What a difference three decades makes.
I read Miles Davis’s autobiography (simply titled Miles) when it was first released in 1989. I remember being captivated from the first page by the legendary musician’s first-hand hand account of a jazz scene I wish I could have seen myself. The book made for truly compelling reading.
I read the book as a relatively naive 23-year-old kid in the early stages of his military career. I had only been into jazz in general (and Miles in particular) for about three years. I didn’t know anything about the places Miles talked about, I wasn’t versed in music theory, and I hadn’t solidified any of my personal views. I took in Miles’s words with wide eyes, and treated them like gospel.
Over the years, I would hear more and more often that Miles wasn’t 100 percent truthful in his book. I remember being surprised by this, and considered looking into those claims one day. But somewhere along the way, my copy of the book was lost.
A few years back, I got a new copy of Miles, and put it on the shelf with the rest of my books. A few weeks ago, I was spurred to read it again. To say the least, 51-year-old me sees this book very differently.
I’ve been a policeman for nearly 25 years, working all over the city of St. Louis. Miles spent his early years playing clubs in the areas where I’ve patrolled. This gave me a much better sense of context. I know where many of those clubs are (well, were), and I’m aware of the social climate that comes with those locations. I also have a much better grasp on the periods Miles lived through, and I understand better the struggles he and his fellow African-American musicians had to endure. I’m not claiming any special level of “woke.” I’m simply saying I understand.
I took up the guitar in the late 90s. And while I’m a long way from proficient in music theory, I have a much better idea of what Miles is talking about when he describes how his music came together. I’ve also got 30 years of study under my belt where Miles’s music is concerned. I know a lot of his albums backwards, with the recent Bootleg series and box sets only enhancing my knowledge. I could probably get a Masters degree in Miles Davis.
Most importantly, I’ve experienced more than a little life outside the relatively sanitized world of the military. Policing gives me a front row seat to society’s underbelly. These experiences have helped me to form my own personal views on race, homosexuality, drug and spousal abuse, and other issues Miles discusses, often in great detail. Needless to say, my personal perspectives are much different thanks to those experiences.
With those facts in mind, I can say without hesitation that Miles: The Autobiography remains a compelling read to this very day. But it also needs to be taken with the occasional grain of salt.
Miles Davis was one of the all-time musical geniuses of the 20th century. He changed the course of music as we knew it on multiple occasions. Music in general (and jazz in particular) owes him a debt that can never be repaid. But Miles could also be a greedy, egocentric, self-centered, abusive son of a bitch. This might seem revelatory to some, but Miles himself admits to as much in his own way. Miles said and did things throughout his life that made and make me cringe.
The way he treated his wife — and supposedly the love of his life — Frances Taylor is particularly abhorrent. From the sound of it (I’ve never witnessed it), Frances was one of the most talented dancers of her generation, well on the way to super-stardom in the world of Broadway musicals. But Miles could not handle this, and demanded that she quit, saying a woman’s place was beside her man. Apparently, there was room for only one superstar in the Davis home, and that position had already been taken. This was augmented by the physical and emotional abuse Miles doled out during their marriage. I really feel for Frances. I wonder what her life would have been like had she continued on her original path?
Where drugs are concerned, Miles and I clearly have different definitions of “clean.” Yes, Miles ultimately kicked his heroin habit — which nearly ruined his career before it really started — in the fifties. But to declare yourself “clean” while still snorting cocaine and drinking heavily doesn’t make any sense. I give Miles credit for his honesty about his drug abuse, which reached its apex during his “silent” years between 1975 and ’80. He could have glossed over this, but he didn’t. And he’s as subtle as a jackhammer about it. Having dealt with my share of addicts during my time as a police officer, I certainly understand where this part of Miles was coming from, even if I don’t condone it.
Miles throws race out as an obstacle for many things throughout his career. Given that he was born in 1926, and arguably hit his career peak in the highly turbulent 1960s, he may have a point here. I have the luxury of being born in the 60s, and I live in the 21st century, where things have (mostly) gotten better. So while I have faced moments of discrimination, I have never experienced the bigotry and racism Miles had to deal with. I wanted to say, “C’mon, man! You’re Miles Davis! You can overcome this crap!” But I can’t be absolutely certain without being there, can I? I’m aware of white musicians in the 50s and 60s recreating the songs of black artists from the same era, and generating massive hits! To this very day, I have seen a certain amount of segregation taking place in the music industry. It’s a form of bigotry that flows in both directions.
I thought Miles might gloss over or completely ignore some of the darker moments and decisions of his life. But instead, he faces them head-on. If ever there was a place where people would object to Miles’s view of the facts, I thought it would be here. When I saw The Miles Davis Story — far and away the most comprehensive and unflinching documentary of Miles’s life — I just knew when I went back to the book, I would get a different take.
But no, Miles repeated what was said by the likes of McDonald, drummer Jack DeJohnette and other musicians, Irene Birth (the mother of Miles’s first three children), record executives, and others who knew him. Miles admitted to going to jail not once, but twice for failing to pay child support (the first time with Irene, the second time via Marguerite Eskridge, the woman who gave birth to his fourth child); he confessed to a tumultuous relationship with his sons Gregory and Miles IV; he admitted to physically and emotionally abusing Frances; he admitted to being prickly and difficult in the studio; he admitted to refusing to take the stage until DeJohnette’s wife Lydia moved from her seat in the front row during a particularly tense time in the band. Miles seemed unflinchingly honest. What did the nay-sayers have a problem with?
His claim that renowned journalist and author Alex Haley exaggerated and falsely augmented the interview they did together for Playboy magazine in 1962 holds up, based on the same being said about Haley’s work on The Autobiography of Malcom X and his allegedly non-fictional account of his family history, Roots. Miles Davis appeared to tell it like it was. But he also talked more than a little trash about artists no longer around to defend themselves, even in 1989. I can only wonder how Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Bud Powell, “Philly” Joe Jones, Ahmad Jamal, Charles Mingus and others would have responded to what Miles wrote. I guess we’ll never know.
Miles was quite prescient when it came to how the music industry in general — and Columbia Records in particular — would treat his vast catalog. Many of his band’s performances — particularly during the early stages of the Electric era — were recorded and never released. As he talked about those gigs and recordings, Miles predicted that those recordings would end up earning benefits he would never see. “I don’t know what happened to those recordings,” he mused. “They’ll probably put them out after I’m dead.” And he was right! Columbia has released several volumes of their Bootleg series, featuring recording sessions and performances long thought lost (by fans, at least) and numerous box sets documenting several landmark albums. And yes, I own just about all of them. It would’ve been nice if Miles himself could have benefitted from those releases.
I found myself somewhat annoyed as the book came to an end. Miles spends the last 50-plus pages musing over his 80s bands. After moving from Columbia to Warner Brothers Records, he changed his recording approach. Miles opted to go into the studio alone and play against previously recorded tracks. I never cared much for this approach, and Miles’s explanation didn’t help. In a nutshell, Miles said he didn’t want the music to be affected by the moods of the other musicians. Their emotions would affect the way the music was played. Say WHAT?!?
Jazz is primarily about emotion. What the musician brings to the studio or stage is based in that emotion. That’s a big part of what makes jazz great! Otherwise, you’re just playing music by rote, as some rock bands are wont to do. That gets boring in a hurry. Apparently, Miles didn’t see it that way. Still, the proof can be found in his band’s live performances of those 80s tunes, which are light years ahead of what Miles recorded alone in the studio. But what the hell do I know?
With all that being said, I am so glad I decided to revisit this book. I can see things from a completely different — and obviously much more mature — angle. In the end, I reach this conclusion: I love Miles Davis on a musical level. As a person, he and I would have had issues. That’s just the way it is. We may not have seen eye-to-eye on everything, but I will always respect the mark he left on the music world.