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So What: The Life of Miles Davis Paperback – January 9, 2004
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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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If there is one book to read on Miles Davis and his music this is it. Too bad it's out of print!
Although among the facts are many recognizable retreads, to the author's credit this version of them has a freshness, a hipness and a cachet that is never boring or tiring. Arguably, it is more "Miles like" and authentic than is Miles' telling of his own story. In fact, I was so dumbfounded at the shallowness and crudity of Miles' autobiography that I was forced to "downgrade" him as a personality. The story that Miles seemed to want to tell was essentially that he was little more than an "East St. Louis Gangsta." This self-promoted image of him was so embarrassingly juvenile that when juxtaposed against his musical accomplishments, it showed him to be a very diminished and unbecoming pygmy of a man, one who just happened to otherwise be a musical genius.
As but one example of many that John Szwed uses to excellent effect is his way of telling about Miles' love life as if putting the vignettes in a kind of mental parentheses. This is an art form obviously created on the fly by the author, born out of a necessity to keep some of Miles' lovers anonymous. It is a clever almost voyeuristic device that adds the kind of edginess the reader would expect of Miles' life.
There are also many new an interesting facts such as the fact that Miles' father was from my home town, Pine Bluff, Ark., or that Miles' group got thrown out of Lee Harvey Oswald's killer, Jack Ruby's club in Chicago, or that Miles was in Riker's Island serving time for failure to pay child support when Charlie Parker died, or that Philly Joe Jones was the first black man to become a trolley driver in Philadelphia, or that Miles met and liked Jean Paul Sartre, etc.
But the bonus of the book is the way the author has gotten beneath the skin of Miles' music. Perhaps the height of this technique is the unforgettable description given here of the dance that Miles and Louis Malle engage in, in choreographing the score to the movie Ascenseur pour l'echafoud, which was improvised (as in ad libbed on the fly) as a dual project with a time constraint of four hours. Anyone who has ever heard the score from that movie comes away breathless and with the same question: How the hell did Miles do it? John Szwed gives us the full story here. The ability to create such a beautiful, lush, deep, sensuous, haunting, mysterious piece -- "on the fly," all by itself is the most profound evidence of, and measure of, Miles' musical genius one is likely to ever find.
The mystery of Miles' Julliard years are also cleared up here, as is Miles' approach to music generally, the way he coped with being overshadowed by Dizzy and Bird: he effectively created his own alternative musical aesthetic and reality by playing against the trend of hot and fast, to cool, deep and precise.
It is such a nuanced book that it is difficult to do justice to it in a review. Suffice it to say that it is simply the best of the several books on Miles that I have read and reviewed. Five stars.
Surprisingly, and at odds with my impression him, he was raised in a middle class home in East St Louis, Illinois. He was the son of a Doctor, and was raised in a genteel and sheltered existence. Once removed to the city, however, he fell in with the musicians of his times, and the temptations of heroin, cocaine and alcohol enveloped him.
He was always known for his tempermental, surly and standoffish persona, and this book does nothing to debunk these perceptions of him. Like his contemporary, Stan Getz, Miles Davis also was known to physically abuse the women in his life.
All this information has to be weighed against the thing that immortalized him, his creation of sound and music.
By this criteria, Miles Davis had a genius that is still being felt.
This is an interesting and intelligent biography. The author takes us back to the pre-rock and roll era, where Jazz musicians and crooners really had the ear of the nation. Where venues like Birdland were built just for the bands, both large and small who played pure music.
Miles Davis was a tormented artist in many ways, but rose to incredible heights in the music world, and was appreciated by the cognescenti in Europe and the Americas. He was, in many ways, an anti-social loner, and it is hard to see by reading these pages, where he ever found happiness in his life. But his music thrilled millions of people, and listening to it, many years after his death, retains a timeless quality.
A highly readable and recommended biography.