Interviews » Biographers

John Szwed, author of So What: The Life of Miles Davis


John Szwed,

author of

So What: The Life of Miles Davis


More than half a century after his bebop debut, and more than eleven years after his death, Miles Davis lives on.  His music is used to pitch jeans, shape films, and personify an era.  To this day, he is revered as the archetype of cool.

While several books have been written about Davis, including his own autobiography, due to his passion for reinvention and his extreme reticence the real story of Miles Davis has been obscured by the legend and widely misunderstood.

Yale University Professor of African American Studies and Sun Ra biographer John Szwed’s So What: The Life of Miles Davis reveals a brilliant, inventive, intensely driven musician who was plagued by a host of internal conflicts and contradictions.  “Miles’ life as a whole is not easy to grasp,” Szwed reflects, “and the meaning of it, with or without his help, is resistant to quick interpretations.”*

Szwed joins Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita in a January, 2003 conversation about Davis’ remarkable career…


photo by Lee Tanner

“{My} music is strange.  Why does it change so frequently?  Is it because my life is always changing?  My life could never be an open book, so there are many secrets in my music.”

Miles Davis – 1975

So What


JJM As you point out in the introduction to your book, there are already several biographies of Miles Davis, as well as his own autobiography. What did you hope to accomplish with So What?

JS  It started when I ran into Miles Davis’ brother Vernon, and when he encouraged me to write, I was unable to resist. I began talking to other family members, his first wife Irene, his son Gregory, and many of his girlfriends along the way. I then found the original notes from Alex Haley’s interview for Playboyin 1959, and discovered there was quite a bit unpublished material in it. I researched biographer Quincy Troupe’s interviews and found material that shed new light on things. To me, that meant that there must have been inaccurate information in interviews over the years because things kept getting repeated that Miles insisted weren’t true, yet they were being copied from one interview to another when he apparently wasn’t too cooperative. So, that was the reason that I started doing this.

JJM  What was a significant childhood event of Miles Davis’?

JS  I think he had a very uneventful life as a child. It was almost archetypal. He was raised in an integrated neighborhood and fit in very well with it. There is a story about Miles being chased by a white man going after him with a gun, but he denied it. He seemed to have a quite normal childhood.

JJM  You wrote that the thing he talked about with much fondness was his paper route.

JS  Yes, that was the only day job he ever had, actually. He took a lot of pride in that, and since he had a sizable allowance, he was free to spend money earned on this job any way he wanted. He would buy clothes and records with it.

The most critical moment of his childhood was his parents’ divorce. That affected him, as it would anyone at that age. His parents had quite a volatile relationship, although not as bad as some like to make of it. For example, there are stories of how his father repeatedly beat his mother, but there is no evidence of that. To take the leap that people have taken and glibly say that Miles modeled his own behavior after his father’s, I see no evidence of that.

JJM Was he embarrassed by his middle class background as he moved to New York and began hanging out with musicians who didn’t have such a privileged childhood?

JS I don’t think ’embarrassed’ is the right word. He certainly told everybody he had money, and he showed it, buying suits and loaning money to people. He bragged about his father’s wealth and about going to Julliard, so I don’t think he was embarrassed by his background. He did want to mix with the “lower depths,” which at the time was a middle class “beat” sort of phenomenon. He did that, even to extremes, but I never saw any evidence of him hiding anything. He was very open about attending Julliard, which was one of the great music schools in the world, and made a point of sharing his lessons with people. His characterization of Julliard in his autobiography was a bit strange. He trashed it in one paragraph, then a few paragraphs later he bragged about studying there. But that very well may have been the way he felt.

JJM His use of drugs may have been a way to distance himself from what he occasionally viewed as a “square,” middle class upbringing.

JS  True, but it is not to say that he was hiding his background. In fact, he supported his habits and other people’s habits because of it. His misgivings about Charlie Parker were based in part on how much Parker used him for money.

JJM  You wrote that Miles was “shocked by Parker’s capacity for cruelty, sexual voracity, and the way in which he treated the women around him.”

JS  Yes. I could use any number of quotes from the book to describe Miles. The one that comes to mind is that of Annie Ross, who characterized him as a “sweet boy” who got in over his head with fame and drugs at a very early age. Deep into heroin, he found a capacity for doing things that he could never forget. It’s as if he discovered a dangerous side of himself that was always to remain with him. He never got over it. As Miles himself said, you may stop using heroin, but it never leaves your brain.

JJM  Shortly after arriving in New York, Miles began playing with Charlie Parker. Critics and other musicians felt Miles was not worthy of being in Parker’s band. The novelist Gilbert Sorrentino was in the audience for one of the performances with Parker and said, “He (Davis) probably hit more clinkers than any other trumpeter of his time.” If Davis was truly such a poor player, what did Parker see in him?

JS  Well, Sorrentino also said that maybe that wasn’t fair for him to say because he knew Miles was trying new things. His spare playing and choice of tone was quite shocking in the midst of all the hyper-speed playing that was happening at the time. Remember, he did get into Julliard with that tone, playing those notes. He was not a buffoon. At that point, he had four years of classical training, as well as the best teaching a musician could have in the Midwest. One of his teachers was the first chair of the St. Louis Symphony, who went on to be the first chair of the Boston Symphony. When he was at Julliard he studied with the first chair of the New York Philharmonic, learning from perhaps the best trumpet teacher in the world. I always consider that when reading some of the criticism about his playing of that time, and remember that he was playing with a somewhat classical tone. Miles was aware of how different his tone was, and how people poked fun at him, but he stuck with it. This is the courage of his aesthetic, that he chose this path. The easiest thing in the world to play was vibrato, and to play fast. He could have done that.

JJM  The quote by Sorrentino was not isolated. He faced criticism throughout his life from those who didn’t understand his playing.

JS  Yes, someone talked about how bad he was playing when he was with Coleman Hawkins, yet he was playing with Coleman Hawkins. How bad could he be? Billy Eckstine said he was terrible, yet Billy Eckstine had him in his band and offered him top dollar to stay with him. There was an antagonism against Davis and his arrogance that was running high at that time.

JJM He was known around the world as much for his hip style as his music. Who were his style influences?

JS  At an early age it was the fashion plates of Hollywood and society, fastidious gentlemen like Cary Grant, Fred Astaire and especially the Duke of Windsor, who was all over the papers in those days. These were all very well dressed men who were on the smaller side, like him. I think that impressed him as well. Dexter Gordon pushed him to more extremes in fashion later, with the broad-shouldered look, the pads and the lapels. Miles retreated from it almost immediately in the early fifties.

JJM  While other trumpet players of that era were into Louis Armstrong, he seemed to be heavily influenced by Harry James as much for his style as the music.

JS  Yes, for his style and his way of living. James was a horseman, after all, and Miles loved horses. I take some lessons from the fact that the first thing Miles went looking for in New York were the horses in Central Park, and not Charlie Parker. Think of that. You hit New York and the first thing you do is look for the horse barn — the first day. You have to get something out of that. People over-invest in his relationship with Parker. Someone took me to task in a review, saying I didn’t show the oedipal relationship between Davis and Parker. I don’t get it. Battling, if that is what that is about, sure, but who didn’t battle with Parker?

JJM  Davis’ emergence as leader of the Birth of the Cool recording sessions created a great deal of resentment among some of the other players. For example, he assumed ownership and collected the royalties. What were the circumstances of that recording and how did he emerge as the leader?

JS  I find this to be rather important. Pete Rugolo had been hired in a managerial capacity in the early years of Capitol Records to expand their horizons by going into new kinds of jazz. He was in New York and had heard about this rehearsal group. He must have heard them play, because there are no recordings of them in rehearsal. He signed them to do a number of singles, to be recorded during three sessions. The problem is that there was a recording ban going on at that point, so they had to record for what would come out later. There was a work hiatus because of that. If you look at the recording dates they really jump around. Miles went to Paris during this period, came back, and so on. As Gil Evans and Gerry Mulligan said, Miles was the only player in that band with name recognition enough to front the band. Given all the great players in that ensemble, it is hard to believe that today, but I believe that is right. Evans and Mulligan also said that he was the only one with the discipline to put them together, and to have rehearsals. That was his job with Charlie Parker as well, to call rehearsals and in essence act as music director, so it makes sense that he would do this for this band as well. Apparently he did keep the money earned from the sessions for himself, though I can’t believe the royalties were very substantial.

JJM  Sure, but the principal of him keeping them for himself…

JS  Yes, and tie that to the remarks of several of the musicians who complained that he wouldn’t assume leadership once they were playing. The description I got from trombonist Mike Zwerin was that Miles was actually sitting at the side of the band, and Mike couldn’t recall who was calling tunes or setting tempos. Gunther Schuller told me that at one point Max Roach was setting the tempos at the recording session. So Miles was not performing as a leader in the usual sense, and arguments broke out concerning who was in control. Consequently, there was some agitation about that as well.

JJM  When the Birth of the Cool band was together, Miles was asked by Duke Ellington to join his band. However, since Miles was so excited about his band’s prospects, he didn’t want to give up on it. What happened to the band after that?

JS  Lack of work, basically, and no new recording prospects. Plus, Miles was getting deep into drugs at that point, and was entering into the worst period of his life. Soon after, he was not working very regularly, only at Birdland, really. He was not physically up to working regularly

Some of the musicians in the Birth of the Cool band, by the way, were not that impressed with their work. Alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, who is notoriously not excitable, has said that the band was not that good, and that the arrangements were not ready to go out. There were several remarks like that. It wasn’t uniformly accepted as a breakthrough group, so I don’t think there was all that much enthusiasm about keeping it together. On top of that, Gil Evans got into his own problems, and he and Miles drifted apart, at least for some years.

JJM  Birth of the Cool, Kind of Blue and Bitches Brew are revered as benchmark jazz recordings in jazz. What did the album Walkin’ do for the growth of jazz?

JS  In retrospect, I don’t understand why that was considered to be such a significant recording. Miles claimed he had been playing like that all along, and many would agree. Marking Walkin’ as the beginning of hard bop is always awkward because it is during this period that he is also said to have created cool jazz. Since “hard bop” and “cool” are historically posed against each other in this kind of weird dialogue coded black and white — “white/cool”, “black/hard bop,” — did he really create both? The pianist Anthony Davis said to me, “If Walkin’ was hard bop, what was Charlie Parker? Soft bop?” Certainly Walkin’ is a great record. You can’t find a note that you want to move around or change, but I don’t think he was doing anything that new at that point in his career.

JJM  One of his favorite pianists at the time was Ahmad Jamal. What was it about Jamal’s playing that Davis liked, and did he ever ask Jamal to join his band?

JS  Apparently not. I tried to run that down, and Jamal nor anyone else recalled anything like that. At one time, Miles said that if he could find a pianist who could combine Bill Evans and Ahmad Jamal, he could die and go to heaven. That was all he needed, because their styles possessed exactly what he was looking for. People have said that if he hired Bill Evans because he couldn’t get Jamal, but we don’t know that. Miles certainly revered the two of them.

We now talk about Jamal in terms of his space and the way he keeps the melody afloat, and the way he lets you hear the rhythm section coming through almost anywhere, but at the time a writer for the magazine Jazz Review called it “cocktail piano playing.” According to several writers and musicians, then, there was nothing particularly interesting about Jamal’s playing. The criticism was negative enough that Cannonball Adderley had to defend Jamal in an interview. He told the interviewer that he was missing the point about him, and talked about the openness Jamal’s music provided, and how it was a break from bebop. At one point he defended Jamal’s use of tunes like “Surrey With a Fringe on Top” and “Tangerine,” which were not the kind of tunes jazz musicians played during that era.

I was never able to verify this, but since Jamal used to play in the East St. Louis area with the George Hudson band, it is likely that Miles heard him as a kid. Ultimately, I believe the interest Miles had in Jamal is that they shared a similar approach to music. Just hearing him allowed Miles to see that he was on the right track. The fact that so many of the tunes he used on his own records also appeared on Jamal’s, or were Jamal’s own tunes, suggests quite a connection.