So What: The Life of Miles Davis
New Nonfiction John Szwed
When we already have a two-volume autobiography, eight biographies, and assorted books of commentary, recollections, and photographs, do we need yet another biography of Miles Davis? John Szwed's entry in the sweepstakes doesn't wholly answer the question, but it does demonstrate pretty conclusively that in the 11 years since his death the prince of darkness has become a cottage industry.
That he was a musical genius seems unquestionable. His accomplishments were all the more notable because Davis was able to convert his shortcomings to virtues. Relatively lacking in technique, he learned to play in the middle register, with no vibrato, and created his own trumpet persona, especially when he added the Harmon mute. He changed the sound and the music; his tentative, vulnerable tone gave voice to the loneliness of midcentury America.
He was also a great leader. His 1950s quintet and its 1960s version, with tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter, pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Tony Williams, were two of the finest small groups in 20th-century jazz. The famous 1949 Capitol recordings issued as The Birth of the Cool really were exactly that. The electronic albums of the late 1960s, In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, marked the beginning of fusion. And the story of another landmark record, Kind of Blue, Columbia's all-time best-selling jazz album, is told in yet another book.
Davis knew how to play the media as well and used his irascible personality to his advantage in achieving notoriety. Addicted to drugs (heroin, then cocaine), stylish clothes, fast cars, and beautiful women, he developed a Manhattan-sized ego.
Szwed, an American studies professor at Yale and the author of Jazz 101 and Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra, has written a workmanlike biography that occasionally achieves eloquence and is blessedly free of cant. He tells the story in a straightforward chronological manner interspersed with anecdotes and reminiscences. Much of the material was gathered from previous books and interviews, and some of it is annoyingly undocumented, such as the comments of Frances Taylor, one of Davis' wives, on her reasons for leaving him. One gets the feeling the pressures of high-profile performing and recording, plus an increasingly chaotic home life, would have killed a lesser man much sooner. Davis died at 65 in 1991. He remains ingeniously distinctive.