The Miles Davis Reader

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This book is indispensible to Miles Davis collectors and to anyone with an interest in the trumpeter.

It is cheaply priced for such a significant jazz tome. “Updated” means paperback instead of hardback, and an extra 25 pages of text about Miles’s final years and extra photographs. The original was published in hardback and as I look there are still new copies of that hardback on Amazon for £8.16 (the new book is there for £15.98).

Davis was always a favourite child as far as Downbeat was concerned, and it noted his every move; thus this volume becomes the most complete record of his life ever. There was more copy on Miles in Downbeat than on any other jazz musician, including Ellington, Goodman and Armstrong. The book is divided into sections: “Miles In The News”, “The Downbeat Features” and “The Downbeat Reviews”, the latter running for almost 200 pages.

The book opens with appropriate drama on its first page. “The Slugging Of Miles” recounts here and on subsequent pages the assault on Davis by an on-duty New York policeman in 1959 (recounted at length a year or so ago in my own column). The comprehensive batch of photographs includes a horrifying one of Miles, covered in blood and head-bandaged, leaving a New York police station. (Mixed in with the collection of outstanding photographs are full-colour covers of the magazine).

The multi-dimensional coverage of Miles’s life is the reason that this book probably outdoes all the other books on its subject. The colossal “Review” section spans an enormous area, and virtually all the Davis albums are reviewed here. I’ve always regarded the 1972 Columbia album On the Corner as the nadir of Miles’s artistry (a reissue in the 90s claimed “there is a whole new generation of punk-funksters hungry for these subversive sounds…”. Thank you, but a punk-funkster I am not). The magazine’s reviewer of later things, the gifted John Ephland, says “Davis may have taken issue with notes to his albums (think ‘On The Corner’), but his music was clearly intertwined with what was said about it, and those words became key portals for many a music lover”.

Ephland wrote, in 2011, a most illuminating retrospect of the remorselessly ungrammatical Bitches Brew, referring constantly to interviews of the bewildered participants. If the results of the sessions were not necessarily profoundly innovative, then Miles’s methods were.

The reviewing standards were amongst the highest in the world of jazz and these pieces remain among the best comments on Davis’s artistry, wherein Prestige’s Relaxing equated to the collection of Louis’s Hot Fives and Miles Ahead and Porgy and Bess with Gil Evans surpassed any other big band conceptions. Many wise words on those albums are included here.

This is a book to relish.

The Miles Davis Reader
Interviews and Features from Downbeat magazine, updated edition. Backbeat Books, pb, 379 pp, numerous photographs and magazine covers. £19.99 ISBN 978-1-61713-704-4