I have obviously been thinking a great deal about the legacy of Miles Davis this past few weeks. I read his autobiography and have been digging into the making of his seminal album, Kind of Blue. He died in 1991 after making more innovations in jazz music than anyone except maybe Louis Armstrong. Even Ellington did not go as far as Davis went in changing the music. His influence on jazz (and hence American music) in the 2nd half of the 20th Century is beyond description.
Underneath all the change and innovations and legacy lie several pieces that are of interest as well. The first is his up and down wrestling with addiction. He was a heroin addict, used cocaine and pain pills for many years, even long after kicking heroin. He had alcohol problems but they were pale in comparison to the broader addiction issues. He was not alone in the heroin habit, of course. It was epidemic in the jazz world he inhabited. He fought it; he was clean and then he would do the things that addicts often do, believe they could handle it. So he would keep on drinking or using cocaine, "socially" of course. It never worked as he would spiral backwards.
Perhaps it is amazing that he managed to accomplish as much as he did. Unlike many of the others so hooked, he did not die young. He lived out his potential, although I wonder what it might have been like if he had managed to completely kick the addictions? He never said that his drugs helped him be creative. He was not stupid; he was an addict in a time and place that did not understand the disease and its ability to control the brain. I began working toward my addiction counseling license the year Davis died and we knew next to nothing compared to what we know today.
The second part of Davis' compulsive side was his inability to maintain healthy relations with women. He was not monogamous and probably never even tried. He kept looking for something that he was unable to experience, love and stability. Some of that was his endless curiosity and creativity that encompassed everything. He was guided, even imprisoned by his sexual needs and searching. This, we know today, as having the same roots as addiction. The process of the human brain is biochemical, regulated- and dysregulated- by neurochemicals that carry everything from memories to pleasure, fear to ecstasy. Davis' relationships were almost as controlling of his life as his addictions. He admits that his use of drugs did get in the way of his sexual drive. Not a surprise.
This side did not have the kind of periodic impact on his creativity that addiction did. Addiction is powerful, overwhelming, and ultimately in complete control. That did prevent him at times from performing to the level he could have.
In that way, Davis' story is a cautionary tale. There are those who, in spite of incredible personal dysfunction, can change the world. (Steve Jobs' narcissistic, even anti-social personality comes to mind.) As I have been reading these different accounts of his music and accomplishments I have at times been in awe of what he was able to do. He was a genius who heard what he wanted in his head and moved with it. He was able to pick out people who would work within the framework he dreamed of. He turned many of them into music leaders in their own right.
I was also deeply saddened by many aspects of his story. Some of it- perhaps even most of it- was beyond his control. That's the old idea of powerlessness found in the recovery community. He was unable to ever see that. But that was also why he was as creative and innovative as he was. He refused to be told that something wasn't possible- that it was beyond his ability or control.
The paradox of a person like Miles Davis, then, is that tension that for many a lesser person will drive them into an early grave. He was who he was and for that the world has been given insights and music that the lesser person would never have been able to give.