First of all: if you’re interested in John Coltrane, there’s a wonderful podcast series (titled The Traneumentary) which has now concluded, but which is worth working your way through — the segments are brief but contain interviews with all kinds of jazz musicians, producers, and other folks, as well as discussions of specific tracks in voiceover on the tracks themselves. For more on the origins of the project, see here. It’s wonderful, and full of bite-sized chunks, and very professional — and for those Trane fanatics out there whose significant others or friends ask, “So, why Trane?” I think it might well serve as a very effective response. Give ’em a link and say, “Just listen to this series, and it’ll all be explained.”
That said, it’s funny. There was a discussion I had with my friend Chris Kammerud the other night about writing, and, well, goals for one’s own writing. Not that I necessarily aim to revolutionize fiction — I don’t know that such a thing is exactly possible in narrative to begin with, and if it is, I’m not sure it can be done now. But I was talking about Coltrane’s dedication to music, his constant practicing, as if — like many have suggested — he felt his time was limited and he had too much to get done. I talked about how I was like that in my writing a few years ago, but how I’ve eased off a little in the last year or so, and how I think I need to get back to it somehow. In some ways, I find Coltrane exemplary in ways that have less to do with his music than his approach to living, at least after he took control of his life, kicked his drinking and junk habits, and started really working at being the person he wanted to be. It’s heartening to see someone who did that, when you try to motivate yourself to get to the gym, to eat better, to get the shoulder back to the grindstone with writing.
Anyway, I was also talking with Chris about what I see are the parallels between the music of Coltrane and the poetry of Ezra Pound, which might sound like me shoehorning together two things that don’t go together, but I don’t think so. (Chris noted, “Well, you love both their work, you respond to it strongly, right?” And that’s true, but I think there is more to it.)
For one thing, for both men, their later work polarized audiences. I’m not talking about Pound’s politics, but rather his poetry: plenty of people found The Cantos unreadable, objectionable, whatever. It certainly marked a break from his earlier, and more conventional work, and also, I think, a break from poetry that could be enjoyed by nonspecialist, casual readers. Coltrane’s also went from being a relatively conventional sideman, to the subject of controversy (when he started playing with Miles Davis, but also, and much more forcefully, after A Love Supreme, when he moved into freer and freer forms of music).
There there’s the technical approach. Coltrane’s music often ended up being described as “sheets of sound” — flurries of notes and passages spun off with such bewildering rapidity and complexity that they couldn’t be followed the way a normal “jazz improvisation” could be, let alone hummed back later; Coltrane himself spoke of layering harmonies, stacking three of them into one base chord (the primary harmony of the original tune). This reminds me of Pound in a few ways — the sheer density of his own work, but also its resulting from his polyglot layering and the stacking, “ply upon ply,” of historical and literary allusions — usually using subject-rhyme as well as linguistic echoes. All of this produced a poetry that, like some of Trane’s most challenging work, simply could not be consumed casually. As one or another commentator in the first third of the Traneumentary podcast noted, seeing Coltrane live in his later career might not have always been a pleasant or easy experience, but it was somehow important and powerful.
And finally, I’d say, there’s the political dimension in both the men’s work, though of course this is also a big difference, and perhaps an instructive one. Pound was far from an expect on economics, despite the role it took in his thinking and work. While I haven’t read Tytell’s biography of him yet, Ernest Hemingway is reported there of having said to Pound, in 1933, “Since when are you an economist, pal? The last I knew you were a fuckin’ bassoon player.” Pound was overtly, actively political, not that it did him, his poetry, or the world much good — and indeed, to the degree it perpetuated anti-Semitism and fascism, it likely did the world some ill, and himself a great deal of it.
Coltrane, on the other hand, was occasionally political in the topical issues of his music. You can’t name a jazz piece “Alabama” in 1963 without some intention of political subtext. But Coltrane was a humble, thoughtful man and when he didn’t know about things, he was often aware of his not knowing… even, in fact, to the point of admitting he didn’t really know what his listeners were experiencing when they listened to his band, what they were grabbing onto or focusing on to enjoy about the music. Coltrane was aware of the civil rights movement, and certainly became one of those figures to whom some symbolic meaning within it adhered; but he didn’t go off on long diatribes about how this or that political change, or economic system, or means of resistance, was the way to go. He focused on the music, on his own tentative pan-religious ecumenism, on living right, and the rest seemed to follow from there… or that’s the impression I get from everything I’ve read and heard so far.
The last point aside, though, it does seem to me that Pound and Trane had several things in common, and I wonder if we can rightly consider those traits of American artistic modernism: the compression, the thick layering of elements, the move from entertainment to very challenging or difficult work.
If so, has this happened in SF? I don’t think is has, and perhaps it has not happened yet in fiction more generally, either. As I say, I’m not sure it can within narrative, though of course other innovations are possible and have occurred…
Okay, tomorrow, I promise: no Coltrane, and no Pound. Something else.