The Miles Davis Reader
Jazz Book Review By Willard Manus

Exactly one year after the publication of Dark Magus comes another book on the late, great trumpeter and composer, Miles Davis. Unlike Magus, which was written by Miles' son, Gregory Davis, and concentrated mostly on his temptestuous relationship with his father, THE MILES DAVIS READER--INTERVIEWS AND FEATURES FROM DOWNBEAT MAGAZINE, looks at the whole of Miles' life, especially the music he created over a forty-year period (1950-1991).

As edited and compiled by Frank Alkyer, publisher of Downbeat, the new book is a must-read not only for Miles fans but for anyone interested in jazz. Miles, as is wellknown, was the most creative, daring and controversial artist the jazz world has ever known--always trying something new, pushing himself and the others around him to change, experiment, leave the past behind. Starting out as a hard bop player, he went on to straight-ahead jazz, the reinterpretation of show tunes, a lyrical period with Gil Evans (Sketches of Spain), before plunging into jazz/rock and other forms of fusion. He played live in clubs large and small, then opted to tour the world with groups of different sizes (and sometimes comprised of little-known European and African musicians), only to restrict himself in his final years to studio recordings with a mixture of young and old artists.

At the same time, he was writing tunes, movie scores, background music for live theatre--not to speak of marrying and divorcing five times, painting and sketching, driving fast cars, sounding off about politics and racism, raising hell in general.

Change was a given for Miles, says one of the musicians (Marcus Miller) quoted in the MILES DAVIS READER. Example: when Miles heard Prince for the first time, he flipped. "He said he had to get that sound into his music. It was the same with African rhythms. He had to figure out how to incorporate that into what he was doing."

Adds Miller, "You know I go into Sweet Basil and see cats who are 65 doing a perfected version of what they did at 25. That wasn't Miles. He was always pushing. That appeals to me." The pushing took Miles down some new paths, like guesting on the title track of a Shirley Horn album and adding trumpet overdubs to Easy Mo Bee's rap tracks on Doo-Bop.

Peter Shukar, Miles's attorney/manager in his last years, characterizes Miles thusly: "In a word, I'd describe him as mercurial. Some days he loved you, some days he hated you. Some days he would talk to you. Others days he wouldn't. But to the end, he was moving forward. My theory on him performing with his back to the audience was that he didn't want to look back."

Comprised of hundreds of articles, features, liner notes and reviews about Miles Davis, THE MILES DAVIS READER is only one of many books on Miles--no other jazz musician has had so much written about him--but it still manages to shed new light on him. Regarding his so-called "silent years" (1975-80), the book reveals that Miles was seriously ill (bursitis, arthritis, a bleeding ulcer) and "chemically debilitated" (cognac, cocaine, painkillers). His volatile personality often went out of control and turned violent, especially toward the women in his life.

But in the mid-1980s he managed to pull out of this tailspin and begin playing again. Not only did he make significant records (Tutu and Amandla), but he began to once again pass on his musical wisdom to the eager young players around him. Keyboardist Adam Holzman, who played with Miles from 1985-89, recalls how he would critique the band after every night's performance. "He'd make suggestions," Holzman said. "Even if you didn't nail things, he'd be encouraging...His suggestions weren't crystal clear, but they got you thinking. One time instead of referring to a riff or chord change, he said 'you should subdivide what you're playing.' It was up to me to interpret that or run the risk of falling flat that night."

More a chronological history than a biography, THE MILES DAVIS READER is a testament to the life and accomplishments of the jazzman one Downbeat critic rightly called "The Chief." (Hal Leonard Books, $24.95 hdbnd).