Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Miles versus Hemingway

As far as I know, jazz legend Miles Davis (1926-1991) and literary giant Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) never crossed paths. They certainly didn't travel in the same circles.

Hemingway, while likely exposed to early jazz during his time in Paris and later, wasn't known to be a devotee of jazz, and Miles wasn't an advocate of literature.

But, on the occasion of what would have been Hemingway's 110th birthday (July 21) and the recent "controversy" over the revised version of his A Moveable Feast, I was thinking about the parallels between the two artists.

There are several surface similarities, including the fact that both were born in suburbs of Chicago -- Miles in Alton, Ill., and Hemingway in Oak Park, Ill. -- to medical professionals. Miles' father was a dentist, and Hemingway's was a doctor. Both achieved great artistic goals without the benefit of degrees in higher education - Miles dropped out of the Juilliard School of Music, and Hemingway never attended college.

Both loved boxing, and both engaged in the sport, with mixed results. They both nurtured tough-guy personas, something I thought about again after reading, in Denis Brian's The True Gen, that Hem hurt himself repeatedly "as if testing his endurance or immunity to pain" (5).

Neither suffered fools gladly -- whether journalists, hangers-on, or untalented artists. They both loved women: Hem married four times, and Miles three.

Both fought depression, and both self-medicated - Hemingway with alcohol, Miles with alcohol, cocaine and heroin.

And the trumpeter and the writer both, to varying degrees, engaged in myth making, in creating various masks behind which the real humans were somewhat hard to ascertain.

Who was the real Miles? Who was the real Hemingway? Possibilities: 1)Depends on who you ask 2)Depends on which chapter of their lives you consider 3)Who knows?

Both were innovators, and hugely influenced the musicians and writers that followed.

Last but not least, "a lot of Miles Davis" music is on President Obama's iPod, while he includes Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls on the list of books that have most inspired him.

The most important parallel between Hemingway and Miles, and the place where I started down this path, was in their use of "space" in their respective work - Hemingway's strategy of using the least words needed to convey any particular scene or story (a writing style rooted in his work as a journalist), and Miles' use of few notes, to convey great emotion.

Hemingway's approach was built on the iceberg principle - provide the basics, and leave it to the reader to fill in the multiple meanings of each passage. As he described it, "I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eights of it under water for every part that shows. Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg."

Miles, similarly, particularly after his bebop period, reveled in music with wide open spaces, and solos that contained long notes and pauses. Just as Hemingway "left out" details that other writers might have filled in, Miles became expert at using the sound of silence as another element in his solos, his band performances, and his recordings.

These are my initial thoughts on this subject. More to come later.

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