The Story of a Sound

by Ben Ratliff

Hardcover, 250 pages, Farrar Straus & Giroux, List Price: $24 | purchase

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The Story of a Sound
Ben Ratliff

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Book Summary

A study of jazz saxophonist John Coltrane and his musical development looks for the sources of power in Coltrane's music and examines his important influence and legacy in shaping the course of modern jazz music.

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Excerpt: Coltrane

The common wisdom about the saxophonist John Coltrane is that he was the last major figure in the evolution of jazz, that the momentum of jazz stalled, and nearly stopped, after his death at age forty in 1967.

What was the essence of Coltrane’s achievement that makes him so prized forty years after his death? Why have so many musicians and listeners been so powerfully drawn to him? What was it about his improvising, his bands, his compositions, his place within his era of jazz? What were the factors that helped Coltrane become who he was? And what would a John Coltrane look like now, or are we wrong to be looking for such a figure?

From the outside, one keeps wondering which musician will take the next decisively evolutionary step, as all those who seem to be candidates repeat themselves, become hermetic or obvious, fail to write compelling original material, sell out in some form, or begin to bore their audiences. And then one wonders whether evolutionary models should be applied to jazz at all. It seems to be the case that jazz loops around, retrenches, makes tiny adjustments that don’t alter the basic language. The problem, though, is that Coltrane certainly made it seem as if jazz were evolving. He barreled ahead, and others followed. Some are still following.

His career, especially the last ten years of it, was so unreasonably exceptional that when he became seen as the representative jazz musician, the general comprehension of how and why jazz works became changed; it also became jagged and dangerous with half-truths. Every half-truth needs a full explanation.

This is not a book about Coltrane’s life, but the story of his work. The first part tells the story of his music as it was made, from his first recordings as a no-name navy bandsman in 1946 until his death as a near-saint of jazz in 1967. The second part tells the story of his influence, starting in his lifetime and continuing until today. The reason that the two stories are separated—even though one will cross over into the other’s territory now and then—is because the work and its reception have had distinct, different, and individually logical lives.

This is a book about jazz as sound. I mean “sound” as it has long functioned among jazz players, as a mystical term of art: as 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. Miles Davis’s was fragile and pointed. Coleman Hawkins’s was ripe and mellow and generous. John Coltrane’s was large and dry, slightly undercooked, and urgent.

But I also mean sound as a balanced block of music emanating from a whole band. How important is this? With Coltrane, sound ruled over everything. It eventually superseded composition: his later records present one track after another of increasing similarity, in which the search for sound superseded solos and structure. His authoritative sound, especially as he could handle it in a ballad, was the reason older musicians respected him so—his high-register sound, for example, in “Say It Over and Over Again.” But it was also the reason younger and less formally adept musicians were drawn to him, and why they could even find themselves a place on his bandstand.

Coltrane loved structure in music, and the science and theory of harmony; one of the ways he is remembered is as the champion student of jazz. But insofar as Coltrane’s music has some extraordinary properties—the power to make you change your consciousness a little bit—we ought to widen the focus beyond the constructs of his music, his compositions, and his intellectual conceits. Eventually we can come around to the music’s overall sound: first how it feels in the ear and later how it feels in the memory, as mass and as metaphor. Musical structure, for instance, can’t contain morality. But sound, somehow, can. Coltrane’s large, direct, vibratoless sound transmitted his basic desire: “that I’m supposed to grow to the best good that I can get to.”

What Coltrane accomplished, and how he connected with audiences for jazz around the world, seems to elude any possible career plan, and is remarkably separate from what we have come to understand as European-based, Western-culture artistic consciousness. This book attempts to track the connections of his work—how and why he proceeded from A to B to Z—and then, later, to ask why Coltrane has weighed so heavily in the basic identity of jazz for the last half century.

Coltrane—whose 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—made jazz that was alternately seductive, mainstream, and antagonistic. Among his recordings were the high-speed harmonic étude “Giant Steps” (1959); the exotic, ancient-sounding modal versions of “My Favorite Things” (1960) and “Greensleeves” (1961); the headlong, sometimes discordant, fifteen-minute blues in F, “Chasin’ the Trane” (1961); the devotional suite A Love Supreme (1964); the mournful ballads “Soul Eyes” (1962) and “After the Rain” (1963); and the whirligig free-jazz duet performance with drums alone, Interstellar Space (1967).

His work became unofficially annexed by the civil rights movement: its sound alone has become a metaphor for dignified perseverance. His art, nearly up to the end, was not insular, and kept signifying different things for different people of different cultures and races. His ugliest music (to a certain way of thinking) is widely suspected of possessing beauty beyond the listener’s grasp, and the reverse goes for his prettiest music—that it is more properly understood as an expression of grave seriousness. There is more poetry written about him, I would guess, than about any other jazz musician. And his religious quests through Christianity, Buddhism, Kabbalah, and Sufism are now embedded, ex post facto, in his music. In pluralistic America, it has become hard not to hear Coltrane’s modal music—in which an improviser, freed from chordal movement, becomes free to explore—as a metaphor for a personal religious search.

Coltrane, particularly from 1961 to 1964, sounds like the thing we know as modern jazz, just the way that Stravinsky sounds like the thing we know as modern classical music. Young bandleaders, especially saxophonists, find him a safe place, the safe place. Some musicians may disagree on the basis of their own experiences—jazz is hundreds of microclimates—but here it is: the sound of so many jazz gigs I’ve heard in the past fifteen years, as a jazz critic in New York, is usually the sound of albums like Coltrane’s Sound or Coltrane Plays the Blues, the Coltrane quartet just before or in the first stages of a modal-jazz style, just tightening, still before A Love Supreme and that later music that is so personal that to borrow from it would be obvious. (Not that it isn’t sometimes borrowed from, and not that such borrowing isn’t usually obvious to the point of vulgarity.) He has been more widely imitated in jazz over the last fifty years than any other figure.

Some musicians have told me that after a period of immersion, they could not listen to him anymore. Listeners, too. I have played other kinds of music in bands, and studied with a jazz pianist, but I am a writer, not a jazz musician. When I first heard Coltrane’s records as a teenager in the 1980s, the 1956 Pr