Musicians are often able to wield language and sound in ways that transcend what can be communicated in writing. These unique sensibilities make the artists compelling and challenging biographical subjects.
Many biographers have written about the enigmatic trumpeter Miles Davis, but it is Davis’s own autobiography (written with Quincy Troupe) that is best able to describe the inspiration for his inventive jazz. Robin D. G. Kelley’s biography of the eccentric pianist Thelonious Monk tries to disentangle the jazzman’s odd persona from his distinctive music—considering each on its own terms, and acknowledging his mental health.
The singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell was bewildering to audiences, according to her biographer David Yaffe. Her sage aura and overall elusiveness amplified the poetic lyrics of her songs, earning her wide attention. Debbie Harry, the lead singer of Blondie, gained icon status by embracing the spotlight, but took care to maintain control of her own image, as she writes in her memoir, Face It.
Songs themselves also have hidden lives that are worth exploring. In their recent book, the podcast hosts Nate Sloan and Charlie Harding dissect popular tunes to reveal the nuances that make them so lovable.
Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas.
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What We’re Reading
The book on Miles
“With Miles, Davis proves to be his own most perceptive critic … 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 … calls for a double take.”