Coltrane: The Story of a Sound by Ben Ratliff

Ben Ratliff — a jazz critic for The New York Times, among other things — is like Trane in that he comes straight out with what he’s up to, though it might not be right away that you realize it. The title Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, if you look at it carefully, tells you what this book is really about, and it’s not just John Coltrane — it’s the story of the sound (or rather, the sounds) that burst into one’s mind when Trane’s name is mentioned: how Coltrane developed that sound from the beginning, how it evolved in different groups he played with (the Miles Davis Quintet/Sextet, the Classic Coltrane Quartet, and the various groups he played with after 1965). But the book is also about how that sound reverberated through the horns of younger generations of players, late in his life but also after his death… how it continues (to whatever degree it does, and why) to echo through jazz music today.

A lot of this ground is familiar to me on two levels: first, because when I was growing up as a tenor and soprano saxophonist, I went through the same kind of Coltrane-idolatry as so many others Ratliff mentions; but also, because the life of Trane has been explored from so many angles, in so many books, that it’s hard to come up with new material. (And having read up on the 60s and 70s, and on the avant-garde jazz of the time, as well as having listened to plenty of the music from the time, I was already aware of the political dimension of that music in that particular time.)

Still, Ratliff’s picture of Coltrane is engaging not just for the asides he adds to the Story of Trane — bits I’d never run across before, anyway, like this one — but also because of the quality of his grasp of the social history and social dimensions of jazz music. I’ve never seen  such a clear and balanced accounting of how economic recession in the late 60s and early 70s helped smother free jazz in its cradle: I’d always just assumed it was a victim of a rising tide of musical conservativism (reaching its nadir in the Marsalis Decade, that is, the 80s) and the growing popularity of other forms of popular music (rock, funk, pop, disco) among the young. But economics was clearly part of it, and the cultural decline that occurred puts me in mind of the similarly (broadly) unacknowledged cultural and artistic decline that followed the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997 here in South Korea.

The book is split down the middle, with Part 1 covering Trane’s career, and Part 2 discussing the receiption, imitiation, criticism, and discussion of Trane’s work in the jazz scene, starting from the moment he joined Miles Davis’ quintet and wrapping up around the time the book was finished, a few years ago (in 2007). Both sections are of about equal length, and both sections boast a refreshing candor. After all, unlike, say, Ezra Pound, , authors who cover Coltrane often betray a degree of hero-worship in their writing about him. But Ratliff quite freely admits when he finds particular pieces of albums less than convincing. While it’s evident to most of us that no creative musician can hit a home run every time at bat, I would wager a few saxophonists out there were outraged by some of Ratliff’s honest and thoughtful opinions, and I found myself wanting to listen to certain albums or tunes again, to see whether I heard (or could hear) things the way he did.

For me the second half of the book was definitely the interesting part, and Ratliff makes several very interesting arguments there, such as regarding the religious dimension of Trane’s career being linked to something inherently American, as evident in the American art generally. He excerpts a comment from Robert Lowell, which I’ve quoted in a recent post because I found it applicable to another American artform, but it’s very applicable to Coltrane’s music. Go read it there, and then come back. I’ll wait. And you can start the video below for some suitable musical accompaniment, too:

Ratliff links this to the sense, among many, that Coltrane’s music was somehow distinct in its apparently beseeching its listeners to change their lives — in a word, its “religiousness” in a sense not constrained to any particular creed, but rather to an intense, totalizing conception of life and being and the universe… or something. Trane, after all, did comment in an interview in Japan that he’d like to be a saint someday (something he did achieve, at least in some people’s minds); I remember long ago Bill Cole speculating that Trane might, in another culture, have lived as a monk instead of as a musician, and others have long heard a profound religious fervor in Coltrane’s music, even without recourse to quoting the liner notes to A Love Supreme.

The other thing I found fascinating here — though others discuss it, it’s never quite been as clear as in the Ratliff — of Coltrane’s “openness” to new, younger musicians being, in a sense, very useful to his own musical development. Ratliff is careful not to accuse him of using younger musicians — after all, they were often more likely to benefit from associating with Coltrane than vice-versa — but he does point out how when Coltrane encountered new voices, new approaches, he always seemed to ask himself how it could fit into what he was doing musically — a stark contrast to those musicians who rejected or badmouthed musicians who were doing “the new thing” (for whatever value of “new thing” you might want to choose, from bebop to jazz-rock fusion).

(I feel an undeniable urge to note that the other artist I’m researching now, a man who was likely the most controversial figure in American [and English-language] poetry in the 20th century, namely Ezra Pound, similarly was both totalizing and sublime-tending in his work — especially The Cantos — and very “open” to young poets and to helping them, as well as associating with them and soaking up their sense of the field… or, that is my impression. The fascinating thing is that Pound was decried both for his work and his politics, while Coltrane, his politics being assumed and perhaps implicit in his music, was decried mainly for his avant-garde musical style — with political denouncement mostly woven into the musical dismissals.)

Ratliff wraps up with a discussion of how Coltrane’s music became, very quickly, an object of scholarly interest, and the  repercussions (for Coltrane’s legacy) of changing fashions and politics in jazz and in America generally. Especially fascinating was Ratliff’s account of Branford and Wynton Marsalis’ response to late Coltrane and to the segmentof jazz history containing its most apparent avant-garde; while I still resent their having lopped off that period in so much of their public statements — especially Wynton’s neo-trad evangelism —  I actually found myself seeing things a little bit more from their point of view. Ratliff doesn’t seem to agree with their historical revisionism, mind; he just seems to understand their apparent sense that jazz was in crisis in part because too many musicians seemed to see following Coltrane’s path (and sound) monomaniacally as the only true path forward. This makes sense to me both in the abstract, and as a saxophonist, and I recall my own teachers urging me to look into other saxophonists — Stan Getz, John Gilmore, Albert Ayler, Pharaoh Sanders — for other directions I could go… a message I both received, and didn’t receive, as a young man.

(Not that I was ever a particularly good emulator of Trane, but I was in the camp of people who felt that way about playing the saxophone — that Trane had done everything worth doing up to the end of his career, and the way forward had to build on that.)

Anyway, I found this book both a quick and an interesting read, and for those who want to deepen their knowledge of the social, political, and economic context in which Coltrane worked. I wouldn’t recommend this as anyone’s first book on Coltrane, I don’t think, but nonetheless if you are interested in the subject, it is well worth your time.

Oooh, ooh, bonus: a talk by Ratliff himself, on the book. Check it out:

Coltrane: The Story of a Sound from Book Passage on

(I haven’t seen the video yet, but I’m posting it anyway, so I remember to check it out.)

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