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Dark Magus: The Jekyll And Hyde Life Of Miles Davis

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There are stories of warmth and normalcy, and those that aren't so pleasant...His son acknowledges all this with honesty and objectivity but doesn't add much to what we already know
Dark Magus: The Jekyll And Hyde Life Of Miles Davis
Gregory Davis
Hardcover; 224 pages
ISBN: 0879308753
Backbeat Books
2006

The pitch for this new book about Miles Davis, written by his eldest son, makes bold promises. Reading Gregory Davis on his iconic father will, we are told, shine previously unshed light on Miles Davis the man—and even the working musician, since the author traveled with the trumpeter at times. Gregory Davis himself states it is "the best version of my father that the reader will ever get.

The claims do not hold up. Dark Magus: The Jekyll And Hyde Life Of Miles Davis, written with Les Sussman, tells us little that is new about Davis' life—as complex a life, led by as complex an individual, as there can surely have ever been. Those familiar with Davis know the beauty of his work and know that he was capable of beauty in his personal life as well. There were times of chaos and tumult too, and both sides are depicted in Gregory Davis' account. The problem is that many of the stories—good and bad—have been told elsewhere, and among the new ones told here, most are not particularly engaging or enlightening.

The author raises eyebrows from the outset by claiming that no other book about his father has been written from the "inside —ignoring Chris Murphy's road journal-type offering (Miles To Go: The Lost Years, 2002) and the writings of Eric Nisenson, who was often at the trumpeter's home, including during his 1975-80 self-imposed seclusion. True, only John Szwed's So What: The Life Of Miles Davis (2002) deals in any depth with the relationship between father and son (Szwed interviewed Gregory Davis, something he much appreciates). But among all the writings on Davis, from essays to biographies by Ian Carr and Szwed, the autobiography, and Paul Tingen's book dealing with the electric years (Miles Beyond, 2001), there is already a full picture out there.

The book is a quick read. It touches on various stages of Davis' life, including before the author was born. These stories come from his mother, Davis' first wife, Irene Cawthon, and people like Clark Terry, and even Davis' father, Miles Dewey Davis Jr. (to whom the book is dedicated). That's actually a good approach, in light of the fact that Gregory Davis is not a journalist, and that so much is out there in other books. Taking stories, remembrances and comments and placing them in the context of Davis' life seems a good path to take. But one of the things the book suffers from is poor editing. Stories are hodge podge, all over the map at times. There is also a lot of avoidable repetition. Disappointingly, there aren't many stories about life on the road—there are no illuminating accounts of the musicians in the band or Gregory Davis' impressions of them as people, or previously unrecorded events of interest.

Among the stories, the one about bandleader Billy Eckstine wooing young Davis is interesting and usually glossed over in other accounts. Interesting too are the remembrances of Davis as a strong creative player in his pre-bebop days in St. Louis. Pieces dealing with Charlie Parker add to the puzzle and claim, without much supporting evidence, that Parker was responsible for Davis acquiring a heroin habit.

The sections about the relationship between Davis and his children, especially his eldest son (the other children are glossed over) have merit. For those who want to go there, this is fresh stuff, put out there without sugar topping. Davis could be a good father, and a neglectful one. He could be very difficult, as when teaching his son to play the trumpet, but he could be proud and supportive, as he was of his accomplishments as an amateur boxer. Stories are there, short in form, but interesting in the cumulative. The book also shows that the author was a longtime supporter of his father, often when he was much needed—during times of ill health, and times when Davis could have gotten into trouble with drug dealers had it not been for the bodyguard-like presence of his son. Some of these stories are revealing and worth reading.

There are stories of warmth and normalcy, and those that aren't so pleasant: the drug use, the women and the dark times. His son acknowledges all this with honesty and objectivity but doesn't add much to what we already know. Many of the stories contain repetitious elements. Some are overstated. There are references to a man claimed as a fourth, illegitimate son, and suggestions that there may be many more. But the supporting evidence is far from conclusive. And while that part of the book which deals with the battles among Davis' offspring over his will tells much that has not been heard before, it's all about Davis' descendants, not Davis himself.


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