So What: The Life of Miles Davis chronicles the life of the most significant and influential figure in the history of jazz. Armstrong and Parker may have been more important improvisers, and Ellington was undoubtedly the most significant composer, but Miles Davis changed the face of the genre--as a soloist, as a leader, as an innovator, as an icon of style and attitude. And his album Kind of Blue is the bestselling jazz disc of all time, the one jazz masterpiece that many people own who otherwise dislike the genre.
But Miles' genius went alongside some extremely controversial aspects of his personality--his difficult, temperamental behaviour (often exacerbated by cocaine abuse) made him frequently impossible to deal with, and his famous rudeness and disdain towards audiences was based as much on his dislike of his white admirers as on his refusal to pander to any facile concept of being an "entertainer"--Miles was deadly serious about his work, and the astonishing range of his achievement from his days as a sideman for Charlie Parker to his later flirtations with rock (however contentious the latter) kept him at the forefront of his profession.
John Szwed's remarkable So What: The Life of Miles Davis is quite the best book on the trumpeter to appear yet, including the musician's own self-serving autobiography. While admiring Miles inordinately as a musician, (Szwed's analyses of such classic albums as Sketches of Spain is nonpareil), he is unsparing of such aspects of Davis' personality as his racism (while Miles may have been fully justified in responding to the racist behaviour he encountered at the hands of the police, Szwed does not excuse him for his cynical use of such great white musicians as the pianist Bill Evans or the arranger Gil Evans while simultaneously disdaining them: "we don't need your white opinions", he famously said to Bill Evans, even though he greatly valued his musical ideas.
As a picture of a complex and remarkable musician, So What is absolutely definitive--and like all the best biographies, the author's admiration for his subject doesn't blind him to the many unpalatable aspects of the man's personality. --Barry Forshaw