Sunday, April 15, 2012

Coltrane: The Story of a SoundColtrane: The Story of a Sound by Ben Ratliff

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was an absolutely fabulous book. Mind you, it’s not a biography of John Coltrane and was never meant to be – read the subtitle: “The Story of A Sound.” Ratliff provides a fascinating and detailed story about how this sound that would be more influential than any other in this music that has come to be broadly defined as ‘jazz’ evolved. Having listened to Coltrane for some four decades and knowing most of his records in and out, this book provided me with so many insights into the music and the man that I had to go back and listen to many of the records with the book in hand. What is so refreshing about this book is Ratliff’s sober analysis, which recognizes the enormous talent and inner drive of Coltrane without placing him on a pedestal as a saint. In fact, Ratliff demonstrates quite clearly how the mythology about Coltrane, especially after his death, took a life of its own and became a straightjacket for a generation of musicians (especially saxophonists) that came after.

The first part of the book follows Coltrane’s growth and the development of his music – or sound – from the earliest surviving recordings from his army times after the World War II. Coltrane was a late bloomer and only found his own musical and spiritual self much later. Miles Davis in whose band Trane played during two stretches of time was clearly a mentor with a critical influence on the man’s development. Having kicked an early heroin habit in 1957, Coltrane embarked on a search that lacks parallels in the history of jazz. Having exhausted the harmonic possibilities embedded in traditional chord progressions culminating in the systematic study that was presented as ‘Giant Steps,’ Coltrane moved onto entirely new spheres based on modal music (an area where Miles’ influence is evident). Ratliff gives credit where credit is due, recognizing the enormous importance of the ‘classic quartet’ – with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones – and how it became part of the sound that so mesmerized the jazz world. But Trane had to move on with his eternal search. He started incorporating new elements to the music, first bringing in Eric Dolphy into the quartet, then adding a second drummer – Rashied Ali – and eventually opening it up to young experimental musicians who may not have been technically or philosophically his peers – Albert Ayler, Pharoah Sanders, his own second wife Alice Coltrane – but whose music he embraced because he was not able to stop searching. In the process, he disappointed many of his fans and forsook the considerable popularity and accompanying commercial success he had achieved (imagine that his version of “My Favorite Things” had been a considerable hit and had even been released as a single). For many, the “late Coltrane” music was an aberration, something that had lost the swing and harmony that jazz was made of. As Ratliff shows, for John Coltrane, a modest and highly private man, such considerations were not important as he strove to develop his music further as a spiritual practice.

Especially after his death, the mythology around Coltrane exploded. The second part of this excellent book explores this phenomenon and looks at Coltrane in the context of the times and how he influenced music far beyond being just one tenor sax player and band leader whose effective career had been quite short (the classic Coltrane quartet, which is mostly associated with his legend as a God, essentially lasted for barely half a decade). He was declared a saint by many – there is even a church in San Francisco called St. John Coltrane – and there were endless interpretations of his thinking as a radical iconoclast, freedom fighter, champion of equal rights, religious and spiritual leader. The man himself hardly said any such things directly. Clearly, he was a religious man – as evident from works like “A Love Supreme” – but not devoted to any particular organized religion. Similarly, some of his music apparently were statements referring to racial injustices (it seems fair to assume that “Alabama” was in reference to the events that had unfolded in Birmingham, Alabama). It has been said that Coltrane rejected the Western cultural dominance and turned to Africa and the East. It’s true that works from “OlĂ©” to “Africa/Brass” evoked rhythms and tonalities that expanded the expression of jazz, yet at the same time his music was very firmly rooted in the blues. Unlike many others who followed, Coltrane was deeply knowledgeable about music theory and harmony and his music was an extension of everything that had come before him. He was obsessed with practice – he was known to practice even during the breaks between sets at clubs – and consequently his technique was incredible. Coltrane knew that freedom only comes from knowing and fully understanding what was earlier.

Coltrane, as Ratliff explains, had wide and long-lasting impact on musical life throughout the 1970s and 1980s and still today. The cult surrounding him eclipsed all other musicians and their contributions to jazz. For a generation, all tenor players were expected (by themselves and by others) to sound like Coltrane (with the exception of Sonny Rollins), thus stymying their own voices. There was an ideological split between free jazz that was seen as progressive and all other variations of jazz that eventually led to a marginalization of jazz as a popular music form at the same time as pop music was becoming the commercial force that it is still today. In fact, there have been theories over the years that have blamed Coltrane for killing jazz by leading it away from swinging entertainment. Obviously, this is a simplistic view that Ratliff does not subscribe to, but his book helps to understand how it could be perceived so. While free jazz isolated itself, many pop musicians were listening to Coltrane and adopting aspects of his musical philosophy (explicit tributes like those by Carlos Santana and John McLaughlin were preceded by the kinds of The Grateful Dead, The Doors, even The Byrds, who emulated Coltrane’s approach to long modally based jams). While jazz clubs in New York and elsewhere closed their doors, official funding for the arts redoubled – and again redoubled – in the 1970s (here Ratliff tells a story that resonates with that from the classical music side as recounted by Blair Tindall in “Mozart in the Jungle”) rendering jazz a form of established repertory music (think Winton Marsalis and Jazz at the Lincoln Center). Only in recent years has the jazz scene seen a unification of points of views and an emergence of new artists and composers who create new music free from the old divisions – and from copying Coltrane.

Ratliff ends his book by posing the rhetorical question: Who will be the next Coltrane? He answers it by firmly stating that it is the wrong question. No single musician has such an influence in lifting up an entire sensibility. Coltrane’s greatness wasn’t all his own doing, says Ratliff; there were circumstances:

“He found his way when Miles Davis took a chance on him. He found it
comparatively late in life, as an adult of newly organized habits who had his own physical weaknesses to defend. He found it when thousands of intelligent listeners in America were waking up to music from other cultures. He found it just when audiences were ready to place their trust in a popular musician as a kind of divine messenger. He found it precisely when club owners were willing to countenance a band leader who felt like playing the same song for half an hour. … Above all, Coltrane created possibilities for good things to happen in bands. He had a knack for benign direction” (pp. 216-217).

View all my reviews