May 21, 2014

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If not wearing pants is cool, you can call Dweez Miles Davis.

“I love women. I never needed any help or ever had any trouble finding women. I just like to be with them, talking and shit like that. But I never have messed with a musician’s girlfriend. Never. Even if she hadn’t been with him for very long. You never know when you might have to hire a musician to play with you.”-Miles Davis, Miles, page 403

It’s been relayed to me that Kanye West finished reading Miles and immediately wrote “Runaway.” I know what you’re thinking: Kanye reads? Well I haven’t personally witnessed the legs of a book cracked open in his hands but the information is reliable, I assure you.

Usually I tackle more recent releases on this program but when this book was brought to my attention via someone via Lunice via Kanye, I was curious to see how much it resonates twenty five years after publication.

Miles Davis, like other non-singing jazz greats, is an abstraction to me. Along with Coltrane, Ellington, Gillespie, and Monk, it’s a name that I almost instinctually understand as permanently etched onto the most important columns in the American musical pantheon. Yet, unlike the more verbal musicians that followed in the wake of the first musical tradition born in this country, I knew next to nothing about the man himself. Only his name and his audible abstractions.

So that’s how we get back to Kanye. The one musician we know entirely too much about. A guy so familiar he feels like the successful (or obnoxious or both) relative. Take it easy. I’m not about to compare Miles to Kanye here. It’s just that the man who toasted douchebags and hijacked acceptance speeches wasn’t the first musician to publicly dare you to hate him.

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What Works:

Few musicians can write well enough and focus long enough to pilot their own books. Books aren’t songs. Nor are they movies. They are long, drawn out affairs. The four to twelve hour investment an author asks of a reader is a substantial one. Even if someone’s life was as interesting as say, that of Miles Davis, these things don’t write themselves.

Davis wisely opted for a cowriter. Quincy Troupe was the first official Poet Laureate of California and a professor at UCSD before a background check revealed he had no university degree and had to resign. He went on to coauthor The Pursuit of Happyness with Chris Gardner (portrayed by Will Smith in the film) and write children’s books about Magic Johnson and Stevie Wonder. He also wrote a stellar book of poetry, The Architecture of Language, which I purchased from him in 2006 after he read aloud about his French-Caribbean island getaway Guadeloupe. He’s a black Walt Whitman.

Operating as more of a ghost than a cowriter, Troupe doesn’t even borrow the show. He just helps make it more Miles Davis than Davis ever could on his own. It’s evident form the opening two lines:

“Listen. The greatest feeling I ever had in my life — with my clothes on—was when I first heard Diz and Bird together in St. Louis, Missouri, back in 1944.”

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I knew more about Miles Davis from those two sentences than I had in dozens of Kind of Blue and Birth of the Cool spins. It sets the tone for the whole book: jazz history, women, and the ride. It’s not Davis but Troupe that shepherds readers through three divorces, drug addictions, arrests, retirements, dozens of albums, countless tours, and trips overseas. Yet Troupe lets Davis use his tells to get us there. The goddamns, shits and motherfuckers fly aplenty. Troupe helps Davis be more like grandpa.

If, that is, your grandfather was Miles Davis. And if his stories had arguably more impact on modern music than any other person. And if he decided, at least for today, not to hold back.

What Doesn’t:

Miles is a good reminder of why the autobiography format has all but disappeared. Biographies, linear recounts of a person’s life, can still hold their weight and viability in the marketplace (evidenced by the success of the Steve Jobs jawn). For public figures, this can work. Especially if it can clear up some misunderstandings about how certain public incidents happened.

The trouble is the first person. Autobiographies bore. They’re too sequential and can’t often achieve enough distance to get the perspective a biography can.

As evidenced by Duke Ellington’s Music Is My Mistress, the predictability of an autobiography is like an antithesis to jazz itself. Ellington’s book more often reads like a glorified (and somehow, slower) wikipedia summary than Miles but both suffer from the constriction of the autobiography genre.

Autobiographies have largely been replaced by memoirs. Although the word itself conjures up its own freedom for fictionalization that historical sticklers might scoff at, memoir does allow for more sequential creativity and unabashed expression. The widening and narrowing of scope, as it were.

Today’s readership wants one or the other:
1). A more distanced recounting of the linearity of a life, colored by interviews with close friends and second takes on controversial behavior.
– or –
2.) The uncaged mixing and freedom essential for shaking off the inherent bias that exists when telling your own tale.

It’s either biography or memoir. The autobio doesn’t withstand the test of time. It only hints at what could have been. That feeling grows so much in the tomb that is Miles that by the time you get to page 408 this feels like a slap in the face:

“In my life I have few regrets and little guilt. Those regrets I do have I don’t want to talk about.”

Francis Davis Kissing Her Husband

But Should You Read It?

If you’re a true blue jazz enthusiast, I doubt you need much convincing to read Miles. If you can’t commit to the book as a whole, the life rant that is the final chapter is well worth your while.

To demonstrate why, I’d like to do an exercise. Consider the following ten quotes from the chapter:

“People come up trying to get a photograph with me. Fuck that shit.”

“I used to get in those situations a lot with pushy women and I used to hit a few.”

“Asian people also don’t have a lot of expression around their eyes, especially Chinese people. They look at you funny.”

“I have always been able to predict things before they happened. Always. I believe that some of us can predict the future.”

“My music was too much for them because their ears were used to Lawrence Welk.”

“People who don’t change will find themselves like folk musicians, playing in museums and local as a motherfucker.”

“A man can’t go back into his mother’s womb.”

“A song that Sting writes with lyrics tells you what to think. But with an instrumental composition you can think whatever you want to.”

“It’s like you don’t have to read Playboy in order to know what position to put a girl in in order to make love. That’s for lazy people.”

“When I see it I get a feeling in my stomach. It’s like I get a rush, like from a snort of cocaine—a big one.”

These are all under 140 characters. Imagine them on a Twitter stream.

Voilà.

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How did the world remember this Miles Davis?

People called it “explosive wit.” He later asked what first lady Nancy Reagan ever did besides “Fuck the president.”

He won lifetime achievement awards. He was introduced into halls of fame. The U.S. House of Representatives voted unanimously to honor Kind of Blue as a national treasure.

If he hadn’t expired at 65, I’m sure Davis would be waging war on his own reputation on the interwebs the way musicians do now. Our respect for public figures at this point is such a default low that my joke about Kanye reading at the beginning of this post probably didn’t even make you flinch. Or laugh.

Begging for personal judgement didn’t work for the musical legacy of Miles Davis. I’m interested to see if it will for Kanye and whoever follows him onstage next.

*Page numbers are taken from Miles: The Autobiography by Miles Davis with Quincy Troupe, 1989 Simon and Schuster. That was the edition reviewed.



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