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Opinion/Editorial

Miles: The Autobiography... Two Decades Later

By Published: September 19, 2010
But, again paradoxically, part of Davis' creativity may stem from his ability to be both "black" and "white" at the same time. What comes through in his autobiography is that his greatness came from his ability to take the roots of truly African American and Afro-centric blues and jazz, "America's classical music," and combine it in unique and diverse ways, and taking a cue from Bird and Diz as well as Gil Evans, with European musical forms to produce a variety of new expressive styles and approaches for jazz groups. His brief and truncated experience as a student at Juilliard was always with him. The truth is that Miles was not as great a trumpet player as he comports himself to be in this book. Indeed, he admits that his friend, Kenny Dorham
Kenny Dorham
Kenny Dorham
1924 - 1972
trumpet
cut him to pieces when he sat in on one of Miles' gigs. His greatness lay in his ability to create and renew and invent the music itself. He did this not once, but many times in his career, coming in on the heels of bebop, practically defining "cool" jazz (with Gerry Mulligan
Gerry Mulligan
Gerry Mulligan
1927 - 1996
sax, baritone
and others at his side), elevating hard bop to an art form (along with Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins
b.1930
saxophone
, John Coltrane
John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967
saxophone
, Art Blakey
Art Blakey
Art Blakey
1919 - 1990
drums
, and many others), practically defining modal playing (along with Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk
1917 - 1982
piano
, Trane, and Bill Evans
Bill Evans
Bill Evans
1929 - 1980
piano
), bringing rich thematic material to post-bop playing (along with Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock
b.1940
piano
, Wayne Shorter
Wayne Shorter
Wayne Shorter
b.1933
saxophone
, Keith Jarrett
Keith Jarrett
Keith Jarrett
b.1945
piano
, Chick Corea
Chick Corea
Chick Corea
b.1941
piano
, and their peers), deeply enriching the jazz fusion movement and electronic instrumentation, and late in his career creating a series of idiosyncratic recordings incorporating diverse cultural and musical influences.

As the autobiography makes clear even today, a couple of decades after it was published, Miles Davis changed the face and voice of the music many times in his lifetime. His legacy continues to exercise a powerful influence even now. His musical originality and resilience is his redemption and his manly beauty, and it gives cause to wonder if this was the reason, in his own vernacular, for all his other "shit." In this respect, he mirrored in his life, his autobiography, and his music the essence of what the literati call "modernity." As the title of one of his albums, Live/Evil, suggests, Miles Davis may have needed to go into the darkness in order to find the light.


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