So What: The Life of Miles Davis Paperback – 6 Nov 2003
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So What: The Life of Miles Davis chronicles the life of the most significant and influential figure in the history of jazz. Armstrong and Parker may have been more important improvisers, and Ellington was undoubtedly the most significant composer, but Miles Davis changed the face of the genre--as a soloist, as a leader, as an innovator, as an icon of style and attitude. And his album Kind of Blue is the bestselling jazz disc of all time, the one jazz masterpiece that many people own who otherwise dislike the genre.
But Miles' genius went alongside some extremely controversial aspects of his personality--his difficult, temperamental behaviour (often exacerbated by cocaine abuse) made him frequently impossible to deal with, and his famous rudeness and disdain towards audiences was based as much on his dislike of his white admirers as on his refusal to pander to any facile concept of being an "entertainer"--Miles was deadly serious about his work, and the astonishing range of his achievement from his days as a sideman for Charlie Parker to his later flirtations with rock (however contentious the latter) kept him at the forefront of his profession.
John Szwed's remarkable So What: The Life of Miles Davis is quite the best book on the trumpeter to appear yet, including the musician's own self-serving autobiography. While admiring Miles inordinately as a musician, (Szwed's analyses of such classic albums as Sketches of Spain is nonpareil), he is unsparing of such aspects of Davis' personality as his racism (while Miles may have been fully justified in responding to the racist behaviour he encountered at the hands of the police, Szwed does not excuse him for his cynical use of such great white musicians as the pianist Bill Evans or the arranger Gil Evans while simultaneously disdaining them: "we don't need your white opinions", he famously said to Bill Evans, even though he greatly valued his musical ideas.
As a picture of a complex and remarkable musician, So What is absolutely definitive--and like all the best biographies, the author's admiration for his subject doesn't blind him to the many unpalatable aspects of the man's personality. --Barry Forshaw --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
" Szwed mixes terrific musical analysis with a deep insight into Davis's life, character and collaboration" (Evening Standard)
"Szwed is an accomplished sifter of wheat from the chaff. He is not only a musicologist, he is an anthripologist" (The Times)
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These often gave me a slightly greater insight into why certain things happened as they did, how recordings were put together, and so on. There are familiar, and harrowing, tales of Davis’s infamous mistreatment of some of those in his life, especially the women but, without sensationalising, Szwed is perhaps a little clearer about what happened and how bad it was. This is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a hagiography.
Similarly, where some authors have performed all sorts of gymnastics in order to throw a good light on the music Miles made during his final decade, Szwed is less forgiving. (I will admit here that, whilst being extremely pleased that Davis, who lived comparatively on the edge financially for most of his career, made a lot of money during that period, the only recording I feel happy listening to from the period is Aura.) Of Decoy, for example, he remarks that the record is less interesting than the live performances (without, I have to add, the corollary that that is not saying very much, in my opinion). He rightly dismisses suggestions that Davis at any point “sold out”, though, pointing out that In A Silent Way, one of the “sell out” records, comprised two pieces of eighteen minutes each, a time which in itself guaranteed it would receive no radio airtime.
Perhaps one of its greatest strengths is that it makes an attempt to get to why the best of Miles’s music was so exciting.Read more ›