Portraying the Picasso of jazz


The book Miles Davis The Definitive Biography has been 23 years in the writing. The work of English trumpeter Ian Carr, was first published, in unavoidably unfinished form, in 1982 while Davis's career was apparently tailing off into silence and frustration. It therefore missed completely the past 10 years and a spectacular return to form which began just as the book was going to press. And so this one, The Definitive Biography, is just that - a first-rate and thorough account of the long, creative journey of one of the most extraordinary artists of the century.

Miles Davis was born in Illinois in 1926 and grew up in East St Louis. His parents were successfully middle-class and afflicted with many of the musical snobberies common in upwardly-mobile black society of the time. Only Western, "serious" music was encouraged in the Davis household, and although Miles's violinist mother bought him at least two jazz records (Art Tatum and Duke Ellington), she was quite adamant the Davis family would escape their history socially, financially and musically. His dentist father, however, while sharing many of the same hang-ups, was quite happy to see Miles pursue an interest in jazz and actively encouraged him to do so. He bought him a trumpet for his 13th birthday and fixed him up with a teacher: a gesture directed as much towards his disapproving wife and their doomed relationship as anything else.

While still in St Louis, taking lessons with Elwood Buchanan and playing in the high school band, Davis began to run into some quite serious-minded musicians, among them trumpeter Clark Terry. Six years older than Davis, Terry became a kind of chaperon who both introduced the younger man to the music scene and taught him a trick or two on the horn. The most significant event in Davis's St Louis apprenticeship, however, was the appearance of the Billy Ekstine Band at The Club Riviera. Because he had just been rehearsing locally, Davis happened to have his trumpet with him and was invited to sit in. Apparently he didn't exactly shine in this stellar company, but the important thing was that this was Davis's first encounter with two rather special members of Ekstine's band, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.

In 1944, his father sent him to the Juilliard School of Music in New York and for the young student it served a definite purpose. While he had no interest whatever in what he was being taught there, it did provide a protected base from which to vanish every evening into the bright lights of 52nd Street where he played first with Coleman Hawkins and later with Charlie Parker. Parker's Quintet was at the time pioneering the new stylings of be-bop, the most exciting and controversial development in jazz for many years. Suddenly the 19-year-old Davis was at the heart of things and playing a leading role. Typically, he left Parker in 1948 and started up something else entirely. He formed groups of his own, including the famous no-net which recorded Birth of the Cool, and developed a whole new approach quite unlike the frenetic be-bop of Parker and Gillespie. With instrumentation also new to jazz, the music of the "cool school" as it was known represented an entirely original sound. Davis was only 22.

From 1949-53, Davis languished in a period of near self-destruction. At the mercy of a drug habit, he lost all direction and, as Ian Carr put it, "he diced with death, he suffered humiliation and degradation, becoming at times a virtual derelict". Davis was to resurface, however, after kicking his habit "cold turkey" and returned with a stunning string of masterpieces over the next 10 years. This was the period of the extraordinary quartets, quintets and sextets beginning in 1955 and the first group with John Coltrane which recorded six albums in a year! His creative relationship with Gil Evans also blossomed in this spell with the release of their great orchestral works such as Porgy and Bess and Sketches of Spain - 1959 was also the year of Kind of Blue, perhaps Davis's best-loved recording. By 1960, Davis had a back catalogue which, by anybody's standards, was astonishing. He was just 34. So far he had been a central figure in everything that had happened since the 1940s and he still had 30 years to go. Very astutely, he sought out the young bloods on the scene and, in 1963, formed a new quintet with Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams, Wayne Shorter and Ron Carter. Again the resulting music was revolutionary.

By 1968 he was bringing in more electric instruments and again, all the top-drawer young musicians began to pass through his band: Chick Corea, Keith Jarret, John McLaughlin and so on. Between 1969 and 1970 there was a period of frantic activity and the plethora of recordings included further seminal works such as In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew (both 1969). Davis continued to explore this territory until the mid-1970s when once again, dogged by ill health and exhaustion, he became reclusive - once more on the spiritual and creative skids.

Much like Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, cursed with trying to follow their own acts, Miles too was impelled to keep moving in search of the next step. Both Parker and Coltrane had died in the act but Miles was still with us, playing his music in a world now dominated by rock and yet still confounding audiences and critics alike, inventing and reinventing without apology. Right from his early days when he played with his back to the audience, Miles had never pandered to anybody and when he finally re-emerged in the 1980s he was still refusing to coast along on past glories. Nevertheless, he played to huge audiences all over the world and received honours and accolades everywhere he went.

That said, the master certainly had his critics. Stanley Crouch writing in The New Republic once spat, "beyond the terrible performances and the terrible recordings, Davis has also become the most remarkable licker of moneyed boots in the business, willing now to pimp himself as he once pimped women when he was a drug addict." Ian Carr powerfully dismisses Crouch's remarks, however. They are, he says, "whether loutish or considered", typical of the old cliched prejudices. He contends that it all goes back to the 1940s when Davis, Parker and Gillespie were dismissed by revivalists as the "Dirty Boppers".

Those in search of lost purity, according to Carr, are looking for something which doesn't exist, and those who dismiss Miles Davis (or certain periods of his career) are failing to recognise either the actual purity of his creative struggle or the continuity in his life and work. As a companion to Miles The Autobiography (Picador), Carr's book is essential reading. It is the music itself which is the central narrative and, for Davis fans, it helps to put some clear shape on a long and varied career. As a musician himself, Carr has much to say on the staggering achievement of his subject, both as a performer and as a thinker. It was Duke Ellington who described Davis as "the Picasso of jazz" and, on reading Carr's account, it is hard to dispute such a title. Carr concludes his book with Davis's obituary which he wrote for the Guardian.

It concludes: "Jazz is a very new music and perhaps Davis's greatest feat was to have imposed his own artistic values on it: unflagging intelligence, great courage, integrity, honesty and a sustained spirit of inquiry always in the pursuit of art, never mere experimentation for its own sake."

With the jazz sections of record shops once more buckling under the weight of Miles Davis CDs, this is a very timely publication and a fitting music-first biography of one of the greatest artists of the century - a man who, in his own words, "changed music five or six times". Miles Davis The Definitive Biography by Ian Carr is published by Harper Collins (£19.99 hardback, £7.99 paperback, in UK).