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Sons of Miles
MILES OF WORDS
by Mike Zwerin
8 April 1999


It's too bad "Miles," the autobiography of Miles Davis, wasn't a compact disc. There's some good shit there but...please excuse the four-letter word. Reading this book gets you accustomed to being in their company. You would like to be able to program only half the tracks.

This is a tough slim volume disguised as a flabby 431-page, $22.95 tome. You keep wanting to tell this master who fostered two generations and at least four musical styles to "play not talk," as he once told an auditioning musician.

"Miles," though written "with" Quincy Troupe, does not lean on a ghost. It does not go begging for the mass market and it is anything but one of those "I love everybody and everybody loves me" puff jobs.

The musical passages deserve to be collected into a pamphlet for required reading in conservatories. There's material about racism in music that everybody knows but few people come out and say. The progammable half also contains some stranger than fiction information about colleagues and stars and ex-wives and girlfriends. There's enough gossip and sex, drugs and violence for one and all.

But you would expect somebody called the "Prince of Silence" to choose his words with more care. He calls it "no respect" when Ornette Colemen first "tried to play trumpet and violin. ...He couldn't play either one of those instruments. That was an insult to people like me and Diz [Gillespie]. I certainly wouldn't walk up on stage and try to play saxophone if I couldn't play." Whatever happened to the benefit of the doubt?

"Miles" is riddled with redundancy (we are told he learned phrasing from Frank Sinatra and Orson Welles at least three times), unnecessary detail ("'Freddie Freeloader' was a song named after this black guy I knew who was always seeing what he could get from you for free") and crippled prose ("my only connection with the outside world was mostly through watching television"). All of it buried under a heavy load of scatology.

Lenny Bruce taught us that there are no dirty words, just dirty minds. But the tone here is sour; sheer quantity offends. Irony, ambiguity and grace rarely enter the picture. The relationship of spoken to written words is like that of live improvisation to a recording. This reads like the first take of a master who doesn't want to bother hanging around the studio. (Word was out that he hasn't read his book and doesn't intend to).

It would be easy to criticize the editing but you can understand a collaborator not wanting to push the personality presented here too hard. People are afraid of him, he admits, "because of my reputation for bluntness and liking to be left alone."

After firing his manager, David Franklin, after the latter negotiated a seven-figure recording contract with Warner Brothers that gives the recording company publishing rights (without explaining why he himself signed it), the prince proves his mastery of revenge (which, as we have been told by Archie Bunker, is the best way to get even): "That's why you don't see my songs on my new albums: Warner Brothers would get the rights to use those tunes, not me. So until we renegotiate that point, you're going to always see someone else's tunes on my records."

Toward the end of his relationship with his wife - the actress Cicely Tyson - they had an argument and she "jumped up on my back and pulled my hair weave right out of my head." He slapped her and "before I knew it I slapped her again." He "punched out" his road manager Jim Rose "upside the head" in a dispute over money. Obviously, both deserved it.

He fired his nephew, the drummer Vincent Wilburn, because he kept "dropping the time." (Is that really essential public information?) Miles's sister and her husband both called asking that he at least wait until after a concert in Chicago, their home, so it would be less embarrassing for their son. Miles refused: "Music don't have friends like that." He admits to not being a "proper father, but that just wasn't my thing."


Miles Davis


He used every drug from the Golden Triangle to Medellin by way of Cognac and Virginia (four packs a day). He stopped because he had a stroke and anyway it was getting boring. Which rings true. There is, thankfully, no moralizing. However, when he says that the only thing wrong with cocaine is that you can get busted for it, this is inconsistent at the very least. But he's even up-front about copping out: "I have few regrets and little guilt. Those regrets I do have I don't want to talk about."

So many people disappointed him - Bird, Duke, Blakey. This insomniac seemed to spend his time with his valet in his Central Park South apartment and Malibu beach house, brooding and stroking his ego: "Some of the critics were talking about how aloof I was, but that didn't bother me; I had been this way all my life." He and John Coltrane did not get along at first because "my silence and evil looks probably turned him off."

The author looks in the mirror and says to himself how handsome he is.

"Many people he's known don't call any more," Quincy Troupe told Vanity Fair. "I saw Max Roach and Sonny Rollins the other day. They said 'How's Miles?' They used to all be like brothers. Miles still says 'Max is my brother.' But they don't see each other."

Only music - and Gil Evans - never let him down.

About the present vs the past: "When I hear musicians today playing all those same licks we used to play so long ago, I feel sad for them. I mean, it's like going to bed with a real old person who even smells real old. Now, I'm not putting down old people because I'm getting older myself. But I got to be honest, and that's what it reminds me of. Most people my age like old, stuffy furniture. I like bold colors and long, sleek spare lines."


Photo: Miles Davis
Credit: Christian Rose

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