Coltrane: The Story of a Sound by Ben Ratliff

True story, in all its tedium: a friend stayed the night at our place and the next morning, her boyfriend commented on the jazz playing in the background: “Is this Coltrane?” It was actually Dexter Gordon — a whole ‘nother ballgame, etc. — but this casual case of mistaken identity is such a banal truth that it’s tough to turn a snobbish nose up at the guy. (Well, ahem, perhaps not all that tough.) Talk to any random person about saxophones and jazz, and I bet you that “Coltrane” is one of the first words out of his or her mouth.

“Coltrane” transcends a discussion of music; it is a statement of being, a bearing of taste, a kneejerk reaction with loaded purpose. “Coltrane”, for all intents and purposes, no longer simply denotes a dude who once played saxophone back in the 1960s.

Ben Ratliff’s fantastic book, Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, explores this very concept, eschewing the typical trappings of routine biography to plumb more profound ideas of musical language, identity, and influence. As Ratliff explains in his introduction, Coltrane: The Story of a Sound is “about jazz as sound. I mean ‘sound’ as it has long functioned among jazz players, as a mystical term of art: an in, every musician finally needs a sound, a full and sensible embodiment of his artistic personality, such that it can be heard, at best, in a single note.” Ratliff splits the book into two sections, first exploring how John Coltrane arrived at this single-note “sound”, through various stages of personal evolution and trial and error, and secondly detailing how that sound has rippled through the music world since the legend’s premature death in 1967.

Again, instead of using the details of Coltrane’s life to find meaning in his music, Ratliff focuses on the distinctions of Coltrane’s playing — the nitty-gritty of solos and improvisation, a style that produced “a kind of trance state, and an American romantic type”. To paint a portrait of an American artist existing and changing inside a defined constant, Ratliff compares Coltrane’s work to that of writers like Walt Whitman and Gertrude Stein. Like Coltrane, they forged their own language within language, creating something singular — something instantly identifiable as their own — while maintaining a connection with the more ordinary archetypes of speech. Ratliff argues that Coltrane was “moving closer to music as actual speech” and that he could be “associated with a feeling much greater than jazz”.

This larger-than-life archetype of Coltrane — the spiritual icon, the intellectual concept, the superhuman who redefines everything within his orbit — can be traced back to the essence of his music, of course, but the “sound” here is not a construct of music alone. “Coltrane tends to be understood in either one of two ways,” Ratliff writes in the opening to the book’s second half, “as the one-man academy of jazz — the king student, the exhaustively precise teacher — or as the great psychic liberator of jazz who rendered the academy obsolete.”

It’s not necessary to have a background in music to get something out of Ratliff’s incessantly thoughtful book (though, I will admit, it helps at times), especially when the quintessence of his pursuit is something so otherworldly — something that’s so immediately identifiable, and hangs all around us, caught in the air.

RATING 8 / 10