Miles Davis and American Culture
Gerald Early (Editor)
Univ of Missouri Press
Miles Davis is such a dominating figure that he will probably be analyzed forever. His importance in music is obvious. As a performer, conceptualist, bandleader, trumpeter, guru – whatever – he stands as one of the most significant geniuses in music history, let alone 20th century music.
The music, as Miles was fond of saying, speaks for itself. He was a pioneer, innovator and trendsetter, all the while producing constantly changing styles and consistently outstanding work. That career, always moving forward and changing, is unparalleled in music.
Miles Davis was also beyond the music, like few jazz artists ever have been. He was outspoken and controversial at a time when Afro-Americans were demanding to be heard and insisting on social change.
A new book, “Miles Davis and American Culture” (Missouri Historical Society Press, 228 pages) seeks to put Miles in perspective, examining the culture of the time he lived in and how he and his music fit in. It’s a collection of essays and interviews edited by Gerald Early.
Individually, some hit and some miss. Collectively, the book makes some interesting observations, but guessing (and believe it, a lot of it is guess work) what Miles thought, and why he did certain things, is futile at best, pompous at worst. There is much speculation, many assumptions, and much ado. The best some of the essays do is provide appropriate explanation and information about parts of either the career or music of the Dark Prince.
There is discussion, for example, about whether Miles’ moves were deliberately commercial, whether he was socially relevant, whether he played up to white audiences. A better question might be: Does it matter? The result is in the music, which, in all periods, including the last couple electronic decades, passes the test with flying colors.
That Miles would have hated such discussion and cussed out the various theories espoused in the essays (and those who espouse them,) doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. The book points out that Miles is an important cultural figure, therefore worthy of such examination. But answers? None are provided. Maybe it wasn’t meant that way. But some of the paths taken on this journey are corny, while others are tolerable.
Did he do enough for Afro-American causes? Did he criticize white society while playing to it? The complexity of those issues and where Miles stood on them makes answering the questions extremely difficult. People did ask those questions of him while he was here, and while the answers could be cryptic, they were direct. Reinterpretations can be bent in any direction.
Early’s essay itself, titled “American Knight and Knave” takes some pretentious stands. Sound and fury indicating nothing in parts like prattling on about why Miles liked boxing and Sugar Ray Robinson and how his boxing workouts were a daring tightrope walk. (He loved boxing. He liked to stay in shape. Perhaps ... maybe???... he said to trainer Bobby McQuillen “don’t EVER hit me in the face.”) Some people love golf. Who cares?
Early makes some good observations and in some segments paints a decent picture of Miles’ career and what was going on, but it sheds no real light on anything. And it has some errors (He speaks about some good Miles trumpet work on live sessions with Coltrane including At the Blackhawk, which had Hank Mobley on tenor sax, not Trane, and Four and More which had George Coleman).
An essay on Miles and critics restates that he hated them, generally. It’s disjointed. And besides, Davis was highly intelligent and, say band mates and friends, an excellent and immediate judge of people, so it’s no surprise he knew how to work the media when he wanted to.
There are interviews interspersed throughout, mostly done by Benjamin Cawthra, and while brief, they’re good. It’s not the usual lineup either. Bassist Ron Carter doesn’t seem to be queried much and he has interesting comments and anecdotes. His take on the Miles-Marsalis controversy is telling, having played with both. (“Wynton wasn’t in Miles’ class, so how could there be a controversy?)
George Avakian, Ahmad Jamal, Joey DeFrancesco and Quincy Jones all have worthy reflections on Miles.
The now famous Playboy interview done by Alex Haley – the first ever by the magazine, again a signal of Miles’ stature outside the jazz community – is included in the package.
An essay on politics and image by Ingrid Monson has some good descriptive elements, but again, doesn’t shed any great light on the issues. It contains good stories about the making of a couple great live records, Four and More and the Carnegie Hall concert.
“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.”