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

January 27th, 2003

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


John Szwed


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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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.



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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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