Even if you’re not a jazz aficionado, chances are you’ve heard of Miles Davis. His 1959 album “Kind of Blue” was groundbreaking in that it drew a line in the sand. There was before “Kind of Blue” and after. It’s been described as soulful and avant garde; simple but complex.. More than five decades after this was recorded, it still sounds fresh.
When I came across a podcast about “Kind of Blue” from PRI’s Studio 360, I was excited to hear details about how Davis recorded this iconic album, but I was surprised to learn that he could be, um, kind of a jerk, to put it mildly. He had a “disdaining attitude toward his audience” and a sense that he didn’t owe his fans anything aside from playing his music. He didn’t even want to smile. He often went out of his way to stir the pot.
But it gets worse. According to Studio 360, he was “unrepentant about his treatment of people. He shamelessly admitted to beating his wives and pimping in order to pay for drugs.” In her essay, “Mad at Miles,” Pearl Cleage says that learning this about the jazz great made her angry. She could never again listen to his music without thinking about what Davis might have been doing the day he recorded the song. She writes, “I kept thinking about Cicely Tyson [Miles’s then wife] hiding in the basement of her house while the police were upstairs laughing with Miles…I wonder if thinking about his genius made her less frightened and humiliated.”
For some reason, I’d had in mind a very different persona of Miles Davis. I suppose I wanted him to be as illustrious a human being as his music was. But he can’t live in my spit-shined image of him. Elvis Presley said, “The image is one thing and the human being is another. It’s very hard to live up to an image.” Was the truth a shock because I had built him up to be larger than life?
Then a few weeks ago, Robert at 101 Books posed this question on his blog: Does an author’s personal life influence you? The comments to Robert’s post leaned toward “No,” and that was my initial reaction. Authors, like musicians, don’t live in a bubble. Their experiences inform their work. One need only look to Hemingway to see that in action. Then Sara Lewis’s comment got me thinking. She wrote, “There cannot be any integrity in the work if there’s no integrity in the person, can there? The heart behind a piece of art has some bearing on its value too, doesn’t it?”
Michael and Ann from Books on the Nightstand tackled the subject in this podcast. They discussed accusations of child abuse against author Marion Zimmer Bradley and bigoted comments recently made by Orson Scott Card, and if their personal lives affect how and if you read their work.
This certainly isn’t limited to musicians and authors. The more I thought about it, I realized there are some artists, athletes, and entertainers I choose not to support because their actions have caused harm to others. I wanted to delete “Kind of Blue” from my playlist, and I won’t be reading Ender’s Game. Sometimes there is a line in the sand. Just like the line Miles Davis drew with “Kind of Blue.”
What do you think? Does an artist’s personal life influence you?
Have a great weekend, everyone!