Saturday, April 2, 2016

Miles from everything

I went from reading a biography about Thelonious Monk to reading this autobiography by Miles Davis, and I have to say, you would be hard pressed to find two more diametrically different books about jazz artists. Where the Monk book was carefully researched, cross checked, and objectively constructed, the Davis book is filled with suppositions, vague recollections, and biased, one-sided editorial comments. Of course, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk were also two completely different kinds of people, one rich, outspoken and philandering, the other poor, quiet, and dedicated to his family. Really, the only thing these two jazz greats share is their love of, and their impact on, jazz music.

Not your average autobiography

One thing that drove me crazy about the Miles Davis book is his (and his writer’s) insistence on not checking anything. There are pages of anecdotes that begin or end with comments like, “At least that’s what I think happened,” or “…during that year, or maybe the year after, or the year before, I don’t remember.” Really? You can’t call someone and ask them when they came and bailed you out of jail (or whatever)? Then there’s the “I don’t want to say who it was, because they are still alive, but …” and he then proceeds to lambaste this person were supposed to guess about, but later in the book, he’ll write pages about how much he hates Wynton Marsalis, or how Dizzy Gillespie is pandering to white people and businessmen, or how some (evil and white) record producer screwed him over. I guess it’s okay for him to draw random lines with his hatred, but it doesn’t make for the best reading.

Also telling for me was how he glossed over the fact that his was a privileged upbringing. With a well-respected dentist father and a musically inclined mother, Miles and his family owned, land, stocks, buildings, cars, all the trappings. Just being aware of that makes his railings against white-dominated society sound hollow and contrived. And I don’t want to start or continue a big racial argument, but it seems to me that Miles only played the race card when it was to his real or perceived benefit. All the rest of the time, he was perfectly content to take white people’s money and bask in their adulation.

There are no two ways about it: Miles Davis was a polarizing character in the world of music who neither invited controversy nor did anything to avoid it. As a result, it is hard to take anything he says at face value, even when he is talking about his own life. I found it oddly curious, too, how after reading about Monk, I wanted to explore his music and learn more about it, get deeper into it, but while reading Miles’ book, I didn’t have any curiosity or desire about his work fanned inside me. Probably the fact that I am already well familiar with Miles’ music and the fact that it played a role in setting me on the path toward learning and playing jazz in the first place have something to do with it. But I would have thought I would feel at least a small spark of passion to explore something, anything, of Miles’ work based on what I read about it. But when I finished reading, I was maybe not disinterested, just not willing to expend any extra effort to experience his music. (While reading Monk’s biography, I bought 6 CD’s and two books of sheet music of Thelonious Monk – quite a different reaction.)

I’m still glad I read this book, and I feel like I learned something. I just feel like the time spent didn’t have quite the payoff I hoped. At least that much is completely unlike his music, which pays off every time I listen to it, so I suppose I am simply more grateful for the music itself than for its history. That’s just as well.