Putting in the extra Miles

Most writers seem to knock off a biography over a couple of wet Saturdays. Not Ian Carr. His took 23 years. By John L Walters

On the wall of Ian Carr's London flat hangs a signed print by Miles Davis. Entitled Bebop, it shows an exuberant splash of colour and line against a luxurious expanse of white space, an intense evocation of the musical movement that Davis heard first-hand as a teenage jazz musician. Late in his turbulent life, Davis (like John Cage) created an impressive body of artwork, a visual postscript to a career spent changing the sound and feel of 20th-century music.

Carr also owns a Davis self-portrait, an ink drawing in which the lines of an exaggerated skull swoop down to sensual lips pressed against a skeletal trumpet. This sketch fills the title page of a first edition of Carr's biography of Davis (published by Quartet in 1982) and underneath is a dedication to "Ian the great".

This tribute goes some way to rewarding Carr's efforts over more than two decades to write, rewrite, expand and update his terrific biography of Davis, jazz's "Prince of Darkness" and one of the century's greatest musicians. Duke Ellington called Davis "the Picasso of jazz", an appropriate description for a man who changed the sound and feel of jazz several times over.

Classic albums such as Kind of Blue, Sketches of Spain, and In a Silent Way regularly top listeners' and critics' polls. (Bob Geldof claimed on TV the other day that Davis's awesome double album Bitches Brew, recorded in 1969, had much greater significance than the Woodstock Festival of the same year.) The Miles mystique - that cool trumpet sound and image - still sells and connects to people who know little of jazz and its history.

Yet in 1975, when Carr began his biographical odyssey, no publisher would touch the idea. Carr, an impressive jazz trumpeter himself, had lectured about the music of Miles Davis and liked the idea of stepping sideways from the pressures of constant touring and recording with his band Nucleus.

"I thought it would be easy to get an advance," says Carr, "but most of the publishers were so ignorant they didn't even know his name."

Carr decided to go ahead anyway. An aunt had left him a legacy that would cushion a few months of unpaid work, and the fees from a studio project in Stuttgart (with an all-star band that became the United Jazz and Rock Ensemble) would pay for three weeks in America.

He flew to New York "to get beneath the surface of that city", says Carr. "I knew that the key was Teo Macero," Davis's elusive producer. Carr finally cornered him at a mixing session. Macero asked Carr for a cigarette, and promptly ate it.

"I said: `What are you eating the cigarette for?' and he said: `My doctor said it's bad to smoke them!'"

With Macero's help, the Davis story began to unfold. Carr spent an entire night in the Columbia press office photocopying material, "leaving in the grey morning with huge stacks of dynamite material". He tracked down Gil Coggins, who had known Davis since they were teenagers in St Louis. The bebop trumpeter Red Rodney called up, demanding to be interviewed.

"At one house where I went to interview someone, two policemen were shot dead by drug dealers outside the house." The neighbourhood "protector" had called in to dine with Carr and his jazz musician host - who provided his alibi while shots rang out in the street.

A string of conversations with Davis allies - Dave Holland, John McLaughlin, Jack DeJohnette, Herbie Hancock, Gil Evans - started to reveal some complex, contradictory insights into Davis's life and music.

"I thought I knew a lot, but it was like a detective story. For a lot of people who played with Miles, it's only years later that they understood what was happening."

Carr gathered more clues about Davis in the Eighties, when he researched a radio series about him for BBC Radio 3, and after Davis's death in 1991, when he settled down to update and revise the book that had swallowed the best part of six years of his life the first time round.

If Carr's original biography of Miles Davis had read like an unfinished novel, it was because in the early Eighties the subject's career had tailed off in a frustrating way. Dogged by ill health, Davis had withdrawn from public performance in the mid-Seventies, and a long, uneasy silence followed until he made a tentative comeback shortly before Carr's biography went to press.

The book was well received in the States, where many reviewers and musicians were discomfited to find that "the best biography of a modern jazz musician to date" (New York Times Book Review) should be written by a white trumpeter from Newcastle. Since then, we have had the long Indian summer of Davis's final decade, an extraordinarily creative coda with a shocking, tragic twist: Carr's account of Davis's death will surprise those who assumed Miles was ready to go quietly.

The new edition of Carr's book gives us the man in full, and provides the intelligent reader - Miles fan or jazz newcomer - with several routes into nearly five decades of brilliant music, most of which is now available on CD. The book has been a long, hard slog for Carr, the first version almost wiped him out financially and emotionally, and much of the work on the revised edition has been a labour of love.

Yet the biography is not an obsessive eulogy - and it's worth remembering that megastore shelves are groaning under the weight of music "biographies" which are little more than padded-out fanzines. The strength of Carr's biography is that his analysis of the music is linked to an understanding of the man. The details may include drug addiction, relationships with women and chilling descriptions of routine racism and police brutality, but they never obscure the development of Davis's performing career. As Carr says: "Without the music, there's no story!" Miles Davis's music is the plot of the book - a relentless, central narrative that drives it forward, twisting and turning like a thriller. And it's fun to watch Carr tackle Davis's mealy-mouthed critics head on.

"Flaubert said if you are writing the biography of a friend, you should do it as if you are taking revenge for him," says Carr. "I didn't know that quote when I began the book, but I was taking revenge for him, because I got fed up of the people who couldn't see the continuity in his life and work."

Carr writes with a fierce passion, but he really understands a lot of what's going on in the music. This is a surprising thing to read in any kind of music writing, let alone jazz. Carr may not play like Miles, but he knows how it feels to go on stage and blow a trumpet. Ian Carr writes and says what he thinks, and is prepared to criticise, praise and guide without guile or irony.

"I really like some of the things I've written, like the things I said about the album Milestones: `It is profound, delightful, full of confidence and immense optimism. Throughout, there is a feeling that the past is rich, the present enjoyable and the future full of promise.' Things like that need to be said."

Ian Carr's `Miles Davis: the Definitive Biography', published by HarperCollins (658pp, pounds 19.99). Phil Johnson reviews the four-CD remastered `Bitches Brew' in Friday's jazz section

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
Crime watch: Cara Delevingne and Daniel Brühl in ‘The Face of an Angel’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
music Malik left the Asian leg of the band's world tour after being signed off with stress last week
Author J.K. Rowling attends photocall ahead of her reading from 'The Casual Vacancy' at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on September 27, 2012 in London, England.
peopleNot the first time the author has defended Dumbledore's sexuality
‘The Late Late Show’ presenter James Corden is joined by Mila Kunis and Tom Hanks for his first night as host
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss