By Troy Patterson
Updated March 17, 2020 at 02:40 AM EDT

So What: The Life of Miles Davis

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Well before he became the epitome of hip and, in Duke Ellington’s phrase, ”the Picasso of jazz,” Miles Davis was a clotheshorse. One could chart the trumpet player’s arc just by going through his closet. In fact, John Szwed already has.

Picture shy little Miles Dewey Davis III, a dentist’s son, just out of short pants in East St. Louis, Ill., in the 1930s: ”yellow striped shirt, a tie, a gray double-breasted jacket.” In 1943, starting out in a dance band, a teenage Davis rebelled in a conservative sort of way by taking style cues from the duke of Windsor. By 1961 — with the masterpiece ”Kind of Blue” under his belt and his coolness internationally known — a jazz festival press release announces, ”After his performance, Miles will relax in a pink, single-breasted seersucker jacket with matching pants….” The drug mania and painful trendiness of Davis’ 1970s are succinctly typified by his selection of ”a turban, sheepskin coat, and cobra-skin pants.” By 1987, a Cyndi Lauper cover out in stores and a Huey Lewis number in his repertoire, Davis turns up at the White House in ”a black waistcoat with tails and a red snake trimmed in sequins….”

The sartorial through line of Szwed’s So What: The Life of Miles Davis says much about how this fascinating bio works. Szwed knows the futility of locating Miles Davis, the person, and instead finds ways to approach Miles Davis, the performance; he can’t expose the man, but his keen notes on costume changes prove enlightening.

Previously the biographer of the cosmically self-mythicizing bandleader Sun Ra, Szwed here observes in a prologue that the urge to ”provide missing motivation, and heat up the significance” has ”turned more than one biographer into a novelist.” He instead proposes ”a meditation.” Inevitably, he comes to the conclusion that he can’t quite come to a conclusion: ”Miles was an enigma, a seemingly impenetrable self.” Nonetheless, in getting there, Szwed offers a thoughtful retelling of Davis’ life (which ended in 1991) and artful reconsiderations of his work, and eloquently asks what the legend of Miles Davis is exactly about.

In a perfectly natural paradox, then, this biographer turns to novelists to describe his subject’s hold on the imagination, examining Davis as fantasized by Norman Mailer, romanticized by Jack Kerouac, derided by Ralph Ellison, and pinned down by James Baldwin, who wrote ”Miles’ disguise would certainly never fool anybody with sense, but it keeps a lot of people away, and that’s the point.” The disguise was attitude. Davis was an insecure kid who developed a tough-guy pose. This posturing could be perversely charismatic (as in his storied habit of turning his back on the audience), politically charged (his sneers at record industry racism), and also disgustingly ugly (his violent misogyny). Refusing to offer psychobabble, Szwed studies the mask itself. And because of his fresh interviews and acute insights — linking, for instance, Davis’ sulking stage presence to the Actors Studio brooding of Marlon Brando and James Dean — an impressionistic portrait emerges.

The primary flaw of ”So What” is its idiosyncratic lack of balance. While Szwed finishes with Davis’ boyhood by page 30, he lavishly documents the musician’s descent into the Elvisisms of paranoia and gluttony, going on about his decadent life in the 1970s — a decade in which he subsisted on drugs, booze, and sweets: ”One reporter noted that after drinking cream soda and eating chocolate Easter eggs, Miles called room service for a piece of strawberry cheesecake and two dishes of vanilla ice cream….” When such detail is brought to bear on a five-gram-a-day cocaine habit, monotony follows.

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What Szwed does best is to translate sound into language. He can evoke the intimacy of Swing Street in the ’40s with a direct dazzle: ”It was possible for those sitting close to the band to hear sounds that even now escape recording technology: the sizzle of the rivets or chains that sustain the whoosh of the ride cymbal…the mix of humid air and sound emerging from the horns.” Ultimately, Szwed’s best evasion of an obvious treatment of his evasive subject is a high fidelity to Davis’ music, describing those funky structures and lonely tones with subtlety. So he doesn’t quite get his man. So what? ”Beyond anything else he might have been, Miles Davis was the sound of his trumpet.”

So What: The Life of Miles Davis

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