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So What: The Life of Miles Davis Paperback – January 9, 2004

4.4 out of 5 stars 17 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Jazz genius Davis once said, "Don't you try to make me into a nice guy." Yale professor Szwed neither sentimentalizes nor attacks his subject in this impressive biography, concentrating instead on the fascinating contradictions that led to Davis's artistic greatness. The son of a successful dentist in Illinois, Davis (1926-1991) showed talent for the trumpet early and followed his vision despite disapproval from his mother. He attended Juilliard, married a girl from the wrong side of the tracks and joined Charlie Parker's group, struggling to find his style and overcome feelings of inadequacy against Parker's exhilarating brilliance. While pointing out Davis's love for altering chord progressions and his skill at sketching arrangements in literally seconds, Szwed tracks a life that eventually spiraled out of control. Unsparing accounts of the musician's cocaine and alcohol addiction transcend Davis's life and become a larger portrait of the traps that destroyed so many jazzmen. Davis's love affairs with Juliette Greco and Cicely Tyson grippingly illuminate the narcissism, sexual hunger and violence that made lasting relationships impossible. Szwed offers crisply detailed backstories to such masterpieces as Sketches of Spain, Round About Midnight and Miles Ahead. His prose has a musical pulse, and he highlights the most significant element of Davis's soul: "he told every woman he became involved with that music always came first, before family, children, lovers, friends." Davis's music has been called a "divine disease," and this in-depth study clarifies the nature of that compulsive, satisfying malady in a way that will enlighten listeners and musicians.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From School Library Journal

Adult/High School-Szwed opens his work on this music legend with a warning to readers not to expect him to tell the man's full story. Indeed, this is not an introduction to Davis, and the book requires a fair degree of understanding of either jazz or the fundamentals of music. It's easy to come away with the impression that the cruelty with which Davis could treat himself and others was merely the price of genius, an argument that isn't addressed directly. For all this, though, the volume does deliver on what it sets out to do, which is to examine why Davis has been such a powerful and ubiquitous figure in the world of music. Szwed shows how his subject's art developed, examining both his evolving styles and the smaller, specific changes in the writing and playing of particular pieces by Davis and his bands. The author also illuminates the ways in which popular music developed during the second half of the 20th century. Those interested in the topic or in the process of musical creation in general will find this title well worth reading.
Ted Westervelt, Library of Congress, Washington, DC
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster; Reprint edition (January 9, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0684859831
  • ISBN-13: 978-0684859835
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.5 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #373,517 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By J. Lund on October 30, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Prior to SO WHAT I felt that, as revealing as many prior Davis bios were (including Miles' own book), their sum was somehow less than the parts. That is, there was more to understand about Miles Davis than what was collectively written. Along comes SO WHAT, the most balanced and coherent one-stop source yet for getting to know about the entirety of Miles Davis' life. As much as Miles urged us to let the music speak for itself, the context and environment in which Davis' art was created is important, and author John Szwed is up to the challenge to walk down the many paths that lead to and from Davis' music and life (e.g., discussing the aesthetics of artists as wide-ranging as Stockhausen and Sly Stone, both of whom impacted Miles' musical vision in the 1970s). Szwed doesn't attempt to cram every interesting, revealing, or just plain provocative story from prior books into his bio. Still, his research does come up with some errors previously presented as facts, and there are plently of newfound "Miles Davis stories" to amuse and/or amaze the reader, for better and worse.
What the author seems to do is pick and choose among the previously-revealed tidbits about Miles and use them as supplements to 1) his open-minded knowledge about the entirety of Davis' music (as well as the cultural and commercial environment in which it was created), and 2) fresh, revealing interviews he conducted with family members and others close to the subject at key points in his life. Having unprecedented access to Davis' family was possibly the missing piece of the puzzle needed to really reconcile what was already known about Miles with the many contradictions that sat unresolved for decades (e.g., tough exterior, insecure interior).
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Format: Hardcover
To be a jazz fan is to be a Miles junkie, so Szwed's book really may require no further justification than the sizable audience it is bound to attract. Nevertheless, he offers 3 defenses for another biography such as the present one: there is more to be known; there are misunderstandings to be corrected; his book is more a "meditation" than a bio or musical study. Yet he also decries biographies that "fill in the blanks," "heat up the significance," and turn the "biographer into a novelist." It doesn't seem to occur to him that blanks communicate their own significance, that the narrator's decision about what materials to use and how to order them is in itself an "interpretation." There is no way to resolve his contradictory roles as "mediator" and "meditator," but had he at least acknowledged the difficulty we might have had greater faith in his narrative voice.

To the reader familiar with the Miles' literature, the first 300 pages are bound to seem much like recycled material, leavened occasionally by a quote from an acquaintaince of Miles heretofore not on the record. Moreover, it's hard not to experience impatience at yet another explanation of "bebop," at the gratuitous introductions of jazz giants (e.g. to learn that Sonny Stitt played alto saxophone and sounded like Bird), and at yet another extended description of Miles' major recording sessions ("Kind of Blue," "Sketches of Spain," "In a Silent Way," "B's Brew").

Close to a quarter of the book's representation of Miles' 65 years is devoted to the years 1969-1971. The "Silent Way" recording session is afforded 24 pages whereas the author finds 8 pages sufficient to handle the "Kind of Blue" session.
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Format: Hardcover
I found this to be a good book, although I'm not sure I would place it ahead of the other two Miles biographies out there. Szwed writes engaging prose and keeps things moving along throughout while writing in a good voice for this type of thing. Chambers book seems to be better researched,though, and it seems that Szwed relies heavily on secondary sources and the Troupe interviews with Miles Davis from the 80s. Personally, I distrust some of Miles' comments on his art from the 80s as he was heavily wrapped up in a star persona by that point. I felt the book was stronger on the bop period and the 60s and seemed to rush headlong through the 80s. This is kind of a pity because Szwed's is the only biography written since Miles' death and more interpretation and a stronger stance on Miles' later period would be illuminating for this contraversial period in his art.
The book seems to be written more for those interested in miles the artist and miles the man than miles the musician. There is not too much musical analysis, and I didn't have too much of a problem with that.
Chambers book goes into greater detail and is still my first recommendation for those seriously interested in Miles, but this can be a good intro and will definitely give folks a greater sense of this powerful figure of jazz.
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Format: Hardcover
I did not particularly like John Szwed's new biography of Miles Davis. His prose is stolid. His analysis of Miles' music is, at best, pedestrian. His presentation of the milieu in which jazz musicians work and create strikes me as disembodied and rather off-key. Still, this is probably the first book you should read if you are interested in the life of Miles Davis the man. (If his music is your primary concern, consult the bios by Jack Chambers, Ian Carr, and Paul Tingen for analysis of his early, middle, and late (electric) periods respectively.)
All the main events of Davis' life are touched on in a concise, workmanlike fashion. His family and financial problems are outlined in considerable detail and, while hardly edifying, will nevertheless be of interest to many fans. Szwed does do a superb job throughout of deconstructing and explaining the creation and maintenance of Miles' public persona. And it is indeed a persona worth deconstructing. No personality in the history of jazz so permeates the modern jazz sensibility and so seduces the imagination of its enthusiasts as does the great (and wicked) Mr. Davis. In the end, though, Szwed seems just as flummoxed as other commentators in grasping (much less explaining) precisely why Miles Davis came to be one of the towering figures in 20th century music.
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