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‘We just want to be disrupters’: Vince Wilburn, Jr. on M.E.B.'s new album inspired by electric Miles

Vince Wilburn, Jr.
c/o the artist
Vince Wilburn, Jr.

Recently, WBGO welcomed Grammy and Emmy-award winning drummer and producer Vince Wilburn, Jr. to our studios. The nephew of Miles Davis, Wilburn is also an executor of Miles’ estate along with cousins Erin and Cheryl Davis. Wilburn dropped by the studio to talk about his multi-generational and genre-bending star-studded recording, That You Not Dare To Forget. The anticipated album, co-produced with drummer Lenny White, features the all-star M.E.B. (formerly The Miles Electric Band), two previously unreleased Miles tracks, and is available everywhere now. Guests on the album include Ron Carter, Marcus Miller, Stanley Clarke, Donald Harrison, Darryl Jones, Vernon Reid and John Scofield. Wilburn shares stories about his uncle, the influence of drummers Al Foster and Tony Williams, his vision on the new album and more

Wilburn will be performing at SFJAZZ during its “The Music of Miles Davis: A Celebration” series of concerts May 25-28, featuring four different aspects of Miles’ music: Kind of Blue – The Acoustic Quartets; Sketches of Miles; Miles From India; and Miles Electric Band (M.E.B.), with Wilburn, Keyon Harrold, Darryl Jones, Robert Irving III and others.

Listen to our conversation, above.

Interview transcript:

Monifa Brown: Let's just jump right into the new album. There's so much to talk about. Let's start with the title, That You Not Dare To Forget. What do you not want us to forget? What are we supposed to remember?

Vince Wilburn, Jr.: It's titled That You Not Dare To Forget because that was the spoken word track. Both Lenny White and I co-produced the record. We were going to have Cicely Tyson do a spoken word piece on this particular track. We sent it to her. She loved it and she wanted to do it. She was busy with her book, Just As I Am. Then she passed away, unfortunately. So we had the track, but we didn't have Cicely.

Lenny has this thing called Lenny's Loft on Friday nights. One Friday night his granddaughter, Rashae Reeves, recited some poetry, because it was poetry night. When I got off Zoom, I called Lenny back. I said, “Lenny, you should have Rashae do the spoken word track for the record.” But Rashae didn't know anything about Miles and Cicely, and that particular track is about Miles and Cicely. Lenny met with his granddaughter and explained to her what the relationship was and how they loved each other. And she penned the words. Everybody thought that we should make this the title of the record.

Lenny White
Sam Erickson
Lenny White

Tell me about working in the studio with Lenny, who's such a genius. What does he bring to your collaborations together?

I’ve known Lenny practically all my career and Lenny is fearless. He refers to us as disruptors. He never wants to be pigeonholed or locked into any one style of music. Two days ago, he presented his first opera. So when I was thinking about who could I work with and co-produce this project with, immediately I thought about Lenny. Lenny said, “Well, let me look at some videos of the band that are on your site or on YouTube, and I'll get back to you.” He called back and he had a list of 10 songs for me to choose from. Then we listened down and we started picking musicians. He likes to refer to it as like directing a movie, when you pick actors, like we picked our musicians for this project. It was all organic and it was just magic.

Let's talk about some of the collaborators on the album. There are so many great folks on this album.  Ron Carter, Antoine Roney, John Scofield, Nas, Olu Dara, Jeremy Pelt. How hard or easy was it to wrangle this crew to pull this project off?

M.E.B. - The Making of "That You Not Dare To Forget"

Nas and Olu are a sample, but we did work with Nas and Olu on Evolution of the Groove in 2006. But to answer your question, it was all on the phone. Anytime you say Miles and you reach out to this all-star list of musicians, they say “What time and where?” With the Miles Electric Band, everybody was doing separate projects. I was trying to get whoever I could get at the time because everybody's a composer in the band. I was like, “Lenny, who can we get on the East Coast or close by?” We were dealing with a budget and we couldn't fly everybody in and out of New York. It was just a phone call and everybody was down. I wanted to state that the band members in the Miles Electric Band are all great composers and songwriters, and maybe for Part Two we’ll get some other tunes from the guys. We have enough music.

Quincy has this great quote that I love, basically talking about the sacredness of being in the studio and that you always leave a little bit of space when you’re in the studio for God to walk through because this is a sacred space. I'm wondering what it was like for you paying homage to your uncle Miles Davis and with such a magnitude of talent with the artists you're working with who all have these different connections to Miles. There must be a sacred space that you're creating. What is it like for you, just spiritually or personally to be able to make this project?

In the studio we all felt his energy. I personally have dreams about Uncle Miles where he comes to me and all I see is his face. And he smiles and then he just vanishes. It’s not scary. It’s peaceful. I want to think that he's saying, “Yeah, Neff, you're taking care of business.” We didn't want it to be a tribute, but we all love Miles. We've all attended Miles Davis University. Why we wanted to do the project in the beginning was because they kept labeling the Miles Electric Band a tribute band. We're not a tribute band. We play the music that we love of the electric period of Miles with our interpretations of the music. It just so happens that when we made phone calls to musicians, either you played with Miles or you loved Miles and you wanted to play with Miles or we have a connection somehow with these musicians. Like Bernard Wright, who was on Tutu . Bernard, God rest his soul, made a comment that “We have all these jam bands now, but Miles was the first jam band.”

(l to r) Vince Wilburn, Jr., Bernard Wright, Lenny White and Ron Carter
Sam Erickson
(l to r) Vince Wilburn, Jr., Bernard Wright, Lenny White and Ron Carter

I had the Jamaica Boys with Lenny and Bernard. They were always talking about the Jamaica Boys. On “Hail to the Real Chief”— that's what we call Marcus—I'm like, this is like some Jamaica funk, but I'm from Chicago. We called Marcus from the studio and Marcus said, “Play the track.” We played it for him over the phone. And then he said, “Send me the track.” We sent him the track and that's how the session was progressing.

“Hail to the Real Chief.” What a way to really kick off the album. One of the things that really comes across is the cross-generational and cross genre appeal of Miles. What is it about Miles' music that lends itself to reach the masses and the fact that you guys are, in the spirit of Miles, taking the music and moving it forward and doing something new with it, and not rehashing the same thing?

He hated the word jazz. He referred to it as social music. I think it crosses over all boundaries. The music doesn't get locked in. Guys like Robert Trujillo, the bassist from Metallica, love Miles. The Foo Fighters love Miles. Willie Nelson. Everybody loves Miles. I should get some t-shirts printed up: Everybody loves Miles. But I talk to musicians in the rock world and country and hip hop…everybody digs miles, you know? It’s amazing to me. And he's been gone since 1991.

Cover of M.E.B.'s album "That You Not Dare To Forget"
Cover of M.E.B.'s album "That You Not Dare To Forget"

The artwork is fantastic. Very Afro futuristic. Tell us a little bit about the painter who did this work.

His name is Mikel Elam, and he's from Philadelphia. He was Miles’ assistant in the ‘80s until Uncle Miles passed away. I'm thinking about artists, and I said, “Let me call Mikel.” I called him and I said, “Hey man, we're doing a record. Can I purchase some of your art that you've already created for this record that I'm doing?” His words were, “No, man, send me the music and I’m going to create a piece for you based on how the music speaks to me.” This artwork is what the music said to him as he was creating this beautiful album cover.

Let's go back to your early beginnings. Coming up in Chicago, what were your early beginnings like? Your mother is the older sister of Miles, right?

By a year.

Was she into music? I know they would take you to hear Miles all the time when he was in town, but what was your house like musically growing up?

My mom played a little bit of piano. She was an educator and my dad was in the military. After he retired, he taught ROTC. Then he worked for City of Chicago. But I can remember the parties in the basement. I remember lying in bed and listening to all this music. The next day I had to go down and play what I could remember that I was listening to lying in bed. I had my drums set up. And the record player. I would just play these records all day and have my drums right there. This is how I put it all together. That was my learning curve, trying to play what I heard on the drums.

There was a record promotion guy named Granville White, we called him Granny. Miles would call Granny and tell Granny to send me these records. So I would have James Brown, Sly and the Family Stones, Buddy Miles, Otis Redding…

About how old were you?

I was about eight, maybe.

That's quite a schooling from Uncle and Granny.

I would just sit and listen to these records, on top of the records that they would send my parents of Uncle Miles’ projects. But I didn't understand his music because I was just learning like a sponge. I'm still like a sponge. But the older I got, I figured it all out. When we would go see them in concert, I would ask my parents, “Could I stand backstage so I could get another vibe and see the interactions of the band?”

So you were up close, peering out backstage seeing folks like Jack DeJohnette and Tony Williams and Al Foster at eight, nine years old?

I was in the wings. There was a club called The Plugged Nickel in Chicago. That was a club where I could just sit with a bird's eye view and see it. I played a little “Cold Sweat” beat, I think it was on Jack's drums at one matinee. They let me play a little bit. A memorable experience.

Was there a moment that kind of sealed the deal for you and you thought, “This is what I want to do”?

Yes, a talent show in 8th grade. All the girls were screaming. I said, “This is what I want to do.” Then we did a Jackson Five show. After that I had a band with Randy Hall and Bobby Irving. We used to rehearse in my mom and dad's basement and play on the weekend. You're too young to remember these long-coiled cords that were hanging in the kitchen on the wall phones. Uncle Miles would have my mom bring this receiver and cord all the way down the stairs and put the phone down and listen to us practice. This went on for about three weeks. After every practice, we picked the phone up and he would have me pass the phone to each musician and tell us to work on this, do this, try this. Then like on the fourth week after he critiqued us after one rehearsal, he asked us if we wanted to make a record. He flew us to New York to do The Man with the Horn. He heard something during the entire time of our rehearsals that he picked and said, “Okay, they're ready.” We flew to New York. I think we recorded about 15 songs. Gil Evans came just to hang out in the corner, just chilling.

How old were you?

Like 20 maybe. Something around there. We worked with Teo Macero, the famous producer, and Stan Tonkel, the famous engineer. It was great. People would stop by the studio and see. We were the new kids on the block. We got on the cover of DownBeat. Who are these guys? When we got back from that project, we played on Ramsey Lewis's record Three Piece Suite.

The Man With the Horn (2022 Remaster)

What do you think is the biggest misconception about Miles Davis? Something you think people just don't get about him or that they've gotten wrong that you want to set straight?

I hate the moniker, The Prince of Darkness. For me personally, I just think that he cared about the music. He sacrificed a lot for the music. I lived with him and Erin in Malibu, and he was always about the music. He was the first to wake up in the morning, the last to go to sleep at night. I watched him like a hawk. That's all he was concerned about—evolving the music or pushing the music.

He didn't listen to any of his old records. That’s another thing that I witnessed. He was just moving forward. MTV was heavy in the ‘80s and he’d have the sound down. If it was something that he liked on MTV, he would turn the sound up. He'd have his trumpet there and the baby grand piano in the living room and he would play the trumpet. Then he'd call the record label and he’d have them send the records. They would. Like one group, Mister Mister. We did a rendition of a track called “Broken Wings.” Then “Time After Time.”

That's why I felt like Miles and I were right there, because I would have these listening sessions with my dad. Then I would sneak off and listen to other stuff. I liked Cyndi Lauper, Scritti Politti and Tears for Fears, and Miles is recording them. I felt like we were very connected.

It was amazing to hear him play his rendition of those tunes just in the living room. Like a private concert. Then we went to the studio. Beautiful.

Do you have a favorite track on the album, and is there a story behind it that you can share? Something a little behind the scenes that folks don't know.

I love all the bass players that I've ever played with, but to play on “Bitches Are Back” with Ron Carter? He allows me to call him Uncle Ron. I've been listening to him all my life. When Uncle Ron plays the bass and the sound that comes out of those speakers, I’m like in a trance. He played and he took like one or two takes and he was done. Then he asked Lenny, “Is there any more? I'll be back tomorrow.” That bass. That sound.

Ron Carter
Sam Erickson
Ron Carter

What's the greatest gift that you hope you will give people when they experience this music?

I want listeners to get what I felt in the studio. We felt Uncle Miles' presence. A lot of these tracks are one or two takes. It happened so fast. When you're recording and when you're in it, it's hard to fathom what you're doing until you finish and you're mixing and you listen to the final product. It was just magic. I want everybody to have open ears, an open heart and an open mind. We are just trying to play some music. Like Lenny says, we just want to be disruptors.

This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Born of Ukrainian Jewish and African-American descent in Brooklyn, NY, Monifa Brown's (formerly Carson, happily married and the proud mother of a wonderful son – who can be heard in some of Brown’s WBGO show promos) affinity for music began at an early age. "I am blessed that my parents were determined to expose me to the arts and jazz in particular. They would take me with them everywhere. The first time an irrepressible mark was made was when they took me to hear Miles Davis. His presence and sound were mesmerizing. Miles was magical and I was instantly hooked."