Miles Davis was a modern jazz master and in some ways the Picasso of his musical milieu a difficult, cantankerous, peculiar, tortured man who was, of course, a genius. Although he grew up comfortably in Southern Illinois as the son of a prominent dentist, he had an angry, rebellious black man's attitude. Born in 1926, he showed his musical talent early on, trekking to New York City to study at Juilliard, where he proved to be a good student, but where he also made important contacts in the world of contemporary jazz. Unfortunately, he also made connections with drug dealers, an affiliation that led to Davis' many struggles through the years with heroin and cocaine abuse.
In So What: The Life of Miles Davis, Yale University Professor John Szwed presents a rich portrait of the trumpeter's brilliance while examining his equally stellar contemporaries Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Max Roach and Art Blakey.
While he went on to become a contributor to the historical 1940s bebop movement, it was in the 1950s and '60s that Davis carved out his singular niche as legendary trumpet player, innovative composer, free-thinking bandleader and titular spokesperson for progressive jazz. Davis never ceased to change and grow in his art, and with the exception of a self-imposed hiatus in the late 1970s continued to perform and make records, though by the time he passed away in 1991, he was revered more as an inscrutable icon than as an acclaimed innovator. So What combines an in-depth look at the inner workings of the jazz industry with a remarkable profile of Davis and his dark personality. He cultivated a Darth Vader-ish myth, was extraordinarily self-centered and seemingly ambivalent toward his family. But, as Szwed shows, the trumpeter probably wouldn't have had it any other way. Martin Brady is a freelance writer in Nashville.