Review by Willard Manus
subtitle, The Jekyll and Hyde Life of Miles Davis, tells a lot about the
volume under review. Written by Miles' son Gregory Davis (with Les Sussman),
the biography of one of the jazz world's greatest trumpeters is a fascinating,
if chilling story. As much as one loves Miles's trumpet playing, his daring
spirit as an artist and innovator, it was hard to like the man himself,
even when he was on his best behavior.
"Miles was a man who inspired an international community of music lovers to appreciate, emulate, and even to revere him. Yet his genius never equipped him to develop the personal, familial and social skills that most of us take for granted."
The author sketches Miles's origins: born to successful but tough, overbearing parents who acted like drill instructors around the house. Miles grew up "shy and moody, aloof and introspective...He loved sports, clothes and cars--in just about that order."
Under the tutelage of an East St. Louis music teacher and horn player named Elwood Buchanan, Miles started on the trumpet at an early age, pretty much copying Buchanan's sound and vibrato-less technique--a middle-register approach, emphasis on tone. "My father loved that sound," Gregory Davis writes, "and gradually evolved it into the unique and distinctive style that helped make him famous--the Miles Davis trademark, super stingy chord structures, middle-register pitch, spatial phrases and hanging notes."
Another early influence was Clark Terry, St. Louis's leading trumpet player. Terry was tough to please, though. When, at Buchanan's urging, he first heard Miles play, he said, "He's okay for a kid, but nothing to write home about."
Two years later Terry changed his mind about Miles and began taking him to clubs and studio sessions. He also tightened up his technique and introduced him to the flugelhorn, an instrument Miles began to excel in. "That little mothafucka's got balls," Terry admitted.
Terry has contributed a foreword to the book. "Miles wasn't a saint," he writes. "I can tell you that much because I knew him for a long, long time. But he was also a great man and I miss him very much."
After a short stint with the Billy Eckstine band, Miles split for New York at age eighteen and enrolled in Juilliard, only to become disillusioned with the school, which he denounced as "just another bigoted institution, promoting the concept of Anglo-Saxon superiority to middle-class Americans in general amd to the people called Negroes in particular." His real education came in listening to such musicians as Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell and Max Roach, to name but a few. He also became close to a talented but little-known trumpeter, Freddie Webster, "one of the baddest dudes ever to pick up a horn."
It wasn't long before Miles blew his way to the forefront of the modern jazz scene, a position he held over the next twenty years, thanks to his phenomenal talent, ever-daring experimentation
and ferocious work habits. Fame, money and power followed, but they didn't bring peace and happiness to this deeply flawed man. Drugs, busted marriages and feuds with friends, jazz critics and family (including Gregory Davis, whom he cut out of his will) messed up his personal life, but through it all he kept playing, painting (his oils were first-rate), cooking, boxing, driving fast cars and battling racism.
"I think he always sought the equilibrium of normalcy in his life but was never able to find it," the author sums up. "He was just using up too much energy by burning the candle at both ends."