TAKE NO PRISONERS
Miles Davis Penned Popular Music’s Best Autobiography
The jazz legend was often rude and crude and always full of attitude. He was also always worth listening to, whether playing or talking. His life story is a mother lode of wisdom.
We live in an age where any semblance of passion tends to be viewed as a pejorative. Have/show some, and you’re branded intense in a society where “chill” is preferred—meaning, you can’t be roused to get off your ass and go hard for anything, which makes other people packing that same boat to the gunwale feel better about themselves.
You want to know who was one intense dude? Miles Davis. And as he was quick to point out in his autobiography to some upper crust dilettante who dared asked him what he had ever done, he changed the history of music about six times.
I find music autobiographies fascinating in how readily they break down into two categories. Often, they are going to be these ridiculously solipsistic affairs of someone rehashing the glory days.
Ever meet up with your ex-high school sports teammate a decade or two later in life, and they’re still going on about how they scored the big goal against your rivals in some game you only patchily remember because, lo, you’re an adult who moved on to more substantive things? That’s how a lot of musician autobiographies read, with there seemingly being more clichés than the whole totality of notes our musician-turned-scribe ever played.
But when you get out of Suckville, you find that there’s no connecting town between that dreary lowland and the toppermost of the poppermost, musician autobiography-wise, as the Beatles might have put it. We find, instead, books that function as legit art on their own. It’s as though the musician has understood the relationship between sound and sense in a manner that few ever have. Certain writers got this connection—Flaubert, Fitzgerald, Proust, Chekhov. I think Miles Davis had it more than any other musician, though, in part because of his forms of music, which helped him write the best ever book by a popular musical artist.
Davis is sweeping back into the cultural news thanks to a just released box set, Miles Davis & John Coltrane: The Final Tour, that documents his final tour with John Coltrane in the spring of 1960. People freaking love Coltrane. He’s the jazz musician who can do no wrong nowadays, in part because of his spiritual vibe. He has the peaceful aura. Which is ironic, because on that last tour with Davis, it was Coltrane who was the truculent, bad mother. He’d stand at the front of the stage and unleash long, atonal solos that people just were not ready for. There were near riots, but Davis let his soon-to-be-ex-tenor star do as he pleased, learning in the process about how he might become a better composer through shaping the ideas and retailoring the strengths of others, rather than just coming up with a new melody and putting it through its modal paces. For you see, Miles Davis could be a massive, massive dick, but he was always a learner, always a shaper.
Miles: The Autobiography, co-written with Quincy Troupe, first came out in 1989. We talk about voice in writing, and I rarely see it. You encounter lots of poses, certainly. You encounter the stock MFA voice that is passive, neutral, so dead on the vine as to be a ghost of a fruit trying to remember what it’s like to be an actual fruit.
The best musician autobiographies have voice. Consider Keith Richards’ Dickensian Life. Right from the title you know you are in for a piss take—Richards as philosopher!—that is going to charm you like only the very best of rakehells can, with wisdom emerging not through focused argument or storytelling, but in asides, a rotation of slips and assertions of logic, humor that offers a dressing for pain—in short, how wisdom actually works in, what do you know, life.
Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, Volume I was a tour around the mind of a genius, localizing what was important for that genius to say at a given time in his life. It’s a shifty book. Not a capricious one, but it ties us into a frame of mind at a given point of a human’s existence that pulls off the paradoxical trick of illuminating other points of existence that that the writer is neither in nor directly signaling. Which is actually pretty Faulknerian, like what we see in The Sound and the Fury. Again, we are a long way away from Suckville.
Davis was as smart as Dylan, but never as cagey, and more emotive and less strategic about showing emotion. As writers, we might think of Dylan as the fighter who bides his time, dances, ducks in close to see what opportunities to land a blow may present themselves, retreats, shapes his coming moment, then delivers. Davis, instead, charges out of his corner and he decks you. Then he helps you get off of the mat so that he can deck you again. Then he decks himself, he decks the ref, the crowd, every last soul who tries to serve as his trainer, and what we have is less of a bloodbath and more a restorative, invigorating bath, because we are awash in truths.
He certainly doesn’t struggle with revealing his self-awareness in this volume, though these days if you know what you are and say it, you terrify people who brand you a rampant egoist, as though we should all wear hairshirts and humble brag our lives away. “Being rebellious and black, a nonconformist, being cool and hip and angry and sophisticated and ultra clean, whatever else you want to call it, I was all those things and more,” Davis writes. “But I was playing the fuck out of my horn and had a great group, so I didn’t get recognition based on a rebel image. I was playing my horn and leading the baddest band in the business.” The “ultra clean” line is funny. He mostly means that he’s off smack, but with Davis, you also get the sense that he’s referring to orifices, if you wish to place your tongue there. We talk of snowflakes often, now. I don’t think Davis would enjoy himself much in our age. I try to think of groups he’d side with, but I know there wouldn’t be any. This was a renaissance individual. In other words, a member of what would be the smallest group in the world right now.
The group he references above was his first great quintet, with Coltrane playing tenor. So, yeah, a bad mother of a group. That unit would cease to be before Trane and Miles stopped working together in their off-again-on-again partnership, in all of its volatility, which we hear culminate on the new box set of those last live recordings from 1960. That first year of the new decade was a crazy one for jazz, with Ornette Coleman wowing a lot of writers into a lot of puff pieces about the New Thing. Davis thought Coleman sucked, and “a jealous kind of dude, man. Jealous of other musicians’ success.” But Davis loved Trane, even when he hated Trane the junkie, and hated Trane for what Davis saw as a needless career move, in busting out on his own. Regarding that last tour, Trane “decided to go with us, but he grumbled and complained and sat by himself all the time we were over there.” Not hard to doubt—Trane was one moody dude, the kind of person who becomes enveloped by their mood. But on the stage, for those last few shows in tandem, the Davis/Trane alliance all but cracked the sky open with their collective sound—it’s a wonder that the gods didn’t fall through the chasm and start piling up on the stage.
We see instances of racism in The Autobiography, but Miles Davis was not a Black Lives Matter kind of dude. More powerfully than racism, he denotes other forms of discrimination that we never talk about now because we’re too busy going on and on about race and gender. But he bristles and lashes out over jealousy, the fact that people find him terrifying on account of his genius, the fact that people want to put stones in his pass way because he can do things with a horn that they cannot do anywhere else in their life. And excuses? Being triggered? Yeah—Miles Davis probably wasn’t someone you wanted to run to if you were not a veritable master of culpability.
Philly Joe Jones was an amazing drummer with a smack problem who worked for Davis for a while. Davis describes a winter day when it was snowing out and he ended up at Jones’ drug dealer with him. The dealer is not home, they wait in the snow, finally he turns up, Jones goes into the bathroom and vomits because he needs his fix, Davis buys the heroin. “I always kept an extra stash for emergencies, but I never let Philly know about it, because he would try to beg me out of it,” Davis writes.
Back on the street, Jones goes into this fairly convincing sob story about his sickness, asking Davis to keep loving him, that it’s not his fault, it’s God’s for making him that way. Davis wasn’t exactly convinced. “When I heard that I almost died laughing, that shit was so funny—so quick and hip. But I still went home madder than a motherfucker and swore that I was going to try to keep out of that kind of bullshit from then on.”
Note the aversion to the excuse, even if the excuse is valid, or some degree of valid, maybe. Davis doesn’t care. He cares about his band—which helps him make his art—and his health, which does the same. Davis’ own musical assessments—what we would call “takes” now—have the same burnished sonic qualities evident when he used the Harmon mute. When he describes why it was such a challenge for horn men to work with Thelonious Monk, hear in your head how these words unfurl like a cadenza at the close of a Miles Davis/Gil Evans collaboration: “Monk couldn’t play too tough with most horn players, in my opinion, and especially trumpet players. Trumpets don’t have that many notes, so you really have to push that rhythm section and that wasn’t Monk’s thing. A trumpet player needs the rhythm section to be hot even if he is playing a ballad. You got to have that kicking thing.”
That kicking thing. Apt Davis phrase. Miles: The Autobiography is an endless jazz/prose symphony of kicking things. It is a delight, one might even say, of boot meeting ass, on a loop, until that feels less like a remonstration and more like a directive to have higher standards for yourself, for others, for society, for art, for the autobiographies and memoirs you will spend your time with. You give yourself over to a book like this, no safety word required.