Miles Davis



This afternoon I finished reading John Szwed’s biography of Miles Davis, So What. I enjoyed the passages where Szwed went beyond the narrative and analyzed the nature of Davis’s work. Like this one, quoting Jack Kerouac on Davis:

In Jack Kerouac’s Visions of Cody, Jack Duluoz muses over the structure of Miles’ phrases (and maybe mimics them as well):

“And meanwhile Miles Davis, like the sun; or the sun, like Miles Davis, blows on with his raw little horn; the prettiest trumpet tone since Hackett and McPartland and at the same time, to flesh some of its fine raw sound, some wild abstract new ideas developed around a growing theme that started off like a tree and became a structure of iron on which tremendous phrases can be strung and hung and long pauses goofed, kicked along, whaled, touched, with hidden and active meanings; to come in, then, like a sweet tenor and blow the superfinest, is mowed enow [more than enough].”

Kerouac might be forgiven his excesses, because in Miles’ playing the missing note, the auditory ellipsis, the sense of breath being held rather than sounded, the choked-back note — all of them are literary in feel, something akin to the rhetorical device called meiosis — understatement in the service of something less than the truth, a form of withholding that said that you were being asked to feel something that couldn’t be explained literally. It signified that you would have to believe more than what you were being offered.

Or this more academic passage referencing Davis’s late album Agharta, the music criticism of Theodor Adorno (of the Frankfurt School of critical theory), and Beethoven’s late string quartets:

This was music that polarized audiences, provoking boos and walkouts amid the ecstasy of others. The length, density, and unforgiving nature of it mocked those who said that Miles was interested only in being trendy and popular. Some have heard in this music the feel and shape of a musician’s late work, an egoless music that precedes its creator’s death. As Theodor Adorno said of the late Beethoven, the disappearance of the musician into the work is a bow to mortality. It was as if Miles was testifying to all that he had been witness to for the past thirty years, both terrifying and joyful.