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So What: Miles Davis Biography Hits Paperback

“There already exist several biographies of Miles Davis, as well as his autobiography and a memoir from his collaborator. Why then am I writing yet another Davis biography?” John Szwed writes in introduction to So What: The Life of Miles Davis. Szwed answers by saying that there is “still more to be known and a number of misunderstandings to be corrected.”

Just over 10 years after his death, there is still much room for perspective and insight into Miles Davis and his music, and So What is accessible, detailed, fresh and thoughtful. Published by Simon and Schuster in hardcover in 2002, it is now available in paperback.

Szwed offers an even-keeled and unidealized version of Davis, and makes great strides towards capturing the complexity of the man. He attacks the mythology of Miles, denying the existence of the fabled loss in a trumpet contest to an obviously inferior white boy, an event supposedly fueling Miles’ passion against discrimination. In fact, Szwed sees Miles’ childhood as “uneventful” and “archetypal.”

Szwed continues, offering insight into the drug abuse, love affairs and most importantly, the music. On Miles’ refusal to acknowledge the audience, on turning his back on the audience, Szwed calls for reconsideration: “Nothing that I have seen suggests that he actually turned his back on the audience.” Szwed cites Davis’ shyness, his history of sometimes playing quieter, almost hiding within his band, as well as Miles’ aversion to looking at the audience. The author compares Davis’ three-quarter style-part facing in, part out-to contemporary theatre practice.

Szwed, a Musser Professor of Anthropology, African American Studies, Music and American Studies at Yale University, is also the author of Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra, and as a result of his work was recently appointed the 2003-2004 Louis Armstrong Visiting Professor of Jazz Studies at Columbia University.

Originally Published