In July, 1992, my father purchased the album Doo Bop, the last studio album completed by the late Miles Dewey Davis, III. Through my father and uncles, I had been exposed to jazz music and knew the names of many of the greatest artists to ever perform. I grew to love the music and that has not changed to this day. In fact, I still listen to the album when I get in the mood to hear Miles’ songs. When he died on September 28, 1991, I remember my uncle and dad being devastated. Both he and my father were huge fans of Davis but were also aware of the chaotic life Davis had led. They would often spend hours discussion Miles, jazz and the other legends of the genre over wine, rum and cigars. When Miles he died he was less than 70 years of age and his death seemed surreal at the time. Today, many years after his death, his legacy lives on and his music continues to be study for inspiration and analysis. In 2016, the movie Miles Ahead starring Don Cheadle was released to select theaters to mixed reviews. I saw the film and thought that Cheadle captured Miles’ character quite well. There were points in the film where I had to remind myself that it was actually Cheadle on screen and not Davis himself. However, the film moves around too much and the story line fails to deliver. The result is a haphazard biopic that does not help the viewer to understand the life of one of jazz’s greatest musicians. Hollywood is always prone to taking liberties when making films and with on 90 minutes of film to work with, it would be quite challenging to capture all of his life on the silver screen. A saving grace is this autobiography which was written with the assistance of Quincy Troupe, who conducted extensive interviews with Davis and those who knew him. And the rest is one of the best autobiographies I have ever read. Miles is frank by nature and he holds nearly nothing back in the book regarding his life. His story is so engaging that I finished the book in only two days. Simply put, his story is quite the experience and we can be eternally grateful that he did tell his story before he died.
So just who was Miles Davis? And why is he so important to the history of jazz? Well, those two questions and more are answered in this book which is guaranteed to keep you entertained. From his beginnings in Alton, Illinois to his death in Santa Monica, California, his life was one situation after another that sometimes defied logic. But such was his life and one that few people will live. From the start, he is very open about his childhood and his relationships with his parents and siblings. Incredibly, from a very young age, music is in his blood and he never wavers in his quest to become a pioneer and change jazz music, something he did more than once during a career that spanned more than 40 years.
Davis was a very blunt speaker and as a result, his words are laced with profanity. So for those who cringe at foul language, be warned that he does not speak to sound comforting but talks the way he always has. At first, I thought it was a bit much but as I made my way through the book, it became an afterthought and overshadowed by the incredible story he was telling. Aside from his salty language, he had a great ability to analyze himself and open up about where he went wrong in life. It seems almost absurd that someone who was so successful in music, led a wild and tormented life at home. But his life mimics that of other creative geniuses who often straddle the fine line between genius and insanity. As we learn in the book, he constantly tried to pick up as much as he could from other great artists around him and I believe that it was helped him become the legend that he is today. He never stopped learning or changing and even says during the book that “knowledge is freedom and ignorance is slavery”.
His story is incredible but what makes the book even more outstanding is that Davis either knew or worked with the major names in the jazz music at the time. His friendship and working partnership with Charlie “Bird” Parker is both eye-opening and tragic but sheds light on the many dangers faced by performers and Parker’s downfall and death. Bird is just one of many characters to appear in the book, he is joined by Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Gil Evans and Clark Terry. In addition there are many others involved with the emerging bebop genre that appear in the book as they come in and out of Miles’ life adding to his experiences and wisdom.
Although deeply personal, he opens up about his medical conditions and demons in particular that nearly ended his life. As a father of several children, he struggled being a parent and is brutally honest about his relationship with them as his former wives. His marriage to actress Cicely Tyson is the best known of the three but the other two are the marriages that had the biggest impacts in his life as the reader will see. Nonetheless, his words are intoxicating and even as the book concluded, I found myself wishing for just a few more chapters in the book to see what else would happen or what he had learned as he aged. However, I am grateful to him for leaving us with these memories. Show business is rough, drugs are hard and marriage is tough. Some artists balance all three but for many that is not the case. He had his addictions and failings but was also a creative genius. And throughout the book, he is the coolest person in the room. This is Miles as raw as it gets.