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Miles Davis and American Culture by Gerald Early

Were he still alive, Miles Davis would have been 75 this past May 26. The occasion has sparked something of a mini-retrospective of the seminal trumpeter and co-founder of three schools of jazz-cool, hard bop and fusion.

Today, though, the bone pickers aren’t just music critics. They are the historians and assorted other deep thinkers who are trying to appropriate him for their own cause.

Some, such as Eric Porter, claiming in Miles Davis and American Culture, that Davis’ music “challenged racial, cultural [and] aesthetic boundaries.” Others, like Robin D.G. Kelly, writing in The New York Times, see Davis as “not merely an isolated mad genius but also a product…of what we might call the pimp aesthetic.” Davis was what the Times quaintly calls the “ultimate Negro With Attitude” coming “across as a baaaad man of the highest order.”

Could Davis be both a revolutionary and a pimp? “The verdict seemed to be,” Kelly writes, “that pimps will always be pimps no matter how much they hate ‘the man.'”

Fortunately, though, at least one analyst writing today sees Davis for what he was to most of us who love him-not a pimp, not a revolutionary, not an NWA, neither druggie nor wife beater-but a phenomenally inventive musician. Martha Bayles’ essay, “Miles Davis and the Double Audience,” serves as the backbone of a collection of some 17 articles and interviews collected in Miles Davis and American Culture by Gerald Early, a professor of American culture at Washington University in St. Louis.

Bayles writes that despite Davis’ anger toward prejudiced whites or women or whomever, he played his music for everyone. “Creatively if not psychologically,” Bayles says, “Davis was an extrovert who cultivated both his art and his audience and refused to neglect either.”

He didn’t care if you loved him, but he damn sure cared if you loved his music. That was one of the keys to his long-term success, and why he still has a larger audience than almost any other jazz musician-alive or dead. Davis’ desire for an audience of any color also motivated some of his harshest musical critics, such as Stanley Crouch, who accused Davis of being “the most remarkable licker of monied boots.”

The various essays in this book-written mostly by academics-have their own slants on Davis, who he was and what he represented. Most have interesting things to say, even if it’s sometimes said in bloated academic jargon. And none state it as clearly as Davis did with his horn and with his words.

So, just who was Davis? A large clue is provided in the appendix of Miles Davis and American Culture, where the famous 1962 Playboy magazine interview with Davis is reprinted.

“Look man,” he tells interviewer Alex Haley, “all I am is a trumpet player. I only can do one thing-play my horn-and that’s what’s at the bottom of the whole mess.”

-Jeff Waggoner

Originally Published