Book review; Miles Davis, The Complete Illustrated History.
Friday, December 14, 2012
There's a surprising amount of real content here and the book is an absorbing read as well as being a visual delight. This is a gratifyingly substantial piece of work.
“Miles Davis – The Complete Illustrated History”
(Voyageur Press pp £25.00)
At first glance this lavishly illustrated volume covering the history of the much revered jazz trumpet great Miles Davis might look like just another coffee table book. However there’s far more to it than that as immediately becomes clear from the thoughtful and articulate introduction by journalist and critic Garth Cartwright who also wrote the main narrative.
Cartwright navigates us through the various stages of Davis’ admittedly already well documented career and his text is spiced up by contributions not only from fellow journalists and academics but also from musicians who worked with Davis, such legendary names as Clark Terry, Sonny Rollins, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Dave Liebman. There’s a surprising amount of real content here and the book is an absorbing read as well as being a visual delight.
And it’s the pictures that make this book really worth buying. There are photographs from every period of Davis’ career by such brilliant photographers as Francis Wolff, William Gottlieb, Bob Willoughby, William “PoPsie” Randolph, Lynn Goldsmith and many others both in the US and elsewhere. Many of my favourite images, mainly from the 1950’s, come from the Randolph archive but there are some superb photographs throughout the book, many of which I’ve certainly never seen before. These are supplemented by illustrations of record sleeves and labels, posters, handbills and tickets. These really capture the spirit of their eras, handbills from long defunct New York clubs such as the Café Bohemia, the Three Deuces and the Royal Roost, names now only familiar from live recordings, recall the glory days of Fifty Second Street. Further on in the book the excitement and social upheaval of the 60’s is captured by the psychedelic posters for Miles’ shows at the Fillmore in San Francisco as he plugged in and re-invented his music yet again. I particularly love the poster for the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival, a full weekend ticket cost a mere £3.00 and gave the lucky purchaser the opportunity to see (among others) Miles, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, The Doors, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen – and not a booking fee in sight!
As I’ve intimated the superlative visual display is well supported by Cartwright’s intelligent text. It’s inevitably less detailed than the late Ian Carr’s definitive Davis biography but there’s still plenty of substance here. I’ve read Carr’s book and also Miles’ sometimes unreliable autobiography. The latter is quoted liberally throughout this illustrated history and adds a certain air of authenticity.
Davis’ is a fascinating story, one in which his music was always developing and changing and Cartwright follows his career path chronologically. Ashley Khan, who has written critically acclaimed works on the recording of Davis’ most enduring album “Kind Of Blue” and John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme”, writes well on Davis’ early years around his birthplace of Alton Illinois and neighbouring East St. Louis. Khan’s account is augmented by the memories of trumpeter Clark Terry, slightly older than Miles and a both a mentor and a rival in those early years in East St. Louis. Terry’s account ends controversially with the suggestion that Miles only went electric for the money. This book may be a homage but Davis’ dark side including drug addiction, sexual violence and all round contrariness and unpleasantness are all addressed within its pages. He was a difficult man to live and work with, a mass of contradictions, capable of producing work of great beauty while simultaneously being a less than likeable human being.
Nowhere were Davis’ seemingly conflicting attitudes summed up than in his ambivalent approach to the subject of race. Black and proud Davis regularly skirmished with the white authorities and had no truck with black apologists who he dismissed as “Uncle Toms”. Yet from the very beginning of his career in New York he worked with white musicians such as Lee Konitz and Gerry Mulligan. When it came to music Miles was blind to colour, if a musician could play the way Miles liked then it didn’t matter what colour he was. Indeed two of Davis’ most successful creative collaborations were with composer and arranger Gil Evans and pianist Bill Evans, unrelated but both white . In this respect Davis was, in many ways, a man ahead of his time.
The race issue is first tackled in the second chapter which sees Miles move to New York and becoming part of the nascent bebop movement alongside Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Breaking away from them he honed a more expressive, less frenetic way of playing that was subsequently captured on the celebrated “Birth Of The Cool Recordings”. Cartwright’s account of Miles’ early New York period is supplemented by a short piece by Sonny Rollins who shares his memories of the time.
Chapter three covers Davis’ visit to France in 1949 and recalls how rapturously he was received there, pausing to reflect on Miles’ liaison with the (white) French actress and chanteuse Juliette Greco. The racially tolerant atmosphere of post war Paris was a total contrast to the US and on his return to New York Miles spiralled into depression and a serious heroin addiction. His work suffered and it wasn’t until the latter part of the decade that he began to get back on track with a series of classic recordings for Bob Weinstock’s Prestige label (“Cookin’2, “Relaxin’” etc.) featuring a quintet including John Coltrane (saxophone), Hank Garland (piano), Paul Chambers (bass) and Philly Joe Jones (drums) . Here the main text is supplemented by French jazz writer Vincent Bessiers who reflects on Miles’ brief sojourn in Paris and his continued iconic status in France which culminated in him being awarded the Legion of Honour shortly before his death in 1991.
The late 50’s and early 60’s represented a creative high point for Miles with albums like “Milestones” (one of my favourites), the seminal “Kind Of Blue” and the ambitious orchestral albums recorded in collaboration with arranger Gil Evans first “Porgy And Bess” and then “Sketches Of Spain”. Miles had now signed to CBS following his career resurrecting appearance at the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival and festival founder George Wein adds his memories of that event to Cartwright’s main text covering the recording of those classic albums.
Davis’ career stalled briefly in the mid 60’s but after several false starts he eventually convened what was to become known as his “second classic quintet” with the recruitment of the then young up and coming musicians Herbie Hancock (piano), Wayne Shorter (saxophone), Ron Carter (bass) and childhood prodigy Tony Williams (drums). Hancock and particularly Shorter brought strong composing presences to the band and the prodigiously talented Williams was a drumming innovator, always prepared to push the envelope. Cartwright’s account of this period is supplemented by a fascinating interview with Hancock and Carter who reveal some of the working methods of this hugely influential group. The quintet recorded the classic albums “E.S.P.” and “Nefertiti” and the transitional “Miles In The Sky” as Davis began to become fascinated by the emerging rock genre and particularly the music of Jimi Hendrix. Davis had lost the ears of the young black audience and was determined to win them back.
In the sixth chapter Cartwright charts the personnel changes and musical transitions that saw the quintet morph into the larger ensemble that made the full on jazz rock of “Bitches Brew” taking in “Filles de Kilimanjaro” and the hugely influential “In A Silent Way” en route. Davis’ groups started using electric instruments (guitars, bass, keyboards) and the trumpeter wired himself up with a bug mic and a wah wah pedal. Opinions are divided about Miles’ electric period but it’s generally acknowledged that all the albums mentioned above plus the “Jack Johnson” soundtrack recording are pretty classic with producer and editor Teo Macero playing a key role in their success. Drummer Lenny White lifts the lid to reveal something of the atmosphere of the “Bitches Brew” sessions crediting his predecessor Tony Williams for helping blaze the trail that led to this musical landmark.
The subsequent albums “On The Corner” and “Get Up With It” were poorly received and sold poorly, although both have subsequently developed a certain cult status in certain quarters. Miles spent most of the late 70’s out of circulation with various health problems, some of them related to a newly acquired cocaine addiction. He eventually re-emerged in the 1980’s and regained some commercial success with albums such as the live recording “We Want Miles” but much of his tepid 80’s jazz funk output was poorly received by critics and public alike. “You’re Under Arrest”, which featured versions of the pop hits “Human Nature” and “Time After Time” renewed his commercial impetus and he severed his thirty year association with CBS and jumped ship to Warner’s for the release of what were to be his final few albums, among them “Tutu” and “Amandla” . Meanwhile Miles’ public spats with the then emerging “young fogey” Wynton Marsalis are also addressed.
Davis finally succumbed to his various health problems in 1991 aged sixty five. He’d never looked back until the very end, but just two months before he died he played some his old Gil Evans material with an orchestra led by Quincy Jones at the Montreux Jazz festival. This was the only retrospective show he ever did after claiming for years that he wasn’t going to play “that old shit”. It’s as if he knew what was coming. Saxophonist Dave Liebman who played with Miles in the early 70’s writes fondly of Davis’ impeccable sense of timing not only with regard to this but throughout his long and always unpredictable career.
Elsewhere in the book there are illuminating essays that look at other aspects of Miles’ life and how they related to his music. Comedian Bill Cosby writes about Miles’ sartorial sense, the trumpeter was famously fastidious about his clothes and image and always endeavoured to move with the fashion times.
Garald Earley writes about Miles’ fascination with boxing, his boyhood admiration of Joe Louis and Archie Moore and his later friendship with Sugar Ray Robinson. Robinson is credited with helping Davis kick his heroin habit. Later came the Jack Johnson album, a tribute to the first black heavyweight champion. Miles’ love of the sport was closely aligned to racial and social issues as Earley makes clear. I was also fascinated to learn that Clark Terry had once considered a career as a professional boxer.
Robin D.G. Kelley and Nalini Jones both write convincingly about Miles’ dark side. Kelley exhibits the many conflicting sides of Davis’ personality - musical, personal and ideological-the trumpeter was an extremely complex man. Jones muses both on his allure to, and his sometimes abusive relationships with, women and tries to reconcile Davis’ creativity and the beauty of much of his music with the often brutish nature of his behaviour.
Elsewhere the esteemed music critic Francis Davies offers a personal take on Miles’ music, particularly with regard to his superlative ballad playing.
Karl Hagstrom Miller’s piece offers a kind of reverse chronology, born in 1968 he discovered Miles’ electric music first and worked his way backwards to the acoustic sound of “Kind Of Blue” and beyond. It’s perhaps a commoner story than many might realise, I’m ten years older than Miller but still charted a similar course and I far prefer the acoustic stuff now.
Greg Tate examines Miles’ much maligned 70’s and 80’s output in relationship to the radical black politics of the post civil rights era, also looking at its musical legacy, whilst simultaneously bringing a personal perspective to his writing.
Finally Nate Chinen looks at “Miles In The Afterlife”. Davis died on the cusp of the CD era (immaculate timing once again) and his career has been ruthlessly repackaged with elaborate box sets and anniversary editions. Then there are the numerous live recordings that have been unearthed and polished up for CD release notably the seven set “Live At The Plugged Nickel” box set recorded in Chicago in 1965 and featuring the classic Hancock/Shorter/Carter/Williams quintet. Davis has become a one man heritage industry, of which, I guess, this book is a part.
So much more than a homage or a mere picture book “The Complete Illustrated History” takes an unflinching look at the flawed genius that was Miles Davis, a cultural icon for the 20th Century and beyond. An intelligent, perceptive text by a variety of distinguished contributors is enhanced by a superb collection of iconic visual images. This is a gratifyingly substantial piece of work.
I’m writing this on December 14th. With just over a week to go this could be just what the jazz fan in your life has been looking for this Christmas.
JAZZ MANN NEWS
Wednesday, May 22, 2013
Guitarist and composer Alex Roth will lead his five piece band Otriad (which also includes his brothers Nick and Simon) on a short UK tour during May and June 2013. Deatails attached.
Tuesday, May 21, 2013
We have been advised of a number of live dates coming up for this London based blues combo led by Benjamin Bowling.
Tuesday, May 21, 2013
We have received the club's weekly newsletter giving details of this week's events. Details attached.
JAZZ GIGS & EVENTS
Thursday, May 23, 2013
Thursday, May 23, 2013 - Sunday, June 02, 2013
Thursday, May 23, 2013 - Monday, May 27, 2013
Thursday, May 23, 2013 - Sunday, June 02, 2013
Thursday, May 23, 2013