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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


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

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The Story of a Sound

By Ben Ratliff

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2007 Ben Ratliff
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-9862-8


1 who's willie mays?

On July 13, 1946, John William Coltrane, seaman second class, recorded eight songs with four other musicians, drawn from the ranks of the Melody Masters. The Melody Masters was a large navy band, stationed in Oahu, Hawaii; navy bands were segregated in those days, and this one was all white.

Quiet Coltrane came from a very religious Methodist family. Both his grandfathers were ministers. As a preteen he liked to draw, and as a teenager he idolized Johnny Hodges, the Ellingtonband alto and soprano saxophonist. He was born in Hamlet, North Carolina, moved to High Point, North Carolina, in his infancy, and moved again to Philadelphia after finishing at William Penn High School in High Point. He was two months shy of turning twenty when the four Melody Masters invited Coltrane to jam with them.

Coltrane, a lean figure in round shades whose tall Afro flattened out on the sides, was not a full-time navy bandsman (no blacks were), and the Melody Masters were not officially allowed to play with black musicians. With Coltrane as guest, escaping the knowledge of their superior officers, they made a private recording, eventually pressing four copies of a 78 RPM record.

One tune from that amateur session was Tadd Dameron's "Hot House," a song that later became known as one of the great compositions of early bebop. "Hot House" is a 32-bar song that first borrows from the chord changes of the standard "What Is This Thing Called Love?" before cleverly altering them. And the seamen try an effortful replication of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker's version of the tune, cut a year earlier — except that the navy trumpeter doesn't solo, as Gillespie did.

Instead, Coltrane does. In fact, Coltrane, on alto saxophone, takes the only solo — a hideous, squeaking, lurching thing. But perhaps it didn't matter to the thoroughly preprofessional Melody Masters, because Coltrane had met Bird.

Some jazz musicians are off and running at nineteen — Charlie Christian, Johnny Griffin, Art Pepper, Clifford Brown, Sarah Vaughan. John Coltrane was not. He had started playing at thirteen, on alto horn and clarinet, as a member of the school band in High Point. At fourteen, he switched to alto saxophone. The first instrument he owned was an alto bought for him by his mother when the family moved to Philadelphia; he was sixteen then. He took a year of theory lessons at the Ornstein School of Music. At eighteen, he started playing in Philadelphia clubs, working with big bands at dances or in a trio at nightclubs. According to his friends and some of the bandleaders he worked with, he was a perfectly indistinct musician.

He saw Charlie Parker perform for the first time on June 5, 1945, in Dizzy Gillespie's group.

So did his friends Jimmy Heath and Benny Golson. Golson remembered: "John just sat there, taking it all in. All over the hall, people were standing up and shouting, clapping their hands and stamping their feet. Imagine being a saxophonist and never having heard this kind of music before." Following the afternoon performance, Coltrane and Golson accompanied their hero toward the Blue Note club, where Parker had an evening gig. Golson asked if he could carry Bird's saxophone case. The three walked together: Golson on the right, Coltrane on the left, Bird in the middle. Golson, a talker, asked Bird what kind of horn he used, what mouthpiece, what number reeds. It was a scene of total adulation. Golson wasn't embarrassed by it, but Coltrane evidently was. In 1947, Coltrane met Bird again in Los Angeles, while on tour with King Kolax. He didn't remind him that they had met in Philadelphia.

On the Oahu recording of "Hot House," made a year later, Coltrane starts his solo by echoing the melody line from the bridge section of "A Night in Tunisia," which was the big bebop record of the previous year. It may have been fresh in Coltrane's ears from hearing Dizzy Gillespie's septet version of "Tunisia," recorded February 22, 1946, on Victor. Or perhaps he heard the Charlie Parker Septet version, recorded March 28, on Dial.

Musicians working within this common 32-bar song structure can find a way to begin a solo with a quote of a bridge; it's not impossible. It's just tricky. Where the solo begins is the start of a journey, whereas the bridge — in the 32-bar song form, it's the channel of music after the main theme is played and repeated, and which contrasts against that main theme — represents the middle. Coltrane doesn't play inapposite notes to the chords, but the 8-bar bridge melody naturally leads him to a psychological ending place, and he still has 24 more bars to fill. It is incumbent upon him to scramble for something new to propel himself again. Sure enough, the second 8-bar stretch of the 32-bar solo chorus grows disastrous. On the song's actual bridge, bars 17 to 24, he has an even worse time; on the final 8, he achieves adequate redemption, though certainly not poise, with a Charlie Parker lick, a curling flurry of sixteenth notes.

Moving back to Philadelphia after his discharge in August 1946, Coltrane did what any self-respecting alto saxophonist of the time would do: he tried to follow Charlie Parker's movements, because Parker was the king soloist.

At this point in jazz, when big bands and dance-hall jobs were beginning to disappear and small groups were taking precedence, solos really mattered. It was first under Lester Young, and then more decisively under Charlie Parker, that the cult of the solo had emerged. Finally, to Parker's cohort, the solos were king, subjugating the stuff around them. Even the worst examples of Parker's solos were fetishized. The earliest scholarly writing on jazz solos appeared in the 1930s, but the hagiographic approach toward jazz soloing may have started with Elliot Grennard, a Billboard writer who witnessed Charlie Parker's infamous recording session of July 1946. This was when Parker was experiencing heroin withdrawal that caused him to suffer involuntary muscle spasms, making him sound sick and adrift, particularly on the tune "Lover Man." Grennard wrote a fictionalized account of the "Lover Man" sessions for Harper's Magazine called "Sparrow's Last Jump"; it was published in 1948 and won the O. Henry Prize for short fiction. Ever since, "Lover Man" has had its morbid admirers. Ross Russell's book Bird Lives! — Russell was the producer whose label, Dial, put out the "Lover Man" sessions — created a fascination for Dean Benedetti, a Parker fan who took a tape recorder to club gigs and recorded only Parker's solos, not what happened before and after them.

In Philly, Coltrane played with the pianist Ray Bryant, among others; he went on a short tour with a band led by Joe Webb, which included the blues singer Big Maybelle. On his G.I. Bill benefits, he studied at the Granoff School, a local music school, specifically with Dennis Sandole. Sandole, who died in 2000 at the age of eighty-seven, was a swing-band guitar player who eventually let his own music take second place to his teaching. He focused on scales, as Coltrane would before long. He used exotic ones, and created his own, yet by all accounts, tailored his lessons to the individual student.

Coltrane worked hard, to the exclusion of any other interest. "I used to practice a lot with Trane," said his friend Jimmy Heath, who was then also an alto saxophonist before making his name on tenor. Everybody called him Jimmy. Coltrane called him Jim. Nobody else did. "He'd be in his shorts, we didn't have any air conditioning in those hot tenement houses; he lived with his mother. He'd be practicing, sweating, man. Practicing all day. Nobody practiced that much at that time that I knew. He was practicing all the things he eventually perfected. Lines, harmonic concepts that we were learning together, things we had transcribed."

Heath also remembers Coltrane practicing so hard that he made his reeds red with blood.

Coltrane lived not far from the Woodbine Club, at Twelfth and Master streets in North Philadelphia, an after-hours place where jam sessions would take place, with musicians including the saxophonists Heath, Jimmy Oliver, and Bill Barron, the trumpeter Johnny Coles, and Coltrane. He would work along Columbia Avenue (now called Cecil B. Moore Avenue) in the same part of town, where there was a club on nearly every block.

Heath had gotten his hands on a transcription of Charlie Parker's solo on "Don't Blame Me"; the transcription had been made by Howard Johnson, the lead alto saxophonist in Dizzy Gillespie's band. They studied from sources like that, and used the Philadelphia Public Library to listen to classical music, for "harmonic possibilities," Heath says. "We knew that Bird carried around the Firebird Suite score." They didn't play the Stravinsky score per se. "We were extracting the cadenzas," he remembered, "and turning them around to fit our own groove."

A few years later, Heath mentioned something about a play Willie Mays had made in a baseball game the day before. Coltrane replied, "Who's Willie Mays, Jim?"

Work came Coltrane's way. He joined up with King Kolax, a Chicago-based trumpet player, singer, and crowd-pleasing bandleader in the jump-blues style.

Jazz has its connector-pieces, more notable for who they hired and what happened around them than for their own musical accomplishments. In his early years, Coltrane played with many of them. King Kolax, by most accounts an outgoing and funny presence on stage, left no extraordinary artifacts; the most significant recordings he played on were with Billy Eckstine's big band in 1946, as part of a four-man trumpet section that included Miles Davis and Hobart Dotson. Kolax takes no solos. Bird, as a teenager, had played with Kolax's group in 1939 — a time when Kolax had one of the hottest bands in Chicago. A few years later, in 1941, Gene Ammons was the alto player in Kolax's band. Johnny Griffin saw that band at his grade-school graduation dance at the Parkway Ballroom in Chicago, emerged stunned, and thereupon resolved to play saxophone. Coltrane was the next soon-to-be-major player in line, touring with Kolax during the first few months of 1947.

Coltrane also gigged with his friend Jimmy Heath, who led his own big band in Philadelphia, a kind of third-string version of what the Gillespie band was playing ninety miles to the north. And then he played with Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, a bandleader of a kind not dissimilar from Kolax: killingly dressed, singing, playing saxophone, entertaining.

Upon joining Vinson's band — it was for a long string of one-nighters in the winter of 1948 — 49 — Coltrane took up the tenor saxophone in earnest. Vinson wanted someone who could play like Bird over rhythm-and-blues tunes. Coltrane could, but the open spot was for tenor, not alto. He took the opportunity. And now that he was on a different instrument, Coltrane — a born student — began casting about for the great tenor player who could suggest avenues for him on tenor the way Bird did on alto.

At the time, among the major contenders was Lester Young, who had become famous playing lovely, light-gauge melodic lines on tenor saxophone with Count Basie. There was also Ben Webster, who played fat, sweet, rich notes on tenor, and could subtract pitched sound until all you heard was elusive hissing; he was a super-artful manipulator of timbre and ballad phrasing. Coltrane also admired Tab Smith, a master of pitch and tonal control, a swelling-romance tenor player who descended from Johnny Hodges.

And then there was Coleman Hawkins. Coltrane liked the arpeggios Hawkins played, the articulation of a whole scalepattern where for other musicians just a few notes would do. Hawkins seemed to have a more sweeping, kaleidoscopic vision of music than most of the other top soloists in jazz: instead of using a thin-nibbed pen to trace out melodies, he used a paint-roller. Resourcefully, he made all these notes, all these references to passing chords, sound virile and natural.

In the early 1960s, Eddie Vinson was asked about Coltrane. "Yeah, little ol' Coltrane used to be in my band. He never wanted to play. I used to have to play all night long. I'd ask him, 'Man, why don't you play?' He'd say, 'I just want to hear you play ...' That ol' boy was something. He changed his playing every six months almost." A character trait: Coltrane may have been diffident with others, but apparently not with himself.

Then Coltrane's break came. Dizzy Gillespie's piano player, James Forman, knew Coltrane from jobs around Philly; they were both members of the musicians' union. Forman recommended Coltrane to Gillespie, who asked both Heath and Coltrane to join his big band. The job began in late fall 1949.

Bebop, in the forties, was a new language of blues-based modernism. It came to be associated with fast tempos, asymmetrical melodic lines, and chord harmonies inspired by Stravinsky, Debussy, and Bartók. It was developed in New York in the early 1940s by Parker, Gillespie, and the musicians around them, and it naturally stole into popular big bands over time: this was simply what young musicians were playing. But in 1949, the very idea of a Dizzy Gillespie big band — and in the minds of anyone reading about jazz back then, that proposition equaled a bebop big band — was problematic. First, big bands were for dancers, and bebop tempos could be fast, and harder to dance to. Second, America was recovering from a wartime economy, which had already debilitated the great touring big bands through gas and rubber shortages and a rise in travel costs; the preeminence of these bands in the national musical culture was lessening. And the proof was in the music itself. Cropped, curling bop lines, tritone-heavy bop harmony, fast and spiky bop rhythm: they were all better executed by a fouror five-piece group than by an orchestra.

But Gillespie, who along with Charlie Parker had come to be synonymous with bebop as a movement, had an advantage in realizing a difficult proposition. He came from the Cab Calloway band of the early 1940s, which had popularized the image of strong, modern music and witty clowning; he had to do something with his show knowledge. More important, he was thinking about another big-band model: the Latin kind. He had learned about Latin music largely through his association with the Cuban trumpeter Mario Bavza, a section-mate in the Calloway group; in 1942 he had sat in with Machito's Afro-Cubans, and started learning ways to improvise jazz over the Cuban clave rhythm.

Gillespie's orchestra lasted from 1946 to 1950. He had graduated from the small labels of the first bebop experiments; RCA was recording him then. In 1947 the orchestra created "Manteca," one of the most important pieces of jazz ever — the starting place of modern Afro-Latin jazz. But by the time Coltrane joined, sharing with Heath the role of lead alto saxophone (the top voice of the alto saxophone section, playing written lines), the end was in sight. Bookings were shrinking. By the end of the decade the orchestra had been sized down to six or seven members.

Some of the radio broadcasts by the small group in 1951 survive on bootlegs, and these are the next significant recordings of Coltrane, after Oahu. Here and there you hear him on a solo feature, strong and true and improvising: he is not erased by the thundering of a big band, or relegated to the background on a singer-with-orchestra date. His growth has been remarkable, and why shouldn't it be — five years have passed, a long time for a young man. He has access to more notes, yet the logic of his playing is still jumbled, still chaotic. But what do we hear of the later, mature Coltrane in 1951? Bits and dots. And for the next four years, until he joined Miles Davis's band, there was only the refinement of a basic set of skills.

Coltrane seems not to have played any tenor saxophone with Gillespie's big band. But offstage, he was practicing the bigger horn assiduously, building on the work he had done with Vinson, using scale-book exercises by Czerny and Hanon, running various arpeggio and interval patterns, some of them jumping registers, through all the keys of Western music. They were meant for pianists, as finger-strengthening exercises; they weren't typically practiced by any kind of horn player.

By the time of the 1951 recordings, he had developed his own style, if a barely coherent one — one that mixed exotic scale patterns and rhythm-and-blues rhetoric, stubborn long tones, and the beginnings of a serious interest in the low and high registers.

The best solo on the 1951 bootleg recordings with Gillespie — there had not yet been any official studio recordings from this time featuring a Coltrane solo — is in Gillespie's "A Night in Tunisia," recorded on January 6.

We already know of Coltrane's connection to "A Night in Tunisia" from his quoting of its bridge section in the 1946 Oahu "Hot House." One can assume that it was a song he practiced on; he may have grown used to improvising over its seesaw motion between minor chords.


Excerpted from Coltrane by Ben Ratliff. Copyright © 2007 Ben Ratliff. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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.

Ben Ratliff has been a jazz critic at The New York Times since 1996. He is the author of The Jazz Ear and The New York Times Essential Library: Jazz. His book Coltrane: The Story of a Sound was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. He lives in Manhattan with his wife and two sons.

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