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

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