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Clawing at the Limits of Cool: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and the Greatest Jazz Collaboration Ever by Salim Washington anmd Farah Jasmine Griffin

Clawing at the Limits of Cool: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and the Greatest Jazz Collaboration Ever by Salim Washington anmd Farah Jasmine Griffin. The University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor, 1998.)

The collaboration between Miles Davis and John Coltrane is an interesting topic, and it’s especially interesting that it’s framed as such right from the title of this book. Coltrane, after all, started out as a “junior” to Davis, if not in age then certainly in credentials and in the establishment of a personal, individual style. It’d be difficult to argue otherwise, but Griffin and Washington acknowledge this. However, they quite correctly note, collaborations need not begin with two individuals as equals… nor, of course, do the credentials and skills of individuals exist in a fixed state.

That’s what this book really deals with: the flux that ran through both musical careers, and questions of how the two artists influenced one another at various points in their careers.

Insofar as that is its aim, though, I found myself a little underwhelmed by the book. The parts that were most vivid for me were the ones where Trane and Davis were quoted describing each other: Trane mentioning the bristling, fuck-you attitude Davis presented so often, and the precarious job of reading his moods; Davis in his descriptions of how Trane looked (to him) during the height of his heroin addiction.

One of the reasons the book didn’t go the places I wanted is that it seems to be written for a nonspecialist audience; that is to say, for people who actually don’t know much about jazz, right down to the standard lingo. There’s a Glossary in the back of the book with vocabulary like “mixolydian” and “diatonic” and “altissimo” (terms I imagine plenty of jazz-competent non-musicians might need clarified) but also terms like “tonal” and “chorus” and “solo” (which I think nobody who’d actually read a book like this would need clarified). This Glossary is of course indicative of the expectations the authors have for their readers, and it affects the text, too, and I found myself annoyed by the anxious explanations of different bits and pieces of jazz argot, as well as distracted by the question of for whom this book had been penned.

In the end, it seems to me it’s for generalist readers, not people who are especially interested in jazz already, and because of that, the book is of only limited use to anyone who has read, say, Miles Davis’ own autobiography (which is, as one reviewer put it, “hilariously profane” and needs to be understood as an act of self-presentation, something Miles was very conscious of throughout his life and career), or one of the many books that explore Coltrane’s musical and biographical stories (like the ones I’ll be digging into next). If you’re like me, and know something about these figures already, this book might contribute a few bits to your understanding but it’s not essential; however, if you are an interested nonspecialist trying to get a sense of why Davis and Trane were so important for 20th century music, this might be the book for you.

As for me, I’ve already moved on to John Coltrane: His Life and Music by Lewis Porter, with a few other books (like this one, and this one, and this one) waiting for me to dig in as well. Have I mentioned that all of these are some background research for a story I’m working on? Yeah… another jazz SF story. The books on Monk are more for background on Coltrane’s time spent with Monk, though I do have plans to feature Monk in something else altogether, as well.

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