with Miles, anecdotal is quintessential
Eleven years ago Miles Davis published "Miles: The Autobiography" [Simon and
Schuster, 1989] with poet, journalist, teacher and scholar Quincy Troupe. Like a lot of
fans who came to jazz after a long love affair with rock 'n' roll, I was steeped in Miles'
lore and had looked forward to the publication of the book.
But, in typical fashion, I put off buying it, claiming lack of time for study, the desire
to fulfill a promise to myself that I would finish the dozen other books I had going at
the time, and, truth to tell, I was in the throes of bald-faced procrastination.
So it was more than a year later that I finally purchased the hardback and, as I was
studying it with delight, Miles died on Sept. 25, 1991. Bummer. So I started all over
again. No autobiography is complete, but the muscian's death put his life into a different
perspective for me. And a sense of completion, because I am such a Miles fan, demanded
What I discovered was that -- though some of the stories about Miles' often-abrasive style
in dealing with audiences, producers, musicians, record companies are apocryphal -- even
the twisted stories of his adventures should have been true.
Because Miles was what he was, he commanded respect and he translated that into a canon of
work that is some kind of cornerstone in the great edifice that is this music of ours.
When I think of Miles, I think of:
-- Green men with red breath. When Miles hired alto sax man Lee Konitz for the "Birth
Of The Cool" sessions in 1949, he was roundly criticized for hiring a white musician
when many black musicians were scrambling for work. His rejoinder, from the autobiography:
"So I just told them that if a guy could play as good as Lee Konitz played ... I
would hire him every time and I wouldn't give a damn if he was green with red
-- "Kind Of Blue," the most influential post-bop album in jazz history, which
Miles regarded as a failure. His take on the failure, from the autobiography: "When I
tell people that I missed what I was trying to do on 'Kind Of Blue,' that I missed getting
the exact sound of the African finger piano up in that sound, they just look at me like
I'm crazy ... But that's what I was trying to do on most of that album, particularly on
'All Blues' and 'So What.' I just missed."
-- Small, thin Miles standing up to the stocky, imperious, mysterious Thelonious Monk
during a recording session in late 1954, after criticizing Monk's piano work behind the
trumpet. This is often cited as evidence of an uneasy relationship between the pair of
musical giants. It didn't happen, Miles claims. From the autobiography: "[Monk]
wouldn't ever fight me even if I stomped down hard on his feet for a week, because he just
wasn't that kind of person ... And if I ever said something about punching Monk out in
front of his face -- and I never did -- then somebody should have just come and got me and
taken me to the madhouse, because Monk would have just picked my little ass up and thrown
me through a wall."
-- The vain Miles preparing for a gig in the late 1950s. From the autobiography: "...
[I wore] Brooks Brothers suits and custom-made Italian suits. I remember one night I was
so clean that I was looking in the mirror and admiring myself. Harold Lovett [my attorney]
was there .... So I say to him, 'Man, I'm cleaner than a m----------r in this suit.' He
nodded his head and I felt so good that I walked out the door and forgot my trumpet ...
Harold hollered out from behind me, 'Hey, Miles, you think they want to see you clean at
the Bohemia without your trumpet?'"
There are dozens of stories like these in the autobiography. Miles debunks some of them,
acknowledges a lapse of memory in others and surprises with anecdotes of conflict, career
assessments and personal relationships that leave a jazz junky reeling from the sheer
richness of the lore.
But one thing remains as clear as a spare Davis phrase from "Sketches Of Spain,"
and that is that, even in his lean and hungry days, Miles had an ear tuned to the future.
His roots were as old and black and deep as his African heritage, and his musical thought
was more modern than his wardrobe.
Not all jazz fans are enchanted with some of his work, and his later recordings from, say,
"Bitches Brew" on, are blamed for a lot of what has gone wrong with jazz since
But studying his life brings into a focus the musical journey he took and explains very
clearly how fusion and all that has sprung therefrom almost were inevitable. From that
point, is a simple matter to journey backward in time to connect Jimi Hendrix and Louis
Armstrong. Anyone with ears can hear it.
And as for Miles? He was unique. It doesn't matter if the old stories are true or not.
What matters is the possibility that they are true. It is possibility that feeds the
stories and lets them live, Miles having been the enigma he was. It is also possibility
that fed his musical musings, or for that matter, the musings of any kind of artist.
Miles, like Monk, could make a wrong note work and, therefore, he accepted the possible as
a basis for his art. He was fortunate in having worked with the likes of Monk, Charlie
Parker, Coleman Hawkins, and many, many more, all of whom pointed a way.
Miles' peculiar genius was his inclusive thinking. He influenced jazz forever.