Saturday, August 4, 2012


The filmmaker Ken Burns serves a similar purpose as audiobook narrators for me. I let Ken (and others) work hard while I sit back and absorb. The little I know about the jazz trumpeter Miles Davis I got from Ken Burns' documentary Jazz. After listening to fave narrator Dion Graham impersonate Davis while reading  Miles: The Autobiography, I know much more about Davis, but I can't say I enjoyed it. This book was simply not my cup of tea. (I think simply with my use of that phrase, it's fairly evident that Miles and I were not a good match.)

In the spirit of absorption of others' hard work, here's some of what I learned about Miles Davis:
  • He grew up a middle-class kid from East St. Louis whose dentist father sent him to New York to attend The Julliard School, but he soon dropped out as jazz gigs came his way at a shockingly early age.
  • He had a strong sense of a positive black identity that he never felt he needed to hide in order for his music to reach any interested audience. He rebutted a Julliard instructor's blanket statement of why black people played the blues by pointing out that he had been raised and educated in middle-class comfort.
  • He insisted that black women be featured on his album covers (was he the first?). He also physically (and probably emotionally) battered several women with whom he was involved.
  • He rid himself of his heroin addiction, but at the end of his life he needed cocaine and alcohol to ease physical ailments.
  • He never missed an opportunity to use the F word.
  • He spent very little time in retrospection, finding fault with others but rarely himself. He reserved particular digs for grinning Louis Armstrong, Wynton Marsalis (who disrespected his elders) and ex-wife Cicely Tyson.
  • He lived in what sounded like a fabulous house on W. 77th Street (scroll down to Davis) in Manhattan through the mid-1980s. Miles and I might have rubbed shoulders in Zabar's (not that I would have known who he was)!
To my ears, large portions of this memoir were devoted to lists of jazz musicians, just a few of which were names familiar to me. As Davis went on tour, or cut an album, he would name all the musicians who played with him and what music they played. I'm sure this is of great interest to fans -- who probably could hear the music while they are reading or listening to this -- but for me, it was just mind-numbing. Days (and there were a lot of listening days devoted to this) would go by and I'd think -- I am still listening to Miles Davis go on about his life.  I get that he was a musical innovator, a proud black man who never accommodated his identity or art to what others thought, but he was also tremendously self-absorbed and never seemed to experience a moment of self-doubt. Setting aside my ignorance and lack of enthusiasm about jazz, I still think I wouldn't have wanted to know this man.

Dion Graham simply channels Miles in his narration. He adopts the soft, raspy voice that Davis was known for (and he explained what happened in the autobiography, but I need Wikipedia to remind me that he didn't rest his voice properly following surgery for polyps), and proceeds to read for 17 hours as if he were dictating his story for Quincy Troupe, the poet who is credited right alongside Davis: "Miles: The Autobiography by Miles Davis with Quincy Troupe."  Which, I suspect, Miles was -- dictating, that is. Graham's narration is immediate, it's authentic, and it drove me nuts. I had to turn the volume up if I wanted to hear outside or in the car and it was occasionally quite painful to the ears. But being Graham, he kept me amused with his many variations of "fuck" and I can't deny that he did precisely what he needed to do to read this book. It all comes down to personal preference, and this man, this book, and this audiobook will never be mine. When Graham as Troupe wraps up the book with his epilogue, I felt like I had emerged from a long ordeal.

I might be a better person having listened, be a person who can now speak (more) knowledgeably about Miles Davis. But, here's the real drawback of this audiobook (and I realize that it's just not a fair criticism because of rights and permissions), there is no music. No cues of Miles' trumpet when he discusses a particular piece, nothing to connect the words with the art. As I said earlier, Miles Davis fans can likely hear the music in their heads when they are reading/listening to this autobiography, so I guess I think this book is for fans and scholars. I'm sure they would have enjoyed it far more than I. As they say in Library Journal, for libraries (and listeners) with significant jazz collections (which would be my library which holds more than 2,000 jazz CDs). I'll make a suggestion for purchase.

This copy of Miles: The Autobiography was provided to me by AudioGO via the Audiobook Jukebox's Solid Gold Reviewing program.  Thanks to both for their generosity and hard work!

[Davis' first wife, the dancer Frances Taylor (not mentioned at all in the Wikipedia article!), was the first (?) black woman to be featured on an album cover  (where she wasn't a performer). This album is from 1961; the image was retrieved from the official Miles Davis website.]

Miles: The Autobiography by Miles Davis with Quincy Troupe
Narrated by Dion Graham
AudioGO, 2012. 16:56

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