Miles (Davis w/ Troupe)

In today’s New York Times, Roxane Gay says she cannot separate the artist from his or her art, so she is therefore not going to see Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation. Now I haven’t been following this story too closely, but the challenge is familiar. Can an artist be separated from his art? Would  I still watch The Cosby Show? Do we, in fact, give artists more license to behave in certain ways because they are artists? Is there some kind of science to it – the “artists need to be crazy to be artists” argument?

But what artists, or even who among us, could stand up to such scrutiny? Could this be a both / and situation? I can, I think, still like some Woody Allen movies and find what I know of his personal life to be despicable.

All of this came to mind as I read Miles Davis’ autobiography. His language about women and his descriptions of how he treated them are just appalling. Can I still like his music if I don’t like the person?

I’m not sure of the process or the nature of the collaboration, but neither Davis nor Troupe are great writers. There’s a lot of listing – who was in the band, what happened at that recording session, etc.. There are some interesting elements, like how Davis tried to evolve rather than become a museum piece. He speaks a great deal about the racism he encountered in the music business, but is short on specifics and shallow when it comes to analysis, except when it comes to money. Without any context, it’s hard to get a grasp of the strength of his complaints when he says he was not paid as much as white musicians.

Shortly before he died, I had an opportunity to see Davis in Chicago. He didn’t say a word. When someone in the band soloed, he held up a large pre-printed card with his name on it. He does tell us about his reasoning behind that, how he hated to see how certain performers had to put on another kind of show (he mentions Louis Armstrong a great deal to make this point) to become popular. He wanted no part of that.

And there are a lot of drugs and Davis’ stubborn refusal / inability to get them out of his life. He does offer some explanations – the pace musicians were expected to keep, for example and / or his addictive personality – but his struggles and the struggles of some of his contemporaries (Charlie Parker, for example) are intense and, in the end, sad.

So, yes, I will still listen to Miles Davis. In fact, I added more of his music to my playlists as I read. But now I will have a more complete story of the man. And his flaws.


Basquiat (Emmerling)

My father once told me that Picasso used to doodle on the checks he wrote in order to give people pause. Should they cash it or wait to see what a Picasso doodle might be worth? Apocryphal or otherwise, the story has always interested me. Does the public make an artist’s reputation? Or does the artist make his (I’ll use that pronoun since I’m writing about Basquiat) own? Or do the times make the artist? Or the market? And what of the cliched but recurring artist who dies young?

Sometimes, we can intersect with a piece of art when we’re not ready for it or its moment has passed. I was aware of Basquiat. I think I even saw an exhibit of his in a London gallery. I knew there was a movie about him. But I think I was finally ready for him. Paging through his pictures and reading Emmerling’s insightful and biased text, I was struck by the intensity of his art and his connection to the likes of Joe Louis and Charlie Parker, artists in their own right who were, like Basquiat, taken advantage of by those around him. His pictures are intense and thought provoking. I wish he’d lived past 27. It seems like he had a lot more to say.