With the Miles Davis and Chet Baker films now in distribution, there is a marked increase in traffic on this website’s content that is devoted to them, including several interviews that we conducted with biographers and family members. I have chosen five of them for you to consider spending some time with, featuring Ashley Kahn, James Gavin, John Szwed, Carol Baker and Gerald Early.
In April of 2002, Ashley Kahn, author of Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece, joined me in a discussion about the significance of this timeless recording and his critically acclaimed account of one of the greatest moments in 20th Century music. What follows is a portion of that interview. (You can read the entire interview by clicking here).
JJM Why this book? When did you begin dreaming about its creation?
AK In its initial conception, my written tribute to Kind of Blue was simply in the short form. I had penned a New York Times article in August, 1999 marking the album’s 40th anniversary while pursuing my other profession: tour manager. That summer I was working with the Britney Spears tour (talk about musical extremes!) I was recovering from an overnight drive from Sioux Falls, South Dakota to Chicago, Illinois and my cellular rang. It was my editor from the New York Times asking if he could pass my number on to a book agent who had called?
The conversation with the agent led to me putting together a proposal that answered the obvious questions about expanding the article into long-form: was there enough information? Would the surviving participants and witnesses – Jimmy Cobb and photographer Don Hunstein – participate?
The furious pace that led me from proposal to book deal to the actual research and writing left me little time for sleeping, let alone dreaming. (May all my proposals become real as easily and furiously.)
JJM What was the general tone of jazz prior to Kind of Blue?
AK Jazz in the ’50s was a music well on it way to splintering beyond recall. What had been a musical community divided simply between traditional (Armstrong), swing (Goodman) and bebop (Parker, Gillespie) was now a scene dealing with multiple fissures. As I mention in my book, the jazz scene had expanded and the older rubbed shoulders with more and more of the new. By the end of the decade, a jazz enthusiast’s LP collection was certain to reflect a variety including traditional jazz and swing-style soloists (Louis Armstrong, Jonah Jones,) big bands (Stan Kenton, Duke Ellington, Woody Herman), bebop stalwarts (Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Stitt) and bebop transmuters (Thelonious Monk, George Russell), purveyors of Cool (Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker), classically-inspired conceptualizers (John Lewis, Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis) gospel-fueled hard boppers (Art Blakey, Horace Silver) and avant-garde visionaries (Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor).
From a jazz lover’s perspective the sound of the period was, as I quoted writer Dan Wakefield: “The new sounds of Miles, Charles Mingus . . . and then there was the incredible ultimate cool synthesis of classical music with fugue-like jazz, the Modern Jazz Quartet.” During the late ’40s bebop had defined a particular niche lifestyle – a zoot-suited, extroverted, rapid-fire esthetic; ten years later, Miles himself wrote of the change: “All of a sudden, everybody seemed to want anger, coolness, hipness, and real clean, mean sophistication.”
The “tone” – if I can use that term loosely – among jazz musicians in the ’50s was one of elevation: the vanguard of jazz’s innovators sought to raise the music to a level occupied by the most highly regarded art forms. To command the respect and receive the rewards due artists creating on that level. “For the younger musicians, this was the way to react against the attitude that Negroes were supposed to entertain people,” said the MJQ’s John Lewis. “The new attitude was . . . ‘Either you listen to me on the basis of what I actually do or forget it.”
Who were the heroes of the age? There weren’t many; and some were dead, like Charlie Parker, and others had been transformed into entertainers, like Dizzy Gillespie. But of that leading cadre of jazzmen – Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Art Blakey, Bill Evans, Horace Silver and (soon to come) Ornette Coleman – Miles Davis was easily the leading light.
JJM Where and when did the Kind of Blue sessions take place?
AK For a few hours on March 2 and April 22, 1959, Miles Davis convened his group in Columbia’s famed 30th Street Studio, a converted Greek Orthodox Church with generously high, vaulted ceilings noted for its natural acoustic resonance. On the first date, he recorded the three tracks that comprised Side A of the album, on the second date, they recorded the final two tracks on Side B.
In June, 2002, I interviewed James Gavin, author of Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker, a book that focused on the trumpeter’s imperfect, dark side — which angered many of his fans. Here is a part of the interview. (The entire interview can be read by clicking here)
JJM Why did you choose to write a biography on Chet Baker?
JG Desperation. In 1991, I published a book called Intimate Nights: The Golden Age of New York Cabaret. My tastes had moved forward about a decade, and now I was fascinated by the 1950s, which seemed so cool and sophisticated to me at my young age. The gigantic repression of that time, sexual and otherwise, gradually began to interest me too. At the time, I owned only two Chet Baker albums. One of them, which may still be my favorite, is Chet, a set of instrumental ballads with Bill Evans. I thought it was the best “make out” music I had ever heard, even though I hadn’t started making out yet! I found this music to be incredibly slow and sexy and hot – not cool, as everyone called him. When Chet made that album in the late ’50s, he was virtually a gutter junkie, and that surely helped break down his cool veneer. But I still wasn’t a great aficionado, I must admit. I knew the cliches of his life story: that he was a beautiful but tarnished golden boy from the 50’s with an androgynous singing voice that people debated about violently, and that a lot of people didn’t take him seriously as a trumpeter, either. I had a vague sense that he was extremely out of favor in the United States and had become as famous for his drug habit as he was for his music. I didn’t know much more about him, but I did know that no one had written a comprehensive book about him that tried to cut past all the myths. I was desperate to write another book, and in the fall of 1994, some angekl or devil flew onto my shoulder and whispered the idea of Chet. From that point on, I became as obsessed with him as anyone who had known him. I sold the idea to Knopf very quickly. The time was right. The documentary Let’s Get Lost had come out five years earlier, and Chet was becoming more popular in death than he had ever been in life. The Gap ad that read “Chet Baker Wore Khakis” came out around that time, and the records were starting to really sell. It was obvious that people were mystified by Baker and drawn in by all the mystery surrounding him. I sensed that there was a great detective story to be told. I was certainly right about that.
JJM Baker’s life is desperately sad. Were you as shocked by the sadness of his story as I was?
JG At times I was extremely depressed by it, but I can’t say I was shocked. Orrin Keepnews, the former co-owner of Riverside Records, was one of the first people I interviewed, in December of 1994. Orrin recorded Chet in the late ’50s, and he grew to hate him. Orrin said to me, “Do you have any idea what you’re getting yourself into?” I said, “Sure.” But I didn’t, not at all. I very quickly learned how messy this story was, mired in falsehood and almost hopelessly mythologized, to the point where its ugliness was made to seem romantic and glamorous. As I went on with my research, I realized that most of the famous stories told about and by Chet Baker were completely fictional, that many people who had known him had their own agendas and were not telling the truth. Because I had not known Baker and had never even seen him perform, I had no agenda of my own, besides trying to tell the truth. And the truth was much uglier than I had imagined. The paradox that fascinated me and a lot of people was, how could so much beauty come out of so much ugliness? When we look at our idols, we’re seeing a reflection of who we want to be. We don’t want to see monstrous flaws; we want to believe that a beautiful artist is also a beautiful human being. Most people just do not want to know the truth. It’s hard for certain people to read my book, because they want to believe that Chet was essentially the same romantic figure they hear on his records. He had elements of that romance in his personality, but the realities of life as a drug addict are not pretty.
In January, 2003, I interviewed Yale University jazz scholar John Szwed, whose book on Miles Davis, So What, had just been published. Our interview covers Miles’ childhood, the complexity of his character, his musicianship and relationship with his contemporaries, and many aspects of his brilliant career. A portion of the interview is found below, and you can read the entire interview by clicking here.
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.
One of the very first interviews ever published on Jerry Jazz Musician was with Carol Baker, the widow of Chet Baker. This 1998 interview — which was conducted by my former partner Terry Gariety — talks about the just released As Though I Had Wings, a “lost memoir” that has Chet writing about his musical and personal exploits. You can read a snippet of this interview below, and you can read the entire interview by clicking here.
CB: Chet started writing that while he was traveling, some of it was written when he was home in moments here and there, in quiet times and he was carrying that around for quite a while. Then while he was in Europe, 1980 I think it was, he met an actor/screenplay writer by the name of Tom Baker. I think Chet met him in Nice. Tom got interested in it and wanted to do a screenplay around it so they got together and he typed up Chet’s notes. I met him after that, he came and met me back in NY and we had a friendship going and Tom was typing things back from just as Chet had written them, in the longhand and he had put that also in the form of a treatment for a screenplay. That was where it was the last time I saw it before it came to Oklahoma. After the time I came to Oklahoma, about a month, six weeks later, I called up Tom and found out that he had died. So I imagine that the manuscript that he had there with him that he was typing may have been collected up and Chet was in Europe at the time. So from what I understand and person I talked then, his parents came in from out of state and I guess, took care of the arrangements. And I don’t know, there were people coming and going in that apartment, he sort of shared this loft with several other people, you know it was one of those types of people where people came and went. Anybody could have gathered it up or the parents may have gathered it up. How it got to Spin magazine uh, I talked to Leif McNeil called me, and said that he had this manuscript that had been sent to him and he was going to send it to me to verify that this is what Chet had written. And it it was Chet’s manuscript, I mean it had the original type written paper plus copies and photocopies of the handwriting. It’s Chet’s work. So anyway, they wanted to print an excerpt from it and I suppose they had to find out who legally it belonged to get permission. So it came to me that way. But you know when Chet came down here several times, he kept saying “I don’t know what happened to my book”, he had a book that he was writing, it just disappeared. Of course Tom died when he was overseas so I think he (Chet) overlooked the fact that it might have been picked up by Tom’s relatives or anybody else there. Anyway, it disappeared, it never turned up, and I don’t think that Chet just wanted to start that all over and he never did. So I was really happy when I got that call and they had come into possession of it because there it was, as Chet had left it.
JJM: So it had been missing for ten years or so?
CB: Yes, I mean the last time I saw Chet, he came to Oklahoma two or three times a year, but the first years like 1982, when he first came down here (I came in 1982), he made mention of it. In fact two or three visits and then he just stopped mentioning it because I guess he just considered it was gone. So, you know, it had been gone what, from when I spoke to him in 82, because that’s when Tom died around July I believe, Chet came down around the end of the year and stayed through Christmas, and he mentioned that he couldn’t find it, he didn’t know what had happened to it. So it just disappeared.
JJM: So Chet had intended this to be an autobiography?
CB: He was just making notes, I think Chet was writing down notes, trying to get as much down as he could remember and I don’t know if he was thinking of going back and sort of embellishing on that when he got done or what. I think he just felt the need to just write some things down, I don’t think he really had anything in mind at the time, it was just something he started to do. And then of course, running into Tom and Tom wanting to do this encouraged him and they began to work together. And then, as I say, Chet was overseas, I was in Oklahoma and suddenly, here’s Tom dead, you know, it was drugs, I didn’t even know he was doing drugs, he kept up a very good front and, you know, he never mentioned that he didn’t do that stuff and I never asked questions. I sort of suspicioned, but anyway, he was a very, very nice guy, good hearted and his heart was in the right place but, you know, of course then he died. So it disappeared and it wasn’t until Lief McNeil contacted me in what, 1990? and asked me about it and I said yes, you know, Chet missed it and he said well we have something, it was sent to us. I’m not even sure who sent it to him or how it came into their possession. But it was Chet’s work…I was really happy to know it was in existence and,you know, the screenplay was there, written by Tom Baker, the whole bit and that’s how it came back to me…very strange. I held onto it and then four years ago I got a very good attorney and of course, everything I had that might be of interest I turned it over to him. Of course, lawyers now also bring you business and he knows people and I guess he was talking to someone at St. Martins Press and they were interested and out came the manuscript and went over to St. Martins Press and we thought it’d be a good idea, I did, if some of the pages were actually in Chet’s writing. Every word is what Chet wrote, every word.
In October of 2001, I was privileged to interview prominent cultural historian Gerald Early, who had just edited a volume of essays called Miles Davis and American Culture. The interview focuses on the complexity of his personality and his musical contributions. A portion of the interview is published below, and you can read the entire interview by clicking here.
JJM How did the Miles Davis and American Culture book come together?
GE The Missouri History Museum decided a couple of years ago that it wanted to do an exhibit on Miles Davis. Normally, when an exhibit is done, there is some kind of book that accompanies it. I was asked if I would be willing to put together a book for the exhibit. I was quite flattered to be asked to do this. At first, I thought it was going to be more of a traditional book, for instance, I would write a long piece about Miles Davis and there would be lots of pictures in it. But, when I got together with Ben Cawthra, the curator of the exhibit, he expressed that he would prefer it to be a collection of essays, exploring different aspects of Miles Davis. So, I thought that was a pretty interesting idea, and it would give the book more value, a longer life and more relevance, especially for people who want to study Miles Davis later. That is basically how the book came to be – to accompany this exhibit.
JJM What did the exhibit feature?
GE It is still up, and will be up until February, 2002. The exhibit has artifacts such as trumpets, costumes that Davis wore on stage, as well as photographs and placards that tell a running narrative of his life. I think people would find it interesting to go, if they have a chance, because you learn a lot of the history of the area Miles grew up in, the Alton and East St. Louis area. East St. Louis is a very interesting city, and the museum did a very good job of getting pictures and artifacts about black people in East St. Louis at the time Miles Davis grew up there. For just that part of the exhibit alone, I think it’s a worthwhile visit.
JJM There are a couple of very nice essays in the book that speak to East St. Louis at the time of Miles’ childhood and also where it is at now. How did you choose the material for the book?
GE We commissioned people to write these original essays, people who had either written about Miles Davis before, or about jazz, or who would, in one way or another, be able to talk about a particular dimension of Miles Davis, and bring some kind of new insight to it. We had a list of maybe 25 names and we got most of the people we wanted.
JJM What was an early defining moment in Miles’ childhood?
GE Probably when he got his first trumpet and started taking trumpet lessons, which led him to become a musician. Miles came from quite a music tradition in East St. Louis and St. Louis, for jazz, at the time he was growing up. He was kind of surrounded by this and absorbed all that was going on at that time. So, getting the trumpet was as much a defining moment as any .