So What: The Life of Miles Davis

Overview

Musical genius, visionary artist, enigma -- more than ten years after his death, Miles Davis still looms large as a cultural icon. In this, the first new biography since Davis' death, John Szwed draws on various archives and never-before-published interviews with those who knew him to produce the richest and most revealing portrait of Miles Davis to date.

The shy son of a dentist from Illinois, Miles Dewey Davis III would go through several transformations before becoming the ...

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Overview

Musical genius, visionary artist, enigma -- more than ten years after his death, Miles Davis still looms large as a cultural icon. In this, the first new biography since Davis' death, John Szwed draws on various archives and never-before-published interviews with those who knew him to produce the richest and most revealing portrait of Miles Davis to date.

The shy son of a dentist from Illinois, Miles Dewey Davis III would go through several transformations before becoming the image of cool. Change, says Szwed, was the driving force in both Davis' life and music -- as quickly as he established a new direction in his music and a new identity, he would radically reinvent both. He seemed to thrive on close musical relationships -- playing with jazz greats from Charlie Parker to John Coltrane and working with Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter, and composer Gil Evans, among others -- and yet the enduring image of Davis is of a lone figure, famously turning his back on the audience. He was at the peak of his career, having achieved star status, when he withdrew from the spotlight, spending years as a recluse. These seeming contradictions fueled the myths surrounding the man, but Szwed's insights into Davis' personality and artistic creativity shed new light on his life, from his turbulent relationships to his drug use and mysterious last days. Elegantly written and carefully researched, So What is the authoritative life of an artist who was always ahead of his time.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Eric Nisenson Down Beat No writer has portrayed the complexity of Davis the man and the connection between that complexity and the music he played as well as Szwed does.

Entertainment Weekly Fascinating....Szwed offers a thoughtful retelling of Davis' life.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780684859835
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 1/6/2004
  • Edition description: First Simon & Schuster Trade Paperback E
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 496
  • Sales rank: 826,025
  • Product dimensions: 1.13 (w) x 5.50 (h) x 8.50 (d)

Meet the Author

John Szwed is the John M. Musser Professor of Anthropology, African American Studies, Music, and American Studies at Yale University. He is the author of a number of books, including an introductory book about jazz, Jazz 101, and a biography, Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter Three

What a thing is Man, this lauded demi-god! Does he not lack the very powers he has most need of? And if he should soar in joy, or sink in sorrow, is he not halted and returned to his cold, dull consciousness at the very moment he was longing to be lost in the vastness of infinity?
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe,

The Sorrows of Young Werther

The outstanding thing about Miles Davis is not his style but its genuine, though elusive content....Of late, Davis has added to these approaches an almost funereal legato style in the middle and lower registers. These young-Werther ruminations most clearly reveal the content of Davis' music — a view of things that is brooding, melancholy, perhaps self-pitying, and extremely close to the sentimental. It is, except for certain aspects of Johnny Hodges and Sidney Bechet, a new flavor in jazz.

Whitney Balliett, Dinosaurs in the Morning

"What had jazz done to him!"

Irene Cawthon Davis

Sometime in late 1947, Miles was stopped one evening on 52nd Street by a thin white man in a cap and workers' clothes. Miles had seen him in the clubs, munching salted radishes from a paper bag. What he wanted from Miles was permission to make a big band arrangement of "Donna Lee." He was Gil Evans, an arranger for the Claude Thornhill Orchestra. The Thornhill band was something of an anomaly. In a time when dance bands were unambiguously either sweet or hot, Thornhill's had French horns, tuba, flutes, and brass muted in hats, playing together with an almost delicate combination of French impressionism, chinoiserie, and pop song melodrama. What Evans was up to with the Thornhill band when he ran into Davis was simply outrageous: he was attempting to bring bebop sensibilities into this almost fastidiously aristocratic orchestra. Miles had already heard Thornhill's recording of "Robbins' Nest," an Evans arrangement of a piece written by Illinois Jacquet and Sir Charles Thompson for the disk jockey Freddy Robbins. Davis was struck by the sonority of the "bell-like chords" they produced and how relaxed their melody lines were — as if the whole band was playing a written-out bebop solo. Miles told a Down Beat reporter a few years later that "Thornhill had the greatest band, the one with Lee Konitz, during these modern times. The one exception was the Billy Eckstine band with Bird." Davis was not alone in his regard for this group. Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington were also fans of its music. Miles told Evans that he could use "Donna Lee," if in return, Miles could see copies of Evans' arrangements of tunes like "Robbins' Nest."

Evans had drifted into New York in 1946, drawn, like Miles, to the flame of bebop. He stayed with friends until he found his own place, a storage space behind the Asia Laundry on West 55th Street, near Fifth Avenue, then an area of old buildings and warehouses. His room was little more than an unheated basement with all the pipes in the building running through it. He had a bed, an upright piano, a phonograph, hot plate, refrigerator, desk, and a few chairs. It was as close to the action as he could get, and he soon found his place becoming the center of a nightly gathering of a new kind of New York musician. The door was literally always open, and people came and went, sharing the piano and the bed, living a life of the arts in a fishbowl. Almost any night you might have seen Max Roach and Charlie Parker, singer Blossom Dearie and pianist John Lewis, musicians from the Claude Thornhill band like Billy Exiner, Barry Galbraith, Gerry Mulligan, and Joel Shulman, and arrangers like Dave Lambert, George Russell, Johnny Carisi, and John Benson Brooks. Arrangers in jazz are a special breed, operating somewhere between composers and improvisers, recomposing music that already exists, creating variations on themes, erecting frameworks with which to highlight soloists, yet always with a style identifiable as their own. Most of them then were self-taught, drawing their ideas from any place they found them, unafraid to venture into the classics or the world of pop. Paul Hindemith and Charlie Parker? Stefan Wolpe and Duke Ellington? Maurice Ravel and George Gershwin? It all made perfect sense to them.

In his basement salon, Evans was the senior member. When Miles first met him, he was thirty-five, and Davis, like most of the others who dropped in, was barely twenty-one. To them, Evans was a teacher and a scholar with a taste for modern painting and music. He brought home scores and records of contemporary classical music and set an example for serious study of music. Arranger George Russell recalls that Gil, like many others of them, was then under the spell of Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps and, for that matter, everything that the city had to offer:

New York City was ablaze with the most exciting things happening, not only in jazz, but in music in general, in sculpture — it was exploding. Anywhere you went you could tap into the energy. We thought it was an enormously wonderful time, and that it would go on forever.

We all hung out at Gil's apartment under the St. Regis Hotel. I'd go there nightly for a few hours, especially when Bird was staying there. Gil would get Bird, John Lewis and I together and take us over to Juilliard to hear Robert Craft preparing a concert of Hindemith, or to hear Dimitri Mitropoulos rehearse. Gil inspired us to reach for the impossible.

Davis also remembered Evans introducing him to the music of John Cage in 1948 and loaning him recordings by the iconoclastic composer Harry Partch, most likely "Dark Brother" and "U.S. Highball." The first was several paragraphs of a Thomas Wolfe essay set to sliding microtonal chords and arrhythmic drumming, the second a montaged epic of America as seen by hoboes, scored for two vocalist-narrators, modified guitar, and three microtonal instruments of Partch's own making — chromelodeon (a retuned harmonium), kithara (an elaborated harp), and double canon (a form of zither) — all of which he had overdubbed on the recording, producing the sound of desert winds and a slithering, rushing train. This was a liberating experience, Miles said, giving him confidence to go beyond the rules of music.

When Miles began to drop in on the gatherings at Gil's, Gerry Mulligan and Evans had been toying for some time with the idea of writing for a Thornhill-type band, only a hipper, smaller, more focused version, with room for soloists and freedom of movement. It would be an arranger's band, an experimental unit to let them hear in rehearsal new ideas by Carisi, Mulligan, Evans, and Lewis. Nine instruments seemed to be the minimum to get the sound they wanted: six horns and a three-piece rhythm section — a nonet. The idea was to break with the conventional dance band formation of rhythm, saxophones, and brass. Instead, they would spread the sounds and instrumental colors across the orchestra by means of a high-register grouping of trumpet and alto saxophone, a middle group of trombone and French horn, and a low section with tuba and baritone saxophone. This meshed with some ideas about writing for bands that Miles had shared with Charles Mingus back in 1946. Davis thought of the different instruments as if they were a vocal group, one in which each voice could be distinctly heard within a chord. Such an orchestra would have the kind of vocal sound that Duke Ellington managed to get. Miles was also thinking cross-over. The problem with bebop, he thought, was that it was not being fully appreciated and needed to be slowed down to be understood by a broader audience, especially a white audience. "Bird and Diz played this hip, real fast thing, and if you weren't a fast listener, you couldn't catch the humor or the feeling in their music."

It was Miles who took the lead in bringing the band into existence:

Nobody else [but the people I chose] could play those instruments. I wanted Sonny Stitt [on alto saxophone], but Sonny was in jail, you know. And Lee Konitz could play a lot of notes and it wouldn't bother you....Bird would have just shoved them down your throat. Bird was raw.

Not all of the band members shared this view. Mulligan, for one, saw what they were doing as an extension of what they had heard in Charlie Parker's quintets:

What it was, was a bunch of people who appreciated Bird, were influenced by Bird, loved what Bird was doing, and we each applied the lessons from Bird in different ways. But it was because we loved what was going on, it wasn't inaccessible to us, and we weren't thinking about making it that accessible to other people.

Gil, in fact, had first conceived of this group as being built around Charlie Parker, but Bird had no interest in giving up being a soloist in order to become a lead voice in an ensemble. Yet once the group was formed, many musicians heard the nonet's music as an extension of what Miles had been doing. More to the point, once they heard him in a musical setting created to complement his own style, it helped them to appreciate the role he played in Parker's group. Evans recognized that Davis' primary contribution was in the development of his own sound, a modern trumpet sound "suitable for the ideas he wanted to express." For Mulligan, Miles "was the perfect lead voice, because of the way he approached melodies. And so it was very easy for me to write for Miles. I understood his melodic sense:

Miles dominated that band completely; the whole nature of the interpretation was his. That was why we were always afraid to get another trumpet player; it would have been ideal, actually, to have a second trumpet. We thought about it but never did it.

Davis assumed the job of organizing rehearsals, making phone calls, and getting work for the nonet, and it was his name that it would come to be known by. When they began looking for players, some of the former members of the Thornhill band were obvious choices: tuba player Bill Barber, alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, French hornist Junior Collins, and baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan. The trombonist would be J. J. Johnson, Al McKibbon would play bass, Max Roach drums, and John Lewis — whom Miles wrote and asked to come back from Paris to play with them — would be the pianist.

Off and on for the next several months, Miles rehearsed the band, with the personnel changing depending on who was around and not working. "Miles did most of the organizing," Mulligan said.

We did most of the writing, but, left to us, we might not have even ever gotten around to getting the thing into rehearsal, we would keep talking about it. And, surely if we had gotten into calling rehearsals, we wouldn't have called a lot of the people that Miles did, and it was to some, to a great extent, what some of the people did that Miles brought in, that made the thing gel the way it did as a band. Most notably, Max Roach, who was absolutely perfect in that band.

In September, 1948, they found their first paying job, two weeks at a former chicken restaurant called the Royal Roost, the first of several new clubs associated with modern jazz that began to open along Broadway between 47th and 53rd Streets. The nonet would alternate each evening with Count Basie's band, with Friday night radio broadcasts announced by disc jockey Symphony Sid Torin. As the opening night approached, Miles had most of the regulars set, but J. J. Johnson wasn't available. His job went to Mike Zwerin, a college student not back at school yet; Miles had heard him one night sitting in at Minton's. Some of the other members of the band were annoyed at Miles' hiring a musician they didn't know, and for Zwerin, the gig was as much a test of character as it was of music:

He came over as I packed up about three. I slunk into a cool slouch....We were both wearing shades. No eyes to be seen. "You got eyes to make a rehearsal tomorrow?" Miles asked me. "I guess so." I acted as though I didn't give one shit for his stupid rehearsal. "Nola's. Four." Miles made it absolutely clear that he could not care less if I showed up or not.

When the first night arrived, Zwerin remembered, the Roost was packed. Out front a sign announced, "Miles Davis Band, Arrangements by Gerry Mulligan, Gil Evans, and John Lewis." Miles sat on a small stool near the tuba and trombone. No one announced the tunes or directed the band, and different musicians took turns setting the tempos. "Miles was pleasant and relaxed but seemed unsure of how to be a boss," Zwerin said. "It was his first time as a leader. He relied quite a bit on Evans to give musical instructions to the players." The whole engagement was casual, or "loose and sloppy," according to Lee Konitz, who said they had not rehearsed enough and the personnel were too fluid. "Everybody was ill at ease and trying to make this new kind of band work." Bill Barber already had a job at the Ziegfeld Theater every night, but since it was near the Roost, Miles agreed to his coming in late every night. The music they played was limited to a handful of arrangements, so they had to repeat some songs a couple of times a night. The audience throughout their two-week stay was respectful but not excited. It was not the kind of music they expected from a big band, nor was it the way they were used to hearing bebop. Like so many other signal moments in jazz history, there was no press there to document the occasion. But musicians who heard it were impressed. The band took pride when the whole trumpet section of the Gene Krupa Orchestra came to hear them. And Count Basie, himself no modernist, told a journalist, "Those slow things sounded strange and good. I didn't always know what they were doing, but I listened, and I liked it."

Among the audience at the Roost was Pete Rugolo, an arranger with Stan Kenton's band who had recently been given the job of signing jazz groups with Capitol Records, a new recording company located in Hollywood. He had already signed Tadd Dameron and Lennie Tristano. Although another recording ban had been called by the Musicians' Union that would last for most of 1948, Rugolo arranged for the nonet to be recorded as soon as it was over. On January 5, 1949, Miles signed a contract with Capitol, and on January 21 the group went into the studios of radio station WMGM on Fifth Avenue for the first four of the twelve single records contracted for.

The band huddled around Miles while they recorded Gerry Mulligan's "Jeru" (Miles' nickname for him) and George Wallington's "Godchild," both arranged by Mulligan; "Budo" (Bud Powell's "Hallucinations," retitled, and claimed by Miles in both his and Powell's names) and "Move," written by Denzil Best and arranged by John Lewis. The session was remembered as being "tense, hectic, and filled with headaches for all concerned — much last-minute planning preceded it, and the seeking, searching experimentation continued throughout." "Move," for example, was a popular jam tune among boppers, with a jagged, rhythmic melody, but Lewis' arrangement softened its nervous edges with its voicing and light phrasing and by introducing a tranquil countermelody against the trumpet and saxophone melody. With only three minutes to record with, give or take, everyone made the most of it. Davis' solo was concise and to the point. (He had written out the introductory and concluding phrases of his solos to ensure continuity in the short times in which he had to play). Max Roach's drum breaks hinted of nostalgia for the conventions of big band drumming, but the independent tuba line, the interplay of the horns, and the restraint of the rhythm section signaled that a radical alternative to the swing band was being introduced.

They were back in the studios on April 22 to record "Venus de Milo" by Mulligan, "Boplicity" by Evans and Davis, "Rouge" by John Lewis, and "Israel" by John Carisi. And almost a year later, on March 9, 1950, they would return to the studio for "Moon Dreams," a pop tune arranged by Evans, "Rocker" by Mulligan, "Darn That Dream," another pop tune, sung by Kenny Hagood, and "Deception" by Davis himself. Since "Deception" was based on pianist George Shearing's "Conception," some may have taken lightly Davis' role in reshaping it. But what he did with it offers clues for understanding his working methods for years to come. Miles extended each of the A parts of the composition by two bars to a total of fourteen, then eliminated the harmonic structure of five of the last fourteen bars, replacing it with a pedal — a single repeated note from the bass — that creates the effect of the melody floating free of the harmony and even free of the rhythm. (Vibraphonist Teddy Charles says that by putting this interlude into Shearing's "Conception" — and later, doing much the same to "Dear Old Stockholm" — Miles created pieces that were not played very often because they were too difficult.)

It was not until 1954 that all of these sessions were grouped together on record, when eight of the compositions were issued on a 10-inch LP under the title Birth of the Cool. If what was meant by "cool" was understatement, a softer attack, a quieter and smoother flow of rhythm, and lower volume and vibrato, then cool music had been around at least since the 1920s with musicians such as Bix Beiderbecke, Frank Trumbauer, and Red Nichols. In the 1930s, it was a style that could be heard in the music of Red Norvo and John Kirby, and most pointedly in the playing of Lester Young, a saxophonist whose style helped usher in bebop. (Young had underscored the long history of his own style by pointing back to Frank Trumbauer as an inspiration. Miles himself, on being asked if he ever listened to Bix Beiderbecke, also made a similar connection when he answered, "No, but I listened to Bobby Hackett, and he listened to Bix.") Even in the 1940s, the musicians associated with Lennie Tristano were creating a form of bebop that had an equal claim on cool. If, on the other hand, Davis' music was being labeled "cool" in order to emphasize its existence as a counterforce to bebop, that made more sense, for it was what he intended. As he put it, "After a while, what was happening around New York became sickening, because everybody was playing the clichés that people had played five years before, and they thought that made them 'mod-ren' musicians. I really couldn't stand to hear most of those guys."

Miles may have been the driving force behind the band, but there were grumblings about his leadership. His method of directing was indirect and nonverbal, and added to the work habits that sometimes kept Gil Evans from finishing arrangements, the band was often unsure of what to do next. Tensions built up in the group, according to Mulligan, and Miles was not willing to deal with them:

John Lewis got really upset with Miles, for a number of reasons, not the least of which was when the band became a working entity, Miles refused to assume control. He thought if you got problems, they'll solve themselves. You know, things don't work themselves out in bands. Somebody has to make it come together, and I suppose that being Miles' first band, he hadn't come to grips with that, so the first band, when it went out to play in clubs — this is not a problem when you're a recording band or a rehearsal band — but when a band plays night after night in clubs, then you start running into whole new sets of problems. About phrasing, and playing together, and so on...somebody has to lay down the rules:...if there's a choice, somebody has to make the choice.

John Lewis would keep trying to tell him, "Miles, you went out and got the gig for this. This is not a rehearsal band any more. If you want to be the leader, then you've got to be the leader." Miles would say, "Bullshit, man. Problems have got to take care of themselves."

Then there was Miles' casual way with credits and money. The arrangers who wrote the band's book did so for the pleasure of hearing their music without any regard for money. But when Miles received advances of $150 a side for each single record and small royalties began to come in, they wanted their share. According to Mulligan, "John...was [also] upset because it became Miles' band, and those of us that had written the music never got paid for the charts. We never got any money from the record company when the things were recorded. Miles assumed ownership."

But no one denied that the nonet was an artistic success, and even now, fifty years later, it's obvious that this music was fresh and filled with surprises. Miles said at the time that "Boplicity" was his own favorite recording and claimed the melody while giving Evans credit for the harmonization (though, on the advice of his father, Davis registered the composition under his mother's maiden name, to make sure his rights were protected). He later commented that the reason that other bands hadn't played it was that the "top line isn't interesting. The harmonization is, but not the tune itself."

For years, he continued to say that the nonet was one of his favorite bands, though he was critical of it for being more interested in writing than in recording and getting work:

We made twelve sides altogether with the group. Some of them were so bad that I asked Capitol not to release them, but they did anyway. And those sessions were so much trouble! Everyone in the band was nervous. And at every rehearsal, there were these little cliques. Gerry was always looking at me so that I wouldn't play anything fast. He didn't like to play fast then and Max was about to drive him nuts. A couple of the guys were studying composition and they'd always have their heads together. Everyone was tense.

Yet five years after the last of the singles was recorded, Miles told jazz writer Nat Hentoff that he would like to do a similar session with a full brass section, anticipating the Columbia recordings with Gil Evans' arrangements.

Today, some suggest that this band was the first of a series of strategic errors that Davis made that ultimately led him away from jazz. This music, they say, was too academic, or too commercial, maybe too European — that is to say, too white — and it failed to swing in any real jazz sense. But the concept of swing is notoriously complex and far from agreed on or even understood. On the nonet's approach to rhythm, for example, Gerry Mulligan once quoted Mel Powell, the pianist and arranger with Benny Goodman's band between 1941 and 1943:

He said the first impact of Benny Goodman's band in the 1930s was people saying how could all these guys play ahead of the beat, on top and ahead of it and make it swing? It didn't sound like they were playing out of rhythm or anything. And when our date came along, he said, it was the complete opposite; how could we lay so far back, play so far behind the beat together, and sound like we were swinging and not slow down?

Although the 78 rpm singles that resulted from these sessions did not sell well and the group played publically only once, these musicians knew they were doing something special, that they were crossing lines. For one thing, it was a racially integrated band, and that had a certain cachet. But to some black musicians outside the band, it was an affront for Davis to hire whites. Times were tight for musicians during the recording ban, and some let him know their objections. But he was unmoved:

So I just told them that if a guy could play as good as Lee Konitz played — that's who they were mad about most, because there were a lot of black alto players around — I would hire him every time, and I wouldn't give a damn if he was green with red breath.

Some black musicians also disparaged the cool music that developed in the wake of this band — Dizzy Gillespie, for example — though he made an exception for Miles: "Miles wasn't cool like that, anyway. Miles is from that part of St. Louis where blues comes from. Just part of his music is played like that, cool. They copped that part — the cool — but let the rest, the blues, go, or they missed it."

Much of the influence of this band was with white musicians, to be sure, many of whom were located on the West Coast — Shorty Rogers, Dave Pell, and especially Marty Paich, who used a band very similar to the Birth of the Cool group behind Jeri Southern on her 1958 recording, Southern Breeze. His band even quotes from the Davis recordings on "Isn't This a Lovely Day." "It got to be traditional awfully fast to do a date with French horn and tuba," Gil Evans joked some years later. Both Gil Evans and John Carisi also continued to write for similar groups on recordings made in the 1950s for RCA under the title of the Jazz Workshop. But this influence did not stop at race lines. Alto saxophonist Sonny Criss, an African American, recorded with a similar group on his 1968 album, Sonny's Dream. And the musicians in Davis' group themselves went on to change jazz in a myriad of ways that nonetheless recall the original band. John Lewis formed the Modern Jazz Quartet, which used forms borrowed from European classical music as well as from jazz, and played everything with a delicate touch. Gerry Mulligan created a pianoless quartet characterized by the subtle use of counterpoint. Lee Konitz continued to participate in the experiments that Lennie Tristano was carrying out in New York. J. J. Johnson wrote a number of extended compositions that expanded ideas about what a jazz band could play. And French hornist Gunther Schuller developed the concept of the third stream, a music with the orchestral complexity of advanced contemporary classical music, but played with an improvisational feel.

As soon as the stay at the Roost ended, Miles went back in the studio to record with Parker for Savoy, and by December the Parker quintet was playing the Roost as well. It was there that Norman Granz approached Bird about again taking the quintet on a tour with the Jazz at the Philharmonic, the first jazz spectacular, a traveling company of musicians whose careers Granz was in effect managing. Miles was appalled by the idea. Aside from his bad experience with Parker on the last tour, he didn't like the artistic concept behind the JATP. Granz had a reputation for raising the income and accommodations of jazz musicians who worked for him, but he did it by packaging the jam session for theater presentation and pushing the music toward the kind of overheated histrionics that was then associated with rhythm and blues: honking saxophones, screaming trumpets, hysterical call-and-response solo exchanges, and raw physicality. The players he used had a variety of styles and came from different historical periods, but were encouraged to play together regardless of compatibility. Miles found the idea distasteful and feared that Parker's participation in it would weaken the music.

I knew every chord that [Parker] and Dizzy played. Every night, we're listening for it and trying to learn how to play it. And then Norman Granz comes in and ruins everything by taking Bird to Jazz at the Philharmonic. He ruined the [bebop] movement. There's no more Diz and Bird, there's no more, "I have to have the right piano player, I have to have the right drummer," there's no more development.

I felt like he'd broken a silent code, you know what I mean? That it would hurt [the progress of] the music. So I told Max, "I'm not going. You do what you want to do." And Max said, "I'm not either."

Bird then went on his own, playing with the tour's rhythm section, some of whom still had one foot in swing music. As far as Miles was concerned, that alone confirmed that he had been right not to go.

By the early months of 1949, Miles' visibility was increasing rapidly. Not yet twenty-three years old, he had placed high in a readers' poll in Metronome magazine, and following that, recorded with the Metronome All-Stars, a band made up of the poll's winners. Sitting in the trumpet section alongside Dizzy Gillespie and Fats Navarro, the three trumpeters traded short phrases in the same solo space, and it was difficult to tell who was who. Miles played high and fast and as aggressively as the others. Here, if nowhere else, it was clear that he could play like them but was apparently choosing not to do so.

Just after the first nonet recording session, Miles joined the ten-piece house band at the Royal Roost which was led by pianist Tadd Dameron, one of the few arrangers who knew how to adapt bebop to big bands successfully. Though Fats Navarro was their usual trumpet player, Davis played with them in February and then recorded with them in April. Miles can also be heard on live recordings from the club, for the second time as the lead trumpet of a large ensemble, and taking well-constructed solos spaced by silences that drummer Kenny Clarke enthusiastically filled. In March, Davis appeared on a CBS-TV show called Adventures in Jazz, one of several specials at the time that paired boppers with dixieland players in a mock battle of the bands. Miles soloed briefly against Max Kaminsky on "Billie's Bounce."

It was sometime in early 1949 that Miles said that Duke Ellington asked to see him at his office in the Brill Building and told him he wanted to include him in his plans for the fall. It was a great moment for Miles, but because he had hopes for the Birth of the Cool group, he had to say no.

Looking back, Miles later said that in early 1950, Gil Evans went into a writing slump. But it was worse than that: Evans was using drugs more often and may even have had a breakdown. Gil simply said he spent those years waiting for Miles. Whatever the case, despite their affinity for one another, each of them found himself in his own form of difficulty, and they drifted apart for the next four or five years.

If these [jazz]men's lives are often tormented, it's because instead of keeping death at a distance, like other artists, they are always mindful of the marriage of existence and death.
Simone de Beauvoir, America Day by Day

In February 1948, Dizzy Gillespie had taken a remarkable big band into the Salle Pleyel, a concert hall in Paris. The group was flush with young talent, primed to play the erratic rhythms and surprise harmonies of bop. Few people in France had heard bop played by a large band, and no one was ready for Gillespie's group. Stark, explosive pieces like "Things to Come" were shocking enough, but Gillespie had also brought along Chano Pozo, a Cuban conga drummer who had grown up playing in the services of the Abakwa, a religion with ancient roots in Nigeria. When Gillespie played the "Afro-Cuban Suite," the jazz sections suddenly gave way to Pozo leading the band in choral chants in a Nigerian-Cuban creole language. The audience was at first stunned into silence and then erupted into shouting — pro and con. If this was music that was capable of bewildering American audiences, for the French, who had been cut off from developments in American jazz over the previous seven war years, it was even more confusing. Bebop, they had been led to believe, was the height of urbanity and sophistication.

Liberation of the French from the Nazis had meant release from the fear of being forced to labor for the Germans, as well as the lifting of curfews and bans on music and theater. It also meant the end of food rationing and the return of exiled teachers, stationery, foreign films, and phonograph records. The craze among French youth for American jazz had continued through the war and had taken on new meaning under Nazi occupation. But for most of the young, dixieland and swing were still new, and only among some of the zazous of St-Germain-des-Prés (the young hipsters who drew their name from the sounds of Cab Calloways's scat singing) had bebop taken hold. The arrival of bop set off a critical war between traditionalists and boppers even more spirited than the one already under way in the United States. Many French traditionalists chose to ignore bop, treating it as an aberration caused by black intellectuals who, they said, had been warped by drugs and American culture. But with liberation, American GIs visiting French clubs wanted to hear the kind of music they had heard on V-discs and radio broadcasts from Armed Forces Radio. Bebop was sending a frisson through postwar France, a shock much like the one that followed their discovery of film noir once American movies began to be seen there again. Bop was separating intellectuals from one another and dividing age groups into warring camps. The querelle de bebop was on.

Nonetheless, jazz continued to thrive in postwar France, and by the end of 1949, the critic Charles Delauney organized the largest jazz spectacle ever staged anywhere, one that would bring together both sides of the bebop debate and draw musicians from virtually every country where jazz was popular. Kenny Clarke, the drummer with Dizzy Gillespie's big band, had stayed on to live in Paris when Gillespie left for the United States, and when he heard that the festival wanted some other American boppers in addition to Parker, he suggested Tadd Dameron. When Dameron was offered a spot on the program, he proposed using Miles Davis and alto saxophonist James Moody (already living in Paris) as the horns for his band, with Clarke as the drummer. (The choice of a bass player he left to the producers, and it turned out to be another American expatriate in Paris, Barney Spieler.)

Miles was excited by the idea of going to Europe and taking his first plane trip. He had a new suit fashioned for the occasion, especially after the ultrahip saxophonist Dexter Gordon had made fun of his conservative tastes. The only serious difference in the new suit was its wide shoulders, but in the fashion of the times, such small distinctions meant everything. Irene wanted to go with him to Paris, but Miles told her that traveling with a bunch of musicians was not a good idea. So she and the children saw him off at the airport on May 7, the day before the opening concert.

When Miles arrived in France he checked into a hotel on the Place de l'Etoile, and the next day rehearsed and performed at the Salle Pleyel, where their quintet followed Sidney Bechet, the boogie-woogie pianist Pete Johnson, a jam session that included Don Byas, Hot Lips Page, and others, and preceded the Charlie Parker Quintet. Parker was the star of the festival, but his onstage and offstage behavior became something of a scandal. Instead of acknowledging applause, he quickly turned and counted off the next piece; when a member of the audience gave him a rose, he ate it; during an interview with a British journalist, he answered every question with a quote from the Rubáiyát.

Pianist Henri Renaud recalled that Miles' first of several appearances at the festival was also something of a surprise for Parisian jazz fans. They had already heard Parker's recordings and been thrilled by them, but found those with Davis on them disappointing. This was not the bravura display of trumpet technique and harmonic sophistication that they had heard from Gillespie. If Dizzy was bebop, what was this? Renaud said,

Many musicians had been stunned by Dizzy Gillespie's appearance in Paris the year before, and so saw Miles as somehow not the real thing — no vibrato, no flurries of fast notes, no stratospheric soaring....But slowly, Miles became the talk of Paris. To some, his technique, his harmonic sense, his choice of notes, that moody sound, meant that he was the real avant-garde of jazz.

Live in Paris, Miles sounded louder, clearer, and higher than they had thought he was capable of playing. He even said that the whole French experience "pushed things up a notch." Some parts of those concerts were broadcast on radio and then recorded by Renaud, and hearing them today is a surprise to those who only know Miles' nonet recordings from the same period. On slow ballads like "Don't Blame Me," he was melodically inventive and risky. "The young musicians were amazed by the chords Tadd Dameron was playing," Renaud said. "And by the fact that Miles could play with him." Dameron seemed to pull chords from out of the air, changing their progression at will. At rehearsals, Tadd "fed Miles some original melody lines," British guitarist Ivor Mairants observed, "which Miles at first considered 'impossible to play,' but eventually performed."

Onstage, Miles was poised and assured. He announced songs, set the pattern of solos, and as far as the audience was concerned was the leader. On the last night, he was chosen to be part of a blues jam with Sidney Bechet, Toots Thielemans, Parker, Max Roach, and the other stars of the festival. (Miles allowed that he had never heard Sidney Bechet before, but that Bechet's playing reminded him of Duke Ellington's lead alto saxophonist, Johnny Hodges.) For the first time in his life as a big name musician, he was playing without Charlie Parker, and being admired for himself and what he could do.

Wherever Miles went during his ten days in Paris, a young man named Boris Vian seemed always to be nearby. Vian was one of the better-known characters of postwar Paris, a dynamo of boundless energy and crazed talent. On the humdrum train of everyday life, someone once said, it's Boris who pulls the emergency brake and stops the routine in the middle of anywhere. Boris specialized in everything. He was an engineer, a part-time surrealist and pataphysician, jazz trumpet player, pop songwriter, singer, novelist, translator of Raymond Chandler and Nelson Algren, opera composer, and author of the notorious pulp fiction, I Spit on Your Grave (which Vian claimed he had translated from the work of a black American named Vernon Sullivan, although it was later discovered that Vian had written it himself). He was also one of the first jazz disc jockeys, and his record programs in France even reached New York City on station WNEW in 1948 and 1949.

Boris and his two brothers played late-hour sets in small clubs with Claude Abadie's orchestra, an amateur traditional jazz group. Vian also wrote articles for the then somewhat reactionary magazine Jazz-Hot, arguing the line of the so-called mouldy figs — the side of the jazz divide that held that anything after swing (and sometimes even swing itself) was a decadent form of music (Bix Beiderbecke was Vian's man). But when Boris first heard Miles' solo on Charlie Parker's "Now's the Time," the connection between bebop and the music of the 1920s that had eluded him was made clear. Now Vian changed sides with a vengeance, mocking the jazz controversy by likening it to the arguments that had gone on between Nazis and communists. In the 1948 Christmas issue of Jazz-Hot, he published a short parody in which Goebbels visits Vian and they greet each other with "Heil Gillespie" and "Heil Parker" salutes. While smoking weed, Goebbels tutors Vian in propaganda and the hip manner in which to order food: "Une poule au riz-bop...du riz-bop au curry-bop, avec pain riz-bop et du thelonious."

Shortly before Miles reached Paris, Vian announced himself as Davis' defender, and was already arguing for him as one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time. In one of the first articles written about Davis anywhere ("Miles Davis: The Ears of a Faun"), Vian said that Miles's brilliance stemmed from his total relaxation, the logic of his melodies and his use of space, his sound — "nude, vulnerable, almost no vibrato, totally calm, but...excitingly vehement" — and his sense of rhythmic structure and balance.

It was at one of the rehearsals for the festival in Paris that Vian introduced Davis to Juliette Greco, whom Miles would later describe as "the first woman that I loved as an equal human being." Born to a Corsican family, Greco grew up in Paris during the war, was a member of the underground Resistance in her teens, and had come to be known as the queen of the zazous. It was her dark slacks and long straight hair that set the mode for postwar French women (Simone de Beauvoir never forgave her for being the first woman after the war to wear her hair that way). You could always find Greco amid the new underground, hanging out in bars in the cellars of the Latin Quarter, places like the Rhumerie Martiniquaise, Café Flore, Club St-Germain, the Montana Bar, Les Deux Magots, Brasserie Lipp, but most often in Tabou, a cave, a basement, with African masks on the walls, which opened in 1945. Greco was beginning to develop into a singer and actress, and when Miles first met her, she was reading poetry at the Tabou and acting in Jean Cocteau's film Orpheus. (After her success in that film, she appeared in a string of French and American movies, including The Sun Also Rises, The Roots of Heaven, Naked Earth, and The Big Gamble.)

The attraction between Miles and Juliette was part exoticism, part the delight in being beautiful, being young geniuses together. "She told me that she didn't like men but that she liked me. After that we were together all the time." Nicole Barclay, the wife of club owner and record producer Eddie Barclay, warned Miles that Greco was an existentialist. He wasn't sure what that meant (who was?), but he was fascinated by her — her dark eyes and hair, the shape of her nose. He called her his "Gypsy girl." Their relationship was sensual, based on touch, gesture, and few words (neither spoke the other's language). They walked together through Paris, drank in cafés, and mixed with writers, intellectuals, and artists. For the first time in his life, Miles said, he was drawn away from music, and for the first time he found himself able to look at things, to feel them, to be in love with a place and a time, the smell of Paris, of cologne, of coffee, all of it almost tropical in its richness and intensity.

Miles told Kenny Clarke that he had never felt so free in his life as when he walked along the Seine, drinking wine, unnoticed by anyone. Or when he walked into a restaurant without bothering to know whether they would serve him. (When Miles was in Paris some years later, he ran into the French pianist René Urtreger, and as they passed each other, he whispered in René's ear, "Freedom!") Almost everywhere he went, fans gathered around him, especially women. At one point, one of them ran up and asked for an autograph, handing him her program open to a picture of Hot Lips Page, a very different looking trumpet player who had come to fame with Count Basie's Orchestra in the 1930s. Miles signed it with Page's name. Then, as she began to recognize him, he signed Page's name again to another picture of Page next to one of himself. It was an incident that would be repeated over and over throughout his life when fans sometimes confused him with his younger musicians or roadies. He never ceased to enjoy the wicked possibilities for humor in these little racial scenes.

Greco introduced Miles to Jean-Paul Sartre, and the two men were intrigued by what they shared in common. Sartre was a short man who took amphetamines, loved boxing and jazz, and had once wanted to be a jazz pianist and singer. In fact, he was a good enough pianist to teach students, though his taste at the time ran less to jazz and more to spirituals, light swing, and pop tunes. (In Nausea, a novel he came to regret having written, Sartre's protagonist compares life unfavorably to art by rhapsodizing over the "jazz tune" "Some of These Days," by Sophie Tucker.) Sartre was helping Greco plan her first nightclub act and gave her one of his own songs, which she added to a repertoire written by other literati such as Françoise Sagan, Raymond Queneau, and François Mauriac.

Miles and Sartre chatted through an interpreter (possibly Vian's wife, Michelle), mostly showbiz talk, Sartre telling him about his woes with American producers who were proceeding with an unauthorized American adaptation of his play Les Mains Salées, set to open in New Haven, Connecticut, as Red Gloves with Charles Boyer in the lead, until Sartre's attorneys put a stop to it. Later, recalling his nights with Sartre, Miles would laughingly claim — perhaps with some justification — that he should have gotten at least some of the credit for existentialism. Vian also brought Sartre to see Charlie Parker play at the St. Germain. When he introduced them, Parker said to Sartre, "I like your playing very much." (Even today, the French still puzzle over the meaning of that remark.)

When the time came for Miles to leave, Juliette urged him to stay, as did Sartre and Kenny Clarke, but he had obligations, a wife and two children, the final stage of the recordings of the nonet, and a heroin habit in the making. Once he was back in New York, Miles never wrote to Juliette, but asked about her of anyone he met who might have run into her. (Henri Renaud said when he met Miles, the first thing he said to him was, "You French? You must know Juliette.") Later, when one of Greco's films opened in the United States, Miles went to see it and was stunned to see that Greco's character had a picture of him on her dresser. Was it a signal to him? A message to come back? But still, he never wrote.

They would see each other from time to time over the years. Yet when Greco published her autobiography, Jujube, in 1983, it was for the most part silent on Miles Davis. In the huge cast of characters that populates her book, he appears only once: it is the 1950s; she is in New York and visits Birdland, where she sees Miles and the members of the Modern Jazz Quartet. They talk late into the night, and she invites them all for dinner to her suite at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel the next evening. When the maître d' brings the dinner up, the musicians sense his disapproval — in the language of the times, they "feel a draft." At five in the morning, long after the guests have gone home, Greco receives a call:

It was Miles Davis. "If you don't want to ruin your reputation and your career in America, come to see us at our place, but don't ever be seen with us at yours. Do what I'm asking of you: I don't want you to be called a 'nigger's whore.' I like you very much, you know, but you have to understand that you're not in Paris, but in the U.S. of A."

Greco cried out of sadness and rage. She also cried over the insult against her and over those who suffer under oppression. She would see them on the sly. Some day they would declare their friendship to her and Miles would play for her alone and would make her taste fried chicken which he would prepare himself in the sweetness of a liberty regained if only for a few hours.

In Davis' autobiography, Greco takes up fewer than three pages. His account of their meeting at the Waldorf is strangely different from hers. He is still in love with her, desperate to see her, when she calls and asks him to come to her suite. He takes drummer Art Taylor along with him, "just in case." "That way, I could control the situation as best I could." The appearance of two black men at the front desk calling on a French movie star shocks the clerks. When they reach her door and she rushes into his arms, he "goes into his black pimp role...mainly because I was scared." He demands money from her and then leaves abruptly without an explanation.

In New York, Miles was faced with the responsibilities of a family again, and if he expected that his triumph in Paris would put him in demand in the United States, he was sorely disappointed. There was even less work offered to him now than before he left. The postwar recession of late 1949 and 1950 hit just as the public was becoming interested in new forms of rhythm and blues, and together they were enough to push bebop out of the spotlight. Bop was beginning to be looked on as a cause of the decline in jazz, and bebopper was on the verge of becoming a synonym for juvenile delinquent. In New York, people were still debating whether bop was jazz. Charlie Parker said no; Dizzy Gillespie said yes. In an interview with Down Beat reporter Pat Harris, Davis went to some pains to agree with Gillespie. Surprisingly, he also defended dixieland music and said that bop was just one form of many styles in jazz. He insisted that all modern jazz musicians had been influenced by earlier forms of jazz and illustrated his point by saying that while he was in Paris, he heard Sidney Bechet play a musical figure that he'd first heard from Charlie Parker when they were recording "KoKo." When he asked Bechet about it, Sidney told him it was from an "old New Orleans march" ("High Society").

Despite disappointments, Miles was still basking in the glow of the sweet life he had experienced during his short stay in Paris. In the same Down Beat interview, he said, "What I would like to do is to spend eight months in Paris and four months here. Eight months a year where you're accepted for what you can do, and four months here because — well, it's hard to leave all this." Whether "all this" included his family, or drugs, music, and at least some affinity for his country of birth was not clear.

He moved his family to 173rd Street in nearby St. Albans, Queens, bought an almost new blue Dodge convertible on time payment, and once again tried to maintain normal family life. But this was not the way it was to be. Jazz lived alone or nowhere, dressed up every night, walked into clubs with a horn under its arm, made itself known. Jazz had no day job, no wife or child. Jazz could drift over to Nola's Studios and find someone to jam with, and never have to go home for dinner or explain itself. Yet here was Miles, out of work most of the time, depressed, and living the life of the square in the suburbs. It was all too much.

He began commuting daily back and forth to Harlem, going to the gym, having breakfast with Lester Young whenever he was in town, and hanging out with a new generation of musicians who had been drawn to bebop and were now deep into drugs. "When we first came to New York everyone was so bright and eager," Irene said. "Then suddenly everyone was nodding." Heroin had spread across Harlem, and the best of the younger musicians had given themselves to drugs. Cocaine had begun to circulate outside Spanish Harlem, and Miles was using both.

For some time he'd been snorting diluted heroin and cocaine, but with only short-term highs, and if he missed a day, he'd be hit with aches, fever, and chills; a gradual weakness took over, and his nose was constantly streaming. A friend told him that he had a habit and that inhaling was an expensive waste of the drug, so he began injecting it. First, he got high alone, but he hated the idea of becoming a junkie who roamed the streets with the drug as his only friend. He moved instead into one of those small circles of users who "roomed" with each other — regularly getting high together someplace in the city, borrowing and stealing from each other, bound together in a strange comitatus, a fellowship of the needle in the name of bebop.

Miles' behavior changed quickly. He became withdrawn, distant, passive, asexual. The transformation was so rapid and profound that at first Irene suspected him of being with other women, then discovered it was drugs:

Miles began coming home later and later in the evening. I accused him of drugs, because I'd found a spot of blood on his shirt. He grabbed the shirt out of my hand and said nothing. I got him an appointment with a psychiatrist, and he went once. But he never went again because he said the psychiatrist was crazy.

Miles' daily commutes to Manhattan were becoming shopping trips for narcotics. "My mother was a country girl at the time," their son Gregory said, "and she could see the deterioration of his character. I remember my mother trying to hide his shoes from him so that he wouldn't be able to go out to cop." And when Miles was at home, his depression deepened:

Irene and I didn't have any kind of family life anyway. We didn't have a whole lot of money to do things with, with the two kids and ourselves to feed and all. We didn't go anywhere. Sometimes I used to stare in space for two hours just thinking about music....I basically left Irene sitting at home with the kids because I didn't want to be there. One of the reasons I didn't want to be there was that I felt so bad that I couldn't hardly face my family. Irene had such confidence and faith in me....But Irene knew. It was all there in her eyes.

"One Thanksgiving we didn't have the money for a turkey," Irene said, "so we bought as big a chicken as we could, and Miles told the children, 'See the turkey?' When Easter Sunday came, I asked Miles to pick up some dye for Easter eggs. But when I brought the children home from church, Miles had just drawn on the eggs with a pencil."

Smack, junk, skag, horse, shit, H. It had as many names as an ancient god, which for some it seemed to be. Heroin was the ultimate high. It could remove the constant knot from your stomach, or make you think you'd always had one there before you'd used it. It was not so much that it could bring you euphoria and erase the day-to-day concerns of family and job, but it could take away the surprises and lower emotions. St. Louis hipster Ollie Matheus recalled Charlie Parker's praise for his drug of choice: "Bird says it's like a loan. You consolidate all your loans into one payment; that's a junkie. All of life's problems are one problem." Like driving in a fast car — something Miles would soon grow to love — heroin narrowed the emotional and visual fields to only the moment. It gave a crystalline vision of the music, slowing the music down as well, stopping and holding up to the light those beautiful bop melodies that otherwise could fly by so fast that they left nothing but vapor trails. Before club gigs or recording dates, the musicians could be seen fanning out across the city looking to score — up to the roof of a place in Hell's Kitchen, into a Spanish restaurant on Eighth Avenue, uptown to a certain corner. A musician prepares.

With Miles, a certain remoteness also set in; his attention span shortened, and his distance from others increased. The drug itself became the object of his affection. In an insecure and capricious world, it was something he could count on to work, and work again and again, forming a ritual of return that in itself stabilized and gave solace. Beyond that, it was the key to the door of the restricted club of those who know. Pianist Walter Davis described the exclusivity of drugs this way:

I just know that when you got high at that time, you were further into the clique....It was in to be doing that. [When somebody was playing well] conversation went like this: you would always hear somebody say, "Who the hell is that?" Guy say, "Well, that's such and so," and the next question would be, "Does he get high?" You say, "Yeah, he gets high as a motherfucker."

Heroin was emblematic for some musicians, a sign of alienation from a certain kind of society. It was, after all, a crime to use it. For Miles, it signified that he was not a square — or a dentist. Yet like all other junkies, life for him was now built around drugs. He had to find them, had to cop, score, deal. He had to protect himself against rip-offs of all sorts, everything from impure product to bad counts. He had to watch his transactions like any middle-class man of commerce, and make sure that he timed every part of the process correctly so that he wasn't nodding during the set, wasted before the gig, or arrested. Heroin took time, labor, and planning, and when he traveled anywhere, the problems were compounded: where to cop, and where to go if he got sick? He would ultimately declare that heroin was boring — the waiting, living in the present, all those rituals of use — but for now it was the cost of feeling safe for the moment.

Heroin is an illusory drug, its continuous use a source of physical pain, disappointment, and heartbreak, each hit less satisfying than the previous one, until a nostalgia for the first time drives the urge. Miles soon hit bottom, and went so low that he saw something in himself that he could never forget. He had crossed the line, and even when he was off drugs, the experience haunted him. He constructed a vision of his experience that changed him from a "nice, quiet, honest, caring person into someone who was the complete opposite." It was simplistic but in a sense true. He was pawning his horn (renting Art Farmer's trumpet when he could), begging others for money, lying, cheating, and stealing from those closest to him.

Irene, desperate, turned to anyone whom she thought might help her. "Once I went to Birdland to talk to Charlie Parker about Miles using drugs, and he was sympathetic, and seemed surprised that Miles was using. He said he'd give him a good talking to." When nothing else worked, she called Miles' father to tell him that she had no way of coping with drugs. Though he never mentioned how his father reacted, his sister said, "When Miles put that needle into himself, he put it into the whole family." Miles did recall the disgrace of being discovered in the gutter on Broadway by Clark Terry, of being fed and put to bed in Terry's room, only then to steal his clothes and radio and pawn his trumpet. When Pauline, Terry's wife, called Miles' father to tell him what was happening to his son, his father turned on Clark, blaming him and other musicians in New York.

Babs Gonzales, consummate hipster and bebop singer (and, some would say, not always reliable raconteur), tells of an evening in Chicago during this period where Miles, his brother, Vernon, and another man were setting up a small-time drug-dealing scam in order to trick a hometown man into giving them $300 for drugs, which they would use to pay the hotel bill. But the mark spotted what they were up to, and Miles and Vernon were put out of the hotel.

Reflecting back on his worst days on heroin, Miles would later say that he had become a pimp in order to survive. "Under heroin, you could pimp yourself, your mother, anyone," he told a girlfriend later. If he was a "pimp" it was not in the sense that white people use the term, as a noun, as someone in The Life, a man who runs women on the streets for profit. He was a pimp only in that he took gifts from women who lived by selling sex, as well as from those who didn't. "Player" might be the better term, a ladies' man, one who manipulates women to support his habit or his lifestyle. But Miles could also play at being the mackman, using pimp talk to flirt with women, as well as talking with the kind of verbal aggressiveness that kept men at bay. The conceit or fantasy of living off women was not uncommon among some men, something you could find in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man and in the ambivalent claims made by Charles Mingus about himself in his autobiography, Beneath the Underdog (though those who knew Mingus also denied that he ever pimped women). As an upper-middle-class young man, the role of the pimp fascinated Miles — the walk, the talk, the dress, the attitude of the wily trickster in control of every situation, the black businessman operating outside the reach of white commerce. Yet years later, when he was cast in the role of a pimp on the television show Miami Vice, he complained about it, to his brother's amusement.

He boasted in his autobiography that between 1951 and 1952, "I had a whole stable of bitches out on the street for me." Yet he quickly added, "It wasn't like people thought it was; these women wanted someone to be with and they liked being with me. I took them to dinner and shit like that....I just treated the prostitutes like they were anybody else. I respected them and they would give me money to get off in return. The women thought I was handsome and for the first time in my life, I began to think that I was, too. We were more like a family than anything."

He explained that the women

wouldn't give me their money. They just give me money to take them out. They made a lot of money...screwin'. They didn't give all their money to me, they just said, "Miles, take me out. I don't like people I don't like, I like you, take me out..." That's like a family they like to be in. I know, I can understand that.

I was getting by with the help of women; every time I really needed something during this period I had to go to women to get it. If it hadn't been for the women who supported me, I don't know how I would have made it without stealing every day like a lot of junkies were doing. But even with their support, I did some things I was sorry for later.

Miles never glamorized the drug experience or turned it into a horror story. And if, like other junkies, he developed a tale of decline and self-destruction, it was at least a minimalist narrative as sparse as his speech and his playing. For much of his time under heroin, he was not fully addicted, though he suffered flulike symptoms, malaise, headaches, and weakness. It was a matter of pride to him that he not be seen nodding. Other symptoms of drug use — like mood swings, forgetfulness, and unhappiness — he hoped would be treated as merely part of his character.

Thinking he might find work (and drugs) more easily if he were living in Manhattan again, Miles moved his family into the Hotel America on 48th Street, where Clark Terry, singer Betty Carter, and a number of other musicians stayed. "Betty worshipped Miles," Irene said, so Miles talked Betty into letting the children and Irene move in with her and share the rent. Irene had recently found a job in the Admissions Department at the Brooklyn Jewish Hospital. Since Betty sang in clubs at night, she could take care of the children during the day.

In the last part of 1949, Miles played at a few high-profile events: a Town Hall concert with Erroll Garner, Lennie Tristano, Charlie Parker, and Harry Belafonte; two weeks with the Bud Powell group at the Orchid Club (the old Onyx); a short stay at the Hi-Note Club in Chicago; and a Christmas Day "Stars of Modern Jazz" concert at Carnegie Hall. But work was otherwise hard to come by, and he whiled away some of the days in rehearsal bands organized by Gene Roland and Tadd Dameron. In January 1950, he went to Chicago and Detroit to do a few guest spots with tenor saxophonist Wardell Gray, who had come in from California. While he was in Chicago, Miles' father continued to send him money, but now through his brother, Vernon, to make sure it wasn't spent on drugs. But before the month was over, Miles asked Vernon to let him have $100 so that he could loan it to Wardell, who needed it to get home. Vernon was suspicious about how the money might be used and never got his money back.

Miles returned to New York in March to finish the last of the Birth of the Cool sessions and in May he recorded with a small group accompanying Sarah Vaughan on four singles she made for Columbia Records. On ballads like "It Might as Well Be Spring" he wove obbligatos softly through her lines, complementing them perfectly. He was filling the same role Freddie Webster had played on her records four years before.

Changing musical tastes, police closings of clubs, and real estate speculation in midtown Manhattan began to drive rents out of the reach of club owners, and jazz lost out to strip clubs and bars without entertainment. But the area still had appeal for musicians and audiences. It was near restaurants like Lindy's and Jack Dempsey's, the Arcadia and Roseland Ballrooms, the CBS recording studios, and the Nola Studios, the largest rehearsal hall in New York City. And the Roost had enough success with bebop to encourage a few new clubs to spring up nearby — Bop City, and most notably, Birdland, which opened just before Christmas in 1949.

Birdland was located below street level at 1678 Broadway just off the corner of 52nd Street, where the lettering on an awning proclaimed, "The Jazz Corner of the World." It was a big room that could hold 500 people, with a long bar, tables, booths, and a fenced-in "bullpen" — a drinkless area where teenagers sometimes were allowed in to watch. Birdland was the closest thing to a pure jazz club at the time, a place where new bands were born, new alliances formed, and modern musicians felt at home. But it was also a site of drug dealing, hustling of various sorts, and violence. Irving Levy and Morris Primack were the owners of Birdland, though it was operated by Oscar Goodstein, who took tickets and tended bar. Levy himself was stabbed to death in front of the club (in what the papers called "the bebop killing") and was replaced by his brother Morris, who succeeded so well that he went on to open other clubs like the Down Beat, the Round Table, and the Embers. Morris would later own Roulette Records and the Strawberries chain of record stores, and through his mob ties and criminal activities, was finally convicted in 1988 of extortion and sentenced to federal prison. The Birdland management were starkers, tough guys. Charles Mingus recalled seeing Irving Levy kicking musicians downstairs — "'Get down the stairs, nigger,' you know?" For musicians who worked there five sets a night, six nights a week, it was hard and sometimes even dangerous work.

Miles became a regular at Birdland, bringing a band in for a few days, sitting in on the Monday night jam sessions, or just sitting at the bar. It was a scene he found strangely comfortable: the gruff, hipper-than-thou Symphony Sid who emceed the late sets for radio; the miniature doorman Pee Wee Marquette (who could blow cigar smoke in your face or insult you in his stage introductions if your tips weren't right); and the thuggish Mo Levy. For much of the first half of 1950, Birdland was virtually Davis' only source of work, but it was one that would give him notoriety. A certain kind of celebrity was drawn to Birdland, where Miles was the most interesting and stylish fixture. The Journal-American columnist Dorothy Kilgallen was a regular, and often seen chatting with Miles. Ava Gardner always dropped in when she was in town and, in later years, came in one night with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Gardner, who had worked with Juliette Greco in The Sun Also Rises, went back to the dressing room between sets to see Miles. Not every celebrity left happy: British novelist Kingsley Amis came by one evening in 1958, and later wrote in his Memoirs that he had tried to forget what he heard, but "the sound of Miles Davis' trumpet, introverted, gloomy, sour in both senses, refuses to go away. I had heard the future, and it sounded horrible."

As quickly as Davis' fame spread in New York, his life away from the bandstand began to unravel. He had fallen behind in his rent at the hotel, the loan company was trying to repossess his car, and Irene learned that she was pregnant again — with a child that Miles doubted was his own. In July, he put his family in the car and drove back to East St. Louis, only to be humiliated by having his car towed from in front of his father's house almost as soon as they arrived. Irene, Miles, and the children then moved in with Miles' mother in Chicago, where she had bought property and was living part of the time, and where his sister, Dorothy, was teaching and Vernon was studying music.

In Chicago, Miles met Johnny Bratton, a flashy welterweight boxer from Arkansas who had made the city his home base. Bratton was a year younger than Miles, and they were similar in physique and tastes, though the fighter dressed a bit flashier, with brilliantined hair and a fondness for purple shirts. He was a classy and graceful fighter and took on some of the best boxers, like Ike Williams and Beau Jack. When Sugar Ray Robinson moved up to middleweight status in 1951, Bratton took the welterweight title and held it for a few months until the Cuban Hawk, Kid Gavilan, took it away from him. According to Irene, "Miles became friends with Johnny, and started getting really serious about boxing while we were in Chicago."

Miles and I went out with Johnny a few times, and he drove us around town in his new convertible. One time the cops stopped him for speeding when we were with him, but let him go when they recognized him. "It's Honey Boy Bratton!" Miles was really impressed by that. When he got back to New York City he began to train hard.

Bratton fought professionally for eleven years, but his career ended badly, and he wound up living in his car, then homeless, and finally in and out of mental hospitals. But it was said he was a sharp dresser even to the end.

When Irene give birth to Miles IV, their second son, Davis returned to New York to join Billy Eckstine in August, 1950, for a tour with a small group B was assembling — the All-American All-Stars — and wound up at a big concert with the George Shearing Quintet at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles on September 15. As they were on their way to the plane at the Burbank airport after that concert, drummer Art Blakey suggested they make a drug run by a house he knew. As they did, the police followed them and arrested Davis and Blakey for possession of heroin capsules. In his autobiography, Davis says that he was off heroin at the time, and that Blakey had testified against him in order for him to get himself off from drug charges. But saxophonist Hadley Caliman was in the county jail when Art and Miles were put in his cell, and he recalls it differently:

I see this real black guy there with his hair standing straight up on his head. He had this hair straightener on his hair. And I see it's Miles Davis....Miles was trying to wean off. Everybody who is hooked tried to wean off. They had to have a good friend, straight like Art Blakey, who could put it in his pocket and keep it. So when the police busted 'em, Miles ain't got nothin' but the marks [on his arms] and Art Blakey got the shit. So Art Blakey gets busted for possession. He's like doling it out to Miles so he won't go hog wild.

New prisoners were given a rough initiation on their first day and tricked by inmates into believing that they might be killed by one of the crazed prisoners. Miles took the teasing badly, Caliman said: "He was very soft. He cried a little bit. He didn't like the fact that he was incarcerated with these thugs." Irene said that

Miles always tried to talk himself out of things. He once got away with giving a cop money for a speeding ticket. He got off from a drug arrest in Harlem once by joking with the officers, telling them they held their guns too high....So in California he tried to buy his way out of it and there he got charged with bribery. He called his father, and he got him a lawyer who was a family friend, but he let it come to trial. And while he was in jail, he got over drugs for a while.

When he was released on bail, Miles stayed with Dexter Gordon, then moved into a hotel, waiting for the trial to begin. When he went to court in November, Irene told him to "dress well, wash your face, and they'll know you didn't do it." It was over quickly, the jury voting ten to two in his favor, and he was released (Irene said that "a little lady on the jury told him that she knew he couldn't do anything like that"). But only days later Down Beat editorialized on the subject of drugs in the music business, with Davis and Blakey singled out as examples. After such national attention, both men began to have even greater problems finding work.

Miles returned to East St. Louis to wait until December, when he was booked into the Hi-Note Club on the north side of the Loop in Chicago, playing opposite Billie Holiday. On the opening day of his engagement, December 22, the temperature fell to 15°F below zero, and the streets were jammed with traffic following a nearby chemical plant explosion. Miles arrived without a band but picked up a local bassist and a drummer, and Holiday agreed to share her pianist, Carl Drinkard, though she was notorious for jealously keeping her musicians to herself. After being paid each night, Miles and two of the musicians bought heroin, then went to one of their apartments or Miles' hotel room, where they got high and worked on music for the next night in the club. According to Drinkard, Miles would "shoot up just as often as his money would allow him. You space it according to how much your money will allow you. Nobody ever really has as much as they want." Miles' father was still supporting him, now sending him $75 a week and paying for his phone calls, which allowed him to stay at good hotels for $28 a week and still afford heroin at a dollar a cap.

Miles was finishing his last week at the Hi-Note as 1951 began, when he received a call from Bob Weinstock, who had been calling for him around St. Louis to offer him a $750 advance to record for his new company, Prestige, whenever Miles got back to New York. Then Charlie Parker called asking him to record with him for Verve records. Metronome magazine's readers had meanwhile voted him the top jazz trumpet player of 1950. With the drug charges behind him, things seemed to be looking up.

Weinstock was typical of the small record company owners who operated outside the mainstream. Much like Ross Russell of Dial, he had started as a jazz fan, became a record collector, then sold records by mail order, and moved on to owning his own shop in Manhattan, the Jazz Corner, selling mostly dixieland and swing. From there, he began to make records, mostly of dixieland revivalists. One of his customers, Kenny Clarke, first took him to hear bebop at the Royal Roost. Then Ross Russell invited Weinstock to come to the Dial session where "Embraceable You" and "Don't Blame Me" were recorded, and it was there that he met Miles. At that session, it occurred to Weinstock that he could record bebop and maybe sign some of the rising stars: "I couldn't get Bird, and Dizzy was tied up with RCA. But Miles and Lee Konitz, they could be the Bird and Dizzy of the future." Weinstock asked Miles to have a drink with him after the session, but when Miles said he'd rather have ice cream, they went out for ice cream.

It was an odd relationship, this bebop recording business. The big record companies wanted nothing to do with marginal music and low sales, much less to contend with junkies and musical eccentrics. But the small labels took chances, putting up with the craziness, documenting a new art form in the making, in return paying as little as possible and tying the musicians to long-term contracts, and — like the rest of the recording business — paying for recording expenses out of the musicians' earnings. Weinstock once offered this glimpse of his dealings with Davis:

We'd get into these staring sessions. He'd ask for more money, and I wouldn't answer. Then, I'd look at him and he'd look at me; we'd just stand there. We went through this a lot. I'd give him the money, but I'd always say, "Okay, that means we have to do another album." He'd say, "I don't want to do another album." I'd say, "And I want better people than the last!" So that's how those sessions with Milt Jackson and Monk came about. Those were some of our best sessions, because before he'd get the money — this was part of the game — I'd make him think real hard about who he was going to get.

It was cockroach capitalism, filled with potential for strife and resentment of all kinds, compounded by whites owning the companies and blacks by and large supplying the music. It was business as usual, only worse.

During this time, Miles became friends with Jackie McLean, a young alto saxophonist who still lived at home with his mother in Harlem but played with great maturity and with a sound that marked him off from all the other altoists of his time. He had been around the bebop scene since he was a child, staring in the club windows on 52nd Street, watching Bird, Miles, Max. He had been hanging around Bud Powell of late, practicing with him, and it was Bud who sent him downtown to sit in with Miles because the word was out that Davis was looking for an alto saxophonist. Jackie went down to Birdland, and afterward Miles asked him to come over to his place and bring his music. McLean took his saxophone and some of his compositions such as "Dig," and after an afternoon of jamming, Miles asked him if he wanted to play at Birdland with him in January.

He and Miles became close friends, wandering through the city, watching the characters on the train as they took the long subway trip from uptown to 42nd Street to go to the movies. McLean remembers them seeing Union Station together, and both of them trying to act like William Holden, dressed sharp, his hat snapped down low, tough, and smart. "Miles was fun to be with," McLean said, "but there was a provocative side to him. He often said things in interviews that I know he didn't mean." "More than anything, he wanted to be a superstar, to be with the cream of society....He looked and acted like money. But sometimes he didn't have any, and he had to come uptown and he and I borrowed it from my father."

On January 17, 1951, Miles recorded at three sessions in a single day in New York: first, there were four singles with Charlie Parker for Verve; then, as a pianist, he cut "I Know" for Prestige under Sonny Rollins' name; finally, he did four more records of his own with Prestige — "Morpheus," backed by "Down," and "Whispering" on the other side of "Blue Room." Five years later, British writer Alun Morgan asked him about that latter session: "You know that record of 'Blue Room,' made in 1951, Miles? What happened there? Did you play piano or trumpet on that or what?" Miles implied that the problem was drugs: "Hell man, I was playing badly on that date. I was...you know." On the other hand, on the occasion of another interview, he told François Postif, "At that period, you see, between 1951 and 1953, I was out of work for much of the time and it may be that it affected my playing."

Miles had just recorded with the Metronome All-Stars for Capitol Records and was writing lead sheets for record companies (that is, transcribing music from recordings for copyrights), and was again rooming with Stan Levey, when in February, he opened the latest issue of Ebony and found an article by Cab Calloway titled, "Is Dope Killing Our Musicians?" Calloway warned readers that drugs had swept across the black community and that a generation of addicted jazz musicians was doomed unless they sought help. Though he mentioned no names, he managed to comment on "one young trumpeter, recently picked up on the West Coast for possession of heroin." In case anyone might have missed the point, a rogues' gallery of junkies' pictures was also included: Miles, Billie Holiday, Fats Navarro, Gene Krupa, Eddie Haywood, John Simmons, Howard McGhee, Art Blakey, and Dexter Gordon. Miles was hurt and embarrassed by the article and claimed that he as well as the others were not able to work for a long time afterward. The music press, meanwhile, documented his decline with the euphemisms that those in the know understood. Miles was "sick"; he was suffering from "personal problems." Metronome editor Barry Ulanov would call Miles' playing "feeble again," only a year after Metronome picked him as "Influence of the Year," and "Venus de Milo" as one of their "Records of the Year." Leonard Feather in Melody Maker would say that Miles was at a "standstill," "his career slipping away from him," and guessed that he had performed publicly for no more than five or six weeks in 1951 (and most of that, though Feather did not mention it, was at Birdland where his problems were tolerated).

In spite of the dire tone of these observers, Miles could still surprise. In March, for instance, he played well on recordings of a very different sort from those of his own. Lee Konitz put three of Lennie Tristano's disciples together with Davis and Max Roach, unifying the two wings of cool jazz, and using "Odjenar" and "Ezz-thetic," two complex and unusual compositions by George Russell, as the bridge between them. Miles seemed comfortable on both and may have improvised the countermelody on the latter. Konitz recalls that session rather self-effacingly:

I always felt I could relate to Miles' group, but I was too nervous to play with the quintet in 1951, the recording date with Miles. Miles was interested in Tristano's music. I had written something called "Hi Beck" and we rehearsed that a few times. He said, "That's it with that one," so I played it on the album alone.

In October, Miles recorded for Prestige at a session that was one of the first to use microgroove technology for recording directly to 10-inch LPs, the musicians (including Sonny Rollins and Jackie McLean) now extending their playing time well beyond the three-minute limits they were used to working with. ("Bluing," for example, ran over nine minutes.) The level of musicianship on the record was exceptionally high, with Miles playing as if he were driven to make known everything he had not been able to say publicly over the last year. Most of the session was issued as Dig, a record that Jackie McLean would later say was the first real step beyond bebop.

Somehow, despite the blur and spin of his life under the sway of dope, Miles managed to pull himself up when he was in the studio or the club. But away from music, he wandered the streets, becoming one of those characters who stood on corners nodding, maybe reading a newspaper upside down as they waited for a bicycle rider to come past and hand them something. He went by other young musicians' houses, maybe practicing a bit, or getting high if their mothers were at work and there was no one at home, or wandering from room to room in hotels and staying with anyone who'd put up with him. He had pawned everything of value and used the pawn slips to borrow from club owners. He had hit up everyone he knew for money, turned to his friends among the prostitutes for comfort, and made some vain efforts to pull himself out of the chaos into which he had drifted. When he asked boxing trainer Bobby McQuillen at Gleason's Gym to take him on, Bobby told him he never trained anyone who was using.

One night while Miles was on the bandstand at the Downbeat Club on 53rd Street, he suddenly put down his horn, turned to Jackie McLean, and said, "Take it out for me, my father's here." He and his father spoke for a minute by the door; there was some talk with the club owner about loans made to Miles; money was exchanged. Miles returned to the stand only to tell Jackie to "Get J. J. I got to go home with my father," and then left so quickly he forgot his trumpet.

Copyright © 2002 by John Szwed

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Table of Contents

Contents

Vamp

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Interlude

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Coda

Notes

Acknowledgments

Selected Miles Davis Discography

Index

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 1, 2004

    Been There Done That

    I hesitated buying this book because I'd already read six Miles Davis biographies and wasn't sure what more I'd gain from this one, especially since I'd read Szwed's Sun Ra biography and found the writing style to be stiff and a labor to plow through. The author is a scholar and brilliant and wonderful and is probably a great guy, and obviously knows this music, but he's just not a very interesting writer. It's like reading a term paper! The best Davis biography for my money is still 'Milestones' by Jack Chambers.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 28, 2003

    Just Who Is This Author Writing For?

    I think John Szwed's scholarly approach to the life of Miles Davis goes a little bit too far. It is difficult for me to latch on to a feeling or mood for the subject because the language seems too abstract to grab hold of. I have no idea why Mr. Szwed went onto discuss musical theories about jazz. I was looking for something that would evoke a sense of the music Miles performed, not some erudite treatise. For me this book lacks passion and heart. It serves its readers instead a smorgasbord of high-brow intellectual observations.

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