Q&A with Miles Ahead Actor and Musician Brandon Meeks

The local jazz bassist talks about performing with actor Don Cheadle in the new Miles Davis biopic.

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Brandon Meeks (second from right) poses with Don Cheadle (center) and other members of the cast.

For many years, Brandon Meeks has played bass at small places around Indy like the Hi-Fi and the Jazz Kitchen. Starting April 1, however, Meeks plays the big screen. In the Miles Davis biopic Miles Ahead, the local musician portrays iconic bassist Ron Carter (who jammed with Davis during the 1960’s). We caught up with Meeks in advance of the premiere to chat about his film debut.

 

When did you first pick up an instrument?
When I was about 9 years old, I started taking guitar lessons. Originally, I wanted to play bass, but my mom didn’t know the difference and just bought me a guitar instead [laughs]. So I had to take classical guitar lessons first. Then when I was 13, I finally got a chance to pick up the bass.

At what point did you realize you might be able to play music professionally?
I grew up playing in church, and a lot of the guys who I was around there were involved in other things professionally. So I kind of wanted to be able to do what they were doing. Some other key moments were seeing Branford Marsalis play at Orchestra Hall in Chicago and seeing Wayne Shorter play at Chicago Jazz Festival.

You became a mainstay in the local music scene pretty quickly, but you weren’t known as an actor. How did you land a role in Miles Ahead?
There was a talent agency that was looking for submissions from musicians. I submitted a headshot and a short paragraph about myself, and they ended up giving me a call back. Eventually, they ended up saying that they had a role for me in the movie. It kind of just started on a whim. Like, I really didn’t think I would be in the movie or anything. I just thought it would be fun to send something out, and they ended up calling.

What was it like working with Hollywood actor Don Cheadle?
It was great—he’s a really nice guy. Once he found out that we all were real working musicians, he was like, “Ah, cool! We’ve got some high-ability players. It’s gonna look real.” He showed a lot of gratitude and was appreciative of us being there.

Cheadle actually plays trumpet, correct?
Right. I think he started learning trumpet specifically for this role, but his trumpet playing was great. I had no idea that he had just recently started learning.

How was acting different from playing live music?
When you’re doing a gig, you come in for a quick sound check and then you play. But with movies, everything is done with the purpose of making sure they get the best shot. There was a lot of playing the same thing over and over again while they shot it different ways. So it’s not really a performance. It’s like you’re doing the same thing over and over again to try to make it look spontaneous and in the moment, but you might actually spend five hours on something that’s only supposed to come across as two or three minutes.

Has the music of Miles Davis influenced you?
He was such a huge figure in jazz. So yes, being a jazz musician, you kind of have to study him and all the periods of music he was involved in. Personally, I’ve closely studied Miles’s phrasing because he was so lyrical and really knew how to use space in his playing. I incorporate those ideas in my own playing. When I solo, I think of Miles all the time and how he would break his musical phrases up in a way that made it feel like a conversation.

Overall, what did you enjoy most about being a part of the film?
The coolest thing was getting to be a part of something monumental. With the way the movie was done—the fantastic sets and the wardrobe—it really felt like we were in that time period. It was kind of surreal just being there and shooting with Don Cheadle. He was so far into that role that it really felt like you were working with Miles Davis.

 

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