Bio of Miles Davis Distills His Genius

by Joseph B. Rosenberg

So What: The Life of Miles Davis
by John Szwed
Simon & Schuster, 2002

Miles Dewey Davis, 1926-1991, was the Darth Vader of jazz and late 20th century American popular music. In 407 pages of text, author John Szwed takes us from Davis’ middle-class beginnings in East Saint Louis to his death. The book is scrupulously fair to its subject—a troubled genius. It shows him to a mentor of talented musicians, a perpetual womanizer and abuser, a cocaine junkie and the symbol of what a free black man should aspire to. Davis indeed walked the walk and talked the talk.

To all the personal material found here, I can only echo the book’s title: “So What?” Davis’s artistry may have been informed by his persona, but it is his musical direction that fascinates me.

Like Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie before him, Miles Davis had about a 15-year creative period where he made new innovations in his sound and music. Then, unlike Pops and Diz, he decided against just repeating and perfecting his musical approach. More like Ellington, Davis’s music evolved beyond jazz and into the edges of adventurous rock. Like Ellington with Billy Strayhorn, he used Gil Evans as his collaborater, exploring the limits of jazz. But unlike Ellington, who gravitated to more “serious” music, Davis adopted funk, synthesisers and electronic music in general.

The genius of Miles Davis included his ability to package his image, as well as go beyond an aging jazz audience.

While Wynton Marsalis adopted the three-piece suit and erudite manner, Miles acted and dressed like he was a street thug. Both were the object socially of the super-cool and hip, the ying and yang of the modern African-American musician. However, the dark prince—Davis—made a more lasting musical impression, especially with his Prestige and early Columbia albums.

Maybe if trumpet rivals Clifford Brown and Fats Navarro had not died young, they would have pushed Miles Dewey Davis in another direction. In any case Mr.Szwed has written an excellent distillation of genius. So What?, indeed.

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This story was published on March 5, 2003.