Miles On Miles—Interviews and Encounters with Miles Davis
Miles Smiles, and the Invention of Post Bop
Clawing at the Limits of Cool
By Farah Jasmine Griffin and Salim Washington (Thomas Dunne Books)
Trudging through these books on the life and music of the enigmatic Miles Davis, trumpet great and brilliant conceptualist, one is forced to suggest that the experience be titled Miles of Miles. So much has already been written on Davis. This trio of writings adds little to our knowledge of the man, yet all are somewhat interesting reading.
The most worthy, Miles on Miles, gathers various magazine, newspaper, radio and TV interviews with the Prince of Darkness from late 1957 through mid-1989 and includes three posthumous remembrances from 1998 by musician-journalist Mike Zwerin, seven years after the trumpeter’s death. The general tenor of this anthology is that Davis was a genius who was a combination of opposing elements: a prince and a prick, nice as well as nasty, a misogynist who attracted numerous women whom he mistreated. He was distrustful of almost everyone, which led him to be the bane of most interviewers.
Difficult is too mild a descriptive for him. The best and most illustrative of these relatively short works are those by jazz critics Nat Hentoff and Leonard Feather, as well as conversations with writer Eric Nisenson and radio host-musician Ben Sidran.
Miles Smiles offers a scholarly and detailed view of Davis’ career and primary albums and ensembles, from Birth of the Cool through Bags’ Groove, his first great quintet with John Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones, Milestones, Kind of Blue, his orchestral collaborations with Gil Evans and his second great quintet with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams, with particular emphasis on the second of that group’s albums, Miles Smiles, which author Jeremy Yudkin, a music professor at Boston University and Oxford, considers the ultimate effort. Yudkin, who at times gets a bit verbose, also offers some confusing writing and his descriptions of the various musical works will probably be of interest only to musicians. (For players, however, his inclusion of musical staff overviews of various tunes and solos is to be much admired.)
The title of Clawing at the Limits of Cool stems from the writings of Amiri Baraka and is an exposition of the lives and music of both Davis and Coltrane. Like the other books here, it details the dichotomy that was Miles Davis, making note of his greatness, as well as his frequent periods of wasted life, his arrogance and wealthy lifestyle, etc. It also goes into the drug problems of both musicians, as well as others in the Davis band, but dwells too much on the spiritual salvation and renewal Coltrane found by ending his addiction. The book also goes too deeply into sociopolitical explanations for the Davis-Coltrane music, as well as its supposed African links. It also suffers from some confusing writing and moralist preaching in the final chapter, which credits Coltrane for influencing world music, rock and more.