Stephen P's Reviews > Miles: The Autobiography

Miles by Miles Davis
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it was amazing
bookshelves: biography, autobiography

Sitting across from me he continues telling me about his life. I don’t particularly like him or find him interesting, at least not as interesting as he finds himself. Laying a line of cocaine on the tabletop, he snorts it then orders another drink. There is one exception which has and still runs through our conversation. His life is lived not only for creativity but for reaching, for further and new means of reaching. This is the experience which provides the meaning in his life. I’m coming to see that it is his life.

His early years he told me, reluctant at first, in East St. Luis he mostly played his trumpet. Sleight of build he didn’t roam the streets looking for fights. His father was a dentist and for that neighborhood they had enough money. It wasn’t socioeconomic or some determination of will. He described it, palms flat on the table, as a following of his nature.

I admire the sheer immersion in his music played through his trumpet and the ongoing composition of melodies and themes flooding his mind. Trying to explain to him while refusing a hit of the coke, that I’m unschooled in music and that personally I have no hint of a talent. What though has struck me, I try to explain as he downs his drink with a small pill, is the phrase he used two minutes ago, that he plays, Sheets Of Music. Rather than labeling what it is he wants people to hear through some form of instrumentation he creates an unwinding tone, sheets, where the listener experiences a feeling which has no words. I try to compare it to writing but it isn’t quite the same, writing not quite as direct.

People drift to our table embedded in the dark of a corner wanting his autograph, a photo to be taken with him. I’m supposed to take the picture but explain I don’t know how to work it. They take their camera and leave. He nods a thanks. I explain that I was telling the truth. Others still gather, hover, and he coldly ignores them until they scatter and are gone. When they are all gone he tells me they are “mother fuckers”. He has used this cursed phrase frequently through our conversation. It has meant many things while carrying a beat and a resonance. But why of all testimonies of cursing, “mother fuckers”?

It is a small club. He points to some of his band members while describing all the lands, experiences, and interesting people he has met through his constant travel. Ordering another drink he lights a cigarette. His band members are his family, not just them but his mentors and the legends he has played with, joined with as friends in a culture where change of personnel within a band and in life is so frequent that little stays long enough within the furrows of soil to take root. It is personified by the nickname of one who was special to him, Bird, the great Charley Parker, his revolutionary style of runs of fluttering notes. In my own fluttering way, hesitant, a word which I doubt Miles is familiar with, I throw in an awkward question, if he doesn’t have a family? I mean a blood family?

What’s blood, he tells me those dark eyes boring into me, not a ruthlessness that I was warned about but a blunt force, an insistent truth. Relentless. Earlier he told me that was all there is. If he gave me the horn to play, me being white, not referring to race he pointed out matter of fact as everything he said was matter of fact, you’d play like the records you listened to. But as bad as those “motherfuckers” might be you would have to find your own way of playing the horn. See, that’s what it’s about finding your own way of playing then taking it deeper, deeper within yourself. If your an artist you don’t have a choice. It’s a curse. You get that? Then you innovate. Every morning you wake up your mind begins innovating. You don’t choose it. It chooses you. So, my blood is with the people who are like me, that I played with, played off of, played against, each pushing the other to play above what we knew. Those experiences … you listening? Yes sir, I said before I could catch the words. Don’t call me that. That’s as bad as some “motherfucker” calling me a legend. I don’t want to backed into and cornered by no labels.

I gathered my strength, my steam, refusing another line of coke, tried playing the notes above my stuttering faltering voice, and asked what about his kids, his wife. The two son’s he ignored and grew into trouble and failure? Immediately he dismissed them as huge disappointments. He missed, I wanted to tell him, holding the constant bore of his eyes at bay, that the boys difficulties in life may well have stemmed from his abandoning them, his continous playing on tour and rarely there. Even when there he went to the clubs on 52nd street in Harlem. The small clubs were next door to each other or across the street. There, was the birth of the new music, Bebop. When a set finished the musicians went to another club and sat in. This family of “mother fuckers” were bad, they played bad, they gathered within the warmth of their own kin, creativity and innovation tending a current firing through all. Explosive moments of living beyond reach.

He lit another cigarette as he crushed the last one into the filling ashtray. Nobody asks to be an artist. It’s a bad ass “motherfucker”. But you wouldn’t have any of the great music, paintings, sculpture, if those artists didn’t follow their call but instead dedicated themselves to domesticity. Like it or not being an artist is a full time concern. I think it was the right thing to do. The only thing to do, he said downing another pain pill. I understand others not agreeing with it. I understand a lot of people then thinking I’m a hypocrite for all the time, daily, nightly, I spend with women. They have their opinion, I have mine. I respect that. It’s something I have to have and it’s always there. Women want to be with Miles. You see I have what they call an addictive personality. Another thing I didn’t ask for but here it is.

I wanted to know why he treated women the way he did, using them as disposable items, even at times beating them. Why, sitting there as he recounted his life, he turned it around and found ways of blaming them? Why he kept saying “mother fucker”. He said little about his mother. Off hand as usual he skirted using any freudian explanations. Explanations were rare, hardly present. But the explanation of addictive personality grated on me. What is addictive and what is an obsession? Is there a difference? It seems to me listening to him but escaping the heat of those dark eyes for a moment, that addiction refers to a physical organic malady that must be contended with and an obsession, well that is something emotional, psychological. It’s there to provide an unwitting illusory sense of control in the tumultuous whirlwind of life? Provide an unconscious escape from unwelcome or even terrifying feelings carried within some dark webbed corner of personal being?

Where are you white boy? I’m telling you things you need to know. This is a whole different culture here, a whole different world. You see that’s a big problem Black people created the only great musical contribution to the world in this country. Jazz. We’ve sure had our hand in Gospel, the Blues, Soul too. And guess what, we’re anointed by the recording industry as legends. Our new music which always becomes new each time we play. You see don’t you, he signals the waitress and quickly returns, that then some of the white players can copy some of those licks and the recording companies, all of them white, can promote them. I come back from a long tour in Europe, Japan too, and I find all our music is now the white man’s music. You see what I’m saying to you?

Anyway it’s time to play my set, I hear him mumble. I reach for my wallet. His hand covers my other hand on the table. It presses down. He tells me that nobody, no matter how “mother fucking nice a guy he is, pays Mile’s tab. You understand? Before I could answer he disappears into the darkness then reappears on the lit platform stage his trumpet held for a moment aloft. The notes filled with layers of emotions, beautifully unsettling, fill the room. I close my eyes lifted to somewhere I had never been before.
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Reading Progress

June 16, 2015 – Shelved (Hardcover Edition)
June 16, 2015 – Shelved as: to-read (Hardcover Edition)
September 25, 2015 – Shelved
September 25, 2015 – Shelved as: biography
November 25, 2015 – Shelved as: to-read
March 18, 2016 – Started Reading
March 27, 2016 – Finished Reading
April 4, 2016 – Shelved as: autobiography

Comments Showing 1-13 of 13 (13 new)

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message 1: by s.penkevich (new)

s.penkevich Yessssss! This review is everything that is good and awesome and jazz, baby. I've been on a big Miles and Coltrane kick for awhile now and this just sat me right there with him. Great work. I want to see the biopic despite the lukewarm reviews. Stunning, good sir, simply stunning.


message 2: by Dolors (new)

Dolors Incredible interview Stephen! You capture the essence of Miles with so much insight and style... His music might have become international (perverted even?), but the portrait you paint of him is as authentic as the musky smell of cigars and whisky and the first tentative notes that caress my ear, brought to life through your awesome writing.


Stephen P s.penkevich wrote: "Yessssss! This review is everything that is good and awesome and jazz, baby. I've been on a big Miles and Coltrane kick for awhile now and this just sat me right there with him. Great work. I want ..."

It's a thrill Spenk that my review has contributed to your jazz bug that fortunately there is no cure for. What is so special about reading this book is that it is in first person and Miles talks absolutely openly about absolutely everything. The reader lives Mile's life along with him but especially that magic period in jazz on 52nd st. in Harlem where all the clubs were. I was there with him but also with Bird, Dizzy, Mingus Trane, and on and on. Even though this does not fit our usual foraging into literary works, I so hope that you do read this and have this experience.

It's also worth the effort plus a lot more that I put into this review to get a Spenk. comment. Your comments buzz with an energy that makes the day happen.


Stephen P Dolors wrote: "Incredible interview Stephen! You capture the essence of Miles with so much insight and style... His music might have become international (perverted even?), but the portrait you paint of him is as..."

Thanks and Thanks and ... Dolors. What I loved about this book is that it is Miles capturing and talking about his essence, which includes his problems as well as the mystique of the creative process as he knows it. I've never read an autobiography this candid and I'm not sure one can be done any more so.

Thanks for the boost for your oh so kind and encouraging words.


message 5: by Ben (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ben Winch Yeah I like this a lot Stephen. You really capture not only Miles but your own dismayed/inspired reaction to him. I thought the book was brilliant in that way too, that it made his motives transparent and his character sympathetic even while painting an oft-times grim picture of his behaviour. Most of all I loved his grasp of, and ability to talk about, music. Reminds me of a conversation with Herbie Hancock I saw recently, in which Hancock speaks of a "mistake" he made while on tour with Miles in Europe once, a mistake so bad he couldn't keep playing, but sat in shock and dismay at what he'd done. But Miles, he said, just took what Hancock'd played and responded to it as if it were another part of the music unfolding, neither right nor wrong, it just was; and by so doing Miles made those "wrong" notes "right". Miles, you see, didn't see in terms of right or wrong (so said Hancock), just in terms of what was happening. And he responded accordingly.


Stephen P Ben wrote: "Yeah I like this a lot Stephen. You really capture not only Miles but your own dismayed/inspired reaction to him. I thought the book was brilliant in that way too, that it made his motives transpar..."

Great to hear from you Ben.

I am so glad I captured how in this book it is possible to feel contempt for a person yet feel a closeness, a caring, an inspiration for and from them. This is similar in that way to a book I'm reading now, John Banville's, The Blue Guitar. I think this can happen within the reading world where in actual life contempt or indifference wins out.

The interview with HH is perfect Ben. That captures so accurately Miles approach to music. Also to life? The complete living within the moment open to whatever it brings, then using it, whether jamming or playing in front of a large audience, to take the playing further.

In the book he shows contempt for classical musicians who according to his POV stand before a score and play the written notes. That certainly isn't Miles. He's about spontaneity building on spontaneity building on ... Man we were so lucky to have him and when he was there-post big band swing, into and through bepop and then moving toward and arriving at fusion. What a gift. A forefather to much that is to come.


message 7: by Ben (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ben Winch Stephen, it looks like I'm working on Monk time again, hope you don't mind. And yes, it's good to be here chatting with you too - I haven't had (or allowed) much time for Goodreads lately. Good to see you're still here and going strong.

Re Hancock, I'm sure he meant the comment to be taken in the broad sense: he was talking about Miles's life, not just his music. Me, I thought maybe it was a bit too simple, a bit too general, not quite as cosmic a revelation as H.H. took it to be, but hey, what do I know? Musically, I thought it was perfect. Miles, to me, was above all (at least later in his career) a facilitator - he got other musicians playing like they never would have without him, got them feeling each other in a way they maybe never would have either. Some of his playing seems more like glue than anything, covering up the seams in a piece like Bitches' Brew, which no doubt would have fallen apart without him (if it could exist at all). I love that the musicians he played with frequently felt he was pushing them somewhere scary and unknown, where they weren't sure of the value of what they were playing. A genius collaborator. Maybe he saved all his good vibes for his music rather than his personal life? Who knows. It's been a while.

Anyhow don't mind me. You ever heard this Brew outtake? My Quebecois jazz-fiend friend in Brussels put me onto it five years back - it ain't half bad.


Stephen P Ben wrote: "Stephen, it looks like I'm working on Monk time again, hope you don't mind. And yes, it's good to be here chatting with you too - I haven't had (or allowed) much time for Goodreads lately. Good to ..."

Yes, Monk time always good. Speaking of Monk I'm in the market to read about him. What I have on my TBR is, Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original
Kelley, Robin D.G. Sound right Ben or do you know of something better?

I very much like and agree with the idea of Mile's being a facilitator and collaborator later on. It seems as though he was taking musicians into someplace new where they had little footing and they were willing to follow him.

Thank you for the link! No I hadn't heard it. Then there was his other music along the side bar which I cleaned up on. Life is good.


message 9: by Seemita (new)

Seemita This review has your indelible mark, Stephen! And Davis' slightly ambivalent tones find perfect harmony in your acute observations. Kudos!


Stephen P Seemita wrote: "This review has your indelible mark, Stephen! And Davis' slightly ambivalent tones find perfect harmony in your acute observations. Kudos!"

Seemita, thank you so much! This was a book that truly grabbed me, taking me into the inner world of the jazz scene. I recommend one and all to read this open and raw autobiography. Thanks again Seemita.


message 11: by Ben (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ben Winch I'm not sure about the Monk book Stephen - you know I'm a late starter with Monk myself. (I listened to some of the Monk you suggested a few months back - good stuff! But I take it slow, since jazz isn't quite my bag these days.) But yeah judging by my friend Liam's review I'd say you're on the right track.

Glad you dug the link.


message 12: by Liam (last edited Apr 11, 2016 02:55AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Liam Ben wrote: "I'm not sure about the Monk book Stephen - you know I'm a late starter with Monk myself. (I listened to some of the Monk you suggested a few months back - good stuff! But I take it slow, since jazz..."

Ben, I've always been quite partial to the record Monk did with Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ySN6o...), which you might like; while on the subject, though, one of Monk's compositions that I particularly like is a song called 'Well, You Needn't', which has been recorded by not only Monk himself but also Miles and a whole lot of others as well... For my money, the best version is the one that Chet Baker cut during the so-called "Italian Session" in 1962, which has been released under a shitload of different titles by several record companies (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3r8m2...). I think this was probably the only time Chet actually cut a better version than Miles did of any of the many songs they both recorded...


message 13: by Ben (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ben Winch Liam, glad you could drop by. I've saved the relevant Blakey/Monk LP as a Spotify playlist and I'll get to it soon - thanks. As to the Chet Baker version of "Well, You Needn't", yeah, it sounds pretty revved up. Since I don't know the Monk version well enough I'm not able to make an exact contrast, but this one's got some verve to it, for sure.


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