The One With Kind of Blue

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 podcastThey 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!  

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29 comments

  1. Thirty years ago I purchased “Kind of Blue” on vinyl and loved it. I was very aware of what a jerk MD was. Maybe this has unconsciously influenced why I’m not in any hurry to download it onto my iPad. You raise a good point. At times I think artists should be held to another standard, but at this stage I have no problem steering clear of someone I consider offensive, like Mel Gibson. Life’s too short to support asshats.

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    1. So true! What is also so interesting to me from a psychological standpoint is how someone can be a genius in one aspect and terrible in another. It’s all part of the same person. How does that happen?

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  2. Wow, I just totally lost my first (brilliant) comment. So discouraging. Darn WordPress! Anyway, in shorter form: I’m not so sure on this one. It’s complicated. I sometimes am not exemplary myself in behavior, but I’m no abuser. Still, unless the celebrity/artist/etc. has some influence over young minds or the behavior is extreme (I’d say murder, incest, extreme crime) I tend to not pay too much attention to behaviors. If children are easily influenced then it’s always a no thank you. A complicated (and great) discussion, Jackie!

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    1. Oh, I hate when WP does that, Julia!
      It is complicated. I realized I could have written thousands of words on this topic (and better writers than me have done so). It’s a judgment call and there are so many “shades of gray” if I may use that term. 😉 I can certainly look past the author who is standoffish at a book signing or an actor who won’t sign autographs. Fine. But harmful or illegal activities? I have to think on that one…

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  3. Ezra Pound! Though I like Miles’ music much more than Pound’s writing, Pound pretty much made an entire generation of writers. And was an anti-Semite and fascist.

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  4. You raise a great point here about our assumption that great artists are great people with great values. Sadly, this isn’t true. It’s a mystery, isn’t it, that people who aren’t great and honorable human beings can create great works. When their images are tarnished, we can’t help but think less of them and their works. Is that right or wrong? I don’t know, but I think we can’t help but be influenced by their “bad behavior.” It impacts how we view them and their work. In other realm, like political or historical–there are a number of greats who haven’t survived the scrutiny of modern day historians–like Charles Lindbergh–for example. But I think we still need to be careful to honor him for his great accomplishment in aviation even if he was a Nazi supporter. Maybe we’re at fault here too–for erecting statues to heroes that are after all only human?

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    1. You know, Charles Lindbergh had popped into my mind when I was writing this post. A tarnish of the silver.
      For so many artists, their work is a product of their experiences, an extension of who they are. So much of themselves is brought to bear in their work. I think of Pollack feverishly splattering pant on his canvases. Part of him is in that canvas. I don’t know if we can-or should- separate the two.
      This topic gives me a lot to think about, that’s for sure!

      Liked by 2 people

  5. There are things I wish I didn’t know about certain authors, that’s for sure. Once I found out F. Scott Fitzgerald stole passages out of Zelda’s diaries for his books and didn’t credit her, I never looked at his writing the same way again.
    While I think writing should be judged on its merits, I also think writers have to accept the fact that they too may be judged when their personal lives are exposed.

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    1. I’ve read that about Fitzgerald as well. He thwarted her attempts to be a writer as he thought there should be only one writer in the family. She did eventually publish a novel, Save Me the Waltz, which got pretty good reviews, though I haven’t read it. Theirs was a very tumultuous relationship. It sounds like it was exhausting at times.

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  6. I knew about Miles Davis being a jerk but I was far more shocked to find out van Morrison was a jerk as well because his lyrics are so amazing. I’ve stopped reading authors I find problematic. V.S. Naipaul for example who is a despicable misogynist.

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    1. Ah, Naipaul. There is no woman writer (alive or dead) whom he considers his equal because women have a narrow view of the world. He’s entitled to his opinions, but I want to remind him what year this is. Sigh…

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  7. Wow, I had NO idea Miles Davis was a jerk. But yes, I think the integrity of an artist influences how I see their work, in a big way. But I’m not sure why. I mean, I’m going to have to give this more thought–the correlation between integrity and art and its subsequent impact on the consumer of it.

    I’m trying to get my butt back in the saddle. I did manage to post something a month ago, but have been busy teaching workshops, looking at self-hosting my blog and writing my memoir (yes, I’ve been doing that), but I will make an effort to get something new out this week, including photos of our new home.

    Sorry to have been away for so long, Jackie! Hope all is well with you and Reggie!

    Hugs from Ecuador,
    Kathy

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    1. So nice to hear from you Kathy! I was thinking about you just yesterday. It sounds like you’ve had a lot to keep you busy. I’m looking forward to hearing about your workshops and seeing photos of your new home. You’ve moved closer in town, right?

      Glad to hear you’re working on your memoir again. Say hi to Sara and give Lucy and Ralph a woof from Reggie. 🙂

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  8. Another thought-provoking post, Jackie. The first thing that came to mind for me was what you alluded to at the end of the post: athletes. As a society, we have a strangely stunted collective memory when it comes to athletes and their horrid behavior. Kobe Bryant. Ray Lewis. Michael Vick. Ben Roethlisberger. The one who cold-cocked his girlfriend in the elevator (name is escaping me)…. I mean, the list is ENDLESS. And these are men who are supposed to be role models. It sickens me. So I would say that to a large degree, when I personally learn of some kind of abhorrent behavior, I am more apt to shy away from anything associated with that person. To me, actions matter. And to borrow the tired phrase, “actions speak louder than words.”

    As for Miles Davis – IF he were on my iTunes, he’d be deleted in a heartbeat. What a despicable man.

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    1. Definitely, Melissa. It’s something that makes it nearly impossible for me to enjoy watching professional sports. So incomprehensible to me at to how people can deify these athletes and call them heroes. Where is the heroism in any of that?

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I agree. As I read your excellent post, Jackie, I was thinking of all the athletes who are almost worshipped by the American public. Certainly they are treated to a lavish lifestyle, despite such bad behavior as Melissa points out above.

    I have to admit: I didn’t know who V.S. Naipaul is/was, but being curious (a good trait in a writer – and mostly harmless 🙂 ) I looked him up. What I found were his comments that he could ‘tell’ a female writer from a male, and a test, from back in 2011, to see if such a thing is possible. I took the test, and got 8 out of 10, which looked pretty good, compared to the other responders, but still, I missed those two: and one of the ones I thought was written by a female was actually written by V.S. Naipaul.
    That made me laugh.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s so interesting that you were able to identify 8 of the 10 books. (And it’s also interesting that there is a test for such a thing!) What “tipped” you off? Did you see certain commonalities in the passages written by men versus women?

      I also had to laugh that you identified the Naipaul passage as that written by a woman. Serves him right…

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  10. Such a great post, Jackie, and equally thought-provoking comments. I tend to think a creative person’s “product” is the result of every facet of character and personality, a reflection of every experience and influence. So if Miles Davis were a nice guy, would he produce the same music? Might Hemingway’s significant flaws be necessary to shaping his greatest works? How might we learn about dark human behaviors if those who have practiced them never write or film or talk about them? I understand why we’re reluctant to support such artists, but might we miss out on profound insights and experiences if we reject too broadly? Just food for thought.

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    1. I’m so glad you mentioned this, Karen. I, too, believe that an artist’s work is a product of her or her experiences and personality. Two people can write about the same topic or paint the same landscape with very different results.

      And the result can change over the course of that person’s lifetime. I recently read an article about Van Gogh. HIs work shifted dramatically from the time he started painting until his death, due no doubt in part to how his outlook on life changed.

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment.

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  11. Good question. This comes to play in the Jewish community sometimes where someone’s anti-semitic comments will come out long after they died or even while they’re alive. And then someone like me never knows what to do. Am I done with them? A good example is Phil Collins who was often reported as saying anti Jewish things. But . . . when a song of his comes on the radio I have that nice nostalgic high school feeling. And no, I rarely change the channel. Hmmm . . .

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    1. I’m torn when this happens. It’s hard to know where to draw the line. If I’m going to plunk down money or contribute to the conversation in some way, that’s when I have to really consider how much I want to support them.

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  12. Interesting topic most definitely. Have thought about it before, when i found out that the author of the labour law book used at my University is not only an esteemed expert in his field, but also *allegedly* a former neo-nazi leader. On a personal level it did make me lose all respect, but it didn’t spring to mind when reading his works. In the same way, Miles Davis is not someone who i respect for the person he is, but for me it doesnt ruin his music. I guess there is a line somewhere though, say if he had been a child molester, i think thats the one point where it would be distracting to a point where i wouldnt enjoy the work og a musician/author/director

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