The Book Cooks
Excerpts from
Thriving on a Riff: Jazz & Blues Influences in African American Literature and Film

Edited by Graham Lock and David Murray
(Oxford University Press, Inc; Oxford; New York)

From Chapter 9:
How Many Miles? Alternate Takes on the Jazz Life
Krin Gabbard

[In his chapter on Miles Davis, Krin Gabbard looks at Miles: The Autobiography in the context of the various personae Davis tried on at different times in his life. In this excerpt, he considers the many revisions and additions made to the initial interview transcripts by Miles’s co-author Quincy Troupe and others. —GL]

Like Ellington, Miles Davis was persuaded to write an autobiography by the offer of a large cash advance. And he, too, left out a great deal when he spoke with his co-author. Davis and Quincy Troupe first worked together when Troupe was assigned by Spin magazine to interview Davis in 1985. Apparently Davis was pleased with his first interactions with Troupe, who was then a published poet and critic. [. . .]

When Simon & Schuster approached Davis’s agent with a contract for an autobiography, Davis chose Troupe as his collaborator. The men spoke for many hours, engaging in disjointed, almost stream-of-consciousness conversations.

Neither man seemed intent on constructing a chronological narrative. Troupe then marked up the transcripts of the interviews before drafting a manuscript that was then heavily edited by an editor or editors at Simon & Schuster. The precise number of editors who worked on the book is in dispute. Jack Chambers, one of Davis’s first biographers, says that Troupe told him that “a whole committee” of editors worked on the book after he turned it over to the publishers.1 But John Szwed, the author of a more recent biography of Davis, has said only one editor was empowered to alter Troupe’s text.2 The transcripts of Troupe’s interviews with Davis, often heavily marked with Troupe’s changes, constitute a large stack of papers at the Schomburg branch of the New York Public Library in Harlem.

Troupe had to edit his own questions out of the transcript and then rephrase Davis’s statements so that they read like what Troupe believed to be the authorial voice of Miles Davis. On some level, he got it right. Many critics who reviewed the published text actually remarked upon how much the book sounded like Miles. For example, when Davis recalls hearing Billy Eckstine’s band in St. Louis in the early 1940s, Troupe added some colorful descriptions to a rather simple account of Sarah Vaughan’s voice, and he changed other passages to give Davis’s language more of a vernacular feel, such as inserting “and she was a motherfucker too” in Davis’s characterization of Vaughan. Troupe may have been trying to make Davis sound more like an urban black man speaking casually, even in passages where the transcripts show Davis speaking with perfect standard American grammar. In one instance, Troupe initially changed Davis’s entirely grammatical phrase “she used to sing” to “she be singing,” which was then changed again, either by Troupe or the editor(s), to “she’d be singing” in the final, published version. Davis no longer sounds illiterate, but he does sound more vernacular.

In another passage, Davis speculates about how his voice arrived at that whispery, raspy sound it acquired in the 1950s. In his actual statements in the transcript, he appears uncertain, but he does seem willing to allow that, like Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie, he might have acquired such a voice simply by playing the trumpet for much of his life. He firmly denies that his voice changed when he could not resist yelling at Morris Levy, who ran the New York club Birdland after his brother Irving Levy had been knifed outside the club. (The tabloids were fond of calling the incident a “bebop murder.”) Many journalists have dutifully reported the story that Davis ruined his voice by speaking truth to Levy’s power. It is a useful story, even if Davis seems determined to debunk it. Troupe or the editors do not completely ignore what Davis said, but in the published book the story has been rewritten to portray him as acting against his better judgment and raising his voice to a hustler from the music business.

These transcripts suggest an entirely different set of problems than those that were raised in the first years after the book appeared. In the first reviews, critics were ambivalent about Davis’s extreme honesty. They tended to admire him for telling the truth, but many had troubles with his unpleasant characterizations of Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, as well as himself. Before many actually read Miles: The Autobiography, they surely knew the sensational story about Davis sitting in a cab with Parker, who told him to turn his head away while he simultaneously ate fried chicken and was fellated by a young woman. Many will also recall hearing about Davis asserting that an unwashed, drug-addicted John Coltrane picked his nose on the bandstand and ate the contents. And most disturbingly, it was widely known that Davis bragged about his treatment of women in the presence of two policemen who showed up at his apartment while his wife, Cicely Tyson, hid downstairs after she had called the police to report that Davis was beating her.

The reception history of Miles: The Autobiography took a new turn when Stanley Crouch published a review in The New Republic in 1990, alleging that whole passages were taken directly from Milestones, Jack Chambers’s biography of Miles Davis.3 Crouch juxtaposed several passages from both books, leaving no doubt that there were major similarities between the two. In a new edition of his Milestones, published in 1998, Jack Chambers was kind to Troupe, suggesting that Davis was reading the first edition of Chambers’s book at the same time that he was giving his interviews to Troupe.4 Regardless, it is clear that Troupe needed some help in finishing his book after Davis became ill and would not sit for further interviews. Joanne Nerlino, the young art dealer who traveled with Davis during the last years of his life, told me that Davis tired of answering Troupe’s questions after several sessions.5

A great deal of material in Miles: The Autobiography is not in the transcripts. It is entirely possible that there were conversations between Troupe and Davis that are not in the transcripts, but I am fairly certain that Troupe — or the editors at Simon & Schuster — added a great deal of material based on what was already in print about Davis. There was no other way they could produce so complete an account of his life. The transcripts, for example, contain nothing like the many passages in Miles: The Autobiography such as this: “After I did the Birdland gig, I think I recorded with Lee Konitz, as a sideman, for Prestige. Max Roach was on that date and George Russell and some other guys I have forgotten.”6 The phrases “I think” and “I have forgotten” are very common throughout the book. To me it suggests that someone has filled in personnel on their own in order to flesh out the history. But Davis is made not to sound like a jazz geek who can rattle off the complete personnel at every recording session. Nevertheless, the constant citations of personnel throughout Miles: The Autobiography ultimately served an important purpose for Miles Davis.

1. Jack Chambers, Milestones: The Music and Times of Miles Davis (New York:
Da Capo, 1998), xxiii
2.. John Szwed, conversation with the author, 3 June 2004. 
3. Stanley Crouch, “Play the Right Thing,” New Republic, 12 February 1990,
4. Chambers, Milestones, xxvi.
5. Joanne Nerlino, conversation with the author, 28 May 2001.
6. Miles Davis with Quincy Troupe, Miles: The Autobiography (New York:
Simon & Schuster, 1989), 147.

© Oxford University Press, Inc., 2009.

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