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Miles: The Autobiography... Two Decades Later

By Published: September 19, 2010
The style of writing is conversational and informal, and its use of profanity will take some readers aback, as Troupe acknowledges. It would be interesting to know if Davis actually spoke that way. The constant swearing has echoes of the great Rimbaud, and epithets are often paradoxically complimentary. For example, a "bad m—f--" (Davis did not bleep these words) is jazz lingo high praise for a fellow-musician's capabilities. But I suspect that even some of Davis' closest friends, and particularly those who were deeply religious, would be put off by the frequent profanities, which in any case saturates the prose just a bit too much. In a way, the reader has to filter out some of the language to get at the real poignancy of Davis' experience, such as his troubles with family, co-musicians, and the music industry; his ignoring a handwritten note from his father just prior to the latter's death; and his absolute love and affection for Gil Evans. As one can hear especially in his expressive solos in Concerto de Aranjuez and Porgy and Bess, and with all his bravado, Davis was a sensitive and deeply emotional person, and his bonds with close friends and fellow-musicians contradicted his intolerance for audiences and critics.

The question of Miles Davis' personality and character surrounds any reading of this book. He was known to be dismissive (I remember attending a set he did at the Vanguard in the early 1960s, when he played throughout with his back to the audience, a well-known ploy of his. Oddly, I was not offended, probably because the music was so good.) He could be arrogant, quixotic, impulsive, flamboyant (he was a clothes connoisseur and sometimes wore outrageous attire), and abusive. Yet he could be supremely well-organized about the music, and some remember his capacity for warmth, caring, and affection. Part of the understanding of these paradoxes seems to have to do with his attitudes towards race and authority. In the autobiography, he presents himself as hating white people, not as individuals, but for the egregious way they treat African Americans and their music. And of course, he's right in many respects, and the racist card still has validity, maybe always will because human differences and subjugation appear endemic to society's need to privilege some groups by denigrating others. Yet at times, Davis' critique of whites has the quality of a rant and of inverse racism, which many African Americans, such as his friend, James Baldwin, himself a staunch and articulate critic of racism, would find abominable. Yet at times, this same "rant" has the quality of a strange kind of courage, and you find yourself on Davis' side all the way. He never gives in to established authority, and we'll always need such rebels in our midst to keep us on our toes.

In my opinion, Davis' anger at whites and authority figures is a reflection of his difficulties establishing his own masculinity. He is a truly sensitive, vulnerable man, almost a boy-man, and he wants so much to be a man's man. He studies prize fighting, he beats up cops and women, he fires players sometimes impulsively, changes his groups around too often, and cavorts with the rich and famous. He's trying to be a tough, "real" man, and paradoxically, with all his anger towards white folks, he ends up trying to be like one of them. It is not particularly African American to drive expensive sports cars, go on holidays in the French Riviera, go to coffee houses with Jean Paul Sartre, and make out with movie starlets. It's possible that Davis unconsciously envied white people and tried to be like them. That's not what W.E.B. Dubois, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X had in mind.

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