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Book Reviews

Miles and Me

By Published: March 8, 2004


Miles and Me
Quincy Troupe
Univ of CA Press
200pp.
0520216245

After years of worship from afar, a young writer meets his idol at a party in a short matter-of-fact encounter that ends with the Black Prince sliding almost mysteriously out the door and into the night. A short time later he sees the icon on Broadway, around 81st Street. He calls out, hoping for a glimmer or recognition, only to have the sleek figure, clad all in black, including hat and shades, glide by without acknowledgment; nary a sideways glance.

Bruised, but not defeated, the young poet would have other brushes with the deity, and eventually strike a lasting relationship, the rudeness forgiven. Genius is like that. A genius sees things others don’t; hears sounds others can’t, Quincy Troupe explains in his latest book about his relationship with Miles Davis.

Troupe, the man who got to listen to miles of Miles, then provide us with “Miles, the Autobiography” in 1989, is back, revisiting the man he calls both an influence and idol, with “Miles and Me” released in March (University of California Press).

The book at first appears a curiosity, done perhaps to cash in on his link with the enigmatic one. The Prince of Darkness. The Chief. The Black Prince who carried a mystique, an aura, that few artists have ever carried. (Truly carried, not created by the media or publicity agents). Troupe had that ever-so-rare status of being in Miles’ inner circle. At least as “in” as most people got. That’s his advantage. But what’s he got to say this time?

While portions of the book tell stories that aren’t particularly compelling, other parts are engaging.

The book isn’t a must-read for jazz fans. But it’s a good read, and a quick one, for those who like the subject: the man who is not only one of the great musical leaders of the 20th, or any, century, but who set trends, and broke barriers in other ways, socially and stylistically.

”Miles and Me” doesn’t really tell us more about Miles than has the autobiography, numerous essays and other books, like “’Round About Midnight” by another of Miles’ close friends, Eric Nisenson. But it illustrates a special relationship between two artists, and in doing so is meaningful. It’s revealing in how one black man, growing up in a white-dominated world, viewed Miles; revealing in how the music of Miles influenced Troupe’s life, especially his writing. Many have admitted writing, painting, sculpting, etc., listening to Davis’ music. Troupe explains the effect in detail. It also provides some information about Miles’ life after the bio, in the last few years leading up to his death.

Some of the writing makes points about Miles’ significance, while showing his human faults and frailties. Some of the language has a rhythm, befitting a poet, and a visceral quality. Right from the book’s first word, Troupe describes the fabled sound of Miles’ horn in terms that are warmly lyrical; painting a portrait of the aural oasis that Miles could create. Always. Time after time.

Aside from a prologue and epilogue, the book is broken into only four chapters: “Meeting Miles,” “Up Close and Personal,” “Listening to Miles,” and “Saying Goodbye.”

Troupe’s descriptions of how people walked on eggshells around the trumpeter, and the fate of some who didn’t, are comical in a sense. That Miles could be gruff and mean, camouflaging a soft underbelly of a basically shy man, is not a revelation. But Troupe’s view from his particular seat in life’s theater is engaging.

Throughout, his take on Miles’ music, its effect on people and on society, is well thought out. Miles’ music “is brilliant, challenging, innovative, fusionistic, and futuristic; it has grandeur and majesty and is orchestral in its sweep,” says Troupe, and “should be required listening for all students of American music in high school, under graduate and graduate of musical levels of education, but it isn’t.” That opinion is far from revolutionary, but it is well stated, and a point that bears repeating.

Troupe also addresses how Miles was looked upon as arrogant by a white society. He calls Miles, and people like Malcolm X, “unreconstructed black men” who refused to bow and compromise; who wanted to pursue life on their own terms. Miles’ travails and triumphs made it easier for jazz musicians – black and white, but especially black – to go on after him. It also, says Troupe, was an example for all blacks. Troupe mentions the autobiography and how some people thought the language was too rough. Others thought Miles a bastard for revealing distasteful parts of his life, and being largely unapologetic. Miles “told the truth in our book, and I deeply respected him for not trying to whitewash his life. That took courage,” says Troupe.

Indeed.

The language of both books is real. It’s the language of Davis and the language of the streets, like it or not. It’s the language of George Carlin. Of Richard Pryor. Of most people I know. So many other jazz biographies and autobiographies are bland because they weren’t bold enough to be realistic.

And the troubled portions of Miles’ life? Drug addiction. Treatment of women. Foul temper and moods. Did that put people off? Or was it that Miles had the gall to say “This is it. So what?” (Read Art Pepper’s autobio, or Stan Getz’s bio. They were charming white musicians to the public. Great artists, both. But they make Miles seem like a choir boy in many ways. Getz was an addict almost his entire life and so brutal to the people he was supposed to love, including his kids, they feared for their lives, at times. Yet his music, Like Miles’, is some of the sweetest ever heard).

There are other poignant stories in “Miles and Me,” including astute depiction of the music in the 70s and 80s that those with closed minds hold in disdain. Particularly amusing is his account of Miles making an old man out of Wynton Marsalis when the two played on a double bill at Avery Fisher Hall in 1989. Marsalis played his traditional jazz (Miles called copies music created in the 50s and 60s, “tired” and “sad shit”), lecturing the audience between songs. Then Miles came out and blew them away with multiple rhythms, shifting tempos, showmanship and crackling solos, killing the audience. (“Miles played so wonderfully that Wynton’s entire band – but without him – came and stood in front of the stage listening, their eyes bugged out, their mouths wide open,” Troupe recounts).

Another interesting tale deals with the last months of Miles’ life. The trumpeter was always paving the way to new styles and refusing to go back, but in 1991 returned to play the 30-year-old music from his classic collaborations with the great Gil Evans. A short time after that he played some of his other old music with some ex-bandmates in France. And a very short time later, on Sept. 28, 1991, he was gone. People have conjectured that perhaps Miles knew he was near the end. In fact, Miles had claimed have premonitions at times.

Troupe says when the idea of playing the Evans scores arose, he teased Miles’ “in a good natured way about the fact that he had said he would ‘never play that old music again,’ that he would rather die than do so. I told him that he ‘must be dying’ since he was playing his old music,” the author writes. Miles cut him off curtly, chewed him out, and threw him out of his house. “It was the angriest I’d ever seen him,” says Troupe, whose two books have many angry moments.

The concert was triumphant, universally hailed. He died later that year.

Viewed in the larger sense, the book is as much about Troupe as Miles. Troupe is a noted poet and author in his own right, and for those who like his work, “Miles and Me” will gives insight into his thoughts, his likes, what affected him at key stages of his life. It may even move fans of Miles people to go seek out Troupe’s writing. The new book looks at Miles from a different angle. It’s not vital, not always engrossing, but an interesting piece to the legend.



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