Saturday, August 11, 2012

Miles on Miles

I've just finished listening to Miles: the Autobiography, about the great trumpeter and musical pioneer, Miles Davis. It was put to paper by Quincy Troupe, and narrated, in an incredible feat of channelling, by Dion Graham, who transforms his natural smooth bass tones into the same raspy undertones characteristic of Miles himself. I've only heard Miles's voice in brief audioclips of interviews, so of course I can't really know how well Graham captures it. But he reads the material so naturally, and with such feeling, that it was easy to feel I was listening to the Dark Prince himself through the almost 17 hours of the unabridged work.

I've been a fan of Miles Davis since I was a teenager and bought Bitches Brew when I was sixteen or so. I wasn't familiar with any of his earlier music until more than a decade later. Sure, I'd heard some of it, at home and on the radio over the years. But to my young ears, most jazz from before the mid 60's was old-timey. The only real exception to this was John Coltrane, whose "My Favorite Things" was perhaps the first piece of music that I deeply loved, perhaps initiating me into my lifelong love of the art form. My mother was a singer, and during my childhood I was exposed to other great musci that she and my father loved, and I developed appreciation for the likes of Dinah Washington, Ray Charles, Nat "King" Cole and Jimmy Smith. But mostly, as I entered my teens, I was enamored of the new music of my time, from artists like the Supremes and the Temptations of Motown, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Booker T. & the MG's, and the Isley Brothers. Among the artists who won me over to jazz were Ramsey Lewis, Blood, Sweat & Tears and Wes Montgomery - a kind of mixed bag of styles. But Bitches Brew changed my listening forever.

I was more intrigued by BB than I was appreciative of it at first. It was a long time before I really "got" much of the album. But to this day, I can remember lying of the floor of the living room of Mr. B, one of the faculty who lived in my prep school dorm, with his headphones on, listening to the long cut, "Spanish Key". And the music, with it's polyrhythms, and shape-shifting tonalities carried me off to some tropical place in my mind, where palm trees swayed, and the women from the album's surreal cover danced under the sun. From that single listening, and for the rest of my life, I saw Miles Davis as a musical visionary. I knew that his music was far ahead of where my listening was, and that I would have to travel a ways before I'd catch up. But from then on, I trusted that however weird or discordant his music might sound to me at first listen, if I trusted and kept coming back to it, there was substance and richness to be discovered.

To a greater or lesser extent, my experience with BB was a template for experiences to come, in regards to the music of Miles Davis. It was the same with Live/Evil, ditto with On the Corner, and the pattern repeated itself with a number of his post '80 efforts, following his 5 year hiatus from performing. I would buy one of his albums expecting something that followed predictibly from his last, and would find instead that he had a whole new sound. Occasionally, in the case of his more accessible albums, like Jack Johnson, We Want Miles or Tutu, I'd be completely engaged right from the start. But more often, there'd be bits I'd "get", and others I didn't. But over time, beauties in the music would reveal themselves to me. Not always, but enough so that I never tired of checking out what Miles was up to now.

Despite my great respect for Miles, and love of his music, I wasn't the type to read biographies or interviews, so I didn't know much more about him than I learned from reading the backs of his albums. And while I was a fan, I didn't rush out a buy all of his albums. Throughout my twenties and thirties, I was constantly discovering new artists whose music opened new aural doorways I wanted to enter into. I never had a lot of money, so had to make choices in my record-buying. Miles wasn't always at the top my shopping list. Nor was his music necessarily what I enjoyed most at any particular time.

But there were a couple of obvious things about Miles that hightened my regard for him. First off, so many of my other favorite artists had played with him early in their careers. These included Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, Billy Cobham, Wayne Shorter, Joe Zawinul, Bennie Maupin, Airto, Keith Jarrett and oh, so many others. When I finally came around to giving a serious listen to more music from pre-1965, I was shocked to learn that my first musical idol, Coltrane, had himself been a disciple of Miles. That Miles had played a role in the development of so many, well...geniuses, suggested a lot about him. The other thing was that Miles named so many of his compositions after other people, including several of the musicians he'd worked with. In addition to the two album titles mentioned above that fit into this category, other great favorites of mine are the tunes "Duran", named for the pugilist, Roberto, and "Mademoiselle Mabry", named for one of his early wives, Betty.

Anyway, I never had any plan to learn a lot more about Miles Davis. But I'm sure glad I came across this audiobook - more than twenty years after his death - and gave it a listen. I found it endlessly fascinating. Miles speaks so much about the music, his feel for it, his constant hunger for innovation, and his seeking after the textures and rhythms he heard in his head and distilled from the life around him. And he speaks endlessly about the musicians he played and explored with, learned from, had ongoing musical dialogues with, nurtured, hired and fired.

Miles rattles off the names of hundreds of musicians in the bio. And he speaks with such critical appreciation of so many of them. He criticizes a few, particularly individuals he took into one of his groups who couldn't or wouldn't perform up to his standards. But mostly he speaks about what each musician brought to his work that he prized. He praises the technique, the tonality and musicality, the creative powers of a great many artists, even of many he never performed with. He speaks in glowing terms about the influence they had on his playing, and on his thinking. And he expresses his great joy and exuberance about playing with them. Among the great many who receive this treatment are Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Tony Williams, Fats Navarro, Billy Eckstein, Prince, Jimi Hendrix, Ahmad Jamal, Willie Nelson, Cannonball Adderley, Gil Evans, Max Roach, Al Foster, and it just goes on and on and on.

He also reveals himself to be an extremely contradictory person. He reveals a great sensitivity, but was often cruel and insensitive. He cites his love of women, yet was frequently abusive and dismissive of those in his life. He proclaims his indifference to what others think, yet could be so brittle and sensitive about slights, rebukes and his perceptions of disrespect. His experiences of racism filled him with deep anger towards whites who presumed higher privilege or superiority, but he otherwise accepted whites as collaborators, friends and lovers without a thought. It seems there was much to like and even love about him, but also that it was often difficult to penetrate to that soft, vulnerable core, through a veneer that was cynical, mercurial and distrustful. I don't imagine I'd have liked him very much, but it's easy to see how many found him irresistable and compelling.

In the end, his autobiography underscores the very ordinary humanity - both beautiful and flawed - behind a pioneering genius of music. What I personally loved so much about Miles Davis was that he extended his art form into previously unknown realms. He thereby made the act of listening to music into a growth experience. As much as I love jazz, it saddens me that so much of it these days is merely the reworking of classics, in styles that were staked out decades ago. To me, the key thing about jazz as an artform is that it embraces change. In fact, change is its essential ingredient, whether that be expressed in the improvisation of musicians or in the constant incorporation of new instruments, elements and voices. Miles frustrated many of his fans even as he exhilarated others, by exploding their expectations, stretching their imaginations, their spirits, their ears. And while he clearly enjoyed the adulation of his audience, he led it and didn't follow it. And more than twenty years after his death, I for one am still "getting" all that heavy music he laid down.

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