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VIL genius." "Prince of Darkness." "Endearing with his music, offending with his personality." For nearly half a century, critics have come up with all sorts of phrases to describe the darkness and light that is Miles Davis. Miles commanded attention from every generation since the early days of the cold war, fostering undying devotion and disgust along the way. Even in death he remains one of the most revered and reviled artists on the planet. As we near his 75th birthday on May 25, Miles is everywhere, the subject of books, new musical interpretations and a flood of boxed sets and previously unreleased recordings.
The posthumous reassessments echo earlier commentary: he is hailed as a musical genius and praised for the beauty and sensitivity of his playing while simultaneously criticized for his brutal treatment of women, his rude and exploitative behavior, his "anger" toward whites or his "selling out" to the forces of pop music. His most avid defenders have done their share of handwringing, explaining his idiosyncrasies as a feature of genius. Meanwhile, those really mad at Miles boycott his records.
Most of us cannot reconcile these two sides of Miles because we want our heroes to be likable. But by dividing Miles up this way, we miss how the things we don't like about the man are fundamental to what we love about his music. One way to comprehend Miles is to view him not simply as an isolated mad genius but also as a product of a distinctive aspect of African-American culture -- what we might call the pimp aesthetic.
Now hold on. I'm not calling Miles a pimp, per se, as the critic Stanley Crouch did a decade ago for going pop. And while Miles confessed to pimping during his heroin daze, I'm not suggesting that he needed to be a real pimp to embrace the aesthetic. Rather, he was the product of a masculine culture that aspired to be like a pimp, that embraced the cool performative styles of the players (pronounced "playas"), the "macks," the hustlers, who not only circulated in the jazz world but whose walk and talk also drew from the well of black music. Miles's deep distrust of others, his desire for "easy living," his detachment and his violence derive from the same playa principles behind his romanticism, his coolness and sense of style and his incredible storytelling ability.
Pimps in African-American culture and folklore are more than violent exploiters of women. They are masters of style, from the language and the stroll to the clothes and the wheels. As a youth in East St. Louis, Ill., Miles emulated black jazz musicians whose sense of style differed little from that of the pimps and hustlers who occupied the same nightclub universe. "I'd sit there and look at them," he said, "watch the way they walked and talked, how they fixed their hair, how they'd drink, and of course how they played." He learned well, appearing on more best-dressed lists than any other jazz musician in history. And he knew how to wear his threads, from the tailor-made charcoal gray pinstripe suit to the bright red bellbottoms of his funk period.
Practically every photograph of him is iconic. Like the coolest pimps on my block while I was growing up in Harlem, Miles was constantly posing; he knew how to stand, how to move, how to compose himself in space so that the world revolved around him. Consider the cover of "In Person at the Blackhawk, Vol. I," on which he is draped in an elegant checkered overcoat. Miles is bent over to light a cigarette and his face is made barely visible by side lighting.
Enshrouded in darkness, the only other face you see belongs to his beautiful wife-to- be, Frances Taylor, peering intently at her man. Even in crisis, Miles was camera- ready. In August 1959 he made front-page news after police officers beat and arrested him while he was standing in front of Birdland, the club where his band was performing. Between sets, he had escorted a white woman, a friend, to a cab. A photographer captured a cool but indignant Miles sporting his blood-stained white khaki jacket like a badge as he was being carted off by the police. Known worldwide as the ultimate Negro With Attitude and a skilled pugilist in his own right, Miles was no poster boy for police brutality. He comes across as a baaad man of the highest order.
Anyone who has called him a poor showman for walking off stage or turning his back on the audience was not paying attention. Film from a 1967 Stockholm concert showcases his mastery of movement. Every gesture seems choreographed but effortless, the way he nonchalantly walks onstage, rubs just behind his ear, puts his impeccably manicured fingers to his lips just before bringing the horn to his mouth. His smooth brown skin never breaks a sweat. Even the way he ambles off stage can be classified as a pimp stroll. No matter what the drummer Tony Williams or the saxophonist Wayne Shorter were doing, you followed Miles to the wings, waiting impatiently for his return. His departure generated as much electricity as his presence.
Miles also had a pimp's voice, the voice Amiri Baraka once described as his "hipster foghorn bass." That raspy whisper resulted from Miles's supposedly screaming at a promoter too soon after throat surgery. He used his voice to great effect, for put- downs, romancing and biting one-liners.
And Miles spoke as he played; he became one of the trumpet's greatest storytellers. Pimps, we must remember, have been known for their storytelling ability, and a few ethnographers have even identified them as a source of black oral poetry known as toasting. Toasts, like sermons, are judged by delivery, phrasing, pacing and a sense of dynamics, which often includes the use of falsetto voice, whispering and artfully placed pauses to elicit "call and response" with the audience. Miles displayed all of these qualities in his playing.
In the 1950's and early 1960's, Miles became famous for romantic ballads. Using his signature Harmon mute, he turned songs of vulnerability like "I Thought About You," "When I Fall in Love" and "It Never Entered My Mind" into breathtaking stories of seduction. Just listen to "You're My Everything" from "Relaxin' " (1956). He is not pleading here; he is straight up mackin', self-assured and full of promises. It is as if Miles were saying, I'm you're everything/ underneath the sun/ I'm you're everything rolled into one." The critic Joe Goldberg wrote that Miles's treatment of ballads bore "a striking similarity" to that of Frank Sinatra. It was a prescient observation, for not only did Miles draw on Sinatra's repertory for material, but also Sinatra was himself the white Mack Daddy of the ages. Smooth, controlled, knowledgeable, Sinatra knew how to get inside each listener, and like all the great storytellers in the pimp tradition, he knew when to tease, breathe and whisper.
As much as we hate to admit it, romance is a form of emotional power that can be used to control or oppress. We know that Miles heaped all kinds of physical and psychological abuse on the women he romanced, but every pimp knows one cannot rule by force alone. As one real-live pimp explained to a curious sociologist: "Yeah, you got to be cool. You got to make them think that you love them." Beautiful, intelligent women did not flock to Miles to be terrorized; he made them believe he loved them. Miles was schooled in the art and science of romance, the pimp variety in which violence was part of the process.
Interestingly, Miles did not write romantic ballads for the women in his life. He came up with "Fran-Dance" and "Pfrancing" for his second wife, the dancer Frances Taylor, and composed the gospel-tinted, laid-back "Mademoiselle Mabry" for his third wife, the singer Betty Mabry. "Fran- Dance," first recorded in 1958, was a barely altered version of "Put Your Little Foot Right Out," a 1939 waltz Miles played in 4/4 time. Although it has a bouncy, nursery- rhyme quality, it is a very romantic kind of upbeat courting song. Not so romantic was "Pfrancing," a strutting 12-bar blues in F that first appeared under the title "No Blues." The melody emphasizes the dissonant and soulful "flatted fifth" degree of the scale, evoking a streetwise celebration of the beautiful lithe dancer promenading down the avenue. "Pfrancing" says more about Miles's pride than about falling in love.
"Pfrancing" made sense since the blues was Miles's ideal storytelling vehicle. In the traditional 12-bar format, each chorus is its own story with a "punch line" at bars 8 to 10, followed by a two-bar turnaround to propel the soloist into that crucial first bar of the new chorus, the beginning of a new story. Miles mastered this format, and his use of smears and bent notes gave his playing a vocal quality. This is why his solos are always so hummable. It was never a matter of simply playing "pretty notes" or fewer notes or leaving more space. Rather, Miles created complete statements with a beginning, a middle and an end, "stories" that possessed a sense of drama. And in typical mack fashion, he sometimes teased us, withholding a musical climax with wonderful cadences tagged at the end of songs like "If I Were a Bell" or "Bye Bye Blackbird."
For Miles, the blues epitomized black music. While listening to Bessie Smith, he reflected: "She affects me like Leadbelly did, the way some of Paul Laurence Dunbar's poetry did. I read him once and almost cried. The Negro Southern speech." Miles once tried to explain to the critic Leonard Feather that the blues was not about suffering and pain, emotions critics had consistently read into Miles's "cool pose": "You don't know how to play better just because you've suffered . . . The blues don't come from picking cotton." But Feather didn't get it, concluding that Miles could play the blues despite his middle-class upbringing because the black middle-class was not immune from racism. For Feather, racism was a source of the blues; for Miles the blues was a sensibility that comes from an immersion in a culture -- a cool, hip culture with as much humor as pathos.
Failing to see the pimp in him, critics, fans and promoters linked Miles to a world of "blue moods," a detached sadness or loneliness, not the world of the hep storyteller, the pimp-strollin' blues of "Walkin'," the humorous, wolf-whistle, mack-daddy blues of "Pfrancing" or the seducer's blues of "Blue Haze." By the mid-1960's, as the pimp figure began to lose its pride of place in African-American urban culture and the new baaad man characters were the leaders of the black freedom movement, Miles formed a new quintet with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams and Ron Carter. Albums like "Miles Smiles," "Sorcerer" and "Nefertiti" were more abstract, emphasizing freer group improvisation, shifting time signatures and greater chromaticism.
Miles did not lose his storytelling ability, but he became more interested in emancipating musical language and hearing many "stories" at once. Herbie Hancock called it "controlled freedom' . . . just like a conversation, same thing." More significant, in the face of a white youth blues revival, Miles wanted to leave the blues behind. He told Hancock: "We're not going to play the blues anymore. Let the white folks have the blues." Of course, the quintet continued to play blues, like Ron Carter's R & B-flavored "Eighty One" and Wayne Shorter's "Footprints" in 6/4 time, and they retained a romantic strain in tunes like Shorter's "Fall" or the haunting "Circles." Nevertheless, musically at least, the pimp aesthetic was less evident.
By 1969, with the dawn of "electric Miles," the Pimp of Darkness came back with a vengeance. In the age when blaxploitation films celebrated the pimp and proclaimed funk as the urban soundtrack, Miles pushed the pimp aesthetic to the outer limits. He absorbed whatever was in the air: funk, R & B, rock, music from Africa and South Asia, and he (re)turned to the blues.
"Bitches Brew," "On the Corner," "Big Fun" and "Live-Evil" were dense, ladened with funk rhythms and rich timbres generated by both electronics and ancient instruments like tablas, sitar and congas. And he hired young players who cared less about musical boundaries: Keith Jarrett, Jack DeJohnette, Pete Cosey, Mtume, Badal Roy, Michael Henderson, among others. Miles encouraged multiple conversations but brought back an old-fashioned "call and response" feeling. On the cut "Funky Tonk" (1970), Miles's electronically altered trumpet reproduces the human voice in ways reminiscent of the great blues guitarists or the bass clarinet of Eric Dolphy. The dialogue between the bassist Michael Henderson, the keyboardist Keith Jarrett, and the guitarist John McLaughlin generates sensational dynamism inside the groove, and the saxophonist Gary Bartz follows with a brilliant blues "testimony" of his own.
Miles proved once again to be a master storyteller on his trumpet (even when his improvisations were cut and pasted in the control booth), but the stories changed. Some of the funkier pieces, like "Miles Runs the Voodoo Down" and every cut on "On the Corner," evoke the atmosphere of "player's balls," those underground gala affairs where the pimps and their entourage strut their stuff. Surrounded by a new stable of Afro-coifed women led by Mabry, Miles seemed less interested in romancing than outhipping the younger "pimps."
Absurd? Perhaps. But how could anyone listen to tracks like "Billy Preston," "What I Say," "Maiysha" or "Sivad" and not hear a compelling soundtrack for a blaxploitation movie? Any number of Miles's songs from that era could have backed Melvin Van Peebles's 1971 classic, "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song," whose own theme bore a likeness to Miles's "Shhh," only louder.
Blaxploitation films like "Sweetback" and "Superfly" ushered in a new kind of hero, the pimp as revolutionary. Here art imitates life, as Miles himself appeared more political and community-oriented. He expressed an interest in reaching out to urban black youths and commented on the state of race relations in America. And as his music drew from non-Western traditions, his song titles at least echoed the spirit of third-world liberation: "Mr. Freedom X," "Calypso Frelimo" (Frelimo being the acronym for Mozambique's liberation movement), "Red China Blues," "Zimbabwe."
The fundamental question for black militants and filmmakers alike was whether or not the pimp could be transformed into a revolutionary. As the 1970's came to a close, the verdict seemed to be that pimps will always be pimps no matter how much they hate "the man." Once again, art imitated life: Miles dropped out of music and descended deeper into cocaine to help him forget his ailing and broken body. He was arrested a couple of times, crashed his car, even took a bullet from some unidentified gangsters.
AND yet, in typical pimp fashion, just when we thought he was out of the game, he rose again. Between his comeback in 1980 and his death in 1991, Miles made more than a dozen albums and even won a Grammy despite criticism from the jazz world. Prompted perhaps by his fascination with hip-hop, Miles embraced his inner pimp to the point of parody. The opening cut on "You're Under Arrest" is a hilarious audio-v´rit´ in which police officers from around the world harass Miles, who sits in his car snorting cocaine and playing the old school gangsta. And let's not forget that in 1986, he made his acting debut as a pimp on the television series "Miami Vice."
In the end, listening for the pimp in Miles ought to make us aware of the pleasures of cool as well as the dark side of romance. We get nostalgic for the old romantic Miles, for that feeling of being in love, but who understands this better than the mack, that despicable character we find so compelling and attractive? At the same time, listening for the beauty and power embedded in black music -- blues, jazz, funk -- may be the key to understanding the power of the pimp aesthetic, for after all, pimps copped their style from the music. So next time you're on the road digging "Kind of Blue" or "Bitches Brew" and feel the urge to lean to the side and tilt your head back just so, left arm riding the top of the steering wheel, check yourself in the rear-view -- it's probably the pimp in you.