It may seem strange to be writing a review of a book published over 30 years ago – but its subject is Miles Davis, one of the musical giants of the last half of the 20th century and reading it is as challenging as his music was. Moreover, despite being ghosted, it seems that all Quincy Troupe did was write down (with little apparent editing) what Miles said. So, there is little likelihood that Miles would feel mis represented…… which is telling.
My good friend Dave handed the book over to me with the underwhelming recommendation ‘I couldn’t get on with it, there’s only so much use of the term motherfuckers I can take per page. I don’t think he was a very nice man. See how you get on with it!’
Some context is necessary here. Dave is a hi fi enthusiast with a system that has become steadily more sophisticated and impressive over the 30 years or so that we have been friends. Whenever he has effected an upgrade it has been customary to use a couple of vinyls to ‘test it out.’ These are 1) Solid Air – John Martyn and 2) Kind of Blue – Miles Davis. We both really rate these albums and for me the ‘desert island disc criteria of if you could only take one record’ would, without hesitation, point to the latter. It is generally viewed as one of the best all time jazz albums and the best-selling – so I am not alone in my regard for it.
So, despite not having listened to the majority of his prodigious recording output over 50 years, I see Miles as a colossus – and important to me as a musician. Immediately the reader will identify potential jeopardy looming on the horizon …… and he or she would be right!
Let’s get the review basics out of the way first. The book is very poorly written and I would not recommend it. It does seem that the method employed was for Miles to reminisce, often repeating himself, often introducing a topic with a lazy ‘another thing that happened in 19XX was ………,’ and, as Dave noted, it is over full of expletives and bad mouthing. At just over 400 pages I think a bit more discipline (well a lot more actually) on the part of Quincy Troupe would have made the thing more readable and avoided such a complete trashing of Miles’ personal reputation. I suspect however, that Miles’ arrogance would have not brooked much in the way of changes to the structure or content.
Despite this and Dave’s entirely justified reservations I couldn’t stop reading the thing.
The self-trashing of his personal reputation is almost entirely grounded in his attitude and behaviour towards women. Let’s be clear, these were absolutely atrocious and impacted on a large number of individual women as friends, lovers and wives. He callously used many women for support (including the financing his two lengthy periods of addiction: the first to heroin, the second to cocaine) and physically assaulted others whom he was in relationships with. He routinely justifies his behaviour by blaming the attitudes and behaviours of the women themselves and when he (rarely) acknowledges his own culpability, he brushes it away by saying that is just the way he is. There is no acknowledgement of or sense of any motivation for the need for him to change – it is just how it is.
Miles’ arrogance was no secret. For many years he refused to engage verbally with audiences – refusing to introduce pieces or even band members on stage, with the rationale that his music was what people came to listen to – not to him talking. But it is here that I began to get a glimpse of what had helped to produce such a difficult, unlikable man – the impact of racism. Miles makes a number of references to the stage presence of Louis Armstrong, who he makes clear he rated as a musician, but who he felt had to ingratiate himself with white audiences through his ‘continual grinning’. Miles is adamant that he was not going to follow this path.
His articulation of the impact of racism on Black musicians and Black music as they and it sought to negotiate with the white music industry is one of the strong themes of the book – and of Miles’ life. In the 1940s 50s and 60s in the USA Black musicians were routinely ripped off, had their music appropriated by white musicians and were treated as second class artists. Maintaining control over the rights to their music and making a reasonable living became a constant battle and, according to Miles, a key factor in the high rate of heroin addiction amongst Black jazz musicians. Having to play three sets a night, night after night to small audiences in order to make a living requires a mental and physical stamina that often needed a little help. Despite his own comfortable middleclass family background Miles was also subject to a number of racially motivated arrests and periods of imprisonment. ‘Writing’ in the late 1980s he often observes that ‘little has changed.’
The other strong theme in the book, and I guess the reason I carried on reading it, is music.
Miles chronicles the explosion of bebop (small band, fast paced experimental jazz) in the US in the 1940s and 50s, initially as apprentice to Bird (Charlie Parker) and Dizzy (Gillespie) before largely holding their bands together as their heroin use rendered them increasingly unreliable and unpredictable. He played with all the greats of that era; Thelonious Monk, Cannonball Adderley and of course, John Coltrane with whom he moved from traditional chord-based music to the free-er modal structures that ‘Kind of Blue’ epitomises.
The key to Miles as a musician was not only his virtuosity as a trumpet player and his ability as a band leader to put different musicians together to produce particular types and styles of music but his commitment to constant development. ‘To be creative you must be able to change,’ – with the times, other styles of music and developing technology. He was thus able to continue playing (to very large audiences) and successfully recording until shortly before his death in 1991. He moved from bebop, through modal jazz to rock and funk – always gathering high class musicians such as Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Gil Evans and Marcus Miller around him, drawing on their creativity and expertise to produce stunning and always challenging music. He was very clear in the book that for him making music was a cooperative rather than a competitive undertaking – and I like that, I like that a lot!
However, through reading this book I now have knowledge about Miles the man that I can’t unknow, or justify, or simply wish away. It’s not an uncommon dilemma, we all have artists, musicians, sports people whose work we admire but whose personal lives leave a lot to be desired.
For me, despite the associations, Miles’ music is just too good to discard and I will continue to listen to it, particularly ‘Kind of Blue’ (1959), which is the result of a brilliant collaboration between outstanding musicians who were at the top of their game:
Miles Davis – trumpet
John Coltrane – tenor saxophone
Cannonball Adderley – alto saxophone
Bill Evans – piano
Wynton Kelly – piano
Paul Chambers – bass
Jimmy Cobb – drums
I am in no hurry to read biographies of the other band members …….