Just Another Guy Struggling to Explain John Coltrane's Music with Words

What's really behind all the academic-ese in Beyond a Love Supreme is a desire by Whyton and his fellow Coltrane scholars to find fancy ways of embracing the musician’s later and less traditional playing.

Beyond a Love Supreme: John Coltrane and the Legacy of an Album

Publisher: Oxford University Press
Length: 176 pages
Author: Tony Whyton
Price: $17.95
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2013-06

In Don Delillo’s brilliant, dark, and hilarious White Noise, the character Jack Gladney satirizes academia by being described as a pioneer in the field of “Hitler studies”, even though he does not speak German.

And it's tempting to chuckle a bit—or a lot—at the seriousness with which Tony Whyton intones the phrase “Coltrane studies” over and over again in his book, Beyond a Love Supreme: John Coltrane and the Legacy of an Album. Whyton is not a jazz journalist but a full-on academic, a professor at the University of Salford in Manchester, England. And Professor Whyton seeds his new book on with many uses of the words “problematize”, “reification”, and “historicizing” and with phrases like “situating the icon within racial discourses”. And these are example just from the first seven pages.

Which is to say that this is not really a book about John Coltrane or A Love Supreme—for those things you want to read Lewis Porter’s killer Trane bio or Ashley Kahn’s chatty The Making of a Love Supreme. Whyton acknowledges such. His book, he tells you in the introduction, is about the status of Coltrane’s album as a “cultural artifact”—a frozen example of the jazz art that, by being frozen in the moment for posterity, has taken on a mythic status.

It’s a cool idea to examine what it means for this improvisational art form to be based so utterly on obsessing over recordings that become “commoditized” and fetishized and other big words. Alas, Whyton’s academic style makes his book not just a chore to read but, frankly, loaded with many buckets full of bullshit.

That said, let me lay out the basics here, as Whyton has some intriguing ideas that might be usefully discussed in the language of normal, non-tenured human beings who are interested in jazz rather than just looking smart at some symposium somewhere.

Whyton reviews the standard interpretations of A Love Supreme, and he shows pretty convincingly that the work has been set up as a worshipped part of the jazz canon that has come to epitomize some of the established “dualities” that jazz stands for in our culture—such as the balance between composition and improvisation. He also shows that the recording has been invested with levels of spirituality and universality that take it out of its cultural context and make it the end of Coltrane’s musical journey, despite the fact that his post Love Supreme recordings were amazing in their own ways. He also spends a chapter on how Trane has been influential on literature and other media as a kind of symbolic force.

Good stuff—if you’re deeply interested in this disc or this musician, but wow does a reader have to cut through a million layers of academic-bad-writing to get to these ideas. Whyton never tires of the Ph.D-certified constructions “I argue” or “I would argue”. Yeah, man, we get it. If you assert it in your book, you are “arguing” it. It’s like listening to a teenager who keeps adding, “You know what I’m saying?” after everything that he says.

More than anything else, this book is about the incredible importance to Whyton of his own smarty-pants-ness in seeing the complexities of things more clearly than mere music critics. He insists constantly that his “reading” of the music is more multi-directional or open-minded than other (non-academic folks’) readings. But in truth, he’s just another guy struggling to explain music with words.

For example, he writes that the late Coltrane album Interstellar Space “has a seductive quality, particularly in the way in which the energy of the two musicians is channeled and the contrasting dynamics move from a reflective whisper to a sheer invasion of sound space.” Well, Whyton can refer to French post-structuralist critic Jacques Derrida as often as he wants, but “a sheer invasion of sound space” still doesn’t mean anything. Does he “argue” that Coltrane and Rashid Ali get loud? Who knows—except that this writing is doubletalk.

Enjoy this sentence, please: “Experiencing a recording as a type of music as process counters the canonical imperative of reifying music.” Yeah, okay, man, whatever.

What's really behind all the academic-ese in this book is a desire by Whyton and his fellow Coltrane scholars to find fancy ways of embracing the musician’s later and less traditional playing. So, Whyton finds Trane’s later work—such as the noisy and less conventional Ascension—to be “political”, “spiritual”, and “non-compromising, not prone to sentimental interpretations”. It’s hard to know what in the music (beyond the vague titles given to certain compositions or performances) makes these suggestions, but the urge in this book is to put down listeners who like Coltrane’s older, more traditional playing and to celebrate his later work as being more enlightened or hip or smart. Which is fine, but what amounts to little more than a musical opinion is wrapped in intellectual masturbation that makes Whyton and what he continually “argues” sound like truth rather than subjective preference.

All this makes Beyond a Love Supreme: John Coltrane and the Legacy of an Album 132 pages (plus endnotes, natch) of blah-blah-blah when it might have been a sharp essay on how a classic jazz album has been used to hem in our culture’s understanding of a vey complex and interesting saxophone player.

Academic scholars can be just as loaded with crap as regular music writers, and they ought to have more to say. Alas, I “argue”, they do not.

My suggestion which should unproblematize things for you: listen to the music, skip the book.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

Gallagher's work often suffers unfairly beside famous husband's Raymond Carver. The Man from Kinvara should permanently remedy this.

Many years ago—it had to be 1989—my sister and I attended a poetry reading given by Tess Gallagher at California State University, Northridge's Little Playhouse. We were students, new to California and poetry. My sister had a paperback copy of Raymond Carver's Cathedral, which we'd both read with youthful admiration. We knew vaguely that he'd died, but didn't really understand the full force of his fame or talent until we unwittingly went to see his widow read.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.