Wednesday, March 25, 2009

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


I’m getting the impression that these jazz biographies written by academic jazz professors are less biography and more just a collection of authoritative musings. The last book of this type I read was a biography of Ella Fitzgerald, which was dry and a bit of a disappointment. This book comes close. You wonder if these writers on jazz experience any kind of ecstasy when listening to the music, because it doesn’t come out in their prose.

John Szwed, who is a professor at Yale University, writes well enough. And he is thorough in all the information he gives you about the recordings of Miles Davis, peppering the text with lots of fascinating bits and pieces of information. Yet the way it is all presented is rather lacklustre. Why not allow yourself some enthusiasm for what you write about?

Interspersed between the academic mini-biographies of Davis's albums, there are biographical details of Davis’s actual life: the women, drugs, health problems etc. Indeed, half way through the book there’s an unnumbered chapter (between chapters five and six) simply called Interlude where the author writes about Miles Davis’s personality, with no musical references whatsoever.

This is the odd thing about So What, and why I guess you walk away feeling that the book is lacking some human essence. So What for the greater part examines the discography of Miles Davis, but does it in a kind of quarantine from Miles Davis the man. To me it had always seemed that the biographer has the job of trying to explain the music by the life, and vice versa. Usually both intermingle in a pleasant way that provides meaning for the reader.

It’s not all bad though. Running to 400 pages, there has to be quite a bit of biographical detail, and for Davis nuts, you’re going to find lots of details that you probably didn’t know of. There are also some fascinating quotes from friends and colleagues of Davis, who do their bit to psychoanalyse him.

Needless to say, Miles Davis was an extraordinarily complex man. Someone who was very, very enigmatic and mysterious, even, I would dare venture, to himself. He was full of paradoxes and contradictions. Painfully shy, yet extroverted. Someone who abused women, but needed them to mother him. You get to the end of this biography and realise that you have to be satisfied with not knowing what really drove Miles Davis to make the music he did. Perhaps the only answer is to listen to the music to try and find the answer there.

This book was not so bad, it’s just that I would expect a book on Miles Davis, a major twentieth century artist, to be a page turner. Could you imagine Picasso or Hitchcock getting such a prim and rigid biography of their life and achievements?

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