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Kinds of 'do: The Story of Miles Davis' Hair

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Davis' radical self-transformative process can be interpreted as more than simple stylistic ritual. —Ken Cheveux
Kinds of 'do: The Story of Miles Davis' Hair
Ken Cheveux

Schneider & Haar Publishers
2004

If you were too preoccupied with the master trumpeter's playing, you might have overlooked what more style-conscious fans noticed all along: Miles Davis' coif changed almost as radically as his music over the course of his five-decade career. Starting out in the clean-cut mold of the Birth of the Cool days, Davis' hair later thinned and morphed into the mullet-like gheri-curl of his fusion foray, and later still into the feral mane of Doo-Bop (see hair gallery below). This, as fashion and music critic Ken Cheveux tells it, can be taken as yet another way in which Davis changed jazz'superficially and internally—while effecting significant, albeit less overt, changes in larger society.

"Davis' radical self-transformative process can be interpreted as more than simple stylistic ritual," writes Cheveux in his introduction to Kinds of 'do: The Story of Miles Davis' Hair. "It is positively Nietzschean in both its origins and execution—an impassioned desire to remain on the cutting edge, an innate knowledge of the benefits of constantly manipulating celebrity persona, and an ostensible disregard for the dangers of poor public perception." This is precisely what captured the writer's imagination. Would we still regard Davis as an innovator, he asks, if he had kept the tidy, conservative "do of his youth" Was his relatively tame Afro during the early '70s an indication of his lack of political conviction? And is Davis' later work undermined by his truly appalling choices in hairstyle?

According to Cheveux, Davis was as proud of his hair as he was of his music. The writer cites one incident which took place after the famous Cornrow Club concert. A female fan approached Davis backstage and asked him for advice to pass on to her hairdresser. Miles retorted: "Lady, it took me forty years to style my hair like this. And you want to learn how to do it in an hour" Cheveux goes on to suggest that being pressured to divulge haircare tips hay have been the singular underlying reason behind Davis" well-documented scorn for Wynton Marsalis.

To confirm Davis' obsession with his hair, Cheveux has unearthed a mass of old shopping lists calling for items such as "60 pkgs of geri [sic]." Taking a major analytical leap, he even goes so far as to offer this as the motivation for Davis' infamous stage manner. "Cocky, cool, but secretly and acutely self-conscious, Davis performed with this back to the audience because he could not bear the thought of someone in the crowd criticizing his latest coif. A private album cover shoot was one thing; subjecting his hairstyle to possible live ridicule was another."

All in all, Cheveux's account is fascinating stuff and will likely spawn dozens, if not hundreds, of reevaluations of Davis' career along the same lines. For readers, it presents Davis in a whole new light, making it possible to return to the trumpeter's oeuvre with fresh ears. Thus "So What" becomes Miles' reply to a critic of his nondescript hairstyle of the time, while the more direct Charlie Parker chart "Another Hair Do" from Milestones becomes a reaffirmation of his stylistic credo.

Readers who enjoy Kinds of 'do will be pleased to note that Cheveux is already at work on his next book, Nobody Digs Bill Evans' Beard , in which he intends to examine the pianist's complete lack of fashion sense during his transformation from scrawny geek to bearded Neanderthal.

Photo Credit
Herb Snitzer , Miles Davis 1988.


The Miles Davis Hair Gallery


"Innocent" Miles
Style: Cropped Conservative

"Mod Squad" Miles
Style: Intermediate Afro

"Saucy" Miles
Style: Unknown

"Mullet" Miles
Style: Gheri-Curl Mullet

"Dippety Doo" Miles
Style: Receding Gel

"Malibu" Miles
Style: Dreadlocks

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