• Of the making of books about Miles Davis, the most influential figure in post-1950 jazz, there is no end. The latest one, Richard Cook’s It’s About That Time: Miles Davis On and Off Record (Oxford, 373 pp., $27) is a sort-of-biography that tells the story of the trumpeter’s tempestuous life by describing the making of sixteen of his key albums, with extensive digressions along the way. Though this approach isn’t exactly new—Jack Chambers’s Milestones: The Music and Times of Miles Davis did the same thing at much greater length, discussing all of Davis’s recordings through 1985—Cook’s more concentrated treatment is both readable and accessible, though jazz novices in search of a primer on Davis will likely find it too detailed. If, on the other hand, you know your way around Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain but have yet to sample any of the rock-flavored recordings Davis started making in 1969, the second half of It’s About That Time offers a (mostly) reliable roadmap to that underexplored territory.
Somebody really ought to write a brief life of Davis. In the meantime, the best first book about him remains So What, John Szwed’s 2002 biography, after which interested readers should go straight to Bill Kirchner’s Miles Davis Reader, an exceptionally well-chosen collection of essays, articles, and reviews. Quincy Troupe’s Miles: The Autobiography is a ghostwritten memoir whose authenticity is by now notoriously suspect, though much of it sounds quite like the man himself.
• My distinguished colleague John Simon brought out three fat self-anthologies late last year that failed to attract the critical attention they deserved. John Simon on Theater: Criticism, 1974-2003 (Applause, 837 pp., $32.95), John Simon on Film: Criticism, 1982-2001 (Applause, 662 pp., $29.95) and John Simon on Music: Criticism, 1979-2005 (Applause, 504 pp., $27.95) are not the career-spanning compendia they appear at first glance to be, for Simon has opted to include nothing from his previously published collections, all of which are out of print. In addition, none of the three volumes is adequately indexed—all you get is a pseudo-index of works reviewed—and the dates of publication of the original essays are not included. These omissions are regrettable in the extreme, but that doesn’t make the books any less readable, just harder to use.
Simon is, of course, the most controversial critic ever to have covered theater in New York, give or take George Jean Nathan. He is famously willing to get personal in a way that makes many of his readers uncomfortable—myself sometimes included—and I doubt that those who have good reason to despise his sharp tongue will change their minds after reading him in bulk. But he is also the most knowledgeable theater critic alive, and though I often disagree with his negative judgments, I rarely fail to like what he likes, or to learn from his reasons for liking it. His film criticism is no less penetrating, and I’ve always had a special love for his intelligent, sympathetic writing about classical music, which is the least well known of the many arrows in his critical quiver.
The octogenarian Simon is now the dean of New York drama critics, and I see him on the aisle once or twice a week, usually looking as though he expects to be displeased, which he usually is. His standards are still fearsomely high, though he’s mellowed a bit in recent years, and he continues to teach me things I didn’t know about an art form with which he was grappling when I was in diapers. I hope Applause Books eventually gets around to reissuing Acid Test, Private Screenings, Uneasy Stages, Movies into Film, Reverse Angle, and Something to Declare, his previous books about theater and film, or at least to bringing out a volume of selections from his writings of the 60’s and early 70’s. Still, these three fat collections leave no doubt that for all his flaws, John Simon has been—and remains—one of America’s greatest working critics.