Picks and Pans Review: Miles: the Autobiography

UPDATED 11/27/1989 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 11/27/1989 at 01:00 AM EST

by Miles Davis with Quincy Troupe

Davis, the storied jazz trumpeter, reveals himself in these engrossing, often depressing pages to be just as mercurial in his personal life as he is in his music. But offstage, his unpredictability has taken frequently ugly, destructive turns, damaging to both himself and those around him.

As a musician, Davis—a sideman with Charlie "Bird" Parker during bebop's formative years—created a sound uniquely his own. His brooding melodicism and switchblade-sharp style defined '50s cool. In the late '60s and early '70s, he pioneered the fusion of rock and jazz. These days, blending bump-and-grind rhythms and seductive harmonies, Miles, 63, continues to prove that an old codger can still teach the youngsters how to get funky.

Both on and off the bandstand, bluff and bravado have often been Davis's shield against vulnerability, and this autobiography can be read as a chronicle of how not to deal with wounded pride.

The child of a prosperous East St. Louis, Ill., dentist, Davis was beaten routinely by his mother and ridiculed by some of his playmates. By the time he quit the Juilliard School of Music at 19 to play with Bird, Miles had developed a tendency to bristle at any perceived slight.

In the early '50s, he financed a heroin habit in part by pimping. "At one time, I had a whole stable of bitches out on the street for me," he says. Boxer Sugar Ray Robinson finally inspired Davis to kick heroin. Miles went on to make some enduring music, but by the mid '60s he had returned to drugs—cocaine—partly due to pain from sickle-cell anemia and arthritis. A seven-year marriage to dancer Frances Taylor ended in 1968, after Miles, wielding a knife, searched their house for a phantom rival.

In 1975 he gave up music for six years. Instead he indulged his coke habit and a craving for wild sex with a stream of women. Miles says that actress Cicely Tyson saved his life by helping him to quit drugs. Then he confides that he slept with another woman five days after he married Tyson in 1981.

The almost gleeful manner in which Miles describes slapping Tyson around at one point in their five-year marriage is chilling. So too is the offhand way he admits that being a good father "just wasn't my thing" (he has three children by high school sweetheart Irene Birth and one by ex-model Marguerite Eskridge).

Misidentifications of musicians and songs abound in the book. Still, co-author Troupe, a poet-editor, has done such a remarkable job of capturing the syntax and meter of Davis's speech one can almost hear his raspy voice.

Miles will fascinate anyone interested in jazz or the idea that talent and virtue are not necessarily linked. As a musician, Davis can be forgiven his arrogance, but only a calloused observer could read this chronicle without being troubled by his behavior as a man. (Simon and Schuster, $22.95)

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