Miles Davis, you may recognize the name through his infamous relationship with heroin and women, but within the first beat of his self-titled autobiography, Miles, you discover that the greatest feeling that Miles Davis has ever had involves neither. Instead, he describes his first-time hearing Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker play together in St. Louis as the greatest feeling he’s ever known. In his autobiography, Miles provides full transparency into his life as discusses his childhood growing up in St. Louis, moving to New York, meeting the aforementioned Diz and Bird, and of course, his turbulent relationship with heroin and women. All the while, we get a glimpse into how Davis transformed cool jazz, and what it took for him to create his own voice. Most importantly however, how different levels of privilege among black musicians can affect how success is navigated.
Miles was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1926 into an upper middle-class family. His father Miles Dewey II, was an accomplished dentist, and his mother Cleota Henry Davis was a talented musician, who had looks that could kill according to Miles. As his story begins to unfold, Davis tries to simultaneously piece together why he is the way he is as he goes along. As he moves from moment to moment, he will momentarily pause to mention that the incident may have had a hand in shaping who he is, as if he is unsure whether it was truly important. For example, he mentions that the year after he was born, a horrendous tornado hit St. Louis. He ponders if this experience left its mark on him, leaving behind some “violent creativity” in him. Certain moments in his life like this one hold pieces of his identity that he seems to discover as he recalls each experience. It is actually quite interesting, as you feel like you are starting to get know Miles Davis at the same time he is discovering himself.
Throughout his tale, there are themes of cultural differences between Miles’ classical lessons at Juilliard and what he learned from ‘Professors’ Dizzy and Bird. While it was clear which source of education Miles would eventually lean towards, each presented valuable information that the other did not possess. He explains that his classical lessons at Julliard were simply too ‘white’. In the now infamous story, Miles talks about a music history class he attended that was taught by a white woman who believed that the reason black people played the blues was because “they were poor and had to pick cotton” (59). Their “sadness” was the catalyst that started the blues, to which Miles quickly responded with “my father is rich” and “(he) didn’t never pick no cotton and I didn’t wake up this morning sad and start playing the blues” (59). To which his professor had nothing to say. Miles did learn the need to be technically sound, to understand the theory behind music, and the contributions made to the art by composers like Stravinsky, Beethoven and Wagner. This education felt limiting however in terms of what it taught Miles about his main concern, Jazz. It only covered what Miles described as the “white” side of jazz, which his idols didn’t understand. His idols like Bird, Diz and Louis Artmstrong, play a vital role in not only how Miles shaped his sound, but also how he wanted to present himself. It is here that his privilege came into play.
Miles grew up in an environment where his aspirations were always supported. If he ever needed financial aid for any reason, his father could always send him money. When he failed, or had run out of money because of his addiction, he always had some sort of safety net. Musicians like Dizzy and Louis Armstrong, or “Satchemo” as Miles called him, did not. It is their style of performance that calls into question privilege, and how without it, one may be more cautious in how they navigate their career. Miles states that they were always smiling, as if they were more worried about maintaining an act that would please their audience rather than focus on their music. Miles insists that he didn’t care about what people thought of him, just about his sound. But why would he care if his father would be there if he failed? He said it himself, his father was rich. This illustrates the divide that there was among black musicians, and that perhaps some were more privileged in their artistry then others. Miles did not need to concern himself with having to put on a show, but for other artists, they did not have that privilege.
Upon picking up this autobiography, I was not sure what to expect. The first thing I thought of when I heard the name Miles Davis was drugs and blues. While there is plenty of each mentioned throughout this book, I was surprised to discover how long it took Miles to dabble in the former, and how supportive his father was throughout his career. The only issue I have with his writing are the inconsistencies among some of his stories. This may simply be attributed to the fact that Miles wrote this autobiography just 3 years before his death, so he may have just forgotten certain details, or wanted to exaggerate others. For example, when he talks about kicking his heroin habit for good, Miles claims that he was able to overcome his addiction by locking himself in his father’s study back home for 5 days, forcing himself to quit. Only a few chapters later, he talks about starting up again as he began to form bands in New York. Whether he realizes or not, Miles doesn’t seem to care about being consistent with audience. Nevertheless, I feel that Miles adequately paints a picture of his life story and gives the reader a new insight into how he truly became Miles Davis, and the people who helped him along the way.