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Book Reviews

So What: Reconciling Miles the Man and his Music

By Published: October 16, 2003
So What
John Szwed
Simon & Schuster

After reading Miles’ autobiography, writer Pearl Cleage related in a 1990 essay how and why she decided to stop listening to Miles Davis’ music. Entitled “Mad at Miles,” the essay challenges the reader with this image: “Can we make love to the rhythms of “a little early Miles” when he may have spent the morning of the day he recorded the music slapping one of our sisters in the mouth?” In So What, his new biography of Davis, John Szwed makes this image unsettingly real by relating an encounter between a coked-out Miles and his then wife Frances Taylor. Miles comes home from a three-day cocaine binge and in a jealous rage proceeds to chase Frances around their home with a butcher knife; Frances is the woman staring at the camera on the cover of Davis’ album E.S.P.. Szwed quotes Frances saying, “And that little would not believe that about a week after it was taken I was running for my life. “

So, Ms. Cleage has a point, albeit an uncomfortable one: How do we reconcile the music with the man? Szwed’s book does not explicitly answer this question, but he sets both man and music running and lets them collide, bringing the reader along on an ugly, yet irresistibly fascinating ride.

Szwed neither apologizes for nor condemns Miles’ behavior, and to some this might be intellectual cowardice, but for Szwed it is his way of resisting the urge some biographers have to “thicken the story line” of the subject’s life. In So What he avoids untying the knotty, often unpleasant contradictions of Miles’ life with psychoanalysis or some abstract intellectualizing, and thus he allows the reader to form their own conclusions about how Miles’ life and music intersect.

Like many Jazz legends, Miles’ history seems built on anecdotes, stories and jokes passed around so much that they have turned into myth. Miles, however, has further complicated the task of biographers with his often uncooperative interviews and boastful autobiography. Szwed deals with this facet of Miles by interviewing friends and family not previously talked to by biographers, and by resisting the “facts” that have been retold so many times they seem impossible to refute.

Take his attempt to kick heroin. Most Miles fans can tell you how Miles retreated to his father’s farm for two weeks, locked himself in a shed and came out cured. For Miles the Myth, this story makes sense, but for Miles the man it oversimplifies. Szwed points out what others seem to have overlooked: Miles continued to use for some time after his ostensibly Herculean effort, and nor does he overlook Miles’ continued dependency on other substances like cocaine.

By not perpetuating the myths of Davis’ life, Szwed avoids myth-making himself. His style is cold and factual, often pitting Miles’ claims about his life against statements by those who knew him. He further avoids filling in the blanks for readers by adopting a somewhat fragmented organization. After an extended discussion of Miles’ music, he will drop in a single paragraph, spaced apart from the rest, which relates some small element of Miles’ personal life. This style almost imitates Miles’ own trumpet sound: a small burst of notes, followed by great space, followed by a more extended passage. The reader has to make their own to understand the overall shape.

Szwed considers in-depth Miles’ sound and the intense emotional concentration and exertion it took to create it. He mostly avoids technical descriptions of the music, describing instead the visceral reaction and stark mood it often creates. While discussing Miles’ Prestige sides he spends one paragraph on the musical content and another paragraph on how we can hear Miles’ voice on the recordings giving instructions. Such apparently banal focus may seem to trivialize the music, but because we can hear Miles’ voice so often on his recordings it might explain why his music lives so vividly in our minds. We can hear the process behind his music, as the human atmosphere of a recording studio fifty years ago injects itself into our conscious-behind the music is a man.

Other Miles biographies cover his music and his day-to-day life in more minute detail, but Szwed plainly states that he is attempting a different kind of portrait, “one that looks at the variety of meanings that were (and continue to be) projected onto him.” Aside from an extended “Interlude” about Miles’ personality and a “Coda” that paints Miles as the Picasso of Jazz, Szwed does not analyze so much as he shows what Miles was like according to different people. He does create a new context for Miles’ music in the 70s, going beyond the rather shallow “cross-over” interpretation. In fact, by comparing the studio editing techniques employed by Davis and Macero to the film editing techniques of Eisenstein and the “musique intuitive” of Stockhausen, a rather more complex idea of albums such as “On the Corner” and “Dark Magus” emerges.

Szwed succeeds in his mission to elucidate new perspectives on both Miles the Artist and Miles the Man. He describes how Miles the Artist adapted to and fit in with popular musical and artistic developments of the Twentieth Century. And in his hands, Miles the Man is neither an ivory tower genius nor a publicity whore; he is a deeply flawed man who had great artistic powers, one who used those powers to express himself and his troubled relations with society. Szwed leaves us with our personal pictures of Davis intact, yet he has also given us new shades with which to color that picture.

After reading So What questions about Miles the Man indeed remain unanswered, yet rarely in life do we get such answers about others. We have only what we see and hear; from there we are on our own.

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