Eric Cartier's Reviews > Miles: The Autobiography

Miles by Miles Davis
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Nov 30, 2011

really liked it

Ever since my freshman undergrad roommate put on "Bitches Brew", which blew my mind, Miles Davis has been one of my favorite musicians. All the jazz styles he mastered and/or invented appeal to me. His style was so cool, too, first Brooks Brothers suits, then far-out scarves, shades, and hip garb assemblages. Above all, his voice is what compels me to play his albums repeatedly: it's serene, proud, angry, ecstatic, inquisitive, soulful, and extraordinarily powerful. Whatever the musicians around him played, Miles was able to absorb, distill, and sum up in his closing solos. He had a gift for choosing the best people to play together as well, and to inspire them to play their best. If I ever had to unload my entire music collection (with the prospect of collecting music anew), the lone album I'd keep would be "In a Silent Way".

So, yeah, grad school winter break arrived at last in December, and among the books I borrowed from Faulk Central Library in Austin was Miles, his autobiography. A fine hardcover copy, a 1990 first edition. Quincy Troupe, who co-authored it, essentially recorded an oral history: it's all in Miles's raspy speaking voice, full of rhythm, slang, and curse words [warning: swears are sprinkled throughout the quotes below, so close the window immediately if you'd prefer not to read them]. His was a beautiful, funny, incisive American voice, and what he recounted with it, well, WOW--all the bands, the women, the drugs, the drinks, the cars, the accidents, the anecdotes. Miles led a wild, thrilling, creative life, and his story's one that any music lover with a few of his records will want to read. There are revealing bits about other jazz giants, Miles's opinions about race relations, critics, musical styles, and technology, a Burroughs-esque ability to be brutally honest and self-critical, and every imaginable use of his favorite word, 'motherfucker'. A whole bunch of quotes [some with commentary] are below.

* * * * *

The very first thing I remember in my early childhood is a flame, a blue flame jumping off a gas stove somebody lit. [Emily Dickinson's first words, upon seeing lightning, were "the fire!"]

Who wouldn't be happy if the baddest motherfucker on the scene was telling you how bad you are and that he wanted to play with you? [This was Charlie Parker, Bird, who Miles hailed as the greatest alto saxophonist of all time, but also "one of the slimiest and greediest motherfuckers who ever lived in this world". He recounts so many sordid Bird episodes I can't even bring myself to share any of them with y'all here.]

All I ever wanted to do was blow my horn and create music and art, communicate what I felt through music.

He's got to play above what he knows--far above it--and what that might lead to might take him above the place where he's been playing all along, to the new place where he finds himself right now--and to the next place he's going and even above that!

Man, that was too hip and bad. Everybody was laying all kinds of slick shit on everyone. [Miles on playing with his second great quintet, which featured Tony Williams on drums, Ron Carter on bass, Herbie Hancock on keys, and Wayne Shorter on sax.]

I have always just wanted the best players in my group and I don't care about whether they're black, white, blue, red, or yellow. As long as they can play what I want that's it.

Everything was a first take, which indicates the level everyone was playing on. It was beautiful. [Miles on "Kind of Blue", a heavenly album.]

You get the rights guys to play the right things at the right time and you got a motherfucker; you got everything you need.

I was just the leader who put us all together. Those were all young guys and although they were learning from me, I was learning from them, too, about the new thing, the free thing. Because to be and stay a great musician you've got to always be open to what's new, what's happening at the moment. You have to be able to absorb it if you're going to continue to grow and communicate your music. And creativity and genius in any kind of artistic expression don't know nothing about age; either you got it or you don't, and being old is not going to help you get it.

[Wayne Shorter] understood that freedom in music was the ability to know the rules in order to bend them to your satisfaction and taste. [Sound advice for any artistic medium, I think.]

Wayne would be sitting up there looking like an angel, but when he picked up his horn he was a motherfucking monster.

Most popular music is about "Baby, I love you. Come here and give it to me." There are millions of records with lyrics like that. So it becomes a cliche and then you have all these people copying that and they don't do nothing but copy cliches off each other.

People who don't change will find themselves like folk musicians, playing in museums and local as a motherfucker. [Ha!]

I was beginning to see pity in people's eyes when they looked at me, and I hadn't seen that since I was a junkie. I didn't want that. I put down the thing I loved most in life--my music--until I could pull it all back together again. [Before his retirement, which lasted from 1975-1980, which was sadly and ironically filled with more drugs, booze, and women than any other period of his life.]

All my friends who have known me for a while say that I like to show my scars off to them. Maybe I do. They're like medals to me, badges of honor, the history of my survival, the story of how I kept on getting up from bad shit, terrible adversity and just kept on getting up, doing the best that I could.

Music is about the spirit and the spiritual, and about feeling.

[Finally, the anecdote that--no matter how many times I read it--makes me laugh out loud]:

Anyway, on this trip to Rochester, Paul is drinking zombies. I ask him, "Why do you drink shit like that? What do you drink so much, Paul?"

And he says, "Aw, man, I can drink all I want. I can drink ten of these and it wouldn't bother me."

"Drink 'em and I'll pay for them," I told him. And he said, "Okay."

So he drinks about five or six of them and says, "See, it didn't bother me." After this we went to a spaghetti place to eat, Paul and me and Philly Joe. We all order spaghetti and Paul puts hot sauce all over his. I say, "Man, why you do that?"

He says, "Because I love hot sauce, that's why."

So I'm talking to Philly Joe and all of a sudden I hear this crashing sound and look around and Paul's whole head had fallen face first into the spaghetti, hot sauce and everything. Those zombies had hit him in the brain. The motherfucker was out cold.
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