So What: The Life of Miles Davis by John Szwed - review by William Palmer

William Palmer

Miles from Nowhere

So What: The Life of Miles Davis


William Heinemann 470pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

Several full-length biographies of Miles Davis have been published since his death in 1991. Davis's album Kind of Blue, recorded in 1959, still sells five thousand copies a month in the United States alone. He is the one modern jazz musician likely to be represented on the meagre jazz shelves of shops; in amongst the Greatest Hits of Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington, the face of Davis stares belligerently out as if defying you to like what you are about to buy.

Miles Davis was born in 1926, in East St Louis, Illinois. In an era when most black musicians came from the poorly educated, working-class community, Davis, the son of a dentist, was that rare being, a scion of the tiny black professional middle class. That said, the comfort of his home life did not mean that he was spared the prejudice endemic in the United States.

lllinois was notionally a state with desegregated schools but they still divided on racial lines. America as a whole was a country under a system of de facto apartheid until well past the Fifties. The hard-won achievements of a black musician might get him out of the slums and dead-end jobs, but they did not bring any great respect.

Davis was a founding member of the generation of young jazz musicians who, led by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, came up through the ranks of black swing bands that were musically more adventurous but commercially less successful than white bands such as Benny Goodman's. The new musicians were not

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