On a hot day a few summers ago, I took a trip to Woodlawn Cemetery, in the Bronx, with my dad. It is an enormous place, so even with the official map it took some time to find who we were looking for. Eventually we stopped the car and got out to front a large black slab, inscribed with two bars of music, so shiny that we could see our own reflections in it. This was the tomb of “Sir” Miles Davis (he was a member of the Knights of Malta), the man who had helped inspire my dad to devote himself to jazz bass.
Through my dad’s influence, I have been listening to jazz all my life (though not always intentionally), and I have come to know and love most of the great names. Some of them were right there in the cemetery: Duke Ellington, Max Roach, Coleman Hawkins. It was with this background that I approached Miles Davis’s autobiography, and I loved every minute of it.
The magic of this book is the skill with which Quincy Troupe has captured Miles’s voice. He is completely there, in all his profane glory (much to the chagrin of some readers). This, combined with an uncanny impersonation by Dion Graham in the audiobook, makes you feel like you are right in the room with him. But of course the person who ultimately deserves the credit is Miles himself, for agreeing to the project, and for being just so uncompromisingly blunt. His raw honesty is what makes this into a great autobiography.
And if you are in any way a jazz fan, this is a real feast. Miles knew close to everybody. From the very beginning of his career, he was thrown in with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, right at the center of the Bebop world. His stories of Charlie Parker alone—who seems to prefigure Miles in many ways—are worth the price of the book. After his early years, Miles becomes a bandleader, and helps to launch the careers of many other musical giants: Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans, John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock… In short, for decades Miles’s career was at the very center of jazz history. And more often than not, he was at the vanguard.
But this book is not just namedropping and a few memorable anecdotes. As I said, Miles the man really comes alive in these pages, and that means, most of all, his love for the music. Near the end of the book, he describes himself as having “musical demons,” and I think that is an apt description of the way that music ruled his life. It really seemed to open up the finest part of his nature: not only in pure musical expression, but also in his treatment of other musicians. Despite his mean reputation, he is generosity itself when discussing the accomplishments of his fellows, and does not stint on praise. This is what, I think, made him such an effective bandleader—he could really appreciate different sorts of musical gifts.
The dark side to an overwhelming obsession like this is that it leaves little in your life for other things. This is apparent in his often abysmal—indeed, abusive—treatment of the women in his life. This is perhaps even more apparent in his behavior as a father—or lack thereof, as his four children are barely mentioned at all in the book (he takes time to criticize two of his sons, though admits he had not been much of a father). Another major theme is drug abuse—an occupational hazard of touring musicians, I suppose—which ebbs and flows throughout his life. Indeed, his substance abuse and mistreatment of women often go hand in hand, as he depends on women either to enable his habit or to help him get clean. Suffice to say that this isn’t the autobiography of a saint.
The final impression is of a deeply restless man. He was never fully satisfied, and never content to sit on his laurels. This is what enabled him to stay musically innovative for so long, this constant searching. It is only near the end of his life that he seems to achieve a modicum of peace, and he accomplished this by turning to painting—another creative outlet that would make the musical demons quiet down. (I quite like his paintings, actually.)
As far as political opinions go, there really is only one Miles expresses, but he does so over and over: That white Americans are stealing black culture—copying styles of music and making millions off of them. Now, to me, this seems to be an obvious fact, as it has repeatedly happened throughout the course of history, most notoriously with Elvis Presley. So I cannot fault him for being resentful. I also think Miles is onto something when he says that black music is America’s one great contribution to world culture.
I picked up this book feeling curious, and put it down nearly obsessed with Miles. It is worth reading because he was one of the major musical forces of the last century, but also because it is simply a great autobiography by any standard. Miles was a complex, and contradictory person, and the book seems to capture his every vice and virtue, and even his living voice. I wish it were longer.