John Szwed, author of So What: The Life of Miles Davis

January 27th, 2003

 

John Szwed,

author of

So What: The Life of Miles Davis

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More than half a century after his bebop debut, and more than eleven years after his death, Miles Davis lives on.  His music is used to pitch jeans, shape films, and personify an era.  To this day, he is revered as the archetype of cool.

While several books have been written about Davis, including his own autobiography, due to his passion for reinvention and his extreme reticence the real story of Miles Davis has been obscured by the legend and widely misunderstood.

Yale University Professor of African American Studies and Sun Ra biographer John Szwed’s So What: The Life of Miles Davis reveals a brilliant, inventive, intensely driven musician who was plagued by a host of internal conflicts and contradictions.  “Miles’ life as a whole is not easy to grasp,” Szwed reflects, “and the meaning of it, with or without his help, is resistant to quick interpretations.”*

Szwed joins Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita in a January, 2003 conversation about Davis’ remarkable career…

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photo by Lee Tanner

“{My} music is strange.  Why does it change so frequently?  Is it because my life is always changing?  My life could never be an open book, so there are many secrets in my music.”

Miles Davis – 1975

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JJM As you point out in the introduction to your book, there are already several biographies of Miles Davis, as well as his own autobiography. What did you hope to accomplish with So What?

JS  It started when I ran into Miles Davis’ brother Vernon, and when he encouraged me to write, I was unable to resist. I began talking to other family members, his first wife Irene, his son Gregory, and many of his girlfriends along the way. I then found the original notes from Alex Haley’s interview for Playboyin 1959, and discovered there was quite a bit unpublished material in it. I researched biographer Quincy Troupe’s interviews and found material that shed new light on things. To me, that meant that there must have been inaccurate information in interviews over the years because things kept getting repeated that Miles insisted weren’t true, yet they were being copied from one interview to another when he apparently wasn’t too cooperative. So, that was the reason that I started doing this.

JJM  What was a significant childhood event of Miles Davis’?

JS  I think he had a very uneventful life as a child. It was almost archetypal. He was raised in an integrated neighborhood and fit in very well with it. There is a story about Miles being chased by a white man going after him with a gun, but he denied it. He seemed to have a quite normal childhood.

JJM  You wrote that the thing he talked about with much fondness was his paper route.

JS  Yes, that was the only day job he ever had, actually. He took a lot of pride in that, and since he had a sizable allowance, he was free to spend money earned on this job any way he wanted. He would buy clothes and records with it.

The most critical moment of his childhood was his parents’ divorce. That affected him, as it would anyone at that age. His parents had quite a volatile relationship, although not as bad as some like to make of it. For example, there are stories of how his father repeatedly beat his mother, but there is no evidence of that. To take the leap that people have taken and glibly say that Miles modeled his own behavior after his father’s, I see no evidence of that.

JJM Was he embarrassed by his middle class background as he moved to New York and began hanging out with musicians who didn’t have such a privileged childhood?

JS I don’t think ’embarrassed’ is the right word. He certainly told everybody he had money, and he showed it, buying suits and loaning money to people. He bragged about his father’s wealth and about going to Julliard, so I don’t think he was embarrassed by his background. He did want to mix with the “lower depths,” which at the time was a middle class “beat” sort of phenomenon. He did that, even to extremes, but I never saw any evidence of him hiding anything. He was very open about attending Julliard, which was one of the great music schools in the world, and made a point of sharing his lessons with people. His characterization of Julliard in his autobiography was a bit strange. He trashed it in one paragraph, then a few paragraphs later he bragged about studying there. But that very well may have been the way he felt.

JJM His use of drugs may have been a way to distance himself from what he occasionally viewed as a “square,” middle class upbringing.

JS  True, but it is not to say that he was hiding his background. In fact, he supported his habits and other people’s habits because of it. His misgivings about Charlie Parker were based in part on how much Parker used him for money.

JJM  You wrote that Miles was “shocked by Parker’s capacity for cruelty, sexual voracity, and the way in which he treated the women around him.”

JS  Yes. I could use any number of quotes from the book to describe Miles. The one that comes to mind is that of Annie Ross, who characterized him as a “sweet boy” who got in over his head with fame and drugs at a very early age. Deep into heroin, he found a capacity for doing things that he could never forget. It’s as if he discovered a dangerous side of himself that was always to remain with him. He never got over it. As Miles himself said, you may stop using heroin, but it never leaves your brain.

JJM  Shortly after arriving in New York, Miles began playing with Charlie Parker. Critics and other musicians felt Miles was not worthy of being in Parker’s band. The novelist Gilbert Sorrentino was in the audience for one of the performances with Parker and said, “He (Davis) probably hit more clinkers than any other trumpeter of his time.” If Davis was truly such a poor player, what did Parker see in him?

JS  Well, Sorrentino also said that maybe that wasn’t fair for him to say because he knew Miles was trying new things. His spare playing and choice of tone was quite shocking in the midst of all the hyper-speed playing that was happening at the time. Remember, he did get into Julliard with that tone, playing those notes. He was not a buffoon. At that point, he had four years of classical training, as well as the best teaching a musician could have in the Midwest. One of his teachers was the first chair of the St. Louis Symphony, who went on to be the first chair of the Boston Symphony. When he was at Julliard he studied with the first chair of the New York Philharmonic, learning from perhaps the best trumpet teacher in the world. I always consider that when reading some of the criticism about his playing of that time, and remember that he was playing with a somewhat classical tone. Miles was aware of how different his tone was, and how people poked fun at him, but he stuck with it. This is the courage of his aesthetic, that he chose this path. The easiest thing in the world to play was vibrato, and to play fast. He could have done that.

JJM  The quote by Sorrentino was not isolated. He faced criticism throughout his life from those who didn’t understand his playing.

JS  Yes, someone talked about how bad he was playing when he was with Coleman Hawkins, yet he was playing with Coleman Hawkins. How bad could he be? Billy Eckstine said he was terrible, yet Billy Eckstine had him in his band and offered him top dollar to stay with him. There was an antagonism against Davis and his arrogance that was running high at that time.

JJM He was known around the world as much for his hip style as his music. Who were his style influences?

JS  At an early age it was the fashion plates of Hollywood and society, fastidious gentlemen like Cary Grant, Fred Astaire and especially the Duke of Windsor, who was all over the papers in those days. These were all very well dressed men who were on the smaller side, like him. I think that impressed him as well. Dexter Gordon pushed him to more extremes in fashion later, with the broad-shouldered look, the pads and the lapels. Miles retreated from it almost immediately in the early fifties.

JJM  While other trumpet players of that era were into Louis Armstrong, he seemed to be heavily influenced by Harry James as much for his style as the music.

JS  Yes, for his style and his way of living. James was a horseman, after all, and Miles loved horses. I take some lessons from the fact that the first thing Miles went looking for in New York were the horses in Central Park, and not Charlie Parker. Think of that. You hit New York and the first thing you do is look for the horse barn — the first day. You have to get something out of that. People over-invest in his relationship with Parker. Someone took me to task in a review, saying I didn’t show the oedipal relationship between Davis and Parker. I don’t get it. Battling, if that is what that is about, sure, but who didn’t battle with Parker?

JJM  Davis’ emergence as leader of the Birth of the Cool recording sessions created a great deal of resentment among some of the other players. For example, he assumed ownership and collected the royalties. What were the circumstances of that recording and how did he emerge as the leader?

JS  I find this to be rather important. Pete Rugolo had been hired in a managerial capacity in the early years of Capitol Records to expand their horizons by going into new kinds of jazz. He was in New York and had heard about this rehearsal group. He must have heard them play, because there are no recordings of them in rehearsal. He signed them to do a number of singles, to be recorded during three sessions. The problem is that there was a recording ban going on at that point, so they had to record for what would come out later. There was a work hiatus because of that. If you look at the recording dates they really jump around. Miles went to Paris during this period, came back, and so on. As Gil Evans and Gerry Mulligan said, Miles was the only player in that band with name recognition enough to front the band. Given all the great players in that ensemble, it is hard to believe that today, but I believe that is right. Evans and Mulligan also said that he was the only one with the discipline to put them together, and to have rehearsals. That was his job with Charlie Parker as well, to call rehearsals and in essence act as music director, so it makes sense that he would do this for this band as well. Apparently he did keep the money earned from the sessions for himself, though I can’t believe the royalties were very substantial.

JJM  Sure, but the principal of him keeping them for himself…

JS  Yes, and tie that to the remarks of several of the musicians who complained that he wouldn’t assume leadership once they were playing. The description I got from trombonist Mike Zwerin was that Miles was actually sitting at the side of the band, and Mike couldn’t recall who was calling tunes or setting tempos. Gunther Schuller told me that at one point Max Roach was setting the tempos at the recording session. So Miles was not performing as a leader in the usual sense, and arguments broke out concerning who was in control. Consequently, there was some agitation about that as well.

JJM  When the Birth of the Cool band was together, Miles was asked by Duke Ellington to join his band. However, since Miles was so excited about his band’s prospects, he didn’t want to give up on it. What happened to the band after that?

JS  Lack of work, basically, and no new recording prospects. Plus, Miles was getting deep into drugs at that point, and was entering into the worst period of his life. Soon after, he was not working very regularly, only at Birdland, really. He was not physically up to working regularly

Some of the musicians in the Birth of the Cool band, by the way, were not that impressed with their work. Alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, who is notoriously not excitable, has said that the band was not that good, and that the arrangements were not ready to go out. There were several remarks like that. It wasn’t uniformly accepted as a breakthrough group, so I don’t think there was all that much enthusiasm about keeping it together. On top of that, Gil Evans got into his own problems, and he and Miles drifted apart, at least for some years.

JJM  Birth of the Cool, Kind of Blue and Bitches Brew are revered as benchmark jazz recordings in jazz. What did the album Walkin’ do for the growth of jazz?

JS  In retrospect, I don’t understand why that was considered to be such a significant recording. Miles claimed he had been playing like that all along, and many would agree. Marking Walkin’ as the beginning of hard bop is always awkward because it is during this period that he is also said to have created cool jazz. Since “hard bop” and “cool” are historically posed against each other in this kind of weird dialogue coded black and white — “white/cool”, “black/hard bop,” — did he really create both? The pianist Anthony Davis said to me, “If Walkin’ was hard bop, what was Charlie Parker? Soft bop?” Certainly Walkin’ is a great record. You can’t find a note that you want to move around or change, but I don’t think he was doing anything that new at that point in his career.

JJM  One of his favorite pianists at the time was Ahmad Jamal. What was it about Jamal’s playing that Davis liked, and did he ever ask Jamal to join his band?

JS  Apparently not. I tried to run that down, and Jamal nor anyone else recalled anything like that. At one time, Miles said that if he could find a pianist who could combine Bill Evans and Ahmad Jamal, he could die and go to heaven. That was all he needed, because their styles possessed exactly what he was looking for. People have said that if he hired Bill Evans because he couldn’t get Jamal, but we don’t know that. Miles certainly revered the two of them.

We now talk about Jamal in terms of his space and the way he keeps the melody afloat, and the way he lets you hear the rhythm section coming through almost anywhere, but at the time a writer for the magazine Jazz Review called it “cocktail piano playing.” According to several writers and musicians, then, there was nothing particularly interesting about Jamal’s playing. The criticism was negative enough that Cannonball Adderley had to defend Jamal in an interview. He told the interviewer that he was missing the point about him, and talked about the openness Jamal’s music provided, and how it was a break from bebop. At one point he defended Jamal’s use of tunes like “Surrey With a Fringe on Top” and “Tangerine,” which were not the kind of tunes jazz musicians played during that era.

I was never able to verify this, but since Jamal used to play in the East St. Louis area with the George Hudson band, it is likely that Miles heard him as a kid. Ultimately, I believe the interest Miles had in Jamal is that they shared a similar approach to music. Just hearing him allowed Miles to see that he was on the right track. The fact that so many of the tunes he used on his own records also appeared on Jamal’s, or were Jamal’s own tunes, suggests quite a connection.

JJM  Miles never liked to accompany singers, yet it can be argued that he patterned his playing after singers.

JS  Yes, that is something, isn’t it? He loved the kinds of singers who sung slightly on the flat side, “smokey,” nothing fancy, very spare and with lots of open space. Singers like Shirley Horn, Terry Morrell, Blossom Dearie, and Jeri Southern. I call these singers “slow burners,” people who were so slow in their approaches that Horn says, “You can’t tell where the “one” is. They phrase with long lines and keep the melody afloat all the time. I think time has let us understand that these singers were much more important to musicians like Miles than we first thought.

JJM  The voice of Orson Welles seems to have had an impact on his playing.

JS  Yes, that’s what he said, and his brother amplified it a bit when he told me about his and Miles’ interest in radio programs as kids. Welles and Frank Sinatra were early masters of the microphone. They didn’t just yell into the microphone, they knew they could change their voices and create different personas by how they spoke and sang into it. When Johnny Ray later began to cry into the microphone — and there were people appalled by this — it was also a stylistic breakthrough of sorts. He understood that his emotional projections in the form of gasping and wheezing could be heard, and he began to use it to his benefit and influenced others to do the same. When Miles Davis played with his mute and jammed it into the mike to get a big sound out of it, he was working from that same kind of aesthetic. This was setting him up for electricity, using it way ahead of its time. His Newport 1954 recording of “Round’ Midnight” was so successful in part because the sound system was so bad. The audience in the back couldn’t hear much of anything. Miles took advantage of that during his set by jamming the muted horn into the microphone so they could hear him and nobody else.

JJM Why did Davis cease to recognize the presence of an audience?

JS  You have your choice of how you want to interpret his on stage appearances. There are several early testimonies of him occasionally hiding, playing behind other musicians or playing into the curtain as early as the Three Deuces gigs when he first came to New York, and even at the Village Vanguard. He was hiding, in a sense, or playing underneath things. He often referred to “playing under Parker,” which he certainly did, keeping the sound softer and lower.

How one wishes to interpret this behavior after having all the facts is up to the individual. It could be he did this because of shyness. Everyone seemed to confirm that he was an incredibly shy person who was handling it the best way he could. He may have been a person who wanted to erase the audience when he played. When you play with your eyes open, facing an audience, you have all the distractions that go with it — the awareness that you are performing for them and how they are reacting to it. Many musicians respond to this by averting or closing their eyes, or they read the music. This is always a problem for the performing musician, particularly for stars who play up in the front. Miles’ choice was to not look at the audience. He would say things like the candles in the Vanguard flickered and distracted him, and he would vanish from the stage as quickly as possible.

Nothing I have seen suggests that he actually turned his back on the audience. He left the stage after his solo very often, or moved to the back of the stage. When he played he stood in the three-quarter profile of the actor, partly facing the band and partly facing out — which in itself was a little unusual at the time — but that is not exactly turning his back. I tried to understand this in terms of the new kind of drama and actors surfacing in the forties. In the American method acting style, actors became more natural in their approach while at the same time they created shocking stage effects, such as speaking from dark corners of the stage or surfacing beyond the lights. I found that this had been in the works in the theatre through the early part of the twentieth century, and in fact there were performances with actor’s backs to the audience. After I finished writing the book, I noticed in some of the films from the forties that actors had their backs to the camera, which must have been fairly startling at first.

JJM  He had a great deal of interest in the Stanislavsky school that produced people like Marlon Brando…

JS  He was certainly aware of it. He had girlfriends who were schooled in that form of acting, and he went to the theater himself quite often, even to the point of having season tickets. There is an outtake from one of his recordings with George Coleman where Miles complains to Coleman that he keeps changing things and doesn’t know what is coming next. He tells Coleman to let him know when he is going to change things. Coleman responds by saying something to the effect of, “If I feel like it I’ll let you know.” Miles says in reply, “What is this? Method acting? If you feel like it you will let me know?” He goes into a little discourse about the method. So he certainly knew something about method acting. Turning the bandstand into a theater stage was something he was a master of, which is not to say he was the first, because that goes way back. Lionel Hampton was a great stagecraft person as well, but Miles’ was a new kind of stagecraft.

JJM  Some musicians and critics may point out that his stage persona was in response to his distaste for the way the likes of Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker acted on stage. So, this was something that traditional music fans may not have understood.

JS  Yes. And he would frequently say that classical musicians don’t receive this sort of criticism, and look what they do. They don’t stand there when they are through with their performance, they turn their backs to the audience when they are conducting, etc. So his model, again, was what he learned at Julliard and what he learned before that, during his classical studies.

JJM  Perhaps you could say that his performance style can be interpreted based on how you view the world. During the height of the civil rights movement of the sixties, and the black power movement of the seventies, if you were a white person who looked at black people with fear or hostility, it is likely you viewed his stage presence as an antagonistic approach to communicating his art.

JS  In both Sun Ra and Miles Davis — and I find many similarities between them in odd sorts of ways — it is very difficult to be definitive about motivation and about intention. They will undercut you every time. As soon as you think you have it, they are somewhere else. That is part of the appeal of these artists to me. I am appalled when people tell me that I should have explained or speculated about his character, and attemoted to explain definitively what led him to perform the way he did. I have some idea, of course, but they are no better than anybody else’s. There is a quote in my Sun Ra book from one of the dancers, which is as good as anything at understanding this. She said that at one point, she thought he that was pointing the way toward a new kind of politics and a new kind of culture, but she became aware that he was a mirror, that she was getting her own image projected back at her. She felt that depending on who you were, Sun Ra was a different person. Similarly, you get out of Miles what you are.

JJM  The book is filled with examples of Davis’ physical and mental abuse of women. Given his outward confidence and masculinity, why was he so insecure about women and abusive toward them?

JS Before I answer that, I would add that he was abusive to men and children too. If you don’t hear about that it’s because he didn’t tell us much about it. Here is a guy who allegedly punched the musician he felt strongest about, John Coltrane. He certainly punched and humiliated many other people. There are all kinds of examples of children, either his own or other people’s, being badly treated. So he was an equal opportunity abuser. You hear more about it perhaps because women have spoken up about it and because it is considered a worse act by society.

Miles Davis was drawn to very creative and beautiful women. In a number of cases, he encouraged them in their work, and helped them. But as he became more closely involved with them, he wanted them to quit, to stay at home. So, Miles was going out with women who were dancers, singers, actresses, or songwriters, and he wasn’t able to resolve his conflict. It was a conflict that many men had difficulty with in the forties and fifties. Whether they went around hitting women is another question, but I am trying to make the point that the problem was more widespread than Miles Davis. He was a volatile person who could go “off” at the drop of a hat. His drug habit always pushed this. He became more volatile under the influence of cocaine, and his paranoia grew. It takes a better person than me to work out exactly what happened here. As with everything else with him, you can find your own reading of his behavior.

JJM  You wrote, “Success ensured Miles was now playing in better-paying clubs, which meant expensive clubs in white neighborhoods, and he was beginning to miss the black audiences, whose response he understood and needed.” At what point did he lose touch with his core followers?

JS  You can argue that it was always that way. 52nd Street clubs were mostly white, too. He never played that much in the Midwest as a kid, other than as an amateur and he may have been looking backwards with a kind of false nostalgia. By the time he entered the period with Gil Evans, he had less of a following among a purely black audience, partly because they were working in different kinds of venues and also because music itself was changing. He had moved out of the circuit of blues and bop-based players he had worked with. Again, I think some of this may have been false nostalgia — not to say that he didn’t know what he was talking about — but he never played exclusively in that kind of setting. If anyone has ever made money in this music from playing in the best places, it was Miles.

JJM  The critics seem to single out the In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew era as the time Miles started losing his original audience…

JS  Well, at every point he lost some people. Part of the fascination of him was his willingness to lose his fan base and his critical audience, and then to say he was compelled to do it, as if somebody made him do it — if not the devil then someone else. That was part of the cost of his particular approach to material. He certainly got the most negative press during the late sixties era you point out, but that was the period he was getting the biggest press, too. He had just begun to be geared up for additional press by the in house publicist at Columbia, and was beginning to experience a great deal of attention. He wanted the attention but didn’t want what went with it — the meddling of his life and the curiosity. Again and again he would say, “I am nothing but a trumpet player, why do they care about anything I have to say?”

JJM  I found that interesting. Clearly he wanted notoriety and part of the whole Bitches Brew transformation was his wanting to appeal to the larger white rock audience, even to the point where he stopped using the term “jazz.” He was hopeful this would lead the Columbia executives to push for the record stores to merchandise his albums differently.

JS Yes, and his break from his Columbia producer Teo Macero was probably related to that. If you chart his movement away from Macero, you will see a certain chaos setting in, where he may have had artistic control but he didn’t have the editorial or organizational direction to pull off exactly what he wanted. It would be wonderful to have access to some of those session tapes recorded after Teo’s departure to hear just what went on in there. This idea of massive collective performance, where he put together people who may not have even known one another, and who didn’t know they would be on the same session until the last minute, providing them with very few written materials as in the case of In a Silent Way and the confusion that must have gone with that…

It was not just the music that was a shift. It was the whole orientation of how it was going to go next. Other artists tried doing this. Bob Dylan apparently put together twenty musicians at one point, without any plans, just to see what would happen, and nothing happened. The classical composer Stefan Wolpe once hired group of eight or so jazz musicians, put them in the studio, and had them improvise when he pointed at them. After a short run of this he decided it wasn’t working and ended the session. With no sense of how jazz works, he was trying to do this. But Miles pulled it off, three and four organists or keyboard players, several saxophonists, three drummers, all mixed together. Three drummers becomes more critical. Who plays what? Who is going to determine how this goes?

JJM  Miles once told the composer David Amram that he detested the idea of growing old and finding himself in a room filled with 25 other Miles Davises. What was his biggest fear in life?

JS  That’s tough to answer. His intention was to quit at some point, and in fact he threatened to do so a number of times, even back in the fifties. He was going to retire to do “this or that.” Later, he clearly was making plans for moving to Connecticut to become a gentleman farmer, like his father. He wanted to raise horses there, which he was already doing in Malibu to a small degree.

He was afraid of not having the cutting edge anymore and was making moves toward change. He had plans for a Broadway show based loosely on his life, as well as other media projects. It came down to a question of timing. As his last girlfriend told me, “Dying really fucked him up. His plans were well laid out in that sense, and this was badly timed.” Death is never well timed, but her point was that he had these hopes that went outside music.

I think he may have always been insecure about his role in music. Some of the things he said are simply unbelievable, yet I can believe them. For example, when he was playing in Japan in the mid-seventies, he was warming up backstage and was miked by mistake. When the audience heard him, there was a huge roar of approval. Miles was quite surprised and said, “They know who I am just by the sound!” Someone with him asked, “You don’t know that?” There are several examples of him being astonished by the respect people had for him. I don’t believe he was insecure in any grand way, but he had no inflated sense of his accomplishments. There was a lot of calculation in his career, and a lot of planning along the way, even though his path appears to be quite chaotic. To answer your question as best I can, I suppose his biggest fear was taking a wrong step, or not quitting at the right time. There are those, however, who will tell you he was at least twenty years off on that, that he should have quit earlier.

JJM What was the biggest artistic challenge of his career?

JS  The way he describes it, some of the work he did with Gil Evans was extremely difficult for him, especially Sketches of Spain. Several of the solos on that recording are extremely long. No one had played and improvised for that long under those circumstances, where there were compositional constraints and an orchestra playing behind. The technical and artistic requirements of the trumpet player on Sketches of Spain were enormously demanding. In at least one place on that recording, where you think it is Miles’ playing going on in the ensemble, it is actually another trumpet player in the session, playing in mute. Upon hearing it, Davis remarked, “He sounds more like me than I do.” He was exhausting himself during this session, and from a physical and artistic point of view, it was the most demanding work he ever did. He admitted that on the day of the recording to the critic Martin Williams.

In later years, the switch to electric music made him work harder than on anything he had done before because he wasn’t quite sure how to make the music work, and wasn’t sure how the amplification would sound. There were a series of false starts and misunderstandings. Coming to terms with it was difficult, and he burned himself out in some ways during that period. In terms of sheer work, again, during the later years he began to rehearse his group carefully, and teach younger musicians what he wanted from them. It wasn’t so much an aesthetic challenge, but it certainly was another sort of demanding work.

JJM  Did he begin playing electronically willingly?

JS  Yes. One of the ways his turn to electrical instruments gets explained is that he had been forced into it by Columbia’s Clive Davis, who had such great success with rock acts. But fans often stretch to explain changes in their heroes that they don’t like. I was working for Impulse Records president Bob Thiele at the time Albert Ayler started playing a kind of rhythm and blues, using backup singers. That was interpreted widely in reviews and even in later writings as Thiele having forced him to do this, even suggesting that it was written into his contract. But in fact what happened was that Ayler showed up for the session with nothing but backup singers — not even a band. Thiele was actually rushing around, trying to get musicians. My point is that when people say that this direction was forced upon Ayler, it is the same thing that happened in the case of Miles.

It is true that Columbia was pushing Miles and other musicians in new directions. A good example is that Dave Brubeck would not play the electric piano. I don’t think he was dropped from the Columbia artist roster for that reason, but it was one of the reasons Clive Davis didn’t see him as part of the new direction for Columbia. Clive Davis was hiring musicians for the label who would be more than musicians — they would be leaders in images, in setting new directions. While that kind of pressure was being exerted, Miles was already moving that way. On the surface you can make the case that he was forced to play electronic instruments. Columbia Records owned the Fender Company, which manufactured the Fender Rhodes electric piano. It could be argued that Columbia was trying to get him to promote their instruments, but there was never any evidence this was ever done.

Miles was beginning to hear his music in a different way, and I don’t think he ever heard it as rock and roll. He never said it was rock and roll, and he had trouble satisfying listeners. There are lots of examples of rock musicians from that period who said they hated his music, just as the jazz people did. They didn’t know where Miles was coming from. With the exception of Lester Bangs of Rolling Stone magazine, who wrote that this was another kind of music to experience, most people were still trying to read it as nusic they already knew. My point is that Miles willingly chose this direction — including using electrical instruments — even if he wasn’t sure where he was headed with it.

JJM  Miles’ drummer Tony Williams had a great deal to do with his musical direction. Because of the way he played, Herbie Hancock’s acoustic piano wasn’t being heard. As a way to solve this, Fender gave Hancock an electric piano to play. He didn’t like it right away but then he recognized he could actually be heard over Williams’ drums.

JS  Yes, but Tony also created a complex situation. On one hand, he loved musicians like Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler, and wanted Miles to go further out. That was one of his problems with George Coleman. Williams thought Coleman was just another conventional jazz guy, and pushed Miles to go out further. At the same time, Tony loved the Beatles, and straight-ahead rock and roll, and even tried to talk Miles into opening for the Beatles at one point. Whether or not that was a realistic possibility, who knows, but there were those two impulses going on in Tony, and you can hear both of them in his playing. Sometimes he played with a kind of rock and roll subdivision of beat, and other times he is pushing for multiple beats at the same time. He was certainly leading the way, even if they couldn’t always tell where that way was going.

JJM  Upon finishing the book, are you better able to understand the complexity of Miles Davis’ character?

JS  At the end of the book I say no, not definitively, but then I am always suspicious of biographers who claim to have “decoded” their subjects. But I did pick up certain themes in his life that can’t be ignored. One is that Miles had an intellectual’s approach to music. Music for him was a puzzle to be solved, with problems to be worked through. Maybe more than anyone of his era, he was always very conscious of what had come before. For example, during his trip to the West Coast in the forties, he sat in with some of the Dixieland revival bands. He was also quoted in Downbeatat the time as saying that Dixieland is good music and it shouldn’t be ignored, that it is part of our heritage. He was drawn to Sidney Bechet in Paris. So, he had an intellectual’s approach to jazz, as well as a purist’s approach.

He wanted his music to be better than humans are — in effect to make music too good for this world. But, he wound up performing in bars and funky places he didn’t necessarily want to play. He told Max Gordon of the Village Vanguard he didn’t want to play in clubs anymore even though he had been a mainstay at the Vanguard. Max said he understood that it was difficult for him to face all that he had to put up with before, during and after the gig. Miles also had enough experience with classical music to know that there are other types of music that result in listeners doing something other than snapping their fingers to it, drinking to it, having sex to it, or whatever it was that people were doing while listening to his music.

The cost of Miles’ kind of approach to art can be huge. An artist can lose their audience, and they become very tough for other people to work with. During his very experimental period in the early seventies, he simply put musicians together without leading them. I believe it was Herbie Hancock who said Davis expected that they show up with ideas of their own, and after a while if a musician didn’t have any ideas, Davis would fire him without any explanation. He felt that if he told the musician what was right, then he would be playing like Miles, but he didn’t want any part of that.

I do believe he was a purist, an intellectual, and at the same time he felt betrayed by those around him, especially the recording companies. He was betrayed by their underpaying him, of course, but also by their betrayal of his intentions. Someone was always meddling with what he did, whether it be Prestige leaving out the spoken parts of his recordings when they released their box set Chronicles, or Columbia, when it brought out its first Miles box set retrospective and left out the mid-sixties work because they found his music from that era too eccentric. This meddling of his work didn’t fit in with his image of who he was.

Understanding his musical interests helps us to understand where he was coming from. He studied music very hard; he studied music and liked music that no one else in jazz seemed to care about. He studied people like Harry Partch, and went to John Cage and Martha Graham performances. Very few jazz musicians did this. In the end, Miles was a man of many faces, and it was very difficult to keep them all at work at once.

_________________________________________

So What: The Life of Miles Davis

by

John Szwed

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About John Szwed

JJM  Who was your childhood hero?

JS  For a brief time, we lived across from a movie theatre that showed afternoon movies. My mother would let me go there and I would watch shorts in which musicians like Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey or Artie Shaw performed. I remember the way they looked, the way they stood on stage, the way they dressed…I thought they were great models for how musicians should perform and how men should be.

JJM  If you could have attended any jazz event in history, what would it have been?

JS  I would have liked to have attended the John Coltrane memorial, where a number of people played spirituals from the audience — two of whom were Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler — but there were others who were more mainstream artists. I would have enjoyed hearing that just to see how everyone worked together.

 

 

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Miles Davis products at Amazon.com

John Szwed products at Amazon.com

View Lee Tanner photos of Miles Davis

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Interview took place on January 27, 2003

*

If you enjoyed this interview, you may want to read our interview with Miles Davis historian Gerald Early.

 

*

Other Jerry Jazz Musician interviews

* From the publisher

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One comments on “John Szwed, author of So What: The Life of Miles Davis”

  1. I enjoyed the article. It was very helpful in providing further insight into the context within which Miles created music. I would also like to learn more about Miles’ brother Vernon, evidently a musician and artist in his own right. Any suggestions? Thanks!

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