Wednesday Book Club: Coltrane

Wednesday, 6 May 2009 — 2:41pm | Book Club, Jazz, Literature, Music

This week’s selection: Coltrane: The Story of a Sound (2007) by Ben Ratliff.

In brief: Ratliff’s carefully organized history of John Coltrane’s diverse musical stylings and its legacy in post-1960s jazz is a concise work of criticism that wisely puts the musical evidence front and centre. Its great success is its insistence on establishing Coltrane’s monumental importance instead of merely asserting it as the truth.

(The Wednesday Book Club is an ongoing initiative of mine to write a book review every week. I invite you to peruse the index. For more on Coltrane, keep reading below.)


I have never cared for biography. Biographies of creative individuals in particular have an alarming tendency to creep over the line into hagiography, resting as they often do on an unquestioned premise that the subject’s work and legacy—the meat and potatoes that make the subject worthy of adulation in a manner that is, strangely, a priori and ex post facto at once—were causal products of how he or she lived.

Creative works compel me far more than the persons behind them, not least because art draws it longevity from a boundless, renewable fount of meaning. Little of the meaning is put there by the author’s conscious design; most of it lies in the intrinsic structure of the work, its place as a data point in a grander corpus of social evidence, or its personal significance to a member of the audience who perceives it as analogical to a private experience (or that cushiest and most ineffable of words, “feeling”).

But jazz has a peculiar relationship to the Author. As a form of music predominantly built on improvisation, its creation is especially susceptible to claims of individual genius. Its most revered practitioners achieved a level of mastery over their instruments, both technical and conceptual, that seems well out of reach for the average or even above-average mortal. In jazz, the masters are the virtuosos who leave us most convinced that the mechanics of their instruments are no impediment to their musical imagination—and the imagination, it seems, is definitionally the personal property of an individual mind. To dispense with the Author is a manoeuvre that comes off as silly, sophistic, and antithetical to good sense.

With that in mind, John Coltrane’s enormous biographical appeal is hardly surprising. The range of his discography suggests a titanic figure who stepped out of a musical creation myth, a one-man microcosm of the history of jazz as we like to imagine it.

Here is a man who, within the span of a decade, progressed from the total assimilation of bebop’s chord-scale language to a point of supersaturation—chords upon chords, substitutions within substitutions—and delivered it as melody on a linear instrument; who nevertheless evolved in parallel to be his instrument’s immaculate ballad reader, with a midrange cleanliness of tone completely distinct from the flavour of the great tenorists before him; who then tapped into some ancient musical wisdom of modes and drones preceding the age of western reason, and reframed Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things” within that concept to produce a signature tune and radio hit; who turned days of solitary meditation on his purification from drugs into a devotional suite to God; who ultimately decided to shove it all aside to go on a cosmic vision quest, put his lips together and blow. There was something impossible about this man, the very idea of a man in whom the baroque, classical, romantic, and avant-garde could simultaneously fit.

I speculate that for most people who dare to think about Coltrane, the instinct is to seize upon the part they like and build the rest of the story around it. For Stanley Crouch, who sees jazz as a self-sustaining genre defined by rich formal elements (and whose book, Considering Genius, I previously reviewed), Coltrane was a tragic figure who fulfilled the promise of the music only to be seduced by some weird cacophonous devilry. For LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, whose jazz poetry of the period reflects no ear for musical structure but an honest passion for honking, Coltrane embodied a raw and unfettered explosion of blackness free from the chains of the western mind. For the Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church, hagiography is a perfectly measured approach.

Personally, I’m inclined to believe that everyone needs to take a cold shower and get back to the music itself.

That’s where Ben Ratliff comes in.


I was previously familiar with Ratliff through his work as the house jazz writer at The New York Times. Nevertheless, it was with no small relief that I opened Coltrane: The Story of a Sound to see the following introductory remarks:

This is not a book about Coltrane’s life, but the story of his sound. […] This is a book about jazz as sound. I mean “sound” as it has long functioned among jazz players, as a mystical term of art: as in, every musician finally needs a sound, a full and sensible embodiment of his artistic personality, such that it can be heard, at best, in a single note. Miles Davis’s was fragile and pointed. Coleman Hawkins’s was ripe and mellow and generous. John Coltrane’s was large and dry, slightly undercooked, and urgent.

But I also mean sound as a balanced block of music emanating from a whole band. How important is this? With Coltrane, sound ruled over everything. It eventually superseded composition: his later records present one track after another of increasing similarity, in which the search for sound superseded solos and structure.

The introduction’s promise is far more ambitious than the modesty of the text suggests. It is a promise to pull back from Coltrane, the saint, and look at Coltrane, the bag of musical ideas that assembled its contents over a laborious procedure of practice and interaction before spilling them all over everyone everywhere. It is a call for an objective appraisal of his transformative influence on the music—which has long been reified as a concrete historical fact—and assess his search for a “sound” near the end of his life as something that ought to be explained, independently of any preformed value judgments. Yes, it’s very interesting that Coltrane either tears into your very soul or sends you running for the hills with your fingers plugging your ears (sometimes both), but we should be asking why.

Ratliff divides Coltrane into two compartments. The first recounts the story of Coltrane’s sound as it developed through his life. It is a history of music in the most literal sense: picking out a chronological series of performances—some commercially recorded and released, others only extant as bootlegs in private hands—Ratliff listens to Coltrane’s improvisations (and later, the “sound” of his assembled bands) with a keen ear for nuance, marking them as data points to interpolate the development that must have happened in between. There are, for example, ideas that Coltrane seems to have distinctly picked up during his time with Thelonious Monk. Similarly, there is a pattern of individual adjustment and fine-tuning in his playing after he left Miles Davis, with every addition to or subtraction from his own band as he converged on the “classic quartet”: a particular way he sounded while next to Eric Dolphy, and after; with McCoy Tyner, and without. It’s a concise and empirical narrative with a clear methodology: at point A, Coltrane sounded like this; at point B, Coltrane sounded like that; what changed?

The second part of Coltrane is exclusively concerned with the the shape of jazz in the wake of Coltrane’s death in 1967. While Ratliff devotes a few paragraphs to Coltrane’s influence on everyone from Carlos Santana to Steve Reich, Ratliff’s focus remains squarely fixed on jazz in the American context: the jazz that splintered into a dying New York club scene, on one hand, and the embalmment offered by respected institutions of performance and education, on the other. Here, Ratliff draws extensively from quotations, interviews, and anecdotes. Not all of them are adulatory: critics and musicians opposed to (or, at least, suspicious of) the legacy of Coltrane’s late period are given equal time.


Ratliff is, quite refreshingly, a critic with a mature appreciation for the difficulty of absorbing Coltrane into any singular ideology of how jazz ought to be discussed.

There are those who admire Coltrane for his spontaneous and necessarily intuitive grasp of theoretical patterns that, upon inspection, turn out to be incredibly ornate on both the micro level of the note selection in a lick and the macro level of a solo spread out over multiple seamless choruses. Yet even they must come to recognize that chord-scale dissection, while revelatory, can never produce a generative formula that yields anything other than a highly technical gaggle of Coltrane clones running “Giant Steps” at breakneck speeds.

Then there are those attracted to Coltrane, particularly late-period Coltrane, for the priority he places on unpremeditated feeling over form. (As many musicians will profess, this seems to be the most accurate reflection of how improvised music is actually created—never mind how intricate it looks when it’s finished.) In the most militant case, you may have observed the posse you see ambushing the comments section of every YouTube video of a classic performance, playing favourites and shutting out any and all rational analysis on the premise—I dare call it a religious one—that to think about something, rather than feel it, is to destroy its beauty. This is intellectually limiting for the obvious reasons.

Somehow, the enthusiasts at either extremity all miss the point. Neither the theory-centric schema of Coltrane-as-changes nor the empathy-driven portrait of Coltrane-as-catharsis capture the totality of his oeuvre with a perspective that feels complete. Ratliff, always the consummate journalist, acknowledges the inadequacy of either and the necessity of both.

And that isn’t even getting into the sensitive and uncomfortable realization that for many listeners, the debate is racially coded: the white man’s reason, the black man’s passion. On an essential level I find this distinction silly and degrading to everybody involved, but one has to account for a history of oppression that has made it true, and has constructed particular aesthetic values as a community’s cry for freedom. The prevalence of this justification for Coltrane’s later explorations, whether he intended it or not, renders it of paramount relevance to the story of how his music affected people in the way it did.

But that, in turn, has led to the excessive sanctification of Coltrane in some critical circles, which has rendered his music unimpeachable on account of who created it—a fallacious appeal to authority. Ratliff reacts with scepticism in this cutting summary, which it is my great pleasure to quote at length:

Let’s put these ideas in concentrated form. This is their essence: Coltrane’s loud and dense late-period music cannot be separated from the path toward racial tolerance and absolute worldwide human equality. […] Resistance or intolerance toward this music is a kind of sclerosis; to open oneself ot it is to admit honesty and greater feeling. “Understanding it” is empirical Western foolishness; the will to understand is just more sclerosis. […] The music separates itself from jazz of the past (if it is relevant at all to reduce it to “jazz”) by its call for freedom from oppression; by extension, to pine for the jazz of the past is to pine for oppression.

No art can hold up under the weight of these hopes. They mystify and sanctify the art beyond possibility, and do damage to all that lies in propinquity to it. Giving Coltrane such thunderous credence, too, automatically minimized the work of others around him.


In claiming the music was beyond language and understanding, writing like this used a specific language. It is the language of nineteenth-century Romanticism, and it tended to be used vestigially, mostly about three things: deities, psychedelic drugs, and music.


The sobriety of this book is its greatest strength. Coltrane is in no way a didactic work, but Ratliff leaves us with a few messages that, the way I read them, sound a call for restraint that in no way devalues Coltrane’s musical accomplishments. Here’s a limited sample:

  • John Coltrane didn’t arrive fully-formed, and couldn’t have gotten where he was without strenuous practice. This is a musician who would drill quarter notes for an hour. This is a saxophonist who slogged through exercise books designed for harps.
  • Coltrane’s erratic shifts in style were not an exclusive product of his wandering interests, but considerably affected by the time and opportunities that other, more established musicians afforded him. Miles Davis had to find room for Coltrane’s busy playing, and cautiously let him in on ballads bit by bit; and even then, there came a point when Coltrane’s direction expanded in a different trajectory than where Davis’s bands wanted to go.
  • The Coltrane “sound”, in its various permutations, developed over time in a performance environment that no longer exists for most musicians today: one that facilitated the development of a band sound, where the leader’s playing left a space for his sidemen to explore in their own specific fashion. (Ratliff’s closing statement: “The truth of jazz is in its bands.”) Studios and club bookings now rarely permit a band to discover that texture over a process of gradual refinement, night after night, session after session.

None of this is to say that Coltrane was anything less than a phenomenal musician. But what Ratliff deftly avoids is the trap of asserting Coltrane’s ingenuity as a founding presumption, and only then considering the music within the context of a Great Artist. His interest in Coltrane’s music is invested in why it developed into an earth-moving influence the way it did, and that question of perpetual historical interest: will it happen again? In the end, Coltrane is a book that is subtly about the how-and-why of mythmaking, the process behind the genesis of so many competing narratives of who Coltrane was and what he meant to the music in the long run. As we are reminded time and again, he did not live in a vacuum.


Coltrane is a terse volume that never pretends to be exhaustive: as one would expect given its author, it reads like a series of New York Times articles that happen to be united beneath the umbrella of one common subject, and two overarching narrative threads. It is never too theoretical, but with just enough suggestion of technical material to keep trained musicians involved in the argument.

But this also means that the book is very often a digest, and one that may leave readers wanting more. The ardent Coltrane connoisseur will no doubt find sins of omission; the genre-hopping internationalist will find Ratliff’s token overview of Coltrane’s influence outside American jazz too cursory an afterthought; the passionate theoretician will immediately trawl the Jazz Review archives from 1959 for Zita Carno’s transcription-laden two-part feature, “The Style of John Coltrane.” (And demagogues opposed to any objective detachment in the appreciation of jazz music may never accept the book’s very existence. Their loss.)

I strongly recommend that anyone approaching Coltrane does so with some recordings on hand; words only go so far when it comes to supplying suitable analogies for what the ear perceives. One of Ratliff’s most fulfilling tactics, especially in the first half, is the isolation of nuances in solos that one may not have paid any mind to before.

Thankfully, many of the classic concert performances discussed in the book have now resurfaced on YouTube, like the Düsseldorf concert of 28 March, 1960, when Miles took a night off and let Coltrane have the stage with Stan Getz and Oscar Peterson:

I personally wish Ben Ratliff had the time, resources, and publisher support to supply an extensive a companion audio guide on the Internet rife with samples of fair-use length, like the one Alex Ross provided for The Rest Is Noise (reviewed here). Jazz writing for the public, especially that which depends on close, excerpted listening to defend its claims, can only benefit from laying out the audio for everyone to hear. Coltrane is readable without it, but more convincing with it.


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