Book Review: Miles Davis: The Complete Illustrated History

Ashley Kahn (ed.) – Miles Davis: The Complete Illustrated History
(Voyageur Press (224pp., £25). Book review by Chris Parker)

First, a small mystery: the accompanying publicity sheet for Miles Davis: The Complete Illustrated History declares that the book is edited by Ashley Kahn (author of two fascinating studies of perhaps the two most famous recording sessions in post-bop jazz, those resulting in Kind of Blue and A Love Supreme), and contains a picture of a cover that highlights Kahn’s name as editor, but of a slightly differently titled book (‘Complete’ missing from subtitle); the published book relegates Kahn to just one of a number of contributors, alphabetically listed on its cover, and does not credit a writer with any of the book’s chapter-opening essays.

Whatever its title, though (and whoever wrote its historical essays), this is an absorbing book. True, it won’t tell seasoned Miles Davis aficionados much they don’t already know, but in some ways this is the point: it is a basic compendium of the facts of the great trumpeter’s life, and as such serves as a perfect introduction to same. Not that said aficionados will be bored: the book’s great strength for them lies in its carefully arranged presentation of an extraordinary wealth of original contemporary material, not so much its pictures (the majority of which will be familiar to Davis admirers) but more its reproductions of programmes, tickets, concert posters, record sleeves etc., which often provide a fascinating glimpse of just how the man himself was perceived (and rated) from the late 1940s right through to his death in 1991.

Thus we can wince at the casual racism of the publicity material provided by the Club Plantation (where Davis played in his early St Louis days); boggle at the billing for both Pittsburgh’s Syria Mosque in the 1950s (Davis at the bottom, under Ted Heath, Al Hibbler, June Christy and Eddie Heywood) and the Fillmore West in the 1970s (under rock acts such as Steve Miller, Neil Young and Grateful Dead); and have it brought home to us just how ignorant and disrespectful promoters were about the acts they were putting on (Brooklyn’s Continental advertises “Johnny Coltrane” as part of Davis’s sextet).

Said aficionados will also enjoy the various essays by jazz writers (Francis Davis, Greg Tate et al.), shorter reminiscences by fellow musicians (Herbie Hancock, Sonny Rollins, Lenny White, Ron Carter, Dave Leibman) and -– most strikingly, given that the book might easily have restricted itself to non-controversial hagiography – a thoughtful meditation on “Miles and Women” by Nalini Jones, drawing extensively on Pearl Cleage’s angry 1990 essay “Mad at Miles”. Again, much of this material will be familiar to anyone who’s read the Davis books by Carr, Chambers, Troupe, Cook, Kahn, Szwed et al., but it’s always salutary to be reminded of the various tensions/dichotomies in the great man’s life: Minton’s/52nd Street; learning from Charlie Parker/attending Juilliard; cool/hard bop; salty champion of Black consciousness/unashamed admirer of Bill and Gil Evans and provider of the following quote (to Playboy in 1962): “I remember one time when I hired Lee Konitz, some colored cats bitched a lot about me hiring an ofay in my band when Negroes didn’t have work. I said if a cat could play like Lee, I would hire him, I didn’t give a damn if he was green and had red breath.”

There are also some fascinating sidelights thrown on Davis’s career from unusual angles, providing welcome fresh perspectives: the contribution made by Tony Williams to Davis’s musical development (described by both Herbie Hancock and Lenny White); the “backwards” view of his recording career provided by Karl Hagstrom Miller’s “Miles Goes Acoustic”; the reassessment of his 1970s output by Greg Tate (“Only Fela and Lee Scratch Perry were producing funk as twisted, thorny, sardonic and ghettocentric as Miles was”); the re-examination of his legacy by Nate Chinen (“Miles in the Afterlife”).

True, there are occasional editorial/proofreading problems (“Julliard”, “flack”, an album called Streamin’, an author called “Hemmingway” and – most unforgivably -– a drummer called “Jacques de Johnette”), but overall, this is an impressive assembly of illustrated material and basic chronological history for the tyro, spiced with enough thought-provoking opinion to keep the more seasoned observer happy.

Categories: miscellaneous

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