Ask most people to name the jazz album and they'll say, Kind of Blue. And the book So What is the quintessential song off that quintessential album. No one song can hope to capture that constantly churning sea of creativity that was Miles, but if one song could, surely this would be it. From a vague amorphous beginning and that ominous rumbling in the bass emerges Miles' unique trumpet sound. Instantly recognizable, often imitated, but never equaled. Miles David had that sound to facilitate expression so much even if, or especially when, playing just a single note. Dig the one at 3:11. Then enters Da Trane with intimations of things to come.
Musically, the Kind of Blue sessions went off without a hitch. Everything else went wrong from the famously slow tape recorder (which drove subsequent generations of trumpet players crazy), to errors in the liner notes. This comedy of errors continued through subsequent re-issues so that there are at least three different versions of the album out there.
As Szwed portrays it, that was Miles' life in microcosm. A constantly churning chaos of drugs, alcohol, illnesses, Ferraris, women, tangles with the police with a dash of gangsters thrown in, but always at the center was the music. This was a man so highly attuned to sounds that he could tell which pills to take by the rattle they made when shaken.
There is a certain amount of what the artist ate for breakfast in this book. Mercifully, the author keeps that kind of gossip to a minimum and concentrates on the development of Miles' music. At a White House reception he was asked by a Washington matron what he had done to be invited. Miles hotly replied, "Well, I've changed music five or six times. What have you done of any importance other than be white?" This book is the story of those five or six times.
It all starts with the Bird. It is hard to imagine a 20-year-old landing in New Yawk and being instantly catapulted to fame playing alongside the hottest thing in jazz. It is also hard for us to imagine, given his current iconic status, that Miles was roundly disliked at first. He couldn't play they said. And indeed he didn't have the megaphonic sound that was expected of trumpeters back then but his genius was to make of that shortcoming a virtue.
After graduating from the Bird school of jazz, Miles started the halting development of his style that after many personal and musical fumbles resulted in that pinnacle, Kind of Blue. It is quite shocking to read that, along the way, he fired Trane from his band for overusing drugs. This is so at odds with Trane's later messianic image.
From the first, Miles had a unique approach to the job of bandleader. He would sometimes give very specific instructions, but more often than not he would say things like, "Cut out the butter notes." Now what was that supposed to mean? Obscurity served Miles' purpose. He did not want to tell his musicians explicitly what he wanted. He wanted them to think for themselves. He knew he could not command them to be creative. His aim was to spark their creativity. Above all, there was his own playing. Sometimes just a single note from Miles would crystallize what the band was doing and lead them in the direction he wanted.
Musicians who have played with Miles say that no-one listened so intensely. When he sweated onstage it was not from physical exertion but the sheer mental effort it took to listen that hard. They were often startled when he built on their mistakes to take the music in a new direction. He never chastised them for making mistakes. He said that was the way to discovery. The only crime in a Davis band was to play it safe and not make mistakes.
Given this portrait of an unremittingly pure and dedicated artist you can imagine the clash that would result when he is placed in the oft-romanticized milieu of the stereotypical smoke-filled jazz club. Here the musician was not a respected artist, but a mere entertainer and hired hand. Miles, no stranger to profanity himself, was shocked when a club owner shouted at him in French to get back on stage and play. From this grew the crusty exterior of which the exchange with the Washington matron is but an example. One is left wondering how differently things might have turned out had he been treated as a classical musician, playing every night to respectfully silent audiences.
There is also a glimpse into his frustrations in dealing with Columbia, his longtime record company. The corporate suits were constantly demanding that he produce albums on cue like some mindless automaton. For an artist who worked off the inspiration of the moment this was naturally a source of continuing distress. He got the last laugh on them when he jumped ship to Warners.
After Kind of Blue, Trane gradually eased his way out of the band and Miles was left with the problem of how to replace perhaps the only other musician he respected as his equal. Well, him and Gil Evans. Towards the end of his life, Miles kept only two musicians' portraits, Trane and Gil.
Again there was a period of fumbling until the answer came in the form of Wayne Shorter. Along the way he also picked up the preternaturally gifted Tony Williams on drums (who immediately started telling Miles how to play). Then came a gaggle of pianists, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, and Joe Zawinul. Ron Carter on bass was added and dropped when he would not go electric. His replacement was Dave Holland. McLaughlin on guitar completed the setting for In a Silent Way, arguably an even greater album than Kind of Blue. Each of these men went on to become a jazz icon in their own right. It is almost inconceivable to imagine such a concentration of talent in a single band.
The In a Silent Way group was not just talent but above all young talent. I often write jokingly of the Miles Davis School of Jazz, but it is clear from this book that the schooling worked both ways. He assembled this brilliant group of musicians so that he could learn from them and keep his music fresh and alive.
In a Silent Way also marks Miles' embrace of electricity. Some would say this also marks Miles' descent. Certainly, the author appears to be struggling manfully to make the best case for Miles' later albums. Another interesting tidbit in this book is the fact that Miles had very few jazz records in his collection, preferring to listen to almost anything else from classical to pop. At the very end of his life he professed an unwavering admiration for Cyndi Lauper's "Time after Time" and it became a staple of his concert performances. But then he had always admired singers and Frank Sinatra had a huge influence on his early playing. He wanted to play like the great singers. He also liked Willie Nelson and Prince and wanted to make an album with the latter. He also wanted to make an album based on Tosca. Unfortunately, neither of those projects came to fruition.
The author draws a parallel between Miles and Picasso which is spot on. Not in the literal sense naturally, but in the big picture: their towering stature in their respective fields, the constant changes in style in the never-ending quest for the new, the tumultuous lifestyle. They also shared this: they sucked in whatever was going on around them and it came out in their art. So, after all, what the artist eats for breakfast is important.