DARE TO ASK 


While composer Miles Davis had a series of collaborators, mentors and muses to affect his music, the actions that inform his legend, those salacious stories passed around for decades, are constructed out of Davis' self-assured iron will. That makes most books on Miles vastly entertaining and marketable. The chronological interviews and witnessing that snap together as Miles on Miles progresses seem to tell both of those stories, possibly more truthfully than autobiographies and biographies can. While the discussions here are chock-full of the trumpeter's manipulations that suited that moment, the collection transports the narrative beyond the hand-wringing of the most on-message mythmaker ever, save Columbia's other 1960s enigma, Bob Dylan. Miles on Miles ranges from a 1957 Columbia Records publicity interview with Miles' corporate champion, George Avakian, to a 1989 Musician magazine Q&A with Peter Watrous. Between those years, Miles had broken many things in addition to the singular narrative: commercial music conventions, the trust of most jazz critics, both of his legs and at least one jaw that wasn't his own.

Contradictions of darkness and light were critical components of his contributions to American music. You can hear it in the timbre of his trumpet playing; in the choices of chords that he cached, then discharged, over his career; and in the repeated reconfiguring of instruments and personalities that made up the bands Davis cycled through to remain alive, both physically and artistically. Those contradictions are easily paralleled in his own life's actions and words. There is darkness on a mondo scale to pick out of this or any other Miles overview, and this book will do that job without much searching. Miles on Miles delivers pages of the almost tabloid paranoia well-associated with the trumpeter: the ubiquitous addressing of race, his assertion that the phrase "jazz" was racist, his mistrust of women (most often referred to as "bitches") and more amusingly, his disdain for trombones. Some of the stories are familiar to the faithful, but there is still something here beyond Level One Miles rubbernecking.

While Davis mistrusted and even ignored most music journalists — some verbally beaten into submission, deflated early in the interviews and bent to his will by the end — a trusted scribe could be a tour guide to fruitful insight. Nat Hentoff's December 1958 interview for Jazz Review gives readers Miles-as-fortuneteller — a jackpot to the near future. Davis' reverence for arranger and composer Gil Evans runs throughout the book's decades, and Miles telescopes the breakthrough of his own Kind of Blue masterpiece through their collaboration on the orchestral Porgy and Bess album. Davis brags about his mentor's de-emphasis of the quantity of elaborate chords that the 1940s bebop revolution popularized and his re-emphasizing the use of scales in jazz. In three months' time, Miles would further reduce the notated material with the use on Blue of modes, the ancient eight-note scales that didn't easily lend themselves to the cerebral gymnastics of the harmonic experiments of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Bud Powell. During the Hentoff interview, Miles also described a resurgent emphasis on melody over chord complexity. Davis' keen sense of audition served him throughout his professional career, and on the topic of melody he was prescient. This interview directly precedes Ornette Coleman's vault from obscurity to revolutionary transformer by radically discarding set chord structures for extemporaneous experiments with melody.

The health afflictions, cocaine addiction, bizarre social interactions and then redemption when former love interest Cicely Tyson re-enters his life dominate the narrative as the book progresses into and past Miles' 1975-1981 self-exile. By the volume's last third, the aesthetic importance of his '81-'91 recordings seem to be superseded by his public resolve to be understood in interviews with a growing cadre of scribes. Only during this period does the reader get to witness the Miles that his friends and fellow musicians had always spoken of. That caustic, brittle exterior gives way to the rich, creamy center of an artist vigilant about his own work, even in an interview.

Like the spread of Davis biographies, including his enlightening 2000 collaboration with Quincy Troupe, there are plenty of TMZ.com-worthy anecdotes to be gawked at here. Imagine into what shape Miles, who died in 1991, could be bent in today's bandwidth-mad celebrity culture. We'll have to make do with the Don Cheadle—acted and directed biopic to fill that hole in our souls. For the old-timers, there are plenty of recordings and the intrepid work of traditional journalists who rolled the dice and looked Miles in the eye while daring to ask the next question.

music@orlandoweekly.com

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