What’s a dream worth? It depends on what you’re willing to pay for it. For some people, it’s worth everything.
Are people more important than the dream? Is family more important than the dream? Is a social life more important than the dream? Is a relationship more important than the dream? Is your life and wellbeing more important than the dream? For a lot of people through history the answer has been no to all of those, and some of the greatest died proving that point. People like Basquiat, Kurt Cobain, & Jimi Hendrix literally put their dreams over their own lives.
Miles Davis said “geniuses are selfish” when referring to Charlie Parker in an interview in the 80s. That quote really stuck out to me because it’s been something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. As a black artist Miles Davis has been one of my heroes my entire life, he’s inspired so many of my life decisions and as an artist with dreams and ambitions I’ve always studied his life. Miles was a creative genius.
Miles is one of the coolest humans who ever lived, and he knew it. The word cool can actually be traced back to Jazz halls with Miles Davis actually creating the album Birth Of The Cool in 1957. The idea of cool at that time encompassed what was deemed cool by African American jazz musicians, things like wearing sunglasses indoors, wearing suits and ties, smoking weed, speaking jazz lingo, improvisation, transcendence, being hip to the newest movements, sounds, techniques, futurism, drugs, designers, playwrights, models, singers, actresses, philosophers, dancers, poets and artists on the scene.
Jazz artists considered themselves cultural vanguards and the idea of cool was their highest aspirations & ideals as lived out. African Americans had historically lived in a society built for their proprietorship and the idea of cool was about owning your individuality, being yourself and seeing what the highest expression of yourself would be. Cool was a trauma response & a coping mechanism in an increasingly harsh world.
Cool was about truth and beauty, it was improvisation, it was an attitude, it was elegance, grace, a certain detachment and poise, its authenticity to yourself, a comfortability in your skin, not rushing anything, controlling and mastering your environment, an awareness of who you are, what you are capable of, and what you are here to do, its equanimity in the face of turbulence, its completing things that seem difficult with the greatest of ease, its balance in a society trying to knock you off your center, its ease, its stillness, its relaxation & peace of mind, body & soul. They sought this cool at all costs, sometimes recklessly through drugs like heroin and sometimes it was deadly.
From sound and genre bending albums like Kind of Blue, Sketches In Spain, Bitches Brew, & more, discovering talent like John Coltrane, working with Bill Evans, creating a hip hop album, Miles was consistently at the forefront of this creative vanguard leading the charge of shifting & elevating culture. Songs like Blue In Green changed my life and human history.
Miles was a Julliard educated musician that was a fan of the underground Jazz scene with Charlie “Bird” Parker and Dizzy Gillespie as a teenager. Miles was a musical prodigy from a rich family and his parents sent him to school where he studied the compositions of Chopin and Debussy inside and out, and he instantly noticed that what these jazz artists were doing was groundbreaking so he wanted to join them. Miles took his sensibilities and changed the entire genre and elevated the culture.
Miles would hang out with philosophers and writers and incorporate the concepts he learns in his art while studying painting, literature and everything in between. He became a fashion icon, an accomplished painter, shifted music multiple times and remains one of the most influential humans who ever lived.
What I found outside of Miles beautiful and genius music was a troubled life, riddled with selfishness, entitlement, arrogance, narcissism, isolation, and what seems like a general misanthropy.
Miles was one of the coolest humans who ever lived and their are people like his first love Juliette Greco who don’t have a bad thing to say about him, everyone says he was a charmer and was the life of the party when he wanted to be, but he also had that Kanye West, Steve Jobs assholeness about him.
Miles dedicated his life to his craft, every moment was spent thinking about it, mastering it and enhancing it. Humanity is prone to Dark ages, wars and regression, we can get stuck on replay & falling into algorithms & loops for centuries & it takes takes a few people to break us out of those loops and into the future, the inventors & innovators, the people literally in charge of building a more beautiful future, and Miles was one of those people.
Miles is very similar to Denzel Washington character in Spike Lees Mo Betta Blues. Denzel’s character was this jazz player that was juggling multiple women in his life, as he was serious about none of them because his main love was the music.
The life of an artist is strange. Power, prestige, influence & control all present themselves. People throw themselves at you, men and women for all sorts of reasons, you get more money than you ever dreamed of, you’re performing in clubs packed out with beautiful women. It’s almost impossible not to get caught up. Denzels character, a lot like Miles, and a lot like many artists, was a creative, he was selfish, egotistical, self centred, he wanted instant gratification, he was a charmer, he went after what he wanted and he always got it without considering anyone else and what you find out is that all of those qualities are great for success in capitalism.
He was very disciplined about his craft, he knew his playing hours, what to play, how to play it, and he never let anyone get in his way, his art and sex were the only place he truly expressed his feelings. As a kid his parents wouldn’t let him go out with his friends during Trumpet practice time and he maintained that into his adulthood, something that had made him very successful in his life.
Outside his music in his real life he was cold, he was relaxed, he was funny around his boys and joked around, he maintained a cool demeanor, he let everyone know his main priority was his music in his life and they either put up with his life or they can leave, because he didn’t care about anyone more than the craft. That’s a lot like Miles and a lot like anyone who’s ever been great at anything.
You hear all these stories of guys like Steve Jobs who’s kids think they were an awful human but they changed the world because that’s what they prioritized over peoples feelings. That’s what it seems like Miles was doing, and I don’t know all the inner workings of his life I’m only making a broad judgement based on the stories I’ve heard, but it’s enough stories to make you really think about what you want to prioritize in this life on this quest.
Denzels characters attitude changed when he sustained an injury that made him incapable of playing and he fell into self loathing and begged one of the women to stay with him and they ended up falling in love and having a baby in one of the most beautiful scenes I’ve ever seen in cinema with John Coltranes A Love Supreme playing in the background and an actual childbirth that Spike Lee was able to capture.
I think what Spike Lee was trying to tell us with the ending of the movie is that Art should be an expression of life and a love of life, not the cold calculated transactional mechanism that we can often turn it into. Denzel’s dedication to his craft kept him away from living his life, even though his best work came from expressing his real life emotions, like John Coltrane when he made A Love Supreme for his love of God and his family and his children, it was an expression of life not an escape from life.
Now I’m a 24 year old artist and I feel like Miles in that I’m the type of person that gets caught up in my work, I’m in my own world, I’m always working on my next project, I've spent years of my life focused on art, I’m not really the type of person to foster & cultivate relationships or to keep up with people very often, there’s a lot of people that I love with my whole heart that rarely if ever hear from me because I’m so wrapped up in my next scheme, but I care about people. I wanna be a great artist like Miles & I understand there’s a degree of selfishness and discipline you need to have to achieve that, but I also think we should all be good people to each other first, and it’s one of those where you really have to ask yourself what’s important?
I think it’s a balance that everyone has to find and I’m still working my way through it but I definitely don’t want my legacy to be that I didn’t care about people despite my work cause I really do care about people and that’s why I create in the first place even if it doesn’t seem like it all the time, and I think underneath it all that was Miles intention too.
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