Talk about a great music teacher. When Vincent Wilburn Jr. was growing up in Chicago and learning how to play drums, his uncle, jazz legend Miles Davis, would call and ask to hear him play through the phone. In the '80s, Wilburn got to back "Uncle Miles" on the kit. Now, Wilburn has assembled an 11-piece band, including former Davis band members and the Trinidad-born, Juilliard-educated trumpeter Etienne Charles, to play through the funkier side of Davis' catalog: music he recorded in the late-'60s, '70s, and '80s.
SF Weekly: Why did you decide to perform the later work of your uncle, trumpeter Miles Davis?
Vincent Wilburn Jr: There are different electric periods that Uncle Miles went through. I played with him in the '80s, some of the other guys in the band played with him in the '70s, so what we are trying to do is blend it all together. We have stories about what it was like to be with him at various times. So we talk about our experiences with Miles and then try to interpret it, and then Etienne [Charles] comes in with his own sound. It's all like a connection. It's a Miles connection. Everyone's bringing in different stuff. DJ Logic never played with Miles, but he loves the music.
Not everyone likes his electric work. Many prefer the more traditional jazz side of Miles Davis.
Yes, it can turn some people off. People who like the quintet and acoustic jazz stuff won't like this. But if you like funky experimental stuff, you will. We are serous about playing this music. Miles made music for himself. If he played "Bye Bye Blackbird" for 40 years, that would have been a problem. He never looked back, never rested.
What do you like most about his experimental, funky, electric music?
It all appeals to me. His work with Bird, on up to [the 1986 album] Tutu, up to Doo-Bop [his final 1992 album]. It's fun when we get the guys together and we just see where the music goes. That's exciting to me. We just go at it, and see where we take it. Nobody is trying to play like [pianist] Keith Jarrett, but we play what we play.
What was it like for you, playing with Miles in the '80s?
It was a master class in music. He told me never to take my eyes off him on stage. He would always have the tape running, and we would try things differently each night, things he wanted to change. He kept it exciting. Only he knew. It was beautiful. We thought we knew what we were going to do, but he would flip it. That's what Uncle Miles did. It keeps the music fresh.
You're also producing a movie about Miles Davis starring Don Cheadle. How did that come about?
I'm producing along with Daryl Porter. We were getting an award for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I was backstage, and someone said there should be a movie. I immediately said, "Don Cheadle is the one." That was seven years ago. It's not a cradle to the grave story. It's like Ray, more like a day in the life, when he wasn't playing in the '70s and he chose to come back. Some of it you will believe, some of it you will not. We may do a documentary as well.
How is the project coming along?
Don has been playing trumpet for three years and this is his directorial debut. The soundtrack will be from the catalog, and with Robert Glasper. Ewan McGregor is playing a Rolling Stone reporter. Ewan is a sweetheart. And Ewan is a drummer. I never knew that. Don will text me in the middle of the night. That helps us to feel more comfortable.
There are other film projects happening now about Jimi Hendrix and James Brown. Is there a growing interest in iconic African-American artists?
I think it's just a coincidence. It's just timing. I think there are projects in the pipeline about Nina Simone and Whitney Houston also. It's great for African-Americans to pay homage to these artists. These are amazing stories. Our screenwriter also did the first draft of the James Brown film.
Do you think there's anything specific about Miles' music or life story that is timely and relevant again now?
Well our band just loves the music. We all get together and we all have these stories. We call Miles "the chief." This is our way of expressing our love for the chief. The movie is long overdue. We've been working on this for seven years. It's a good time for Miles and for our African-American superstars who paved the way. They made a positive mark on our lives, and we just want to say thank you.