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Book Reviews

Miles: Ever Changing, Ever Perplexing

By Published: March 8, 2004
“Miles Davis and the 1960s Avant-Garde,” by Waldo E. Martin Jr., is a good at capturing of Miles’ importance and place in various stages of musical development and his restless musical spirit.

A Quincy Troupe article “Kind of Blue to Bitches Brew” doesn’t provide much new from his previous writings, but if you’re reading Troupe for the first time here, his evaluation of that period is valuable and his personal stories have a way of colorfully reflecting what many feel. His account of how the music grew on him over time is something many can relate to.

Pity those for whom it hasn’t yet happened.

Eric Porter also “defends” Electric Miles in an essay and does a sound job. “Explain” would be a better word, since the music needs no defense; requires no help. Creative music? Popular music? It was both, and succeeds as such, he notes.

“Miles Davis and the Double Audience,” by Martha Bayless is a thoughtful look at Davis’ reach into rock, funk and pop realms. She notes that, not being there first-hand, such assessments are difficult, but she has some thought-provoking commentary about the period. It is the book’s best effort at placing the man and music in a cultural context. And she has an understanding that the pursuit of art can exist while touching a popular audience and allowing the maker of it to actually see monetary gratification. It has been ever thus, whether it’s Mozart or Dylan.

“High art arises from popular art and must sustain a connection or lose all vitality,” Bayless writes. Miles, she says, cultivated his art and his audience. “This is not a flaw. On the contrary, it may be a necessary qualification for greatness.”

But there is some writing in the book that makes no point and reveals little, if anything. It often sounds like pompous posturing, based on nothing but conjecture, meant to come off as scholarly.

The book’s value is in prompting some deliberation and providing interesting interviews. It is visually attractive, with good black and white photos throughout. The cover photo of Miles leaning against a pole outside the Café Bohemia is hip.

Let’s face it. People’s opinions of why Miles changed and the value of the music be debated for a long time — for as long as there are people with closed minds. The musicians themselves (not many included here) tell it best, and they talk in high terms both about the music and how Miles created it and, perhaps more importantly, made it all work

As Ralph Gleason once wrote,” In contemporary music, Miles defines the terms. That’s all. It’s his turf.”

And as Ron Carter says in this book, Mile Dewey Davis III should be remembered “as one of the few who was able to turn the world of music in any direction he chose.... Period.”

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