The Man Behind the Music in the 2017 Grammy-Winning Film About Miles Davis

Feb 13, 2017

The virtuosity of the legendary Miles Davis speaks through another trumpeter who follows him in tune and time. WRTI’s Meridee Duddleston talks with the musician behind the sound in the 2016 biopic, Miles Ahead, which won a 2017 Grammy Award.

Radio script:

Music: “Junior’s Jam” from the soundtrack of Miles Ahead. Keyon Harrold, trumpet; Robert Glasper, composer

Meridee Duddleston: The trumpet punctuates, pivots, and luxuriates throughout the movie Miles Ahead. Slices of Miles Davis’s past acclaim, love and loss shimmer on the screen around a story constructed around a few days in the late 1970s - a time when his musical magic was nowhere to be found. Actor and director Don Cheadle plays Miles, but it’s GRAMMY award-winning musician Keyon Harrold we’re hearing.

Don Cheadle plays Miles Davis in MILES AHEAD, the film that he directed and co-wrote.
Credit Sony Pictures

Keyon Harrold: I’ve been listening to Miles from the age of 10, 11, 12 years old. I’ve been listening to jazz forever, but Miles, obviously, being the epitome of what a trumpet should sound like — I know what that sounds like. He’s a part of me.

MD: Harrold pressed the valves on his own trumpet after Cheadle’s fingering was captured on film: a feat that’s the opposite of what’s usually done. Harrold, who was born in 1980, is also the sound behind a young trumpeter named “Junior” — a muse who stands as a kind of musical provocation.

KH: That would make Miles in the movie basically question himself not playing, and that would push him and prepare him to get back into make more music. So they basically told me to play like myself – with lots of fire – so that’s what I did in the Junior piece. I got a chance to really be myself.

MD: This masterful interpreter and musician said when the movie was finished it was like looking down, instead of out, from the observation deck of an immense skyscraper and realizing the enormousness of all that had happened to get him there.

Trumpeter Keyon Harrold played a lot of the sound that blew so believably through much of the portrayal of Miles Davis in Miles Ahead. The movie, directed by Don Cheadle who plays Miles, is not a chronological biopic. Instead, it’s a revealing depiction of real and fictional elements with the action focused on a few days during a creatively dry period in the late 1970s.  It’s a time marked by drugs, physical pain, paranoia and self-imposed seclusion. Miles seems to have lost his way personally and musically. The looming question “Are you coming back?” hangs in the air.

No stranger to music or trumpet playing, Don Cheadle’s fingering and action formed the basis for the sounds we hear. But except for Miles masters, those sounds are being played by trumpeter Keyon Harrold. Harrold was born in 1980, about a decade before Miles passed away.  He's has been listening to Miles since the 1990s and brought that critical mass of exposure to the task. He’s also the sound behind the movie’s fictional trumpeter “Junior.” When it came to Junior, Cheadle and composer Rob Glasper told him to just play like himself. The result can’t be missed for its powerful and provocative contrast.

Participating in the film and continuing the Miles David legacy was humbling for Harrold. He says it was like being at the top of a huge skyscraper — Just looking forward, and not looking down to grasp the immense height until it’s all over. 

Keyon Harrold is currently recording a new album of his own potent playing.