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

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.

RATING 3 / 10