Public Enigma No. 1 was a nickname Miles Davis acquired somewhere along his rich and revolutionary career, a testament not only to the man’s inscrutability but to the appetites of audiences and onlookers. It was not enough to listen to the music, to hear the beautiful and breathtaking sounds that emerged from his horn. People wanted to know more about the man behind the music and delve into the deeply complex mind and personality of a genius in the hopes of better understanding how someone could create such art. Davis, however, was not very cooperative.
That’s not to say he avoided probing. In Miles on Miles: Interviews and Encounters with Miles Davis, editors Paul Maher Jr. and Michael K. Dorr show that Davis was willing to endure scrutiny and engage his public through the press. In the 30 interviews and profiles they have collected, spanning from the late ‘50s to the early ‘90s, Door and Maher present Miles in all his glory, as an outspoken, fiercely independent, and often acerbic individual. And yet, the more we read Davis’s own words, and the more he allows himself to express his feelings, desires, and beliefs, the more complicated (and interesting) this self-portrait becomes.
What’s fascinating about Miles on Miles is that the reader is treated to 30 separate points-of-view of the same persona, 30 sets of eyes belonging to journalists, critics, musicians, and peers, each hunting down an elusive figure that is fickle and temperamental, just as likely to frustrate with defensive retorts as he is to please with revealing answers. Davis knows what his words are worth, what his thoughts mean to those who desperately wish to know them, and so he makes his pursuers work for their treasure by erecting a confrontational demeanor. In the midst of these exchanges, he often refers to how lucky they are to be speaking to him and how their excellent final product will be—the implication being that it is because he allowed it to be so.
Miles hates the word jazz. He chafes at labels in general. He goes on at length about the trouble visited on both himself and blacks as a whole by white America, knowing that despite his fame, wealth, and accomplishment, in a country ruled by segregation and separation, he is still expected to know his place. He lauds white musicians like his collaborators Stan Getz and Bill Evans, explaining that listening to good music makes racial distinctions go out of focus, yet later implies that white musicians cannot fully grasp the nature of black music. He hates cops, after being hassled, roughed up, and arrested in New York City for escorting a white woman to a cab. In one of the book’s most amusing moments, Davis tells Newsweek, “If I could say on my record jackets that these albums can’t be sold to the police, or their relatives or friends, I would.”
More than anything though, Miles hates being comfortable. Time and time again, he revisits the concept with disdain, pointing the finger at fellow musicians who have become comfortable and whose talent and verve have eroded as a result. “There’s too much crap going on in the world that you’re supposed to be comfortable,” he tells critic Les Tompkins. “You’ve got to be on your toes. You can’t just stand—because they’re fighting somewhere, man, and it’s pretty messy.”
He also loves making other people uncomfortable. When dining with John Palcewski of Cavalier magazine at a restaurant in Boston in 1969, Davis terrorizes the staff, putting on a show for the writer. “This place looks like a whorehouse,” he announces, before needling the waiter about the quality of his soup. “It tastes like you look.” This aversion to comfort and desire for tension can be clearly seen in the evolution of his work from his landmark ‘Birth of the Cool’ recordings to his controversial fusion work in the latter stages of his career. Davis never wanted to stop moving, always wanted to be doing something, pissing somebody off, and driving people wild.
Whether or not the craggy, flashy persona Davis provided his profilers is the real Miles Davis is in doubt. Many of the writers confess that on background, many of those closest to the man say he’s not the flamethrower he appears to be. At the end of a particularly volatile interview in 1972, in which Davis calls family “a lot of bullshit” and seems to say he wouldn’t go out of his way to help his children were they in need, writer Leonard Feather includes a short discussion with Dizzy Gillespie who calls Davis “bashful.” Davis’s daughter Cheryl agrees, calling her father shy. This contradiction between the brash, public Davis and the timid, private Davis recurs throughout Miles on Miles.
The truth seems to be that the Miles Davis encountered off-stage was the real show, the real performance, and that on stage was when Miles was at his most serene and true. As writer Stephen Davis says, Miles “was said to be a violent and malevolent son of a bitch with a cinder for a heart and a cash register for a mind. All one had to do was listen to him play his horn to know that wasn’t true”.
Miles on Miles is an examination of Davis’s lifelong campaign to define himself publicly and obscure himself privately, erecting a grand façade of a terrifying, egotistical, artistic giant to shield the quieter, more approachable man within. It’s a strategy that seems to have backfired; the character Miles created around himself is brutally compelling, and watching him spar with this diverse set of insightful and thoughtful writers is a delight. At the collection’s close, Miles’ enigma remains firmly intact, and thankfully so. A little mystery always keeps things interesting.