Innovator, iconoclast, hipster icon—even today, over a decade since his death, Miles Davis remains one of the most controversial and enigmatic figures in the history of 20th-century music.
Born in 1926, the son of a prosperous dentist, Miles Dewey Davis III was raised in East St. Louis, where he was already playing the trumpet in local dance bands by the time he was a teenager. In addition to being something of a child prodigy, he was a serious student of music and was admitted to Juilliard, although he soon dropped out, finding bebop, a style then beginning to emerge from New York's jazz clubs, more suited to his restless intelligence. After apprenticing with such innovators as Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, he struck out on his own, becoming one of the primary exponents of what became known as “cool” jazz, and his albums, including Birth of the Cool, Kind of Blue, Sketches of Spain, and Bitches Brew, remain among the most popular and influential ever recorded. Davis was a notoriously difficult personality whose relationships with women, other musicians, audiences, and critics were complex and often contentious. Even his death was controversial: officially attributed to a stroke, it was rumored to have been brought on by AIDS, the legacy of a lifetime of on-and-off drug use. Opinions of Davis differ wildly, even among those who knew him, and these divergences, combined with his own tendency toward evasiveness during interviews, makes separating the man from the myth a daunting task. Szwed (Anthropology/Yale; Space Is the Place, 1997) succeeds admirably, however, exploring Davis’s music lucidly and knowledgeably and placing it in a critical and cultural context. His portrait of Davis the man is sympathetic without over-romanticizing the musician’s often troubled life.
For both casual fans and serious aficionados.