The Book on Miles

In his autobiography, the trumpeter Miles Davis proves to be his own most perceptive critic.

Ton Pouw / AP

In Miles: The Autobiography the trumpeter Miles Davis remembers his excitement at hearing the Billy Eckstine Orchestra, with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, in a St. Louis nightclub in 1944. It was his first in-person exposure to bebop, and also his baptism by fire as a musician—just eighteen at the time, he was pressed into service as an emergency fill-in. “The way that band was playing music—that was all I wanted to hear.”

Davis's reaction was typical of that of most young musicians in the 1940s. What thrilled them about bebop was its impossible combination of the breakneck and the Byzantine. It was all they wanted to hear and all they wanted to play. But an early mark of Davis's singularity was that soon after becoming Gillespie's protege and Parker's sideman, he also became their loyal opposition. “Diz and Bird [Parker] played a lot of real fast notes and chord changes because that's the way they heard everything; that's the way their voices were: fast, up in the upper register,” Davis observes in Miles, which was written in collaboration with the poet and journalist Quincy Troupe. “Their concept of music was more rather than less. I personally wanted to cut the notes down.”

Davis's entire career can be seen as an ongoing critique of bebop: the origins of “cool” jazz (his collaborations with Gil Evans in the late 1940s), hard bop, or “funky” (his 1954 recording of “Walkin'”), modal improvisation (the track “Milestones” in 1958 and the 1959 album Kind of Blue), and jazz-rock fusion (In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, both recorded in 1969) can be traced to his efforts to tear bebop down to its essentials. Unable as a younger musician to play “fast,” or “in the upper register,” Davis became an innovator out of necessity.

His decision, in 1969, to court a younger audience by playing rock venues, adding amplified instruments to his ensemble, and cranking up both the volume and the beat also amounted to a critique of modern jazz, which he felt had become tired and inbred. So, in effect, did his withdrawal from the recording studio and public performance from 1970 to 1980, years in which “sex and drugs took the place that music had occupied in my life until then and I did both of them around the clock.” He barely touched his horn in these years, but he haunted jazz with his silence.

Two groups of listeners now feel that Davis has sold them out: jazz fans of a certain age who have never forgiven him for going electric, and the rock audience that discovered him with Bitches Brew and—try as it might—can't get with the slick techno-funk he has been recording since The Man With the Horn, in 1981. But the audience he has his sights on now, although he's unlikely to reach it without a hit single, is the audience that grooves to Prince and Michael Jackson, and commercial survival doesn't seem to be his only motivation—ego, racial identity, and a desire for eternal youth (or continuing relevance) all seem to be mixed up in it.

For many of his more worshipful fans, of all ages and races, Davis's music has always been just one component of a mystique that also involves his beautiful women, his up-to-the-minute wardrobe, his expensive taste in sports cars, and his scowling black anger: his celebrity boils down to an insider's life-style and an outsider's stance. His magnetism is so powerful that fans who haven't liked anything he's done in years continue to buy his records and to attend his concerts, irrationally hoping for a reversal of form.

On stage he remains an electrifying presence, although you wonder now when you go to hear him (as you do with the seventy-one-year-old Dizzy Gillespie, but for a different reason) not how well he'll play but how much. He has become a kind of roving conductor, walking from sideman to sideman, describing what he wants from them with a pump of his shoulders or a wiggle of his hips, blowing riffs into their faces and letting them pick it up from there. He still turns his back on the audience for much of the show, as he was infamous for doing in the 1950s and 1960s The difference is that now he has a wireless microphone on his horn which allows him to be heard clearly with his back turned—and that audiences would be disappointed, at this point, if he failed to strike his iconographic pose. Though his shows are never boring, you're not quite sure how you feel about them afterward. Is Davis admirable, as his apologists would have it, for refusing to rest on his laurels—for keeping up with the latest black musical and sartorial fashions? Or is there something pathetic about the sight of a sixty-three-year-old man in clogs, parachute pants. and jheri curls shaking his fanny to a younger generation's beat?

“When I hear jazz musicians today playing all those same licks we used to play so long ago, I feel sad for them,” he writes.

Most people my age like old, stuffy furniture. I like the new Memphis style of sleek high-tech stuff .... Bold colors and long, sleek, spare lines. I don't like a lot of clutter or a lot of furniture either. I like contemporary stuff. I have to always be on the cutting edge of things because that's just the way I am and have always been.

Anyone this vigilant about staying on the cutting edge is chasing trends—not starting them, as Davis did in jazz from the late forties to the early seventies (Bitches Brew and most of the double albums that followed it, though turbid in retrospect, were undeniably influential at the time).

DAVIS'S major accomplishment of recent years isn't any of his recordings but Miles, which enjoys an obvious advantage over the Davis biographies by Ian Carr, Jack Chambers. Eric Nisenson, and Bill Cole. Without the full involvement of their subject, these were essentially turntable companions—critical guides to Davis's work within a biographical framework. But with Miles, Davis proves to be his own most perceptive critic (at least about his music before 1969), and the book is so successful in capturing Davis's voice (including his incessant, if tonally varied, use of profanity) that the odd line that sounds like the work of his collaborator (as when, for example, Davis supposedly resorts to quoting a jazz critic to describe the dramatic contrast between his style and that of his former sideman John Coltrane) calls for a double take.

“The challenge . . . is to see how inventive you can become melodically,” Davis writes, offering the clearest explanation I have ever read of the advantages of improvising on modes or scales rather than chord changes. “It's not like when you base stuff on chords, and you know at the end of thirty-two bars that the chords have run out and there's nothing to do but repeat what you've done with variations.” Kind of Blue, which popularized modal improvisation, was the most influential jazz album of its period, but it was a disappointment of sorts for Davis, he writes. The sound he wanted on Kind of Blue, and feels that he didn't quite achieve, was that of the “finger piano” (probably an African thumb piano) that accompanied a performance he saw by an African dance troupe. Though Davis himself doesn't make the connection, this provides an unexpected rationale for the three electric pianos that phase in and out behind the horns on In a Silent Way.

He writes about fellow musicians with an eye for detail that brings them into photograph-like focus. On Gil Evans, for example:

When I first met him he used to come to listen to Bird when I was in the band. He'd come in with a whole bag of “horseradishes”—that's what we used to call radishes—that he'd be eating with salt. Here was this tall, thin, white guy from Canada who was hipper than hip . . . . But bringing “horseradishes” to nightclubs and eating them out of a bag with salt, and a white boy? Here was Gil on fast 52nd Street with all these super hip black musicians wearing peg legs and zoot suits, and here he was dressed in a cap. Man, he was something else.

While acknowledging his genius, Davis characterizes Charlie Parker as “greedy,” a man who “was always trying to con or beat you out of something to support his drug habit.”

Bird always said he hated the idea of being thought of as just an entertainer, but . . . he was becoming a spectacle. I didn't like whites walking into the club where we were playing just to see Bird act a fool, thinking he might do something stupid.

Miles's considerable value as jazz history isn't what makes it such a page-turner. Autobiography is a problematic literary form, because it's never clear which is being submitted for the reader's approval, a book or its author. Davis writes that he loved Parker as a musician but “maybe not as a person,” and the Miles Davis who emerges from Miles—as complex as any character in recent fiction—elicits a similar ambivalence from the reader.

His treatment of women is contemptible: he isn't averse to slugging them to keep them in line. It isn't bad enough that he talks with unconvincing remorse of hitting his own women; the story intended to illustrate Billy Eckstine's tough-guy credentials has Eckstine slapping a would-be girlfriend while Davis looks on approvingly. He is spiteful toward the actress Cicely Tyson, the most recent of his ex-wives:

Cicely has done movie and TV roles where she played an activist or something like that, a person who cared a lot about black people. Well, she ain't nothing like that. She loves to sit up with white people, loves to listen to their advice about everything and believes almost everything they tell her.

Davis's fame and his relatively privileged upbringing (his father was a dentist and an unsuccessful candidate for the Illinois state legislature) haven't spared him from injustice, such as being clubbed over the head by a white policeman after he was ordered to move on from the entrance of a New York City nightclub in which he was performing in 1959. But much of what Davis interprets as racism is his own hubris, as when he accuses white jazz critics of having written approvingly in the mid-sixties of such black avant-gardists as Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, and Archie Shepp in an effort to deflect attention from him. (Never mind that the critics most identified with what was then called “the New Thing” were Amiri Baraka and A. B. Spellman, both of whom are black.) He is peacock vain. He tells of admiring himself in a mirror in 1956, when his star was on the rise. He wasn't yet making as much money as he thought he should be, but he was looking “clean” in Brooks Brothers and custom-made Italian suits. “I felt so good that I walked to the door and forgot my trumpet.”

He writes of getting together every so often with the late James Baldwin in France and “lying our asses off.” You have to wonder, as you do with all autobiographies, how much deliberate lying is being done here. Probably not a lot, because for a man this caught up in his own mystique—a man fully aware that his art and life are already the stuff of legend—just telling the truth about himself as he sees it amounts to a form of self-aggrandizement.