Writer John Szwed
Writer John Szwed is the author of the new biography, So What: The Life of Miles Davis about the influential jazz trumpeter. Szwed is the John M. Musser Professor of Anthropology, African American Studies, Music and American Studies at Yale University. He is also the author of the biography Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra, about another innovative musician.
Other segments from the episode on December 17, 2017
DATE December 17, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Analysis: Movies opening during the holiday season
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
A lot of movies are opening for the holidays. We've asked our film critic,
John Powers, to talk with us about them. John is also media columnist and
film critic for LA Weekly.
John, one of the movies opening for the holidays is Martin Scorsese's new
film, "Gangs of New York." It's taken a very long time for this movie to
actually hit the theaters. What's the problem been?
JOHN POWERS reporting:
You know, well, it's actually one of those strange films that comes with an
accumulated weight of baggage that makes everybody wonder how good the film is
going to be. They finished shooting it maybe 18 months ago, and there was
lots of talk that it was going to come out last Christmas. But, in fact, they
didn't finish editing the final version until time for this Christmas. And
there was a lot of thought that maybe Martin Scorsese, the director, was
fighting with Harvey Weinstein from Miramax, and there's some dispute, I
guess, over the final length of the film and what exactly should be in it.
And so this is a film that comes to us with so much gossip surrounding it that
when you go to see the film, you actually have to sort of cut through that to
see what the film actually is.
GROSS: And what is the film actually? Did you like it?
POWERS: I don't really like the film. I don't think it's a very good film,
although it's an incredibly grand film. It's an attempt, I think, to make a
film about 19th century New York that has the scope and scale of the first two
"Godfather" films or Sergio Leone's "Once Upon a Time in America." It's a
great immigrant saga, and it has to do essentially with immigrant New York and
the battles between the people who already live there, who resent the
newcomers, and the immigrants trying to make their life, set against the
backdrop of the Civil War era when immigrants would get off the boat, be given
citizenship and immediately shipped off to go fight in the Civil War as cannon
And what Scorsese gives you is that time and place in the midst of one of the
most elaborate sets I've ever seen. So there's a huge set that was built in
Cinecitta Studios in Rome, which gives you a 19th century New York City. And
then in the midst of the film, there's a plot about a bad nativist, as they're
called, which are people who basically don't like the immigrants, played by
Daniel Day-Lewis, and his blood feud with the son of a murdered Irish
immigrant, and that's played by Leonardo DiCaprio.
GROSS: How are DiCaprio and Daniel Day-Lewis?
POWERS: One is extremely good and one isn't. DiCaprio, when he was younger,
seemed to have a lot of kind of primal force as an actor. But as he grew
older, he's gotten slightly wispy. And this is sort of a two-fisted epic
where people are actually going after one another with cudgels. And really,
there's nothing about Leonardo DiCaprio that makes him seem like a good
In contrast, Daniel Day-Lewis is an actor of such enormous vitality and
energy, and he's giving a really wonderful, theatrical, broad, strangely
sympathetic performance as this guy who--if you can imagine this--is some sort
of 19th century cross between, say, Travis Bickle from "Taxi Driver" and Pat
Buchanan. So he's actually simultaneously wrought up, crazed, honorable,
really funny, and he dominates the film so much that it's almost a problem for
the film, because there's no real counterweight to him in the movie.
GROSS: So would you recommend the film?
POWERS: I would recommend the film. Having said all the bad things, what's
really remarkable in the film is that it gives you a feeling for an aspect of
American history that probably none of us ever really learned in school. I
mean, the tag line for the film, which is something like `America was born in
the streets,' is very, very accurate. Because what this film shows you is how
most of what we think of as modern America--be it modern American freedoms,
modern American cities, modern American values--were actually created by
people from outside the country coming in and fighting in the streets for
rights and ideas. And I can think of very few films that actually show this
more compellingly than this.
So, in fact, although parts of the film bored me, the last half-hour builds to
this great, magnificent and deeply ironic and sort of dark, it must be said,
vision of the city of New York that is extraordinarily powerful. So although
I was unhappy earlier in the film, except when Daniel Day-Lewis was on--and I
was always happy when he was on--by the end, I actually thought, `This
actually is a strong movie, although it's probably a failed movie.'
GROSS: FRESH AIR film critic John Powers is my guest. We're talking about
movies that you can see over the holidays.
Now Leonardo DiCaprio is in two movies opening for the holidays. There's
"Gangs of New York," which you were just talking about, and also "Catch Me If
You Can," which is based on a true story and directed by Steven Spielberg.
What's the story the movie's based on?
POWERS: You know, well, it's actually based on the slightly fishy-seeming but
very compelling autobiography...
POWERS: ...of a man by the name of Frank Abagnale, who was a very successful
young con man, who left home at the age of 16 and by the age of 20, had
already passed himself off as a Pan Am pilot, as the head of an ER in an
Atlanta hospital and as an assistant district attorney, and in addition to
that, had kited $4 million worth of checks. OK, that's the basic story, and
Leonardo DiCaprio plays this kid who, rather like Spielberg himself--he was
sort of a prodigy and entered the world and sort of took the adult world by
storm because he was just so good at faking it.
And so it's a charming romp of a film. I had actually kind of dreaded it. I
think the trailers for the film make it look slightly unbearable. But when I
actually saw the film, I and almost everyone else in the room, you know, was
extraordinarily happy. You know, if Scorsese's film "Gangs of New York"--it
came in with this huge weight of expectation and then was probably
disappointing, "Catch Me If You Can" came in with people thinking, `Good Lord,
doesn't Steven Spielberg ever stop making movies?' You know, he'd made "A.I."
just last summer, then he made "Minority Report" this summer and now he's got
this one. And probably, this is my favorite of the three of them. It's fast
and funny. Leonardo DiCaprio is very, very good. He's a very good light
actor now and is very, very charming. And in the film, he's being chased by
an FBI agent played by Tom Hanks, who's really wonderful and sly in this
movie. In fact, he's all the good things that people like about Tom Hanks in
this movie rather than the kind of overbearing things that you saw in "Road to
Perdition" earlier this year.
GROSS: Well, there's two movies about double lives opening for the holidays.
One is "Catch Me If You Can," and the other is the movie about Chuck Barris
called "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind." Some of our listeners might not
remember Chuck Barris, who was the king of game shows. Do you want to talk
about who Chuck Barris was first?
POWERS: Yes. Well, you know, Chuck Barris was one of these people who many
people have never heard of, but was one of the defining figures in the way
American culture went, starting in the 1960s. He invented two famous game
shows, one "The Dating Game" and one "The Newlywed Show"--"Newlywed Game,"
excuse me. And in addition to that, he invented a show called "The Gong
Show," where essentially talentless people were brought on stage to reveal the
fact that they had no talent and then basically get the hook.
Anyway, so Chuck Barris is this strange marginal figure, on the one hand. I
mean, he's not really a star. He's not really a celebrity. He's not the kind
of person that you would normally get a biopic of. But he was this weird
showbiz figure who then wrote a very strange autobiography in which he claimed
that when he was essentially not running things like "The Dating Game," he was
actually a CIA assassin. He had a second life. And that is essentially the
Chuck Barris story that's in "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," which has been
directed by George Clooney. Following a script by Charlie Kaufman, who is
having a big year--I mean, Charlie Kaufman is this guy who people might
remember who wrote "Being John Malkovich." And for years, he was considered
someone who was so marginal and so wigged out that he would never get anything
made. This year, he has three films. And, in fact, two of them are coming
out in the same three-week period. One is the new film "Adaptation," which is
just coming out, and after this is "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," which
traces, in bizarre fashion, Chuck Barris' rise as a TV executive and hit man.
GROSS: Do you buy the story? Do you think it's true?
POWERS: I don't buy the story, and it's clear the filmmakers don't buy the
story. They play it, oddly enough, as sort of a stylized, sort of
sub-Brechtian's tale in which everything is made so deliberately heightened
and stylized that you don't really believe what you're seeing. I mean, the
most realistic things in the film are the scenes from "The Dating Game,"
whereas all the CIA stuff is done with pull-away sets and elaborate camera
moves that clearly accentuate the fact that George Clooney and the writer,
Charlie Kaufman, don't believe that he actually was a hit man. In fact, they
stylize it so much, you don't even believe that Chuck Barris really believed
he was a hit man, which may be one of the problems with the film. As you're
watching, you're shifting between different layers of reality, but you never
really feel yourself connecting with the character because it's so out there.
I would just say parenthetically that one of the interesting things about the
screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman, is that when he makes a movie like
"Adaptation," he needs a director who plays it straight, because Kaufman's
scripts are so nuts that if the director tries to ratchet it up, it's a huge
mistake because then everything then just flies off into the ether, and I
think that's essentially what happens with "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind."
In contrast, Spike Jonze, who directed "Adaptation," keeps everything anchored
so that Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper are very convincing playing a New Yorker
writer and her subject.
GROSS: This is a--the "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" is George Clooney's
debut as a director. Tell us more of what you think of him as a director
based on this first entry.
POWERS: Yes. Well, he's actually an interesting director, because I think he
directed the film incorrectly, which is to say that I think he heightens
things too much so that the film doesn't actually work. But he breaks out of
the mold of actors turned directors. Usually when actors, especially stars,
start directing films, they go for very simple, actor-driven stories with very
simple camera setups, you know, and they essentially count on knowing what it
is they know, which is acting. What Clooney has done is to do some sort of
huge exercise in style, so that the film, in some ways, that it reminds me of
most is another movie that's coming out at Christmas, which is the adaptation
of the musical "Chicago," which is also a sort of vaguely Brechtian enterprise
where everything is kept deliberately unreal and artificial. And what Clooney
has done is, for his first job, done something that's a far harder piece of
direction than, say, his friend Steven Soderbergh did in a lot of his work
than almost any film this year.
GROSS: So you're saying that there's something about the direction of
"Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" that reminds you of "Chicago." "Chicago" is
another one of the movies opening for the holidays. It's adapted from a
Kander and Ebb Broadway musical. Is it successful in becoming a movie?
POWERS: Yes, it actually is successful in becoming a movie. You know, I
think that the Hollywood musical is probably the Holy Grail of film genres.
It's remarkable if you look back at it how almost anybody who has any talent
or power as a director in Hollywood has tried at one point to make a musical,
and it's widely thought that it's impossible to do it anymore. I wouldn't be
surprised if "Chicago" proved to be the most successful one in years and years
What they've done is, you know, they've taken the very successful musical and
found a way to adapt it whereby the characters just don't break into song as
they often do in musicals. That kind of artificiality seems not to play with
audiences anymore in movie theaters. So what the director, Rob Marshall, came
up with was a concept where there are basically two levels of reality going
on. There's the level of reality of the play and then there's the--or of the
story--excuse me--and then the level of reality of performances going on at a
musical. And those two bleed into one another so that a person might start
off, you know, in a sequence singing and then it will actually merge into
something that's happening in real life or vice versa. But that separation
seems to work for the audience, because it doesn't mean that people are just
sitting in their living rooms suddenly breaking into songs, which, as I say,
people don't seem to buy anymore in movies.
GROSS: Well, how are Catherine Zeta-Jones and Renee Zellweger as singers? I
don't think we've seen them sing before, or heard them sing.
POWERS: Yes. Well, I think, you know, one of the things that happens when
you make a musical nowadays is that one is always struck by the fact that the
people they cast are surprisingly good. And I think I would say that of Renee
Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones is that one doesn't think of them as being
able to sing and dance, so that when they come out and do sing pretty well and
dance pretty well, it seems even more impressive than probably it would if
they were just doing what they regularly did, or if you brought out people who
were known for singing and dancing.
I mean, it's a strange time in show business, 'cause, you know, there was an
era when the Hollywood studios had people who could be counted on to do every
single kind of thing you needed to do in a musical. So you actually would
just have performers who everyone knew could sing wonderfully and dance
wonderfully and often both. Now you actually are always cobbling together
films with the stars who are able to do certain things. You know, so that
Catherine Zeta-Jones, you know, is very, very good in the film. I was quite
surprised as how well she did it. I've been told she was once a chorine, and
perhaps that's true, but she actually moves pretty well.
And, you know, the film's editing style, as often happens with musicals these
days, is quite fast. You know, it's not as fast as, say, so-called MTV
cutting, but what you don't have is that Renee Zellweger or Catherine
Zeta-Jones have to actually hold the screen with no cuts for a minute dancing.
You know, in the old days, you know, if you were directing, say, Fred Astaire
or Gene Kelly, you could actually just put the camera there and they could the
number perfectly and you'd never need to do anything. With today's stars,
they just aren't that good. Plus, people are used to a faster editing rhythm
so that, you know, what will happen is you'll see Catherine Zeta-Jones or
Renee Zellweger moving for maybe 15 seconds then there will be a cut. So if
they've made any mistakes in the dancing or the singing, that can be replaced.
GROSS: My guest is FRESH AIR film critic John Powers. We'll talk more about
holiday movies after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of "Winter Wonderland")
GROSS: Film critic John Powers is my guest and we're talking about some of
the movies opening for the holidays.
Now the second in the trilogy of "Lord of the Ring" movies is opening for the
holidays. You, as I recall, were surprised to find that you liked the first
"Lord of the Rings." What do you think of the second one?
POWERS: Well, the second one isn't as good as the first. I was talking to a
friend afterward who loves "The Lord of the Rings" and loves these films, and
even she was saying, `This is a second act,' which is to say that the problem
you have is that the first part gets to set up the world and the last part has
all the dramatic payoff. Here in the middle, you basically are just sort of
making the story get from the beginning to the end. And so...
GROSS: Sounds like junior high school.
POWERS: It is like junior high school, yes. And that way it's kind of
There are spectacular things in it. There's, you know, perhaps a little
overlong, but a genuinely spectacular siege sequence that is the kind of
things that movies have tried to do for years and years and haven't. When you
think of all the George Lucas movies, then in the new "Star Wars" movies that
are failing so badly, the new movie "The Two Towers" actually does a lot of
that epic stuff with people fighting and battling and having big passions
incredibly well. And there is a really wonderful, I guess, part-live,
part-digitally created creature named Gollum, who's the sort of tragic villain
of "The Lord of the Rings" series. And when he's on screen in "The Two
Towers," the movie really comes to life.
I mean, the tricky thing with the whole "Lord of the Rings" trilogy is it's
basically two kinds of things going on at once. There's the really good
thing, which is the story of the ring and the hobbit who has to destroy the
ring while the ring is so powerful that it weakens him and corrupts him and he
has to battle to preserve his integrity while doing the right thing, which I
think is the human story. Then there's the story which I've never found very
interesting, which is the struggle for the imaginary Middle-earth which is
filled with gnomes and dwarfs and trolls and hobbits and thousands and
thousands of people involved in battle sequences. I suspect if you're a "Lord
of the Rings" fanatic, you actually want to see those battle sequences, and
the director, Peter Jackson, gives them to you in spectacular fashion. But if
you're more interested in the moral side of the story, part two is probably
going to be the least successful of the three.
GROSS: Well, you just voted in the Los Angeles Film Critics Association
Awards and maybe you could just, like, run through and compare your votes with
how the association voted for, like, the top awards.
POWERS: Yes. Well, it was actually kind of fun this year because I think I
had never actually had my top choice win anything ever. I think that may be
even true in my political life, as well. You know, I used to always think
that when I go to vote I always lose.
This year, I had voted for--actually, my favorite film--and I don't think you
like this one perhaps. But the film I enjoyed watching most this year was "Y
Tu Mama Tambien," which I probably would have...
GROSS: Oh, correct for me. Yeah, I really didn't like it.
POWERS: Yes. So I probably would have voted for it for my favorite film.
But "About Schmidt" was the film that won, and I happily voted for it.
For best actor, it came down to two people. There was actually a tie in Los
Angeles between Daniel Day-Lewis and Jack Nicholson, who's the star of "About
Schmidt." Daniel Day-Lewis is in "Gangs of New York." And I was completely
content. These are two movies that essentially rise or fall on the
performance of these guys, and they're both really, really good.
For best actress, it was Julianne Moore for "Far From Heaven." And I think
she won because she's good in the film undeniably, but also because--not only
was she good in this film, she's been good for a long, long time. And I think
this is one of those happy occasions--and I think she'll probably win the
Oscar for this same reason--where people realize, `Oh, this is the dream role
for a person who we've actually liked for years and years and years and who's
always honorable and good and now it's their time.' And I think that's what's
going to happen with Julianne Moore. I voted for her, as well.
You know, with some of the other things, best foreign film, we gave it to "Y
Tu Mama Tambien" over the Almodovar film "Talk to Her," but that's because
Almodovar had won best director for "Talk to Her." And so critics groups, you
know, tend to not be really rigid about voting their conscience in every case.
It often happens that if you think Pedro Almodovar has won one thing, you'll
vote for somebody else to spread the wealth around, and I think that's what
GROSS: John, you took a hiatus from film reviews. You write a media column
for Los Angeles Weekly. And after a while of not writing reviews, you've
returned to reviewing again. Did you miss the compulsory aspect of moviegoing
during that hiatus from reviewing?
POWERS: Yes. Well, I think the thing that I learned is that I was much more
forgiving of movies when I was paying than when I was able to go for free,
which I think is a very odd thing. That there was about two and a half years
where I really was only going to things that I wanted to go to and I wasn't on
press screening lists and would simply show up with my $8, you know, and I was
actually more willing to forgive things under those circumstances than when I
was on the treadmill of seeing 400 or 500 films a year. And, you know, you
would think it would be the other way, but you know, `You're putting good
money into this theater. How could you not, you know, have more
expectations?' But it just doesn't work that way.
In the same kind of way, I think that many people would have had the
experience that when you turn something on, say, HBO or Showtime or Cinemax,
something that you might have actually been enraged by in the theater, you're
prepared to sit through and think, `Oh, this isn't so bad,' you know. `Why
were the critics so harsh on that?' And you would have just--the context
determines so much.
So now that I'm back, I'm trying to keep some of that freshness that I had
when I was just going as a paying customer to what I'm doing, which
probably--you know, I probably will soon be warped and jaded again, but at the
moment I'm not.
GROSS: Well, John, I wish you happy holidays.
POWERS: Yes. And happy holidays to you, Terry.
GROSS: John Powers is film critic and media columnist for LA Weekly.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of "Jingle Bells")
(Soundbite of "So What")
GROSS: Coming up, book critic Maureen Corrigan gives her picks for the best
books of the year, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews some box sets that
could make good holiday gifts and we talk with John Szwed about his new
biography of Miles Davis called "So What."
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Review: Recommendations for the best books of 2002
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Book critic Maureen Corrigan has drawn up her best books list for 2002, plus a
couple of last-minute mentions of very good books that she's just caught up
MAUREEN CORRIGAN reporting:
This was the year of interesting-to-superb first novels. Out of that group of
debutantes, the one that's my pick for the best novel of 2002 was the one I
most didn't want to read, "The Lovely Bones" by Alice Sebold. This is a story
narrated from heaven by an adolescent girl named Susie Salmon who's been raped
and murdered by a serial killer, an act we readers witness in the opening of
the novel. The torture and death of a child probably tops the list of
subjects I don't want to know about, but because I was required to keep
reading, I ended up having a singular, disturbing and even enlightening
literary experience. The predictable backlash has begun against "The Lovely
Bones." Some critics are now accusing the book of being sentimental. Ignore
them. I can still hear Susie's remarkable voice questioning, wry, hollow and
so powerful it sometimes overwhelms all the reassuring noises of everyday
Another terrific debut novel this year was "The Dive From Clausen's Pier" by
Ann Packer. Packer has a gift for deceptively unadorned language that
captures the complexities of romantic love and its burdens. Her heroine, a
young Midwesterner named Carrie Bell, is about to break her engagement when
her fiance breaks his neck and becomes a quadriplegic. Sounds melodramatic, I
know, but the psychological subtly of Packer's language, the way she hints at
rather than overstates Carrie's decisions, really distinguishes this novel.
"Atonement" by Ian McEwan is the best novel in the year by a literary old
master. It's a brilliant, nuanced and technically sly tale that spans the
1930s to the present, and leaves readers with the unsettling conviction that
only the strong and unscrupulous survive.
The non-fiction standouts this year are an appealingly motley bunch. "Bad
Blood" by the late British literary critic Lorna Sage is a vivid, tragic comic
memoir by a daughter of the 1950s who got knocked up but not knocked down.
"In The Devil's Snare," by renowned women's historian Mary Beth Norton,
suggests a new and very convincing solution to the enduring mystery of the
Salem witch-hunts. Another scholar, Mark Edmundson, sidesteps mawkishness in
his shrewd, class-conscious memoir "Teacher," about an eccentric high school
teacher who transformed Edmundson from a football thug to an avid reader and
also introduced him to the hard reality that thinking hurts.
"The Good Women of China" by Chinese radio journalist Xinran recounts the
difficult lives of contemporary female factory workers, entrepreneurs,
peasants and intellectuals in that country. Xinran says the question that
obsessed her all the while she was doing her radio show in China during the
1990s was: `Just what is a woman's life worth in China?' You get the feeling
throughout this book that she's still reeling from the answer.
A couple of books I've just caught up with deserve a mention before the year
is out. "Don't Tell Mama!" is the title of the Penguin book of
Italian-American writing edited by feminist literary scholar Regina Barreca.
As that cheeky title suggests, this is a boisterous and frequently moving
collection of autobiographical essays, poems and fiction excerpts designed to
dispel the prejudice that apart from Don DeLillo, Gay Talese and Mario Puzo,
Italians make better cooks, gangsters and filmmakers than they do writers.
And I've just read the big buzz book of early fall, "I Don't Know How She Does
It" by Allison Pearson. This is the comic novel about a working mother of two
named Kate Reddy who manages hedge funds in London by day and cleans up
spilled apple juice and vomit at home by night. The so-called fairy-tale
ending, where Kate quits her high-powered job, makes me a bit uneasy, but I
laughed helplessly out loud throughout most of this novel, starting with the
very first page that finds Kate, late at night in her kitchen, busily
distressing a store-bought mince pie for a party at her daughter's preschool
so that the stay-at-home moms--or Muffia, as she calls them--won't sneer at
"I Don't Know How She Does It" is hip to the complications of class and
generational differences and, above all, to the catch-22 situations of women
caught in an unfinished feminist revolution. And it's filled with such droll
one-liners, like when Kate describes her unshaven husband as looking like `Ted
Hughes left in the tumble dryer.' As of the end of 2002, the Brits are still
tops when it comes to literary wit, but there's always hope for the Colonies
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. Her
complete list can be found on our Web site, freshair.com.
Coming up, we talk with John Szwed about his new biography of Miles Davis.
This is FRESH AIR.
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Interview: John Szwed discusses his biography of Miles Davis "So
TERRY GROSS, host:
My guest John Szwed is the author of a new biography of Miles Davis called "So
What," named after the Miles composition. In the introduction, Szwed
acknowledges that several biographies of the great jazz trumpet player have
already been written. Szwed says he has tried to write a meditation on Miles
Davis' life. It's been 11 years since Miles died, and as Szwed points out, he
still seems omnipresent. We refer to him by his first name, an
acknowledgement of his pervasive influence. At jazz festivals, Miles Davis
tributes outdraw newer musicians' performances; trumpeters still copy his
John Szwed is also the author of the books "Jazz 101" and "Space is the
Place," a biography of the jazz composer and musician Sun Ra. And he's a
professor of African-American studies, music and American studies at Yale.
Let's start with music. This is Miles Davis' 1954 recording of the Rodgers &
Hart song "It Never Entered My Mind."
(Soundbite of "It Never Entered My Mind")
GROSS: John Szwed, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Miles, during this period, gravitated toward songs and show tunes. Can you
talk a little bit about why he loved to play those songs?
Professor JOHN SZWED (Author, "So What: The Life of Miles Davis"): Yeah. He
particularly was fond of, early on, of some singers who are not so well known
anymore, but Blossom Dearie comes to mind and Jeri Southern and Shirley Horn,
who's still very much with us, and Helen Merrill later on. And these are
singers that basically were slow-burners, sort of low bravado chanteuses who
worked a certain kind of song so slowly, as Shirley Horn said, no one could
tell where the one was, where the downbeat was when they sang.
And in a sense, they keep the romantic quality of the songs, but they moved
them to a new place. And what's outrageous, I guess, in the time when Miles
is doing this stuff first, which is--What?--the early '50s, is that this is a
period after be-bop had effaced those tunes, had sort of hidden them with
these melodies--What should I say?--signified on these melodies and made them
something else. And then here comes Miles, and then later Chet Baker, turning
this corner of saying, `Hey, we can play these tunes straight.'
GROSS: At some point, when Miles started to move away from songs, you quote
him as saying he didn't want to be "restricted by the breath limits of singers
and the restrictions of word phrases." Do you think that when he moved away
from songs he started playing the kind of music that wouldn't work as song,
that singers couldn't sing, that wasn't adapted at all for the voice?
Prof. SZWED: Yeah, and in that he was not alone. And talking the mid-'60s
again, you could have heard this first a little earlier in Ornette Coleman and
some of the so-called `free jazz' players who were also escaping those sort of
two-and-four bar phrases in which singers sang and which the lyricists wrote
for. And oddly enough, or maybe appropriately enough, this is the period also
where poets begin to think in larger breath units, which is to say, `Go out to
the end of the line and see how far you can go,' or you'd even write--in the
case of Ginsberg--write out to the end of the page and then stop and start
GROSS: What do you consider to be the first important record in his move away
Prof. SZWED: Well, as an entire album, "Kind of Blue," which is still his
mega best-selling kind of piece of music, because he began to think in terms
of--instead of the usual pop song forms, in terms of modes and other
approaches to it. So there was--it was a kind of elasticity built into it.
They could play for a short time; they could play for a long time.
GROSS: You want to choose a piece from "Kind of Blue"?
Prof. SZWED: Yeah. Why not "Flamenco Sketches"?
GROSS: OK, here it is.
(Soundbite of "Flamenco Sketches")
GROSS: That's from the Miles Davis album "Kind of Blue," recorded in 1959.
My guest, John Szwed, is author of the new book "So What: The Life of Miles
A lot of Miles Davis' early music had a very beautiful, romantic sound to it.
You've spoken to some of the women who were either married to Miles Davis or
spent some time as lovers with him. Was he a romantic lover in the way you
might expect him to be listening to those beautiful records?
Prof. SZWED: I think there is that element there. Clearly, the music
communicated a certain kind of character, and many people said to me that when
they found that his character was not quite in line with those songs, to put
it mildly, that they were surprised. They thought he was what he played. In
fact, a sort of Miles school trumpet player, Art Farmer, said Miles played the
way he wanted to be. And this is a bad aesthetic and bad emotional mistake to
treat things that way, and they always thought--at least some of them thought,
that that must be his core self somewhere, and all that he needed to do was to
be with the right woman to have it surface. This turns out not to have been
not such an easy course for many people, because particularly under the
influence of cocaine, which produced severe paranoia in Davis for years, that
he could be very violent and extremely difficult, not just with women, but
with men. But it does suggest that it went very deep into the way he related
GROSS: What's an example of how his paranoia was expressed through his
Prof. SZWED: He was delusional, I think, at worst. As he himself said, he
thought an elevator was his car, and then when people got inside, he wondered
what they were doing in his car. He thought people were--this was very
common--he thought people were under rugs, under furniture, and before he'd
feel safe, he'd have to go check these things out. He mistook snow on the
ground for being cocaine. He stepped through windows and doors. It was
severe delusion, and he spells a good deal of this out in his own
Despite those kind of problems of use, he nonetheless took care of business,
as they would say. He showed up at recording sessions early. He was
organized, in spite of the kind of strange organization that he used, which
was very often, `I'm going to make all the space in the world for you and you
better come through.' His sense of knowing how to arrange people was no small
skill. I say `arrange people' because that's what we was doing with the
music. He knew how to bring the best out of himself and other people. So
it's really quite extraordinary to see this balancing act going on where he
can barely stand up at some points and yet he can produce this incredible
GROSS: Talk a little bit more about what you mean by, `He didn't arrange
music; he arranged people.'
Prof. SZWED: Well, this doesn't happen very often in the arts, I think. You
know, we talk about improvisation and that's usually an individual kind of
thing. You hear some talk in the theater about it, but there's always a kind
of structure to this that's more there than we're led to believe sometimes.
But a few times, musicians have attempted to bring people into a studio and
see what would happen. Apparently, according to Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan did
this in one case, filling a studio with 20-some people and nothing happened.
In fact, they just irritated each other and Dylan kept running out for more
But Miles did the same kind of thing. In any number of sessions, starting in
the late '60s particularly, he would bring people in who didn't even know that
other people would be there, so they would sometimes have three or four
keyboardists turn up and three drummers all staring at each other and
wondering, `Where do I sit? What do I do?' and so forth. And when asked,
`What do I do?' as one drummer asked one time when he was staring at the other
two, he said, `We'll let Jack Dejohnette lead the drum section because he's
the one wearing the sunglasses,' that kind of thing. Or when asked, `What do
we play on this tune?' as John McLaughlin, the guitarist, asked one time, he
said, `Play like you've never played the guitar before. Play like you don't
know how to play.' The famous remark to Herbie Hancock, `Sit on your left
hand,' and then at one point, `Sit on your right, too.' When asked, `What
should I play?' `If you don't know, don't play anything.'
This ability to bring people in like that--and then when he did have music,
something like Joe Zawinul's "In a Silent Way," he erased the chords. So he
took the basic structure of the piece out, opening up the possibility for all
sorts of things to happen.
I think--this may not be so striking to other people, but to me at least, the
degree of seriousness of the man about what he was doing was stunning. His
approach to this music was that of an intellectual and a purist, although it's
very hard to make that case to many people who don't know this music that
well. And it's hard to find an artist more devoted to what he's doing than
what Davis brought to this. It's often chaotic, it's often destructive in a
variety of ways, but this is a man who wants to do something perfectly and he
wants to get it to sound like nothing that's ever been heard before. And
that's the reason that he continued to change music.
He, I thought, rather modestly said once at the White House when someone said,
`What did you do to get invited here?' he said--I think it was the elder
Bush's White House--he said, `I changed music four or five times. What did
you do other than sleep with a white man?' I believe the line went. I count
that he's changed music six or seven times, maybe eight if you want to be a
part of them.
GROSS: Well, John Szwed, thank you so much for talking with us.
Prof. SZWED: Thank you.
GROSS: John Szwed is the author of the new book "So What: The Life and Times
of Miles Davis."
(Soundbite of "Time After Time")
GROSS: Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews CD box sets you might
consider for holiday gifts. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Jazz CD box sets released in time for the holidays
TERRY GROSS, host:
A lot of jazz CD box sets and compilations are released toward the end of the
year, time for the gift-giving season. If you're shopping for a jazz fan,
critic Kevin Whitehead has a few high- and low-budget suggestions and one
(Soundbite of music by Miles Davis)
KEVIN WHITEHEAD reporting:
Chuck Mangione? Herb Alpert? No, Miles Davis, in jazz's answer to Elvis' fat
period. In the 1980s, even when the trumpeter's lip didn't sound like raw
hamburger, Miles was done in by his glitzy funk bands with their vulgar string
synthesizers, chime racks and sampled voices.
(Soundbite of music by Miles Davis)
WHITEHEAD: That's from this season's most overstuffed jazz box: 20 CDs of
Miles Davis recorded at the Montreux Festival, almost all of it from the
dismal 1980s. It feels strange touting holiday box sets in a tanked-out
economy, so let me save you big bucks by waving you off this mess. Only Miles
haters or happy-jazz freaks could love it.
(Soundbite of music by Miles Davis)
WHITEHEAD: With all the money you've saved not buying that, you can now think
about giving some of this season's smaller and better compilations. The big
jazz story this year was the glorious return of one ex-Miles Davis
saxophonist, and the two-CD anthology "The Classic Blue Note Recordings of
Wayne Shorter" focuses on his 1960s peak. Shorter recorded half of it under
his own name and most of the rest with drummer Art Blakey. There's a lot of
great tenor saxophone playing, and Wayne Shorter's cunning and catchy tunes
remain much imitated and unmatched. The only hitches are a couple of slices
of his bad 1980s music. From 1964, here's "Witch Hunt" with Elvin Jones on
(Soundbite of "Witch Hunt")
WHITEHEAD: If you want to be very nice to a fan of early jazz, for me this
year's standout box is "The Classic Columbia and Okeh Joe Venuti and Eddie
Lang Sessions" from the mail-order house Mosaic. It's eight CDs of stuff
recorded between 1927 and 1935, and it's a gold mine; a reminder what big
boxes are good for. It gives you a sweeping perspective on jazz and American
pop during a formative period.
(Soundbite of music by Joe Venuti)
WHITEHEAD: That's Joe Venuti on violin, but this box belongs to
Philadelphia-born guitarist Salvatore Massaro, usually known as Eddie Lang and
sometimes as Blind Willie Dunn. Back when the music business was routinely
segregated, Lang often crossed the color line to record blues with Bessie
Smith or Lonnie Johnson, as well as pop and jazz with Bing Crosby or Bix
Beiderbecke. They all turn up in this box. The way Lang worked Italian
string inflections into the blues taught scores of non-African-Americans how
to fold their roots into jazz. Here's Lang with King Oliver on trumpet in
(Soundbite of music by Eddie Lang and King Oliver)
WHITEHEAD: The breadth of material Eddie Lang recorded before his death in
1933 reminds us how fluid the boundaries were between musical styles back
then. His work would influence hillbilly and country and even rock music at
least as much as jazz. Lang's recorded odyssey is an epic tale told in
three-minute installments, and the Venuti-Lang box is a high-yield investment.
(Soundbite of music by Jimmy Dorsey)
WHITEHEAD: Jimmy Dorsey on baritone sax. Since the jazz vocal is in
resurgence, you might attempt to turn fans of younger singers on to some old
masters the new vocalists study. One worthy item in a recent batch of 1940s
reissues on Savoy is a double set by bedroom baritone Billy Eckstine, back
when he stocked his band with young hipsters like Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey
and Miles Davis. On "The Legendary Big Band," Eckstine's rippling vibrato
sounds a little dated, but his sexy man voice set the style for lots of later
singers and he showed welcome restraint on the blues. Here's Eckstine with
Gene Ammons on tenor sax.
(Soundbite of song)
Mr. BILLY ECKSTINE: (Singing) It's a downright rotten, lowdown, dirty shame.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. ECKSTINE: (Singing) It's a downright rotten, lowdown, dirty shame.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. ECKSTINE: (Singing) The way you're treatin' poor me, I know I'm not to
(Soundbite of music)
WHITEHEAD: Billy Eckstine's protege, Sarah Vaughan, appears on one track, and
he turns up once on "The Definitive Sarah Vaughan." It's one in a new series
of single-disc anthologies drawing on several labels. Some of these so-called
definitive collections aren't really that, but a few are first-rate, like one
devoted to trumpeter Clifford Brown. The Sarah Vaughan shows off her luminous
tone and superb ear as she's backed by spry jazz combos or string orchestras
that don't quite sink the show. Even Mom will like it, and you'll get out of
the store spending less than 15 bucks. Box sets are nice, but a bargain is
(Soundbite of song)
Ms. SARAH VAUGHAN: (Singing) I've heard it said that the thrill of romance
can be like a heavenly dream. I go to bed with a prayer that you'll make love
to me, strange as it seems.
GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for the Chicago Reader and the Chicago
Sun-Times. For the list of his Christmas picks, check the FRESH AIR Web site
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of song)
Ms. VAUGHAN: (Singing) ...kissing, ooh, what we've been missin'. Lover man,
O where can you be?
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