by Jerry D'Souza
A Miles Davis Reader
edited by Bill Kirchner
(Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington D.C., 276 pages, $13.95)
The Miles Davis Companion:
Four Decades of Commentary
edited by Gary Carner
(Schirmer Books, New York, 274 pages, $15)
from Jazz Notes 1/1 1998Copyright © 1998, Jerry D'Souza
Miles Davis was a trailblazer. One would assume that it would be safe to say so. Yet even the pegs along his musical landscape have a way of being torn down. This has happened not only at the time he turned in a new direction, but in hindsight as well. There have been dissonant chords that have snipped at the weave of ground breaking, and musically coherent and logical progressions like In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew. It is not easy being idolized.
These two books gather the best in Miles Davis reportage. The pieces analyze, critique, praise, carp, and turn somersaults in praise of. In a kaleidoscopic examination of this most colorful of musical personalities, Bill Kirchner's A Miles Davis Reader draws on the writing of Max Harrison, Gary Giddins, Andre Hodeir, Leonard Feather, and Amiri Baraka, among others. For starters, he has "Self-Portrait," a Columbia Records publicity piece which Davis uses to focus on his music. That is an appropriate take-off point for, as Kirchner makes clear in his Introduction, "This is a book about Miles Davis the musician, and therefore about the music of Miles Davis." Those interested in his personal life are advised to look elsewhere.
The book takes an in-depth look at Miles' recordings. The early years at Prestige saw Davis as one whose notes were thin and articulation wanting. But time cured the weaknesses as he worked on them and went on to develop a voice that would be a beacon for many.
Chet Baker was influenced by Davis. His tone owed to Miles and the context of the playing styles of the two is seen in the analysis of their recordings of "My funny Valentine". Even as Miles was dazed by heroin, Baker was making his mark and was sending critics over the hoop with his playing. Howard Brofsky looks at Baker's version and examines Davis' work in depth. The piece, "Miles Davis and `My Funny Valentine': The Evolution of a Solo" is enhanced by the use of musical examples. In fact, Kirchner's use of musical examples enhances the book.
Kirchner cites the Cool period as Davis first major musical achievement. Gil Evans' tiny apartment in Manhattan was the meeting place for Gerry Mulligan, John Lewis, Max Roach, Davis, and others. It was here that the idea of forming a band that would get the harmonies of the Claude Thornhill Orchestra with a smaller number of musicians. Davis is quoted as saying, "I always wanted to play with a light sound, because I could think better when I played that way". Mulligan, who was responsible for most of the arrangements, credits Miles with being the one who put the theories to work. Hodeir examines this incisively in "Miles Davis And The Cool Tendency."
The Evans-Davis partnership was a productive one. Out of that came Birth Of The Cool, on Capitol, and the three justly praised albums from Columbia, Miles Ahead, Porgy And Bess, and Sketches Of Spain. Oh yes, there are quarrels about the greatness of this music and there are viewpoints that see Davis' playing as weak and thin. Despite these twitches of dissonance, the albums will stand as landmarks. It is neither surprising that the collaboration would continue nor that the spark would diminish, as it did over the years. Perspective comes from Harrison in "Sheer Alchemy, for a While: Miles Davis and Gil Evans," one of his three pieces in the book.
The convincing spell of fusion was cast with In A Silent Way and stamped by Bitches Brew but there were electric matings that were insipid and watery, doing little credit to his creativity. He did not seem to care, for in his mind he was doing something effective, even if he was the only one who saw it that way. Even his stage performances dwindled and he would go through the motions, giving his band plenty of solo space while playing minimally himself. As for recordings, he went into the studio with rapper Easy Mo Bee and came up with Doo-Bop, a throwaway if ever there was one. Sadly, this was to be his last recording.
Davis' passing cast a pall of gloom even though it was expected. He had been ill and it was only a matter of time. But even inevitability cannot cut past sadness. Clark Terry was in hospital when it happened. It was Terry to whom Miles went when he had a new trumpet and wanted to get the valves fixed and lighten the spring action and it was Terry who sheltered the young Miles, the drug addict, the one who stole and ran away. It was also Terry who believed and trusted and who now felt that welt of loss build up within as the news was brought to him by Marc Crawford.
In writing about Davis' death, Giddins also dwells on his career in a concise manner. It is easy for anyone to let death cloud focus and it is to his credit that he does not let emotion intrude.
When Carner was approached to do his book on Davis, he was aware that Kirchner had been working on one for years. Assured there was enough room for two books, Carner spoke to Kirchner and, after learning of the pieces he intended using, chose articles that would be collaborative rather than competitive. There are contributions from Dan Morgenstern, Ralph J. Gleason, Francis Davis, Nat Hentoff, Richard Williams, Giddins and Baraka. The book also benefits from a bibliography and a selected discography.
While the music takes center stage, the personal anecdotes give the book a more complete and human look at the persona of Miles. Even Kirchner's book contains references to Miles' private life; it would have been impossible to escape any references to them. Did Miles hate women? Did it have to do with the fact that he did not like his mother? One sees in his treatment of women, in particular Cicely Tyson, an undercurrent of the vicious, or at best an expectance of servility. As for white women, they were bitches, though to be fair to Davis, he was not beyond hurling that epithet at a black woman. Pearl Cleage takes an appropriate look at this facet in Carner's book by being "Mad At Miles."
Being black colored Miles view. He carried a chip on his shoulder and perceived injustice even where there was none. The positive impact of this came in his attitude to stand up and fight back for the rights of his people. He would not be exploited. The incident outside Birdland where a cop came over and asked him to move on and then clubbed Miles when he refused to do so, is one mark of his inner strength. Another, and a more striking one, is the way he kicked his addiction to heroin when he locked himself in his room and cold turkeyed the habit.
Though he often exhibited a cold exterior and did not like incursions into his personal life, Davis could be warm and considerate to those he befriended. Eric Nisenson gives readers an insight into Davis in "Hangin' Out With Daffy Davis" that is richly revelatory. Davis opens out to Nisenson when the latter goes to visit him and one gets to see a moreprivate side of the man including the fact that the trumpeter was not beyond taking advantage of friendship. Davis would call Nisenson at odd hours trying to get him to pick up some coke.
Davis also opened up to Art Taylor and Ben Sidran, finding an easy rapport with them. He told Sidran about his fondness for sketching, which he learned from his father and brother. He would sketch while waiting for Tyson to get dressed and while flying. The talk with Taylor finds Davis articulating on his main hobby(making fun of white folks and driving his Ferrari), his likes in music(classical, pop and rhythm and blues), and his interest in boxing. There is a telling response when Taylor asks, "Do you think it's easier for someone like myself to interview you?" and Davis says, "I think it's much easier, if you have something that you want to ask me about music." And later, ". . .they say I'm rude, and that I turn my back on the audience, and that I don't like white people. And that I don't like the audience. But the thing is, I never think about an audience. I think about the band. And if the band is all right, I know the audience is pleased."
While Miles had his impact on audiences, his recorded work could leave listeners disappointed. There is a body of work from the seventies and the eighties that failed to kindle much interest. That may not be surprising but when all that he has done gets shot down with both barrels of a critical gun, perhaps it is more relevant to take a closer look at the writer. Stanley Crouch takes his knocks at Davis on "Play The Right Thing" with a viewpoint that is not fair to the musician. Interestingly enough, Crouch's piece is bookshelved by Amiri Baraka's adulatory essay in which he works in the views of Craig Harris, Olu Dara, and Dizzy Gillespie, and Dan Morgenstern's illuminating "The Complete Prestige Recordings."
Though Davis was emphatic that his involvement with different genres was a valid extension of his music and a perfectly viable one at that, he could be myopic about the accomplishments and the work of other musicians. His blindfold tests and the discussions that dot the writings find him criticizing not only the playing but the arrangements as well. He couldn't see it their way. Probably his most scathing criticism was of Oscar Peterson, whom he perceived in a very narrow groove. But then that was Miles.
There can be no arguing with the fact that Miles Davis greatly enriched the lexicon of jazz. As Michael Ullman says, "Few musicians have brought as many new sounds and sights to the jazz world as Miles Davis."