Jazz can be intimidating, especially to the non-musician. Much of the criticism is theoretical and mathematic, written in a clubby language that tunes out those of us who can’t recognize an ascending I-II-V pattern or a B-flat minor blues. Yet even some of the most accomplished players insist the music should be felt more than dissected, that it speaks more directly to the soul than to the mind.
Ben Ratliff’s Coltrane: The Story of a Sound not only bridges this heart-brain divide in a way that makes nonexperts want to keep on reading, it also illuminates the chasm in the context of a towering figure and his considerable shadow.
Ratliff is a jazz critic for the New York Times. He has the vocab and the knowledge, and Story of a Sound has passages that will give the uninitiated twinges of insecurity and unworthiness.
Fight through it. Ask a musician friend a few questions. Accept that you might not get it all. What you’ll find is a sharp, concise (217 pages) cultural study that speaks to the fan as well as the artist and the wonk.
Coltrane, the tenor and soprano saxophone titan who died in 1967 at the age of 41, has inspired enough volumes to fill the Village Vanguard. So keep in mind that Story of a Sound isn’t yet another biography, though it has biographical elements.
The first half is the story of an artist’s evolution, from sideman to supreme innovator to musical holy man. The second half dives into his all-encompassing legacy and influence.
In Ratliff’s accounting, Coltrane’s premature death left the jazz world in a state of flux, where traditionalists and revolutionaries staked out territory in discord and harmony with Coltrane’s more radical advances. If you played jazz saxophone in the post-Trane era, some part of you either embraced or ran from Coltrane’s sound. There was before Trane and there was after.
Ratliff stakes out the basics of that sound early on. Coltrane’s 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.” But his sound evolved through his support of Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, the groundbreaking chord changes of “Giant Steps” and the formation of his “classic quartet” with bassist Jimmy Garrison, drummer Elvin Jones and pianist McCoy Tyner.
We see Coltrane kick heroin, find God and praise him with the mind-blowing suite “A Love Supreme.” We go through the years shortly before his death, marked by the large-group experimentation that alienated traditionalists and empiricists.
And then things get really interesting. The final 100 pages assess Coltrane’s earth-shattering influence on jazz as Ratliff enters the fray of what could be called the Coltrane Wars. These were waged between critics, often white, who disdained the free-form forays and monotony of his later period, and his defenders, often black, who insisted that such traits transcended Western ideals of form and structure.
Take the trumpeter and educator Charles Moore’s lacerating response to Don Ellis’ review of The John Coltrane Quartet Plays Chim Chim Cheree. The critic took Coltrane to task for “playing chorus after chorus, solo after solo on only one idea—that of continually varying scale patterns and arpeggios.”
To Moore this was just one more instance of cultural hegemony: “The feeling of this music is more important to me than the technical matters; a feeling that you, Ellis, have insulted, thereby declaring yourself as another of my many white enemies. And for that, along with your ideals and artifacts from ancient history, you must die.”
Here is the heart-mind schism in a nutshell, couched in the black power rhetoric that positioned Coltrane as a largely posthumous ideological symbol of the `60s.
Like other great critics, Ratliff analyzes art within a larger cultural framework, but without shrinking the art. Ratliff knows Coltrane, but he also knows the poet Amiri Baraka and the critic Stanley Crouch, the novelist Herman Melville and the philosopher Edmund Burke.
So Story of a Sound isn’t just the story of a sound. It’s a piece of jazz criticism that passionately questions and enhances the role of jazz criticism. It walks that line between the artiste and the dilettante. No need to be intimidated.