The Music Lounge

The Man with the Horn

Review of Ian Carr’s seminal biography of Miles Davis…..

mdI have recently finished reading the late Ian Carr’s quite remarkable biography of Miles Davis, a life of extraordinary talent blighted by addiction, poor health, discrimination and, well, anger.

It is clear that Carr was a fan of Davis but he was also a fine musician in his own right and this is shown throughout the book as he describes compositions and the finer intricacies of Davis’ musicianship only a true practitioner could write about with such ease. In a biography which is almost seven hundred pages long we get the definitive account of one of twentieth century’s greatest musicians. It is a life story which transcends jazz music, reflecting on how America’s treatment of African American’s shaped popular culture and the attitudes of music’s leading exponents.

I first started listening to Miles shortly after the release of his 1985 album You’re Under Arrest, as a fan of John Mclaughlin I was eager to hear his contribution to this album and was already aware of his earlier work with Miles in the sixties and most especially on Bitches Brew. Davis  was one of those musicians who most non-jazz fans had heard of or could recognise, his gravely voice, flamboyant dress style and hipster glasses set him apart from the suited players of his generation but I could never remember seeing him with a smile. He always seemed kind of angry somehow and as I learned more about the man and his music those early teenage suspicions were confirmed, he was, and often rightly so.

Davis’ life is too long and too rich to cover in a book review, Carr divides the story into mouth-watering sections, from his early days in New York under the watchful eye of Charlie Parker to his drug addiction in the early fifties and his brilliant early collaborations with Bill Evans, John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderly. Carr explains how Davis changed path and his relationship with the musicians he employed, there are unique insights from McLaughlin, Larry Coryell, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul and John Schofield which lead into his reclusive period from 1975 to 1980 and the fragmented live appearances as a result of ill health.

Carr’s work was indeed a labour of love, his approaches to publishers were largely ignored and the cost of writing it almost finished him financially. In many ways this reflects the thread of Davis’ life, he was a giant of the jazz world, his influence spread into other genres and for a number of years he made a comfortable living allowing him to buy Ferrari’s and Lamborghini’s and beachfront houses. But he still battled the ignorance of racism, from its most upfront in the fifties through to the eighties when it evolved into a despicable, underlying attitude, especially amongst the rich, white East and West Coast elite whom Miles despised.

Carr’s book was received in much the same way as Davis’s music, widely recognised as brilliant but the subject matter failed to strike the funding jackpot. You have to go back to biographies such as these because Davis and his peers led lives which simply do not get lived today. It is a unique book about a unique life.

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