Miles on Miles (review: 4/5)

You don’t know how to play better just because you’ve suffered. The blues don’t come from picking cotton.

I’ve never read anything quite like Miles on Miles: Interviews and Encounters with Miles Davis. The book collects about four decades’ worth of his life, broken up across a couple dozen interviews that were published in small jazz magazines all the way up to big serials like Newsweek and Rolling Stone. Some were with notable music journalists, a few with overmatched college radio station DJs.

The interviews start up in the late 1950s, about 10 years after he got his start with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and a couple years after he kicked his heroin habit. The general consensus, even back then: he was bleeping brilliant, charismatic, deeply flawed. Behind the gruff, badass facade was a sensitive, needy man. As the book goes on, it’s cool to see how the different interviewers sum up the career to date, through the shifting bands, radical changes in style, divorces, illness, new addictions. At some points in his life, he’s gregarious, absurdly fit from boxing, full of ideas. Later, for several years, he pretty much didn’t do much aside from drugs, rarely even leaving his house.

I don’t like to lay back. I don’t like to relax. Show me a motherfucker that’s relaxed, and I’ll show you a motherfucker that’s afraid of success.

You might have to like Miles to make it through his harangues. There weren’t a whole lot of brilliant comments or analysis of music. He usually avoided commenting on his own music, insistent that the past is dead, and I didn’t see a whole lot of criticism of other artists.

I usually don’t buy jazz records. They make me tired and depressed.

But I loved seeing how he phrased things, how he responds to similar questions over the years, and how he remembers and retells things differently. And there are occasional asides that I never would have expected:

I don’t know where I want to live. But the best time I ever had in my life, other than playing trumpet, was when I was out in the country riding horses.

Brian Eno, Thinking about Miles Davis in an un-Miles Davis like way:

Miles was an intelligent man, by all accounts, and must have become increasingly aware of the power of his personal charisma, especially in the later years as he watched his reputation grow over his declining trumpeting skills. Perhaps he said to himself: These people are hearing a lot more context than music, so perhaps I accept that I am now primarily a context maker. My art is not just what comes out of the end of my trumpet or appears on a record, but a larger experience which is intimately connected to who I appear to be, to my life and charisma, to the Miles Davis story. In that scenario, the ‘music’, the sonic bit, could end up being quite a small part of the whole experience. Developing the context—the package, the delivery system, the buzz, the spin, the story—might itself become the art. Like perfume…

Professional critics in particular find such suggestions objectionable. They have invested heavily in the idea that music itself offers intrinsic, objective, self-contained criteria that allow you to make judgments of worthiness. In the pursuit of True Value and other things with capital letters, they reject as immoral the idea that an artist could be ‘manipulative’ in this way. It seems to them cynical: they want to believe, to be certain that this was The Truth, a pure expression of spirit wrought in sound. They want it to be ‘out there’, ‘real’, but now they’re getting the message that what it’s worth is sort of connected with how much they’re prepared to take part in the fabrication of a story about it. Awful! To discover that you’re actually a co-conspirator in the creation of value, caught in the act of make-believe.

Miles Davis on drawing as therapy:

Yeah, you know, I stopped for a while. I really started to sketch again after I married Cicely. Because she takes so long. You know how actresses are. They take so long to get ready for anything, you know. Rather than scream at her, I just started sketching.