36 of 38 people found the following review helpful
The best all-around biography yet written about Miles Davis!,
This review is from: So What: The Life of Miles Davis (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). Even as Szwed stays in tune with Davis' music from beginning to end, he reveals with unprecedented detail just how chaotic his personal life was. Previously I thought Davis was unlucky to have died so relatively young...albeit at age 65. Given all of the substance abuse and other problems he faced (and created for himself), I'm now amazed that Miles lasted so long, and how he could--with a bare minimum of lulls over nearly a half-century--be artistically creative right up to his final hospitalization in 1991.
Being that Miles' life was often sensationalistic to begin with, Szwed plays it cool with this hot topic, writing the way that Davis played, sans ornamentation. SO WHAT stays focused on the big picture...with details that dip beneath the surface throughout Miles' entire life. The information seems mostly accurate; among the errors that I caught were that Szwed states the 1985 Artists United vs. Apartheid SUN CITY project in which Davis participated was a Quincy Jones production (in reality it was led by Little Steven and Arthur Baker). The author is confusing that benefit recording with WE ARE THE WORLD from the same year which Jones did direct (this error undermines Szwed's critique of the SUN CITY album). Also, it's unfortunate that the 20-CD COMPLETE MONTREUX boxed set came along too late to be included here, because the high quality of that music is the best evidence yet that Miles' final years were musically-productive ones. However, all this means is that understanding Davis remains an ongoing process. Even with its few minor flaws, no one to date has better unraveled the enigmatic genius of Miles Davis than Szwed. I recommended this book first, with Paul Tingen's MILES BEYOND next in line.