Ben Ratliff, Coltrane: The Story of a Sound (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Reviewed by J. R. Carroll
During an interview in Japan in 1966, John Coltrane was asked what he would like to be in ten years. Coltrane replied, “I would like to be a saint.” Lewis Porter, author of the definitive study John Coltrane: His Life and Music, interpreted this as meaning that “he wanted to be saintly, that is, a virtuous person. Clearly he did not mean that he wanted to die and be canonized!” Yet, that is precisely what occurred.
Forty years after his death, Coltrane commands an almost Beethovenian reverence, and for young musicians he still represents a musical center of gravity that is a comfort zone to some, quicksand to others. As jazz critic for the New York Times, Ben Ratliff hears a lot of these musicians, and his wonderment at the persistence of Coltrane’s influence has spurred him to write Coltrane:The Story of a Sound, an intriguing and, for a member of my generation, occasionally perplexing exploration of Trane’s long shadow.
While I was a few years too young and a few hundred miles too far away to have been able to hear Coltrane in person, his music affected me profoundly and personally from the moment I first heard it in 1966, and even posthumously he was still a looming presence on the New York jazz scene that I experienced first-hand in the late 60’s and early 70’s. (I was actually present at a couple of the 1971 interviews that Ratliff cites.) I started with A Love Supreme, lived forward–through Ascension, Kulu Se Mama, Meditations, and the many posthumous releases–and studied backward, to his early sessions as a sideman with Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk.
Ratliff, on the other hand, first encountered Coltrane in the 1980’s and worked his way forward–not without some struggle–from those same early sessions to the expansive and challenging work of his last years. His encounter with Trane resembles mine with Bird, who was an idolized but distant historical figure by the time I started listening to him and an inhabitant of a world that I could never hope to fully understand.
To be sure, this asynchronous relationship with Coltrane and his times affords Ratliff a certain critical distance from the polemical and political furies of Coltrane’s era and its aftermath, and it’s clear that part of his goal is to explain Coltrane to a generation that wasn’t even born when Trane played his last concerts. To do this, he has adopted a literal two-part strategy of first reviewing Coltrane’s life and artistic evolution, then chronicling the responses to this evolution by his elders, peers, and successors (in the musical world and in the press) from the 1950’s to the present day.
Ratliff took a calculated risk in partitioning the book in this fashion, one that, unfortunately, hasn’t entirely paid off. Yes, the first seven chapters do place substantially more emphasis on biographical details and recording sessions (including some valuable analyses of Coltrane’s often-overlooked Prestige dates–as sideman and then leader–from the mid-1950’s), but then the next three chapters rewind back to the early days and take us through the same chronology with the focus shifted to the reactions of critics and younger musicians. I appreciate what Ratliff is trying to do, but I’m certain I will not be the only reader who will spend an ungodly amount of time flipping back and forth between Parts One and Two trying to knit together in the mind what could well have been woven together on the page.
Only in the final two chapters, which deal with the posthumous competition of various musical factions to lay claim to Coltrane’s legacy, does the book reveal the full measure of Ratliff’s accomplishment. Would that he had devoted more pages to Coltrane’s “afterlife,” for this is a complicated story that needs to be told at length, in detail and with breadth.
Still, Ratliff successfully navigates most of the twists and turns of this saga: The shock and confusion in the wake of Coltrane’s unexpected passing, heightened by the even more baffling death of Albert Ayler in 1970; the slow dispersal of the New York avant-garde from downtown jazz clubs to SoHo lofts, Europe and, ultimately, academia; the emergence of a younger generation–inspired by but not derivative of Coltrane–nurtured by such community-based cultural institutions as the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in Chicago, the Black Artists’ Group in St. Louis, and the Underground Musicians and Artists Association in Los Angeles; the jazz neoclassicists’ canonization of Coltrane’s “classic quartet” as an effective and sometimes explicit repudiation of his later work and all that followed from it; and, finally, the “mainstreaming” of Coltrane’s sound via the academy and by way of its importation into pop music through the studio work of Coltrane admirers like Wayne Shorter, Michael Brecker, Joe Farrell and even Alice Coltrane herself.
Ratliff is particularly to be congratulated for casting his net beyond the confines of jazz to explore, albeit in brief, Coltrane’s influence on minimalism, jam bands, progressive Latin, and even, improbably, post-punk.
As the unifying theme of this book, Ratliff has made the interesting decision to focus on Coltrane’s “sound.” To be sure, Trane tinkered obsessively with mouthpieces, reeds, and fingerings to achieve a hard-edged, almost vibratoless tone that is unmistakable and, though widely emulated, has its detractors. That dimension of his “sound” was only rarely an end unto itself, however; its larger goal was to drive the unfolding of the ever more intricate musical processes that played out in his solos and in his interactions with other musicians. It is the “sound” of these solos and of the ensembles within which they were embedded that is the real subject of Ratliff’s study. (One could argue, I suppose, for yet another “sound,” that of the distinct genres–blues, spirituals, ballads, jazz waltzes, bebop steeplechases, Afro-Latin grooves–that comprised Coltrane’s earlier repertoire and supplied the raw materials for his later original compositions.)
Ratliff devotes a substantial portion of Part One to discussing–in considerable detail and with sometimes remarkable descriptive accuracy–an ample and representative number of Trane’s solos, but, unlike Porter, inexplicably dispenses with musical notation. (Is someone who can’t read music really going to get any more out of references to “ii-V-I chord cycles” and “a twelve-tone melody first run forward and then retrograde”?) Process, though, plays such a crucial role in Coltrane’s musical thinking–setting initial musical conditions, defining patterns that move the music forward and then working through the full implications of those initial conditions and patterns (at whatever length is required) until his musical objective has been reached–that pure language must inevitably fall short, and the reader must–and should–turn to the actual recorded artifacts. (I suspect Ratliff would probably agree.)
Beyond the “sound” of Coltrane’s instruments and the “sound” of his solos, there was the “sound” of his ensembles. Although the “classic quartet” with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, and Elvin Jones has become paradigmatic, Coltrane–from his first dates as a leader to his final recorded concert at the Olatunji Center–repeatedly experimented with larger aggregations. Like his former employers Miles, who would withdraw to the wings to observe, and Monk, who would cease comping and do a delighted little dance next to the piano, Coltrane derived a good deal of pleasure from simply listening to what his bandmates were up to. Here, again, Ratliff can be evocative in conveying the interplay among Coltrane and his musicians.
However, there are moments in the book where it’s not entirely clear which “sound” Ratliff is discussing. (This is hardly his unique failing–many of the musicians and critics he cites found this a daunting task.) The evolution of Trane’s instrumental “sound” proceeded along a separate but related timeline from the evolution of his solos’ “sound” and his band’s “sound,” and both the adulation and the vituperation accorded Coltrane’s music sometimes focused on one “sound” more than another. This is especially true with respect to his late work: Some critics focused on his use of extreme registers, multiphonics, and microtones; others attacked the duration and chromatic density of his solos; and another contingent took offense at the shift from the crisp articulation of harmonic rhythm in the “classic quartet” to the flotation of rhythmically independent lines within a common harmonic region that characterized the late quintet (with Pharoah Sanders, Alice Coltrane, Jimmy Garrison, and Rashied Ali) and the expanded ensembles of the West Coast sessions (including Kulu Se Mama, Selflessness, Live in Seattle, and the fearsome Om).
One final gripe: Given that the back of the book finds room for eleven pages of “Notes” (linking quotes–many from interviews that Ratliff conducted during his research for this book–with their sources) and six cramped pages of “Sources and Acknowledgments,” would it have been so difficult to provide a proper set of footnotes and biliography? I find it hard to imagine that a prospective purchaser of this sort of book is going to faint dead away at the sight of a superscript numeral. (Note to the publishing industry: Lewis Porter’s more “academic” volume–notation, footnotes, and all–has apparently sold on the order of 13,000 copies, virtually all through general booksellers; these aren’t Tom Clancy numbers, but they would seem to indicate that a substantial readership exists that isn’t afflicted by “terror of the technical.”)
Trane once told Miles that his solos were so long because “It took that long to get it all in.” This could serve as a cautionary note when writing about Coltrane, and even more so when writing about someone else’s writing about Coltrane, where the urge to elbow aside the author and “get it all in” can be overwhelming. To the extent I’ve been unable to contain such an urge, I apologize to Ben Ratliff, who has delivered a valuable and provocative discourse on Coltrane’s sound that will surely set many more elbows in motion.