So What: Reconciling Miles the Man and his Music

Matthew Wuethrich By

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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 face...you 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.


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