to demonstrate to Warner that they had signed a player and not a has-been.

He no longer saw himself as a renegade jazz musician, preferring instead to think of himself in terms of his relation to the popular music scene in general. For nearly 20 years Miles had blazed his own path, moving away from the jazz he had grown up playing and helped develop and revitalize.

He had worked hard to make his music relevant, particularly in terms of what was happening in black popular music, incorporating funk and the rhythms of the street. His take on funk and the studio techniques he and Teo Macero had used to create albums like Bitches Brew and On the Corner were partially responsible for the ways that technology was developing in the creation of music.

He’d helped inspire Brian Eno’s ambient music with the Duke Ellington elegy “He Loved Him Madly.”

He’d put Herbie Hancock on the road to using electric keyboards and other technological innovations, and Hancock had inspired the artists who would soon be creating various styles of electronica as well as the turntablists who would develop both electronica and hip-hop.

Members of his early ‘70s and now early ‘80s groups had gone off and produced major mainstream R&B records, scored films, and influenced the ears of countless listeners, many of whom knew only peripherally of him. Miles was right in the middle of the music industry’s cutting edge, so it was only natural that he should be drawn to one of the biggest performers in black popular music in the ‘80s: Prince.

In many ways, Prince was able to define the era in which he recorded and became one of the biggest and most influential stars of the 1980s just as Jimi Hendrix had put his imprint on the 1960s.


Prince had contacted Davis about working together on Tutu, and the trumpet player was quite interested. According to Nick Kent, Davis was absolutely enthralled by Prince’s work, particularly his album Around the World In A Day, which seamlessly combined funk, psychedelic rock, and top 40 pop. It was just the type of combination that Davis had been trying for on his 80s recordings, except that he had never had much interest in psychedelic music unless one counts the bluesy, Hendrix-induced guitar that had been integral to his music since the early ‘70s.

Just as Davis had found himself somewhat at odds with the younger black audience (and many critics) in his earlier electric period, many saw Prince’s direction following his breakthrough album 1999 as an abandonment of his black roots in search of (white) rock chart success.

Prince, born Prince Rogers Nelson, negotiated an amazing record deal with Warner Brothers at the age of 19 on the strength of demos of songs he had written and recorded single-handedly. He was signed to Warner for six figures and multiple albums and given the unprecedented freedom to produce his own albums as well as to record his own material as he saw fit.

His first two albums didn’t quite display his talents to their best effect, even though the second, Prince yielded a hit song, “I Wanna Be Your Lover.” In 1980 and 1981 he released Dirty Mind and Controversy, respectively. Though both depended heavily on the “Minneapolis Sound” Prince had developed with his distinctive synthesizer voicing, they also incorporated some of the edgy quality of new wave rock and the then-developing techno sounds that would later burst out of the Detroit scene.

There was a distinctive mixture of rock, funk, R&B, and avant-garde European sounds in Prince’s music that, though it sounded vastly different, recalls the way Miles had been working to bring similar elements together for much of his career. In 1982 he crossed over into mainstream stardom with the ambitious double-album 1999, following that up two years later with a remarkable album and semi-autobiographical film Purple Rain.

Prince, “Around the World In a Day”

1985 saw the release of Around the World In A Day, and by this time it is easy to see the parallels between Davis and Prince and the reasons that The Artist held such allure for the Prince of Darkness. Both were fiercely independent, determined to go their own way no matter what critics or fans said, and they both preferred to continue to develop and grow as artists, not standing still or rehashing previous victories.

As Davis prepared to record Tutu, he was interested in working with Prince. Warner Brothers’ A&R man, Tommy LiPuma, wanted to pair Miles with a contemporary music figure as well, though he had been considering Thomas Dolby, a brilliant composer and keyboard player who had scored a huge hit with the song “She Blinded Me With Science.” Dolby also co-produced Joni Mitchell’s 1985 album Dog Eat Dog. A whiz in the studio and with electronic keyboards and technology, Dolby seems like a good choice to help move Tutu in the direction of working with more programmed musical elements and a smaller band overall.

Another possible choice for collaborating on Tutu in LiPuma’s mind is keyboardist Lyle Mays, who is an integral part of Pat Metheny’s band. But Prince is on Miles’s mind, and he is definitely interested. LiPuma is quoted in British rock writer Nick Kent’s piece “Lightening Up With the Prince of Darkness” as being a little ambivalent about the idea: “I felt that Prince might not be too conversant with certain idioms pertaining to Miles’s playing. But his work on the Family album displayed a keen awareness of the dynamics inherent in be-bop so, yes, indeed, Prince was ideal.”i

Interestingly, Prince had hired a trumpet player by the name of Matt Blistan, who Prince referred to as ‘Atlanta Bliss,’ for his band. Blistan was known for being able to do an uncanny impersonation of Miles’s famous trumpet sound, which makes it difficult at times to sort through bootlegs and unreleased recordings where Davis and Prince were supposed to have played together.

Read ‘Eight Reasons Miles Davis is in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’

What is known is that as Davis and LiPuma were beginning to work on ideas for the Tutu sessions a tape arrived from Prince featuring the track “Can I Play With U?”

According to Miles, the accompanying letter read “Miles, even though we have never met, I can tell just from listening to your music that you and I are so exactly alike that I know whatever you play would be what I’d do. So if this tape is of any use to you, please go ahead and play whatever you feel over it. Because I trust what you hear and play.”ii

Indeed the piece was worked on, with keyboard player Adam Holzman and Miles adding parts to it, and it was slated to be part of Tutu’s final release, but Prince pulled the track at the last moment because he didn’t feel that it fit in with the direction that the album ended up taking.

It was to have been part of Warner Brothers’ box set Miles Davis: The Last Word in 2002, but that release was also canceled at the last moment, again over some legal complications with Prince/Davis tracks. It is worth noting that this was also the time when Prince was having problems with Warner Brothers that ultimately resulted in his leaving the label. The track, also known as “Red Riding Hood”, turned up on a Prince bootleg entitled Crucial. When The Last Word was finally released it was missing this as well as other tracks that had been planned for the project.

Prince’s adversarial relationship with Warner Brothers became well known in the years that he sought release from his contract, the word “slave” written on his face.

Prince’s overall attitude to the situation echoes Miles’s disgust with the music business and his relationship with Columbia Records:

“They treat you like a slave because they’re giving you a little money, especially if you’re black,” Davis said. “Record companies were still pushing their white shit over all the black music and they knew that they had taken it from black people…All the record companies were interested in at that time was making a lot of money and keeping their so-called black stars on the music plantation so that their white stars could just rip us off.” iii

Prince clearly exerted an influence on Miles (and vice versa), and it would be interesting for fans of both artists to get a glimpse of the collaborations they might have been planning but which never made it onto Tutu. More than ten years after Davis’s death, Prince seemed to be following in his footsteps, preferring to move forward rather than endlessly rehashing past glories, as this excerpt from a review of an October 2002 concert at London’s Hammersmith Apollo makes clear:

“’I’m not gonna play Purple Rain,” pouts the 44 year-old Artist Once Again Known As Prince. “I’m not interested in what you already know. I’m interested in what you’re willing to learn.” The lesson involves 90 minutes of new material referencing Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix and James Brown, plus a cover of Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love, and then some old songs including Raspberry Beret and How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore? as covered by Alicia Keys.”iv

Producer Tommy LiPuma had reason to be somewhat concerned by the approach Miles and his cohorts were taking towards recording Tutu.

To LiPuma it is absolutely essential to develop the material and a sense of the entire album’s direction before recording:

“I’m very much into pre-production. It is one of the most important aspects of making a record. The more you’re prepared as things come up, the quicker you’re able to respond. Deciding on the material is a crucial part of this phase. Once you have the songs, then it’s time to start working it out, through rehearsals with the act, which is usually the best way. You get some sense as to what the form is and what will happen before it happens.”v

Davis had initially taken his band into the studio in September of 1985 to record the track “Maze”, which is a continuation of his “chromatic funk” concept, but which also seems to bring some new influences into the mix. The song became a staple of Miles’s live shows, and it is somewhat unclear why he chose not to continue to move in this direction. It is possible, of course, that this seemed to be too close to the work the group had already been doing, and Miles wanted to make a clean break with Columbia and get a compelling, fresh start at Warner Brothers.

Miles also asked Randy Hall, who had done some writing for The Man With the Horn to contribute material. Hall worked with guitarist Zane Giles and Adam Holzman. Bringing in other members of Miles’s band as needed, the two recorded some work between October of 1985 and January of 1986 in what has become known as the “Rubber Band Sessions.” These yielded a variety of funky grooves that utilized synthesizer bass lines and drum machines, including the track “Rubber Band”, which Davis was apparently fairly excited about. There were also tracks in a wide variety of styles, including ballads, pop, and Latin rhythms. Miles laid down trumpet parts on at least some of these tracks, but others went untouched.

Miles Davis-“Rubberband”

“Rubber Band” is a pretty pedestrian track, but it does demonstrate that Miles and his cohorts had indeed absorbed a great deal from the development of hip-hop since its emergence from the underground in the early ‘80s.

The track lacks any real melodic development, continuing Miles’s trend of organizing his music around rhythm. The problem with this technique is that there is no cross-rhythm here, just a drum machine and artificial handclaps that relentlessly accentuate the second and fourth beat of each measure throughout the piece’s five-plus minute length. It’s the kind of groove that Miles could play in concert quite successfully because the use of a live drummer allowed for rhythmic interplay and variation that just wasn’t possible with a drum machine.

It may be unfair to judge tracks that were not really completed for release (though once Miles had laid down solos on the track, it is questionable how much further they would have been developed) but there is simply not enough on “Rubber Band” to hold the listener’s interest. Davis’s playing is solid on these tracks, but without vocal or other elements to grab onto, the listener’s attention is inevitably going to wane.

Despite the obvious references to funk, hip-hop, and R&B in the settings that Davis was now employing, his music was still not destined for the dance floor, so there had to be enough texture to hold a listening audience’s interest.

“Rubber Band” did accomplish some things, however. First, it showed that Davis was committed to being absolutely modern in his approach to recording and that he wanted to integrate the dance, hip-hop, and techno styles that had recently developed in black music more deeply than he had done so far. It also showed that Davis was in no way averse to using drum machines, MIDI synthesizers, Tutu’s eventual collaborators Marcus Miller and Jason Miles a great deal of freedom in preparing the demo tracks that ultimately comprised the setting for Davis’ trumpet playing on Tutu.

Besides “Maze”, the Rubber Band sessions, and the Prince track, there was also a contribution from keyboardist George Duke. Duke was prolific and played with a wide range of musicians, from Frank Zappa to Cannonball Adderley. In fact, he replaced Joe Zawinul at the electric piano in Adderley’s band. In 1979 he had played on Michael Jackson’s album Off the Wall. In short, he was the perfect amalgam of a jazz-trained musician in touch with the black street and pop sounds of the time that Davis was seeking.

Duke offered up an R&B-tinged number entitled “Backyard Ritual,” a track that did make it onto the finished Tutu album. To Tommy LiPuma, who was head of Warner’s jazz department at the time, the George Duke tune was the best and most promising of the bunch in terms of a new direction for Miles. The Prince tune was also considered a starter, but LiPuma wasn’t that enthused about the other material Miles had recorded thus far. Miles needed a new collaborator and a new approach.

This is Part One of 2 Parts | Read Part 2

5 thoughts on “Miles Davis: The Making of ‘Tutu’

  1. Great article. You are right on the money with your comparison of the two giants. Both of their musical journeys were incredible. I was honored to meet and talk with my trumpet (and musical) mentor several times throughout my time with Prince.
    Thanks for the nice compliment!

    1. Great article. You are right on the money with your comparison of the two giants. Both of their musical journeys were incredible. I was honored to meet and talk with my trumpet (and musical) mentor several times throughout my time with Prince.
      Thanks for the nice compliment!
      Atlanta Bliss-iii<

      1. Thanks very much for reading the article and for your comments. It makes my day to hear these remarks from a musician who was involved in working with both these performers. Thanks for the music and your continued presence.


  2. My personal compliments for this so comprehensive article. it’s very hard to find material on Tutu and you make an absolutely great job!
    I’m non a Jazz expert but I think this is an underrated work by Miles Davis, describing his incredible desire to grow and to explore new frontiers outside of comfortable boarders. as everybody knows Miles is a real musical genius.

    1. Thanks so much for your kind words. I work hard to research some of these articles, and it’s nice to hear from readers who have enjoyed reading them. I think that Tutu has become accepted as a pretty solid Miles album, but for many, it will never measure up to his earlier work. I enjoy Tutu, but in all honesty, I like Amandla, the followup album, even better because Miles and Marcus Miller incorporated more musicians from Miles’ touring group at the time, which was an outstanding band.

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