"Miles was late. The club was packed and people were spilling
out onto the street. I felt bad for Max Gordon, the owner: He
kept worrying, pacing back and forth, chewing on his cigar.
"Then suddenly Miles came in, grabbed his trumpet, and
counted off a blues. He played just one note, and went out the
"As he went past the bar, I asked him, 'What's the matter,
Miles?' He said, 'I've got to make a run....' And he never came
back that night.
"It was amazing: people sat there, saying to each other,
'He only played one note!'"
Many such stories decorate the fabric of "So What: The
Life of Miles Davis," the recent best-selling biography
by Yale anthropology professor John Szwed. The seeming result
is a realistic and balanced picture of jazz and society in the
middle third of the 20th century an authoritative look
at nothing less than the birth of a new kind of music.
The era, according to Szwed, was fresh, fascinating and tinged
with darkness as jazz trumped the big bands, only to get aced
out by rock 'n' roll. And if one small act can serve as broad
metaphor for an amazing period of under-recognized genius, that
one-note performance must be it.
Brilliance? Arrogance? Happenstance? Drug run? Probably all
of the above. Because by the early 1960s, the ever-evolving
Davis was not yet 40, had already transformed jazz a handful
of times and was clearly no angel.
man with the horn: young, gifted and black.
Born in 1926, Miles Dewey Davis III was the middle child of
an Illinois dentist dad and a stylish, musical mom. He moved
to New York as a teen, spent a year at Julliard, then played
kid brother to the original bebop crowd (Monk, Mingus, Gillespie,
Blakey and Parker were born between 1917-22).
Davis caught up with the big dogs while developing his signature
a muted, melancholy tone that humanized the trumpet far
beyond where it had been taken by Louis Armstrong.
Meanwhile, that first wave of beboppers was taking jazz from
a predictable curio into an intellectual onslaught of notes
where everything swung and improvisation reigned supreme
not unlike leaving the county fair and heading straight for
New York City.
And although the music was often disdained and largely ignored,
jazz lore promises that if you slow down the intricate, breakneck
solos, they make perfect mathematical and musical sense.
Szwed depicts a seemingly endless cycle of jubilation and horror
that starred a cool cast of cats young virtuosos coming
of age during wartime, dozens per instrument, crackling with
energy and mostly living in the city. They were fluent in this
sophisticated new language and often killed themselves with
cocaine, heroin and booze. They were also predominantly black
and fighting for civil rights.
Davis spent his middle years exploring a world of implied notes
and empty spaces. He embraced the idea of Broadway showtunes
as jazz ballads and pioneered the ways of the recording studio
by using elaborate orchestrations, tape splicing and overdubs.
His persona was compared to Marlon Brando and James Dean.
of Blue: One of man's crowning achievements.
He liked cars and clothes, lived beyond his means, was notoriously
tough on women, journalists and white people, and more than
once became addicted to heroin.
And though he fought nasty fits of boredom, his innovations
continued through much of his final quarter century. He played
on hundreds of albums in all, both as bandleader and sideman.
Between scores of others Davis recorded Birth of the Cool
in '49, Round About Midnight in '55, Miles Ahead
in ' 57, Milestones in '58 and one of mankind's finest
achievements, Kind of Blue, in 1959.
Sketches of Spain followed in 1960, and it all came
before he hooked up with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Tony
Williams and dozens more in the next wave.
it "duende": well worth the struggle.
Writes Szwed: "Tony Williams said that Miles hired people
who were good, but he encouraged them to be better, to take
chances, even to go beyond him if they chose. 'He wants to hear
stuff he's not in control of,' Tony said. 'He wants to hear
something he wouldn't think of. I mean, when he walks off the
stage, he's not just going to go and, you know, read a book
or something. He wants to hear the music still going on at a
level that he left it at or something better.'"
Davis grew to ally himself with younger players and electronic
instruments. He paved the way to jazz fusion in the '60s, then,
to varying success, matched wits with hiphop, pop and rock in
the '70s and '80s. He annoyed critics by playing with his back
to the crowd and recorded songs made famous by Cyndi Lauper
and Michael Jackson.
the future: a 1963 release.
Davis married several times and seemed to specialize in edgy
relationships with interesting women. His unpredictable demeanor
and raspy voice could be intimidating, yet he was painfully
He remained unafraid of playing wrong notes and managed to
show his heart from time to time.
A variety of health problems killed him at 65, in 1991
not long after his controversial autobiography was published.
And now, more than a decade later, Szwed's book makes an interesting
Neither volume is especially flattering to Davis, while both
look closely at the music and leave the big-picture questions
largely unanswered. Does less-than-saintly living mitigate greatness
or taint prolific output? Must egomania accompany genius? Were
bebop and heroin a chicken and egg? Does jazz have a future?
Was it really worth all the fuss?
Szwed takes a stab by relating Davis to the Spanish
concept of "duende," the capacity to convey great emotion
to an audience: "Duende ... was personified as a demonic
spirit capable of troublemaking and bringing with it irrationality,
earthiness, a strong sense of death. And yet if you sought it
out and struggled with it, it could help to communicate great
None of which has any bearing on listening to the
One steamy night several summers back I visited
my born-in-the-1920s northern Minnesota folks. In dad's day, he
sang and played trombone in small-town swing bands. Music was
a lower priority for mom, but she always loved the big-band novelty-song
singers. So, not knowing what to expect, I slipped Kind of
Blue into the boom box and the timeless sound wafted beyond
the patio and out into a neighborhood that had never heard such
"This sounds nice," said mom between
sips of lemonade. "What is it?"
"Miles Davis," I said.
For half a century, Davis played thousands of shows
in cities around the world, yet managed to remain mostly marginalized
from mainstream society.
Writes Szwed: "... he had been expected to
improvise every night with a level of intensity that could bring
an audience to its feet shouting, and send them home dazzled.
"And like only a handful of other musicians,
he had been widely copied in his own lifetime, his entire career
scrupulously recorded, his music transcribed, parsed and studied
"Still, every performance he gave was a test
of his ability to resist self-plagiarism, a challenge to add something
of significance without relying on his past successes.
Indeed, Miles Davis was a handful. But he managed
to push humanity's voice through the bell of a trumpet, and he
left behind all those miraculous recordings.
Near the end of the book, Szwed quotes Davis imagining
himself sliding into heaven via trial by jury: "I think they'll
say, 'Well, he's the only one who can play like that; we better
let him in.'"
Which makes one hell of a final note.