“So What: The Life of Miles Davis” by John Szwed

Genius, junkie, wife-beater, demigod -- a new book plumbs the mysteries of the most influential and enigmatic American musician of our time.

Topics: Books,

An old joke, but one worth hearing again: A rabid jazz lover dies and goes to heaven, where St. Peter leads him into a club where Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington and Lester Young are on the bandstand. Over in the corner stands a nattily dressed man clutching a trumpet, his back to the audience. “Who’s that?” queries the fan. “Oh,” says St. Peter. “That’s just God. He’s pretending he’s Miles Davis.”

For about four decades, jazz fans and critics were more than willing to give Miles Davis equal billing on a club date with God. Happily, John Szwed, who is also the author of an excellent biography of Sun Ra, is not among the worshippers. A healthy dose of skepticism salts his enthusiasm, which is one reason why “So What” is the best book to date on Davis’ life, work and mystique. Though he knows a great deal more about jazz than I ever will, Szwed has written a book that will appeal not only to jazz nuts but to people like me, for whom jazz is a major pleasure if not an all-consuming passion, and who have a fairly good idea what they’re hearing even when they can’t always articulate it in technical terms.

Szwed tells us early on that “So What” is “not a biography in the contemporary sense” — I’m not sure exactly what he means by “contemporary” — “as it does not attempt to track down every event or person in Davis’ life. Nor is it strictly a musical study, especially because not all his music is discussed.” Trust me, he’s right; you wouldn’t want it any other way. All the best recordings are dealt with, and there are quite enough stories of the bad marriages, band breakups and drug use to satisfy all but the most jaded of Davis’ devotees.

Rather, Szwed calls his book “a meditation” on the life and influence of Davis, one that attempts to establish his place in the history of jazz — actually, given his subject’s distaste for pigeonholing, better make that American music. This last task is no mean feat, since Davis is no less controversial today than at any other point in his musical career. In fact, he may be more so, when you consider that the fragmentation (and balkanization) of jazz over the last 30-odd years, a process that Davis himself did much to facilitate, has left us without a musician of anything like Davis’ stature. In comparison, Wynton Marsalis seems not so much an innovator as the curator of a musical museum.



Szwed makes a compelling case for rehearing the mid- to late ’40s recordings the arrogant young Miles Dewey Davis III made with Charlie Parker. (“I can play anything you can,” said the smart-mouthed young trumpet man from Alton, Ill., to the great Dizzy Gillespie. “Yeah,” shot back Diz, “but an octave lower.”) This is good.

He makes an equally compelling case for returning to the recordings of the “Bitches’ Brew” jazz-rock fusion era, which also seems good until you actually sit down to listen to the music. Szwed, as Davis before him, doesn’t seem to understand that it’s possible for some of us to love rock and jazz and not have the slightest desire to see them “fused.” Rock thrives on humor and a predilection for simple fun, and for all his versatility and wide-ranging appreciation of the world’s musics, no great American musician has been so humor-impaired as Miles Davis. (Though Davis was not without a nasty wit when the point of his barbs could be directed at others. When John Coltrane tried to rationalize his long solos by saying that he couldn’t find a way to stop, Miles suggested “You might try taking the horn out of your mouth.”)

But let that pass. In a book that defines itself as a meditative study rather than a straight biography, it’s necessary for the writer to have both a strong critical capacity and an old-fashioned instinct for narrative. Szwed has both. When it comes to his subject’s life, he skips nimbly between fact and legend, taking time to stop and distinguish between the two, but also wisely noting that even the most apocryphal stories about Davis (many of them spread by Miles himself) reflect some truth.

in 1926, Davis, like Muhammad Ali, was born into a black middle-class family. His father was both a prominent dentist in Alton, Ill. and a prosperous farmer who golfed with Joe Louis and took an active role in black community affairs. Spurred on by both his dad and mom to achieve, the young Miles was, in the words of his first wife, “Like a sponge. He absorbed everything around him. He was young, talented, and beautiful, and I believed that he would be famous.”

Brilliant, mercurial and driven, Davis had a vision and an innovative boldness that won him the loyalty of musicians whose technical expertise might have been greater than his own. “Not enough attention has been paid by critics to remarks like Cannonball Adderley’s to the effect that Davis “is not a good trumpet player, but a great soloist — you know what I mean.” I know what he means, but I still wish somebody who knows more than I do about jazz would explain it.

Davis quickly slipped into the personality that he would pretty much keep throughout his life: “Difficult to approach, quick to anger and often oblique and contradictory in what he did say.” He loved westerns, was hugely sentimental about Christmas and idolized dignified white men like Cary Grant and the Duke of Windsor. He assimilated the entire history of American music with such ease that he made onlookers’ heads spin. Apparently his own spun, too; living in the fast lane in New York left him with a nasty heroin addiction that he never quite recovered from, merely switching from smack to coke in the 1950s.

Meanwhile, Davis accomplished the astonishing feat of getting a grip on the fast-moving currents of American jazz, and turning them, by sheer force of talent and will, in the direction he wanted them to go. Ultimately his influence on American culture was far greater than mere record sales could ever indicate. As Gene Seymour of Newsday once wrote, “The term ‘cool’ entered American lexicon because Miles Davis WAS.”

Thankfully, Szwed never tries to get inside Davis’ head and never claims to explain the man or his music. For the most part he is content to go along with the musician’s own statement that “nobody knows what I think except Miles Davis.” In fact, it was obvious that Davis himself seldom seemed to know what made Davis tick. He was a mass of glaring contradictions: a terrible husband but, at least in the later part of his life, a caring father; a jealous guardian of jazz’s cultural achievement yet resentful of critics who tried to limit him with the label of jazz musician; an angry and vocal advocate of black nationalism who actively sought out white musicians and courted the white audience for which he often professed scorn.

Davis raged at what he took to be showbiz elements in the work of Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie while opening shows for white rock bands wearing glass high-heels filled with water and dead goldfish. And all the while, when the inconsistencies in his attitudes and behavior were pointed out to him, he continued to live life at full throttle, sneering at his critics, black and white, with an attitude that suggested Whitman’s declaration: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then. I contradict myself.”

Szwed is probably correct that the Miles of the Eisenhower era will prove to be the longest lasting: “Despite his playboy-like appearance, there was a cry of loneliness in his music that, even if it came from deep within himself, spoke to a condition many felt in the 1950s.” And to a condition many feel in the winter of 2003.

Szwed doesn’t even try to solve the mystery of why Davis turned his back on his audiences while onstage, allowing numerous witnesses to weigh in with explanations ranging from shyness to the difficulty of concentrating while looking into a crowd. Szwed’s own conclusion is that Davis was “refusing to follow the fundamental etiquette of performance. He was declining to display graciousness and appreciation for the audience’s attention and applause … refusing to show, in a word, humility.” That sounds about right to me.

“Don’t tell them nothing,” Davis once snapped at a TV interviewer who asked him what he should tell “the people” about Miles Davis. “Let them guess.” Szwed tells us quite a bit while allowing Davis to keep the cloak of mystery he so desperately clung to. “So What,” like a great Miles Davis album, is hip and fluid, and doesn’t try to play too many notes.

Allen Barra cowrote Marvin Miller's memoirs, A Whole Different Ballgame. His latest book is Mickey and Willie: The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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