Miles on music: no restrictions, no categories

Trumpeter Miles Davis (photo by Tom Palumbo via Wikimedia Commons_
Trumpeter Miles Davis (photo by Tom Palumbo via Wikimedia Commons)

By Dan Wilcock

This week I’ve been checking out Miles the Autobiography, the highly entertaining but very raw memoir of the late, great Miles Davis (co-authored with Quincy Troupe).

On page 205, Davis makes a very persuasive comment about the nature of music, and why it shouldn’t be contained or categorized. Here’s the quote:

“I always thought that music had no boundaries, no limits to where it could go and grow, no restrictions on its creativity. Good music is good no matter what kind of music it is. And I always hated categories. Always. Never thought it had any place in music.”

The context for this quote in the book is Davis’s departure from Prestige records, which didn’t pay him well and was oriented toward the underground of hardcore Jazz fans, and his being hired by Columbia records. Columbia made him accessible to the American mainstream, and Davis thought that was a good thing. There would be less limitation on how people could learn about and obtain his music.

Davis reveals that he had a nuanced and well-thought-out value system. In the way he acted, he was against selling out by serving up black entertainer stereotypes. He hated smiling on stage and playing the clown, and went as far as turning his back to the audience and not announcing song names. The music was the only thing.  But he didn’t view signing with a bigger record company as “selling out,” because he rejected the artificial categories that the jazz world imposed on itself. As long as he controlled his artistic process, signing up with Columbia just meant a better life and more power to reach music fans. Here’s how he puts it on the next page:

“I never saw nothing in poverty and hard times and the blues. I never wanted that for myself. I saw what it really was when I was strung out on heroin, and I didn’t want to see it again. As long as I could get what I needed from the white world on my own terms, without selling myself out to all of those people who would love to exploit me, then I was going to go for what I know is real. When you’re creating your own shit, man, even the sky ain’t the limit.”

When Davis signed with Columbia he had just emerged victorious from his battle with a heroin addiction, and the clarity with which he views his alternatives is inspiring.

Davis’s statement about music can be interpreted on a higher level too, which is how most people would understand it out of context. Often the wisest souls caution against categorizing music and getting too caught up in labels. I confess that I organize my music collection by genres, as most people do, but it’s refreshing not to think that way. Life is too short to worry about which container is best designed for certain patterns of sound waves. New Yorker writer Alex Ross’s essay “Listen to this” about why he hates the term classical music is a great read for further pondering along these lines.

Anyway, that quote really jumped out at me. So I thought I’d share.

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