A major work about the great saxophonist and about the state of jazz What was the essence of John Coltrane s achievement that makes him so prized forty years after his death What was it about his improvising, his bands, his compositions, his place within his era of jazz that left so many musicians and listeners so powerfully drawn to him What would a John Coltrane look like now or are we looking for the wrong signs The acclaimed jazz writer Ben Ratliff addresses these questions in Coltrane First Ratliff tells the story of Coltrane s development, from his first recordings as a no name navy bandsman to his last recordings as a near saint, paying special attention to the last ten years of his life, which contained a remarkable series of breakthroughs in a nearly religious search for deeper expression In the book s second half, Ratliff traces another history that of Coltrane s influence and legacy This story begins in the mid s and considers the reactions of musicians, critics, and others who paid attention, asking Why does Coltrane signify so heavily in the basic identity of jazz Placing jazz among other art forms and American social history, and placing Coltrane not just among jazz musicians but among the greatest American artists, Ratliff tries to look for the sources of power in Coltrane s music not just in matters of technique, composition, and musical concepts, but in the deeper frequencies of Coltrane s sound


10 thoughts on “Coltrane: The Story of a Sound

  1. Lemar Lemar says:

    Finally a jazz book that deals with the music instead of the personal failings of the artist Ben Ratliff is part of a lineage that includes Ira Gitler, Leonard Feather and Joel Selvin, writers who used to write opinionated and incisive liner notes in small print on the back of LP s In Coltrane, he offers a convincing analysis of why Coltrane was a hero in his own time and, in Part Two of the book, why he continues to cast such a large shadow over jazz after his passing passing Jazz arouses p Finally a jazz book that deals with the music instead of the personal failings of the artist Ben Ratliff is part of a lineage that includes Ira Gitler, Leonard Feather and Joel Selvin, writers who used to write opinionated and incisive liner notes in small print on the back of LP s In Coltrane, he offers a convincing analysis of why Coltrane was a hero in his own time and, in Part Two of the book, why he continues to cast such a large shadow over jazz after his passing passing Jazz arouses passions There have been rancorous schisms in jazz, gunfights over chord changes as memorably recounted in Ken Burns series There were the Moldy Fig Wars that raged in the 40 s over trad jazz vs BeBop This book goes into the divide between Free Jazz and Playing the Changes that split listeners as well as players for about 25 years from roughly 1967 1992 Fascinatingly, John Coltrane appears on both sides He was arguably the most learned player out there, his arpeggios and scales were so well understood and incorporated that he played them with blazing speed and precision Then, like Picasso moving from realism to his own thang, Coltrane let go of the side of the river and floated free in an Alan Watts like Buddhist act of faith The research done by Ratliff pays off as he navigates these waters What emerges is the idea Ratliff expresses in his title, The Story of a Sound Coltrane was always about the sound of the band and on a deeper level, Sound with a capital S as opposed to demonstrations of music theory I feel that John Coltrane was playing music that was deeply personal and some of the primal scream aspects of his later music can be understood, and treasured, when seen as a human bellow of truth He was working some shit out, out loud, Like Walt Whitman pointed us toward And it is beautiful


  2. Britton Britton says:

    Oh boyI remember that I bought this book a few years ago at the suggestion of a mentor of mine who is, like me, a big fan of John Coltrane So being the jazz nerd that I am I m not pretentious enough to be an aficionado yet , I decided to pick this one up because, as the book suggests, John Coltrane is a man who s hard to not get into and get wrapped up in the mythology around him The book is not really a biography on the man, rather than it is an exploration of the man s methodology, as we Oh boyI remember that I bought this book a few years ago at the suggestion of a mentor of mine who is, like me, a big fan of John Coltrane So being the jazz nerd that I am I m not pretentious enough to be an aficionado yet , I decided to pick this one up because, as the book suggests, John Coltrane is a man who s hard to not get into and get wrapped up in the mythology around him The book is not really a biography on the man, rather than it is an exploration of the man s methodology, as well as his musical biography, if that makes sense at all I could mention how Ratliff s prose is quick and efficient in getting its point across and how it s a damn good telling of Coltrane s life, and while I do believe that, I just can t write that, it s too surface level for what this book is about John Coltrane is an enigma, to put it the least Yes, we do know a good bit about his life, but at the same time we don t know anything about what he truly thought about the world around him, only getting hints in his music as well as hearing it from interviews with people he knew and was close to, like his second wife Alice or his drummer at the end of his life Rashied Ali He was a philosopher, who was never satisfied with the world that he was given and never taking things at face value, but he was also an artist and a dreamer who was always searching for the perfect sound, much like his contemporary and former bandleader Miles Davis But while Davis was gruff, abrasive, and to the point, Coltrane was verbose, forcing you into the moment of his sound and forcing you to make your own conclusions about what he was saying, but granted he also took Davis abrasiveness in some of his records But what makes him as unique as he was is that he wasn t playing for us mere humans, he was playing for the gods Ratliff, and Coltrane for that matter, don t care about what mode he played or what chords, or harmonies, or tunes and Ratliff knows that s not what made Coltrane special Like I said before, he was playing for the gods, the cosmos, or whatever is out there in the world He played because he felt that was the only way that he was going to purify himself and seek the truly good and the beautifulin his own words I want to be a force for real good In other words I know that there are bad forces, forces that bring suffering to others and misery to the world, but I want to be the opposite force I want to be the force which is truly for good Coltrane s influence in the jazz genre is far reaching and nigh impossible to get away from, much like how it s almost impossible to escape Alan Moore s influence on comics or The Doors or Pink Floyd s influence on rock Ratliff understands that and instead of just giving us his life story and how his music was as technically proficient as it was, he seeks to answer on why his music has lasted as long as it did, and as always when it comes to this, he doesn t find the answer, but comes to his own conclusion to why Coltrane was so important in jazz To end things, I think that this book is a rather insightful and compelling look into the life of a modern myth in America and finding the humanity, as well as the spirituality of the man It s a great beginner work for people who want to understand Coltrane s life and philosophy and why he was as far reaching as he was It s a work that, like Coltrane himself, will survive into the ages


  3. Juha Juha says:

    This was an absolutely fabulous book Mind you, it s not a biography of John Coltrane and was never meant to be read the subtitle The Story of A Sound Ratliff provides a fascinating and detailed story about how this sound that would beinfluential than any other in this music that has come to be broadly defined as jazz evolved Having listened to Coltrane for some four decades and knowing most of his records in and out, this book provided me with so many insights into the music and This was an absolutely fabulous book Mind you, it s not a biography of John Coltrane and was never meant to be read the subtitle The Story of A Sound Ratliff provides a fascinating and detailed story about how this sound that would beinfluential than any other in this music that has come to be broadly defined as jazz evolved Having listened to Coltrane for some four decades and knowing most of his records in and out, this book provided me with so many insights into the music and the man that I had to go back and listen to many of the records with the book in hand What is so refreshing about this book is Ratliff s sober analysis, which recognizes the enormous talent and inner drive of Coltrane without placing him on a pedestal as a saint In fact, Ratliff demonstrates quite clearly how the mythology about Coltrane, especially after his death, took a life of its own and became a straightjacket for a generation of musicians especially saxophonists that came after.The first part of the book follows Coltrane s growth and the development of his music or sound from the earliest surviving recordings from his army times after the World War II Coltrane was a late bloomer and only found his own musical and spiritual self much later Miles Davis in whose band Trane played during two stretches of time was clearly a mentor with a critical influence on the man s development Having kicked an early heroin habit in 1957, Coltrane embarked on a search that lacks parallels in the history of jazz Having exhausted the harmonic possibilities embedded in traditional chord progressions culminating in the systematic study that was presented as Giant Steps, Coltrane moved onto entirely new spheres based on modal music an area where Miles influence is evident Ratliff gives credit where credit is due, recognizing the enormous importance of the classic quartet with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones and how it became part of the sound that so mesmerized the jazz world But Trane had to move on with his eternal search He started incorporating new elements to the music, first bringing in Eric Dolphy into the quartet, then adding a second drummer Rashied Ali and eventually opening it up to young experimental musicians who may not have been technically or philosophically his peers Albert Ayler, Pharoah Sanders, his own second wife Alice Coltrane but whose music he embraced because he was not able to stop searching In the process, he disappointed many of his fans and forsook the considerable popularity and accompanying commercial success he had achieved imagine that his version of My Favorite Things had been a considerable hit and had even been released as a single For many, the late Coltrane music was an aberration, something that had lost the swing and harmony that jazz was made of As Ratliff shows, for John Coltrane, a modest and highly private man, such considerations were not important as he strove to develop his music further as a spiritual practice.Especially after his death, the mythology around Coltrane exploded The second part of this excellent book explores this phenomenon and looks at Coltrane in the context of the times and how he influenced music far beyond being just one tenor sax player and band leader whose effective career had been quite short the classic Coltrane quartet, which is mostly associated with his legend as a God, essentially lasted for barely half a decade He was declared a saint by many there is even a church in San Francisco called St John Coltrane and there were endless interpretations of his thinking as a radical iconoclast, freedom fighter, champion of equal rights, religious and spiritual leader The man himself hardly said any such things directly Clearly, he was a religious man as evident from works like A Love Supreme but not devoted to any particular organized religion Similarly, some of his music apparently were statements referring to racial injustices it seems fair to assume that Alabama was in reference to the events that had unfolded in Birmingham, Alabama It has been said that Coltrane rejected the Western cultural dominance and turned to Africa and the East It s true that works from Ol to Africa Brass evoked rhythms and tonalities that expanded the expression of jazz, yet at the same time his music was very firmly rooted in the blues Unlike many others who followed, Coltrane was deeply knowledgeable about music theory and harmony and his music was an extension of everything that had come before him He was obsessed with practice he was known to practice even during the breaks between sets at clubs and consequently his technique was incredible Coltrane knew that freedom only comes from knowing and fully understanding what was earlier Coltrane, as Ratliff explains, had wide and long lasting impact on musical life throughout the 1970s and 1980s and still today The cult surrounding him eclipsed all other musicians and their contributions to jazz For a generation, all tenor players were expected by themselves and by others to sound like Coltrane with the exception of Sonny Rollins , thus stymying their own voices There was an ideological split between free jazz that was seen as progressive and all other variations of jazz that eventually led to a marginalization of jazz as a popular music form at the same time as pop music was becoming the commercial force that it is still today In fact, there have been theories over the years that have blamed Coltrane for killing jazz by leading it away from swinging entertainment Obviously, this is a simplistic view that Ratliff does not subscribe to, but his book helps to understand how it could be perceived so While free jazz isolated itself, many pop musicians were listening to Coltrane and adopting aspects of his musical philosophy explicit tributes like those by Carlos Santana and John McLaughlin were preceded by the kinds of The Grateful Dead, The Doors, even The Byrds, who emulated Coltrane s approach to long modally based jams While jazz clubs in New York and elsewhere closed their doors, official funding for the arts redoubled and again redoubled in the 1970s here Ratliff tells a story that resonates with that from the classical music side as recounted by Blair Tindall in Mozart in the Jungle rendering jazz a form of established repertory music think Winton Marsalis and Jazz at the Lincoln Center Only in recent years has the jazz scene seen a unification of points of views and an emergence of new artists and composers who create new music free from the old divisions and from copying Coltrane.Ratliff ends his book by posing the rhetorical question Who will be the next Coltrane He answers it by firmly stating that it is the wrong question No single musician has such an influence in lifting up an entire sensibility Coltrane s greatness wasn t all his own doing, says Ratliff there were circumstances He found his way when Miles Davis took a chance on him He found it comparatively late in life, as an adult of newly organized habits who had his own physical weaknesses to defend He found it when thousands of intelligent listeners in America were waking up to music from other cultures He found it just when audiences were ready to place their trust in a popular musician as a kind of divine messenger He found it precisely when club owners were willing to countenance a band leader who felt like playing the same song for half an hour Above all, Coltrane created possibilities for good things to happen in bands He had a knack for benign direction pp 216 217


  4. Mike Mike says:

    In most of the readings I have done on jazz, the problem I usually encounter is the writing about technique and technical aspects of the music As I am not a student of music, I have a little difficulty getting my brain wrapped around the technical jargon This was the case for parts of this book.However, for the most part, I found the book illuminating in that it helped me to better appreciate, or rather better articulate my appreciation for, the music and the work of John Coltrane The name ha In most of the readings I have done on jazz, the problem I usually encounter is the writing about technique and technical aspects of the music As I am not a student of music, I have a little difficulty getting my brain wrapped around the technical jargon This was the case for parts of this book.However, for the most part, I found the book illuminating in that it helped me to better appreciate, or rather better articulate my appreciation for, the music and the work of John Coltrane The name has always evoked mystery for me and it seems to evoke somewhat the same for most who have come in contact with him.Coltrane aimed for sainthood I don t know if he achieved this, but I believe that he acheived transcendance


  5. Jason Schneeberger Jason Schneeberger says:

    This is not a biography on Coltrane s life, but rather a thorough examination of his sound and how it developed, morphed and changed throughout his career I very much enjoyed this book and highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys Coltrane s music and is interested in what when into his infectious and unique sound.


  6. Kevin Tole Kevin Tole says:

    If there was ever a case for a book being first and foremost an audio book, then Ben Ratliff s comprehensive study of John Coltrane IS that book Mr Ratcliff is the jazz critic for the New York Times.I was searching for a biography of Coltrane as I was listening to his musicandand references were cropping up regularly to him in books on painting I wanted to understand where he had come from and how he fundamentally changed the shape of jazz This book starts with a fairly regular ra If there was ever a case for a book being first and foremost an audio book, then Ben Ratliff s comprehensive study of John Coltrane IS that book Mr Ratcliff is the jazz critic for the New York Times.I was searching for a biography of Coltrane as I was listening to his musicandand references were cropping up regularly to him in books on painting I wanted to understand where he had come from and how he fundamentally changed the shape of jazz This book starts with a fairly regular race through Coltrane s early life and his start of playing with various bands When it moves into the Miles era it really becomes a little sketchy on his involvement and in fact I felt that Ratcliff in some ways is somewhat dismissive of this period Maybe it is because it takes you away from one jazz great and onto another It is also from this point that the book starts to lose anyone who is not right up there in music theory When a muso starts talking about 5ths and 8ths alone then us non muso s tend to start to feel the hand of Morpheus and try desperately to keep the yawn from our faces When he follows that up by going on about I II V d and ii V progressions then the answer starts to be a WTF from us non musos And I quite well realise that the fault is not so much with the book but lies in us non musos in not knowing wtf he is talking about And I desperately did want to know.For me the answer lies in the music If you listen to the music then you hear what is different from what I don t know what that is but I know what it sounds like So to go back to my top line THIS BOOK SHOULD BE AN AUDIO BOOK The fact that Ratcliff also name checks so many other artists and styles which if you have not heard these guys then it is like Ratcliff becomes an advertising man for the record labels that hold these artistes music.The last part of the book, on Coltrane s legacy and the future of jazz makes for very interesting reading and the argument that Coltrane didto hold back sax players than progress them, particularly in the late spiritually inspired music, is examined well.All in all then an interesting book, too deep and muso specific in parts, not biographic enough in others, but in the end a decent attempt to get across the depth and complexity of John Coltrane and his music Only a three but still a worthwhile if at times mystifying book


  7. Ernie Ernie says:

    Quick, fun, yet highly insightful read While most music critics concern themselves with drawing distinctions between the various stylistic phases of a musician s career, Ratliff pursues the unity of a musician s sound a full and sensible embodiment of his artistic personality, such that it can be heard, at best, in a single note, x For him, Trane s sound is the end result of a slow but unstoppable process 202 that unified his diverse experiments with a seemingly endless variety o Quick, fun, yet highly insightful read While most music critics concern themselves with drawing distinctions between the various stylistic phases of a musician s career, Ratliff pursues the unity of a musician s sound a full and sensible embodiment of his artistic personality, such that it can be heard, at best, in a single note, x For him, Trane s sound is the end result of a slow but unstoppable process 202 that unified his diverse experiments with a seemingly endless variety of styles Crucially, the focus on sound allows Ratliff to evade a narrow focus on the man himself In other words, this is not a hagiography The reason Simple the only structure capable of allowing a musician to cultivate his or her sound, according to Ratliff, is a band preferably one that stays together for a long time, gigs regularly, and allows its members the time to play and play until they can synthesize their varied influences into unity Without taking away from Trane s incessant even obsessive practicing regimen, Ratliff insists that Trane s supremacy was also a result of his luck in finding great bands Monk s, Miles , later his own that allowed him the time and the freedom to develop.Ratliff narrates with brio, passion, and a virtuosic vocabulary, layering metaphors like Trane s famous sheets of sound Ira Gitler In the process, he shows off his own sound while seeking Coltrane s Thankfully, this willingness to use a purple passage here and there does not obscure Ratliff s broad knowledge about music, nor his ability to ground his discussions in specific elements of rhythm, harmony, melody, c I also enjoyed Ratliff s consistent effort to link Trane up with larger American artistic trends, beyond jazz and also in other art forms Definitely enjoyable, even a bit inspiring


  8. Arthur Hoyle Arthur Hoyle says:

    This is a book for jazz lovers Ratliff displays extensive knowledge of the forms and structures of jazz as he leads the reader through the evolution of Coltrane s unique sound, which had a major influence on his contemporaries, especially saxophone players, and on many jazz musicians who followed him Ratliff makes the case that Coltrane pushed jazz into new realms through his experiments with harmonics and the use of repetition that anticipates the music of Philip Glass Coltrane is portrayed This is a book for jazz lovers Ratliff displays extensive knowledge of the forms and structures of jazz as he leads the reader through the evolution of Coltrane s unique sound, which had a major influence on his contemporaries, especially saxophone players, and on many jazz musicians who followed him Ratliff makes the case that Coltrane pushed jazz into new realms through his experiments with harmonics and the use of repetition that anticipates the music of Philip Glass Coltrane is portrayed as almost saintlike in his devotion to his craft and in his explorations of the potential of jazz to bring both musicians and audiences into a higher state of consciousness Hear especially his album A Love Supreme We also learn from Ratliff about Coltrane s working relationship with many of the premiere names in jazz, including Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and Ornette Coleman, as well as key members of his own band I wished reading the book that Ratliff had found asolid organizational structure for his account The narrative often felt repetitive The book made me want to listen toColtrane, whom I heard play at the Village Vanguard in New York during the 1950s


  9. Phil Overeem Phil Overeem says:

    Man, this book s a gem Had read three previous Trane books this smokes em all Ratliff writes about music on a weekly basis for The New York Times but that didn t prepare me for this Essentially, he s interested in two things what influences and choices and reflections led Coltrane to forge the path he did, and why Trane s death discombobulated jazz He examines both threads in detail, writes intelligently about the actual music without losing the non player like me , fearlessly deconstruc Man, this book s a gem Had read three previous Trane books this smokes em all Ratliff writes about music on a weekly basis for The New York Times but that didn t prepare me for this Essentially, he s interested in two things what influences and choices and reflections led Coltrane to forge the path he did, and why Trane s death discombobulated jazz He examines both threads in detail, writes intelligently about the actual music without losing the non player like me , fearlessly deconstructs previously off limits myths, poses enough questions for two or threebooks Knocked it out in three days, then filled up my MP3 player with about 11 hours of free jazz Thus, it passed one of the true tests of great books about music they stoke your listening fire


  10. Dave Dave says:

    Rating this lower based on my own experience I don t know enough about musical structure to fully understand all of Ratliff s comments That said, he does a great job of explaining Coltrane s choices and the thought and study that went into them Second half is not quite as good, since he s trying to explain all of the ways Coltrane has been understood interpreted worshiped rejected, and he can t quite simplify as elegantly At times, discussing later Coltrane, it s not that different from read Rating this lower based on my own experience I don t know enough about musical structure to fully understand all of Ratliff s comments That said, he does a great job of explaining Coltrane s choices and the thought and study that went into them Second half is not quite as good, since he s trying to explain all of the ways Coltrane has been understood interpreted worshiped rejected, and he can t quite simplify as elegantly At times, discussing later Coltrane, it s not that different from reading about how Finnegans Wake has been understood, or not The final problem is the problem of all writing about music he loves Chasin the Trane I love India Is he right, or am I