A century ago the writing of history was primarily the descriptions of the achievements of great men (and men it was). It was thought that the characteristics of greatness, contained within certain superior individuals, were the determining factors within the progress of the nation, the key shapers of the historical narrative. Histories and biographies are rarely written within such a framework today however. Firstly, psychology from Freud onwards has created a fascination with the forces outwith the individual that went to creating who they became, and so the biographies have extended discussions about the subject's childhood and all the forces and influences that went into making them worthy biographical subjects. Secondly, the insights of sociology have demonstrated that throughout the course of life, social context shaped the worldview of the subject, as well as the opportunities that their lives afforded, and so biographers have sought to set their subjects within the context of the wider social forces and flow of history of which they were a part.
How strange then to read Ian Carr's biography of Miles Davis, which casts the Black American jazz trumpeter, as an isolated genius; such an innovator that his life reads as detached from background or context. Carr's biography is billed as 'definitive', but it would be better to have labelled it a 'musical biography', because it is very heavy on musical theory, and very weak on social history. In one sense this is refreshing, a book about a musician that seriously and knowledgeably seeks to grapple with the music! My knowledge of music theory is extremely scant - but yet the parts I was able to understand were fascinating and have added a huge amount to appreciating different parts of Davis' music, especially the styles of the various players he collaborated with - and their various contributions to his ever-evolving sound. Too many musicians' biographies dwell on the social or the scandalous (plenty there) aspects of the subject and do not analyse the music, but Carr swings to the other extreme and so despite his musical expertise, his biography of Davis reads like a Victorian biography of a twentieth century figure.