‘John Coltrane and Black America’s Quest for Freedom’: Insider Perspectives

John Coltrane’s music is known for being open, exploratory and accepting, for refusing to be pinned down stylistically, culturally, or politically. The discourse around his music has often followed a different path, as commentators have sought to respond to it in reductionist ways, to project particular agendas on to it (such as Frank Kofsky’s seminal Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music, later republished as John Coltrane and the Jazz Revolution) , or to simply reject it (as in critic John Tynan’s famous dismissal of Coltrane as “anti-jazz”). It has often been hard to disentangle what the man and the music have meant for listeners, or to separate the roots of both from the subsequent routes they traveled.

This book adds to the growing body of literature on Coltrane’s life and music by utilizing insider perspectives on black vernacular culture and spirituality. Editor Leonard Brown asserts that the approach is ethnomusicological and, while it is certainly the case that jazz studies has been vastly enriched by the application of ethnomusicological motives and methods (Ingrid Monson’s work springs to mind), the definition of the term is perhaps applied a little more loosely on this occasion. The contributors are, in Brown’s words, “academics … musicians … media personalities, writers, and teachers”, all of whom “have made significant contributions to our respective fields” and all of whom have a grounding in the Black American experience. For some, it is the involvement in community that bestows the “ethnomusicology” tag rather than any formal training in the academic discipline.

One of the things Brown seems keenest to establish from the outset is the authority of those involved with the project to speak on Coltrane and black culture. This is fine as far as it goes but it does mean that there is a heavy dose of authenticity work and essentialism that, by its nature, writes other voices out of the scene. The sense of exclusivity thus established clashes with the numerous claims within the book about the universal nature of Coltrane’s music.

That the work should be framed in this manner is perhaps unfortunate, for there are many fascinating and useful observations collected within its pages. The essays are fairly evenly split between a kind of strategic essentialism (claiming specialness and difference because there are still important battles to be fought) and more nuanced interpretations that recognize the complexity of the race/culture nexus. Throughout, Coltrane appears as a trickster figure, both inviting and eluding the interpretations of his work’s significance. Certainly, one wonders what this unassuming man would have made of essay titles such as “John Coltrane as the Personification of Spirituality in Black Music”, or “The Spiritual Ethos in Black Music and Its Quintessential Exemplar, John Coltrane”. It is worth noting how, in these titles, already the word “American” has slipped away from “Black Music”–not a very sensitive categorization for a world-music-aware, ethnomusicological study.

There are a number of inconsistencies in Brown’s own essay, “You Have To Be Invited” (again, that exclusivity). The essay concerns Coltrane’s response to (mainly white) critics, specifically in the form of a letter he wrote to Downbeat critic Don DeMicheal in 1962. White critics, according to Brown, didn’t get jazz because of a lack of knowledge of the music’s historical and cultural context. This seems fair and there is plenty of evidence to back up the claim. But Coltrane could apparently “get” Caribbean, South American, European, and Asian traditions and could use them to express “freedom and goodness to all who could hear”. The problem with this kind of romantic statement is that it has a tendency to beatify Coltrane and not ask him to stand up to the kind of rigorous criticism leveled at his own critics. Furthermore, critics are chastised for taking liberties with artists’ work and not demanding artists’ help with interpretation, yet Brown is free to interpret Coltrane’s letter as loosely as he wants, distorting the saxophonist’s words to suit his (Brown’s) thesis.

Such inconsistency does Coltrane no favors. Brown is no doubt correct in suggesting that a certain amount of strategic essentialism is required merely to do the political work of situating Coltrane’s work within Black American culture. But strategic essentialism requires a solid ground from which to operate. Much of this solid ground can be found in Brown’s passing references, but not in his interpretations. When it suits the author, jazz is a music bound to context, only to be comprehended by insiders; the rest of the time, jazz is a global, universal music that has meaning for all.

This is a paradox typical of many cultural practices for which a need has been identified to fence something special and unique off from the wider culture, normally to protect the culture and codify what makes it unique. This is why a whole branch of UNESCO is tasked with identifying and protecting intangible cultural heritage. There is great desire behind the creation of places of longing, a desire for rootedness and identity. But this can also be a trap when it threatens to preserve culture in amber. Too often, Brown’s essentialisms seem to hold jazz back rather than allowing it the true freedom of its modernity, a freedom that Coltrane was forever asserting.

Herman Gray deals with Coltrane’s multiplicity far more effectively by describing an artist “moored in traditions but yet not captive to them”. Coltrane is here granted the freedom his art demands, albeit a freedom that is accompanied by the entrapping wishes of others. Like many revered and mythologized figures, Coltrane became a canvas or screen on which others could project their agendas and desires. For many people, Coltrane was a fantasy. But Gray is able to go further than Brown in realizing that these projections came not only from those white jazz critics–“canon protectors”, as Gray calls them–but also from Black Nationalist “cultural guardians”.

Elsewhere, the focus is shifted to Coltrane’s collaborators. Anthony Brown’s chapter makes much of Elvin Jones’s contributions to the classic quartet recordings. Brown notes Coltrane’s growing interest in world religions and abandonment of “steady time”, but beyond this little connection is made between the later works and spirituality other than to note their titles. For those seeking musical analysis of complex works such as “Ascension” and “Meditations”, Brown’s descriptions should prove useful. But his essay does not attempt to make explicit the connections between the internal space of musical structures and the other spaces (internal, external, extraterrestrial) of Coltrane’s spiritual explorations. The result is that not much is added to what many attentive listeners will have already surmised for themselves.

Those various spaces are covered more satisfactorily in Tammy Kernodle’s essay on Alice Coltrane which recognizes “the creation of a literal and ephemeral sacred space on the stage, in the studio, and in the music”. Kernodle seeks to rescue Alice Coltrane from the “widow phenomenon” that afflicted other women of the time such as Coretta Scott King, Betty Shabazz, and Jacqueline Kennedy. In addition to suggesting that Alice was disliked because of a negatively perceived influence on her husband and his posthumous legacy, Kernodle also argues that, like other jazzwomen, Alice had to assert her place in a “masculating” free jazz movement that sought freedom not only from white suppressors but also from women’s involvement in jazz. It’s a damning judgment but one that, like other black feminist takes on the “freedom” of the ’60s, holds up well. Black avant gardes were as guilty as their white/European counterparts in presenting artistic vanguardism as a boy’s own adventure.

Kernodle’s essay is thoroughly enjoyable and it is perhaps churlish to suggest it might be better placed in another collection, perhaps one dedicated to the musician herself. Not only does its inclusion here suggest that Alice Coltrane is still unable to escape the potentially entrapping association with her husband, but the chapter also shines a rather harsh light on other contributions dealing with spirituality. Given the insistence in T.J. Anderson’s foreword and Leonard Brown’s preface on the importance of insiders, it’s a shame that the same consideration wasn’t applied to the numerous remarks throughout the book about “Eastern” music and spirituality. Even in Tommy Lott’s otherwise interesting philosophical exploration of Coltrane’s work, the references to “Eastern thought” are notable for the lack of cited references, in marked contrast to the number of Western works listed in the footnotes.

To end on a positive note, Salim Washington’s “Don’t Let the Devil (Make You) Lose Your Joy” is, appropriately, a joy to read. Washington, following the warnings of musicologist Kofi Agawu, is keenly aware of the dangers of asserting African difference that can lead to a “romanticization of Africa” by both Eurological and Afrological accounts (to borrow George Lewis’s sophisticated analysis of musico-racial categorization). Washington is, however, alive to the resonance of the sacred space of ritual, which does exist as a privileged site of difference, albeit one that permeates both exceptional timespaces and the common moments of everyday life. Describing the sense of freedom in Jimmy Garrison’s bass work, Washington notes that “there is freedom, but only a freedom as far as consensus can bear it”. Freedom is a tough path to follow. What makes Coltrane’s work exceptional is that he and his collaborators stayed on the path to freedom when others abandoned it to wallow in the rough.

Washington’s prose has a musical quality to it, with “Joy” as the refrain to which the author constantly returns amidst exploratory flights covering a range of topics. His use of quotes from Nathaniel Mackey’s Bedouin Hornbook adds to the tapestry-like quality (tapestry is one of the metaphors he uses for the music of the classic quartet). Navigating a course between what he calls the “Baraka school of jazz criticism” (with its emphasis on the particular, the insider view) and the “Ralph Ellison school” (with its emphasis on the universal, the shared experience), Washington avoids a number of the pitfalls of his fellow contributors. Towards the end of his brilliant essay, he writes of Coltrane: “His music was a sacred happening that transformed his audiences and performance spaces into a sanctuary, not with congratulatory rituals or other devices of comfort, but with the perpetual unfolding of new dimensions of his musical search.”

It is this constantly unfolding quest, this becoming, this refusal of closure and fencing-off, that one hears coming through Coltrane’s music. Coltrane refused to play the part many critics–black and white–wished him to play in the ’60s, even as they projected their desires onto him. But his music issues a different refusal. It doesn’t wish to be pinned down but, unlike the man, it actively invites the projection of our desires. A shared resource, forever giving, forever unfolding, it exists as a fantasy zone, a place where we share our difference and our joy.

RATING 6 / 10