Jazz trumpet genius Miles Davis had a lot of things going for him. He had a unique musical intelligence, an unparalleled instinct for musical innovation, and a reserved sense of compositional control that set his music apart from the many trumpeters of his day. And yet when you asked people to list his positive attributes, his winning personality was usually not among them.
In fact, the guy could be a real arse. His fascinating autobiography Miles is loaded with shit-talking, dismissals, and general acerbic jerkiness. It is fantastic.
Downbeat Magazine has had a longstanding tradition of having famous musicians come in and do a blind listening test. The artist will try to pick out who is playing, and talks about what he or she thinks of the tune. The music site “Noise Made Me Do It” has posted this 1964 listening test with Davis. It is hilarious, and it perfectly captures his general distaste for, well, everything.
On the Jazz Crusaders covering his famous tune “All Blues”:
What’s that supposed to be? That ain’t nothin’. They don’t know what to do with it — you either play it bluesy or you play on the scale. You don’t just play flat notes. I didn’t write it to play flat notes on — you know, like minor thirds. Either you play a whole chord against it, or else . . . but don’t try to play it like you’d play, ah, Walkin’ the Dog. You know what I mean?
On Clark Terry:
Clark Terry, right? You know, I’ve always liked Clark. But this is a sad record.
On Duke Ellington, Max Roach and Charles Mingus:
What am I supposed to say to that? That’s ridiculous. You see the way they can fuck up music? It’s a mismatch. They don’t complement each other.
On Sonny Rollins:
Now, why did they have to end it like that?
On Eric Dolphy:
That’s got to be Eric Dolphy — nobody else could sound that bad! The next time I see him I’m going to step on his foot. You print that. I think he’s ridiculous. He’s a sad motherfucker.
On Cecil Taylor:
Take it off! That’s some sad shit, man. In the first place, I hear some Charlie Parker cliches. . . . They don’t even fit. Is that what the critics are digging? Them critics better stop having coffee. If there ain’t nothing to listen to, they might as well admit it.
He did, however, dig Stan Getz and Jao Gilberto on “Desafinado”:
And I like Stan, because he has so much patience, the way he plays those melodies — other people can’t get nothing out of a song, but he can. Which takes a lot of imagination, that he has, that so many other people don’t have.
As for Gilberto, he could read a newspaper and sound good! I’ll give that one five stars.
It just goes to show, Miles Davis was a tough MFer to please. I remember someone putting forward the notion that Tony Williams, the young savant drummer who played in Miles’ quintet with Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock, was the only person who he never shit-talks in his entire autobiography. That sounds about right — at some point or another, Davis lays low just about every other luminary in the history of jazz.
It’s not every day that a guy will be this honest, critical and humorously candid about his peers. In fact, it basically never happens. But hey: The man knew what he liked… and he didn’t like much.