Coltrane: The Story of a Sound

Coltrane: The Story of a Sound

by Ben Ratliff

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John Coltrane left an indelible mark on the world, but what was the essence of his achievement that makes him so prized forty years after his death? What were the factors that helped Coltrane become who he was? And what would a John Coltrane look like now--or are we looking for the wrong signs?

In this deftly written, riveting study, New York Times jazz


John Coltrane left an indelible mark on the world, but what was the essence of his achievement that makes him so prized forty years after his death? What were the factors that helped Coltrane become who he was? And what would a John Coltrane look like now--or are we looking for the wrong signs?

In this deftly written, riveting study, New York Times jazz critic Ben Ratliff answers these questions and examines the life of Coltrane, the acclaimed band leader and deeply spiritual man who changed the face of jazz music. Ratliff places jazz among other art forms and within the turbulence of American social history, and he places Coltrane not just among jazz musicians but among the greatest American artists.

Editorial Reviews

Pankaj Mishra
Ratliff patiently explicates Coltrane's legend, writing in short, aphoristic bursts, often as elliptically as his subject played tenor saxophone, but never less than lucidly.
—The New York Times
Matt Schudel
Coltrane: The Story of a Sound is not a biography but an extended, deeply informed analysis of the qualities that make Coltrane and his music so meaningful to people today, four decades after his death.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Ratliff, the jazz critic for the New York Times, isn't interested in simply retelling the biographical facts of John Coltrane's life. Instead, he analyzes how the saxophone player came to be regarded as "the last major figure in the evolution of jazz," tracing both the evolution of his playing style and the critical reception to it. The first half of this study concentrates on Coltrane's career, from his early days as a semianonymous sideman to his final, increasingly experimental recordings, while the second half explores the growth of Coltrane's legacy after his death. Ratliff has a keen sense of Coltrane's constantly changing sound, highlighting the collaborative nature of jazz by discussing the bands he played in as both sideman and leader. (One of the more intriguing asides is a suggestion that Coltrane's alleged LSD use might have inclined him toward a more cooperative mode of performance.) The consideration of Coltrane's shifting influence on jazz-and other modern musical forms-up to the present day is equally vigorous, refusing to rely on simple adulation. Always going past the legend to focus on the real-life stories and the actual recordings, Ratliff's assessment is a model for music criticism. (Sept.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

Ratliff, a music critic for the New York Times, investigates the sound and legacy of jazz icon John Coltrane. Instead of offering a standard biography, he first tackles the development of Coltrane's style from his initial bebop to the modal, breakneck-fast changes of his middle period to his post-1964 explorations of free jazz. Though Ratliff provides a workmanlike discussion of his musical evolution, he adds little to the multitude of books on the topic. In a second, more satisfying section, he describes the legacy of the Coltrane sound after his sudden death in 1967. Ratliff begins with the near deification of Coltrane by such jazz disciples as Charles Tolliver, Billy Hart, and Frank Lowe and rock stars Carlos Santana and Iggy Pop in the late 1960s and 1970s. He shows how the Coltrane legacy nearly disappeared in the midst of the Wynton Marsalis-led mainstream heyday of the 1980s and finally inspired a new generation of jazz artists during the last 15 years. Ratliff's book complements the already extensive literature about John Coltrane and, though not essential, is recommended for jazz aficionados.
—Dave Szatmary

Kirkus Reviews
A New York Times critic examines the jazz saxophonist's style and legacy. What hath Trane wrought? That's the double-barreled question posed by Ratliff (The New York Times Essential Library: Jazz, 2002), one of the most thoughtful and reliable of daily newspaper critics. The work of John Coltrane, who enjoyed widespread influence both during his '60s primacy and long after his death from liver cancer in 1967, is considered in two discreet parts. The first charts the autodidactic evolution of Coltrane's music, from early journeyman performances through tenures in the bands of Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, and into his work as a leader, from his masterly chord-based explorations to his pathfinding free playing. This succinct section will be of most use to the reader with intermediate understanding of music theory; the unschooled will be frustrated by some of the more technical passages. (Some will also find themselves yearning for a critical discography, which is not to be found.) The second part takes a provocative and wide-ranging look at Coltrane as a kind of musical and cultural mirror. Though the musician was a reticent explicator of his own music, his sound both absorbed and reflected the social, political and spiritual upheavals of its time, and his later performances marked a stylistic dividing line for jazz musicians. ("See, cats are still trying to recover from the Trane explosion," saxophonist Von Freeman notes.) The many ways in which Coltrane and his innovations have been apprehended and debated receive a lively, discursive, occasionally windy treatment from Ratliff. While the writer is justly skeptical of claims by Coltrane's champions and detractors alike, he seemshesitant to forge a strong opinion of his own. He upends many cliched positions about Trane, but in the end appears uncertain about exactly what is important or enduring in his oeuvre. This ambivalence mars what is otherwise a largely stimulating reconsideration of a jazz icon. Not quite worthy of a love supreme.
From the Publisher

“Ratliff has turned me on to more music over the last few years than any other writer. . . . The listening skills of a great critic and the ability to convey what he hears are what he brings here.” —R. J. Smith, Los Angeles Times

“American jazz writing needs more books like this, which engage jazz with an expansive literary imagination in a broad cultural context. . . . This is an important and rewarding book.” —Down Beat

“Overheated prose seems to follow Coltrane like an insistent stream of bum notes, but Ratliff, the dauntingly omnivorous New York Times critic, manages cool restraint in this clear-eyed, nuanced consideration of the jazz giant's influence.” —The Atlantic Monthly

“Brilliant, economical . . . sharp . . . [Ratliff] skillfully and convincingly places Coltrane as something of a man apart from most other musicians--a cultural comet, as much as a musical one.” —Henry C. Jackson, San Francisco Chronicle

Product Details

Faber and Faber
Publication date:
Age Range:
14 - 18 Years

Read an Excerpt


The common wisdom about the saxophonist John Coltrane is that he was the last major figure in the evolution of jazz, that the momentum of jazz stalled, and nearly stopped, after his death at age forty in 1967.

What was the essence of Coltrane’s achievement that makes him so prized forty years after his death? Why have so many musicians and listeners been so powerfully drawn to him? What was it about his improvising, his bands, his compositions, his place within his era of jazz? What were the factors that helped Coltrane become who he was? And what would a John Coltrane look like now, or are we wrong to be looking for such a figure?

From the outside, one keeps wondering which musician will take the next decisively evolutionary step, as all those who seem to be candidates repeat themselves, become hermetic or obvious, fail to write compelling original material, sell out in some form, or begin to bore their audiences. And then one wonders whether evolutionary models should be applied to jazz at all. It seems to be the case that jazz loops around, retrenches, makes tiny adjustments that don’t alter the basic language. The problem, though, is that Coltrane certainly made it seem as if jazz were evolving. He barreled ahead, and others followed. Some are still following.

His career, especially the last ten years of it, was so unreasonably exceptional that when he became seen as the representative jazz musician, the general comprehension of how and why jazz works became changed; it also became jagged and dangerous with half-truths. Every half-truth needs a full explanation.

This is not a book about Coltrane’s life, but the story of his work. The firstpart tells the story of his music as it was made, from his first recordings as a no-name navy bandsman in 1946 until his death as a near-saint of jazz in 1967. The second part tells the story of his influence, starting in his lifetime and continuing until today. The reason that the two stories are separated—even though one will cross over into the other’s territory now and then—is because the work and its reception have had distinct, different, and individually logical lives.

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. His authoritative sound, especially as he could handle it in a ballad, was the reason older musicians respected him so—his high-register sound, for example, in “Say It Over and Over Again.” But it was also the reason younger and less formally adept musicians were drawn to him, and why they could even find themselves a place on his bandstand.

Coltrane loved structure in music, and the science and theory of harmony; one of the ways he is remembered is as the champion student of jazz. But insofar as Coltrane’s music has some extraordinary properties—the power to make you change your consciousness a little bit—we ought to widen the focus beyond the constructs of his music, his compositions, and his intellectual conceits. Eventually we can come around to the music’s overall sound: first how it feels in the ear and later how it feels in the memory, as mass and as metaphor. Musical structure, for instance, can’t contain morality. But sound, somehow, can. Coltrane’s large, direct, vibratoless sound transmitted his basic desire: “that I’m supposed to grow to the best good that I can get to.”

What Coltrane accomplished, and how he connected with audiences for jazz around the world, seems to elude any possible career plan, and is remarkably separate from what we have come to understand as European-based, Western-culture artistic consciousness. This book attempts to track the connections of his work—how and why he proceeded from A to B to Z—and then, later, to ask why Coltrane has weighed so heavily in the basic identity of jazz for the last half century.

Coltrane—whose music is marked by remarkable technique, strength in all registers of the tenor and soprano saxophones, slightly sharp intonation, serene intensity, and a rapid, mobile exploration of chords, not just melody—made jazz that was alternately seductive, mainstream, and antagonistic. Among his recordings were the high-speed harmonic étude “Giant Steps” (1959); the exotic, ancient-sounding modal versions of “My Favorite Things” (1960) and “Greensleeves” (1961); the headlong, sometimes discordant, fifteen-minute blues in F, “Chasin’ the Trane” (1961); the devotional suite A Love Supreme (1964); the mournful ballads “Soul Eyes” (1962) and “After the Rain” (1963); and the whirligig free-jazz duet performance with drums alone, Interstellar Space (1967).

His work became unofficially annexed by the civil rights movement: its sound alone has become a metaphor for dignified perseverance. His art, nearly up to the end, was not insular, and kept signifying different things for different people of different cultures and races. His ugliest music (to a certain way of thinking) is widely suspected of possessing beauty beyond the listener’s grasp, and the reverse goes for his prettiest music—that it is more properly understood as an expression of grave seriousness. There is more poetry written about him, I would guess, than about any other jazz musician. And his religious quests through Christianity, Buddhism, Kabbalah, and Sufism are now embedded, ex post facto, in his music. In pluralistic America, it has become hard not to hear Coltrane’s modal music—in which an improviser, freed from chordal movement, becomes free to explore—as a metaphor for a personal religious search.

Coltrane, particularly from 1961 to 1964, sounds like the thing we know as modern jazz, just the way that Stravinsky sounds like the thing we know as modern classical music. Young bandleaders, especially saxophonists, find him a safe place, the safe place. Some musicians may disagree on the basis of their own experiences—jazz is hundreds of microclimates—but here it is: the sound of so many jazz gigs I’ve heard in the past fifteen years, as a jazz critic in New York, is usually the sound of albums like Coltrane’s Sound or Coltrane Plays the Blues, the Coltrane quartet just before or in the first stages of a modal-jazz style, just tightening, still before A Love Supreme and that later music that is so personal that to borrow from it would be obvious. (Not that it isn’t sometimes borrowed from, and not that such borrowing isn’t usually obvious to the point of vulgarity.) He has been more widely imitated in jazz over the last fifty years than any other figure.

Some musicians have told me that after a period of immersion, they could not listen to him anymore. Listeners, too. I have played other kinds of music in bands, and studied with a jazz pianist, but I am a writer, not a jazz musician. When I first heard Coltrane’s records as a teenager in the 1980s, the 1956 Prestige sessions with the Miles Davis Quintet—“Tune Up” and “If I Were a Bell” especially—he sounded to me like a great lake whose dimensions I knew I wanted to trace. Next was Giant Steps, with its brightness, concision, harmonic acuity, and strong original melodies. It did me no harm—not until later, when I began to hear a rote mathematical stiffness in his playing that I reacted against. I wasn’t alive in the early sixties, and perhaps for that reason The European Tour, a double-LP set of Coltrane’s band recorded live in 1962 and 1963, first seemed to me the stylization of modal music, a soft, snake-charming lob toward the progressive, self-congratulating audiences accruing around Coltrane after his radio hit, “My Favorite Things.” I rejected it, pretty much.

But when I got to Live at the Village Vanguard, particularly the track “Spiritual,” I developed a block against it. This music was no half-stepping: deep and correct and serious, harder and more violently swinging and slightly ancient-sounding, the intimations of Coltrane’s modal style before it hardened as a gesture. This band was the supreme consortium of live jazz, the one most related to jazz-as-it-is-currently-played. It seemed that you could go in there and not be able to find your way out.

I did have some sort of index for seriousness in jazz at that point. I was hearing a lot of music in New York that tried to be profound and occasionally was. The guitarist Sonny Sharrock and his loud band with two drummers made sense to me by its natural connections both to rock-and-roll and post-Coltrane free jazz - specifically to Pharoah Sanders’s records of the late 1960s. The tenor saxophonist Charles Gayle and his trios played a kind of highly expressionistic collective improvisation, whose main factors were its manipulation of rhythmic chaos and the unpredictable charisma of Gayle himself. Another tenor player, David S. Ware, led a quartet which took the example of Coltrane in about 1965 to the next plane of loud-and-lugubrious; it was all density. On the other hand, David Murray’s trio with Wilber Morris and Andrew Cyrille was more spindly and playful and pretty, with nice original lines, and a completely different story from Coltrane’s. (Murray’s allegiance was to melodic improvisation, the Sonny Rollins line of playing, as opposed to Coltrane’s way of implying whole chords in his sweep.)

But those Coltrane records I shrank from faced up to the idea of density and noise without fetishizing it, and didn’t stop there. Coltrane connected his own learned harmonic patterns with many outside approaches, picked up from other jazz musicians and various folk cultures—a thoroughly willed, nearly maniacal method of inclusion. And he built a groove with his bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones that grew stronger, even as the rest of the music became heavy with super-extended soloing, the overload of individual will. The various sounds of Live at the Village Vanguard became some of jazz’s most revisited majority languages, connecting schools of players who would otherwise have little to do with each other, formalists and non-formalists.

Anyway, two years went by before I tried listening seriously to Coltrane again. Now it was twenty-eight years after Live at the Village Vanguard was recorded, and the bohemian interior of the jazz audience in New York had become, as far as I could see, smaller and more self-conscious. Jazz’s early-sixties identity as protest material for Americans who had a hard, bitter road out of the Great Society had since been celebrated, fetishized, and nostalgized; since the beginning of the 1980s, the music-as-music had been studied as an academic subject. Jazz, too, had crept into pop and hiphop. And a jazz-classicism movement, which exercised withering skepticism toward most of the loose-form and nonacoustic music that had happened in jazz after the mid-sixties, had gained fully funded legitimacy through house orchestras at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall and the Smithsonian.

The point I am making is that there were so many entryways to jazz by 1989 that I didn’t necessarily want to deal with the most serious, uncomfortable, and perhaps necessary way in: immersion in John Coltrane’s recordings. Part of that discomfort came from the fact that it had become totally unclear how to think of them. They form a path, but was it a path toward a new language or nonsense?

The trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, the artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, as well as his brothers Branford (the saxophonist) and Delfeayo (the trombonist), and the critic Stanley Crouch—who wrote a great deal of combative opinions associated with them—had become extremely potent cultural commentators by that point. Wynton was in the business of selecting what was good and lasting across the entire history of jazz. Serving as faction boss, he talked persuasively about what had been watered down or lost in jazz: four-four swing, ballads, constructive competition, a sense of boundaries and exclusivity. He really loved to argue, and the gist of his arguments was always responsibility: whether you are doing good or harm to the music. (And not just to jazz, but, by extension, to American culture.) He talked about jazz as if it were a patient on a table. He prescribed the necessary measures musicians ought to be taking if they wanted jazz to survive at all.

Suddenly the life’s work of Coltrane, and his gradual trajectory toward non-swing, non-ballads, non-competiveness, non-boundaried inclusion, could seem dangerous. But the fact remained that if you could stand to listen, really listen hard, to “Spiritual,” or the rest of Live at the Village Vanguard, both sides of the argument seemed shallow, and imposed from without by parties with an agenda. A record like that one indicated that the common-room of jazz was also, paradoxically, its darkest and most mysterious place.

Excerpted from Coltrane by Ben Ratliff. Copyright © 2007 by Ben Ratliff. Published in September 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

Meet the Author

Ben Ratliff has been a jazz critic at The New York Times since 1996. He lives in Manhattan with his wife and their two sons. His New York Times Essential Library: Jazz was published in 2002.

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