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Published: Sunday, January 5, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 4, 2003 at 10:34 p.m.
So What: The Life of Miles Davis
By John Szwed
(Simon & Schuster, 488 pages, $28)
Illustrated biography of jazz trumpeter and group leader.
'So What: The Life of Miles Davis' By John Szwed. Illustrated. 488 pages. Simon & Schuster. $28.
Or so reports John Szwed, a jazz critic and professor of anthropology, African-American studies, music and American studies at Yale, who has, with "So What," written the first Davis biography since Davis' death in 1991 at 65.
In his voluminous notes, Szwed attributes this quotation to Davis' autobiography ("Miles," written with the poet Quincy Troupe and published in 1989). But there, in a book widely criticized as flamboyantly inaccurate and self-mythologizing (though elsewhere admired for its sass and style and insights), Davis says he said: "Well, I've changed music five or six times, so I guess that's what I've done and I guess I don't believe in playing just white compositions. Now, tell me what have you done of any importance other than be white, and that ain't important to me, so tell me what your claim to fame is." So, one might wonder, what? (This book's title actually derives from a famous track on one of Davis' most famous albums, "Kind of Blue.") Who really cares if he said four or five or five or six? Szwed certainly has a right to tighten up quotations, even shakily remembered ex-post-facto embellished quotations, and his version is punchier and pithier.
The discrepancy between the versions makes one a little apprehensive, however, since this new biography's chief value - despite Szwed's disclaimer to comprehensiveness - is that it pulls together pretty much everything ever written about Davis and offers a distilled, up-to-date recounting of his complex, brilliant, maddening and still tendentiously controversial life.
Szwed has interviewed some fresh voices that have not heretofore had their say: family members, lovers and musical collaborators. But the bulk of this book is his dutiful culling of published works, film documentaries, and written and recorded archives to present the fullest picture of his subject yet attempted. So when funny little discrepancies crop up between the source and his version, one frets.
For all his fabled irascibility, of course, Davis was right about his own career accomplishments. Duke Ellington compared him to Picasso, in his constant musical reinventions. Yet those reinventions got him into constant trouble. Musicians, critics and fans cling to what they've come to know and too often regard change as betrayal. Davis changed a lot, and hence, in many people's eyes, he betrayed himself and them over and over. Especially since his was a life addled by drugs: heroin, and later alcohol and cocaine, as well as an endless round of prescription drugs to relieve him of the pain from his horrific illnesses and injuries. Fortunately for us (if not necessarily for him) his biggest, longest-lasting addiction was to music.
Whether you count his changes as four or five or six, he moved from the Juilliard School to bebop (as a young member of Charlie Parker's quintet in the 1940s), to cool jazz (helping on the fly to spawn West Coast cool jazz), to so-called modal jazz (abandoning traditional chord changes for improvisations based on modal scales), to jazz-rock and jazz-funk, to layered recordings built up from edited tracks, to open-ended explorations of roiling, murky sonic textures. Those later styles, which overlapped, continue to influence not only younger jazz musicians but also noise-rockers and ambient producers like Brian Eno.
Davis was more of a musical thinker than a virtuoso. He constantly thought about how music could work, tending toward a minimalist removal of notes compared with the onslaughts of the bop pyrotechnicians. Yet constant throughout his shifting styles were his own rounded tone, wonderfully evocative of the human voice, and spare explorations of the trumpet's middle range.
Much of his evolution came through his interactions with collaborators and his oddly indirect guidance of them. Aside from Parker, he numbered many of the great figures of midcentury jazz among his sidemen. There were his two famous quintets that, despite shifting personnel around the edges, consisted of himself plus John Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones in the mid-'50s and Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams in the mid-'60s.
There was his wonderful partnership with the composer-arranger Gil Evans and later his work with the innovative producer Teo Macero. Plus a panoply of jazz giants and, from the mid-'80s on, rock and world musicians, sometimes near-unknowns seemingly brought into recording sessions and even concerts with no rehearsal just to shake things up.
A lot of that later experimentation is slighted in the neo-conservative critical climate of jazz today, and particularly by the jazz orthodoxy promulgated by Wynton Marsalis (another Juilliard trumpeter) and the brain trust surrounding him at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Not to speak of Ken Burns' Wyntonian slant in his "Jazz" television series.
By and large, in this view, Davis is regarded as a wasted talent, selling out to rock and electronics in a pitiful, desperate effort to remain forever young. For them his drug use and pimp posings represent little more than a terrible example.
But these things move in cycles, and the continuing influence of members of his '60s quintet and others (Keith Jarrett, for one) keeps alive an alternate view of jazz as something broader and more generous than that emanating from Lincoln Center.
Szwed's book is good on most of this, and valuable for trying to maintain an open mind on all of Davis' permutations. One might expect a respectful stance on the later eccentricity from a man who wrote a book on Sun Ra, but Szwed is really exemplary in his fairness. He doesn't accept all the failed scraps and crippled technique and hair-brained follies as equally excellent. But he doesn't condemn them out of hand and sometimes finds beauty amidst the chaos.
The main problem with his book is that far too much of it reads like a recitation from stacks of laboriously assembled file cards (or their latter-day digital equivalents). From paragraph to paragraph we plod from cursory recountings of domestic incidents to recording sessions to concerts, with less numbing detail than true obsessives wallow in, perhaps, but too much unilluminating, underexplored listings of sidemen and takes. As a meditation on Miles Davis' life, as he calls it, this book isn't meditative enough.
Though no prose stylist, Szwed can stretch out when he chooses to, notably in a chapter called "Interlude." Here he sums up the Davis music and personality at that key moment in his and jazz's history, 1959, when free jazz (Ornette Coleman) and rock (and its seduction of a record industry bedazzled by potentially huge profits) changed jazz forever. Szwed's references beyond jazz to classical music, literature, art, dance and philosophy are often very smart. My own favorite is his citation of the Marxist philosopher Theodor Adorno on late Beethoven, wherein ego dissolves into pure music in anticipation of death, to explain Davis' recessive role in some of his late recordings.
Anyone who cares about this tortured genius of a man - and many still do and many more should - will have to read this book, minor misquotations aside. There's ample information here that one can't get elsewhere under one cover. But the Davis-Troupe autobiography is way more fun.
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