Ben Ratliff's "Coltrane" + 1 Year of Searching!

Shortly after finishing up Ben Ratliff's excellent The Jazz Ear, my friend Kevin Laskey came up from NJ for a graduate school audition in Boston. While we were hanging, I mentioned to him that I had just borrowed another one of Ratliff's books, Coltrane, from the library. Kevin immediately started singing the book's praises, noting that this book in particular led him to realize the potential of great music writing to yield helpful insights and also synthesize multiple interests (history, ethnomusicology, theory, etc.) into a single work.

From the outset, Ratliff makes his mission clear: to write a collection of essays that analyze the development of Coltrane's musical persona over the course of his career and to then make sense of Coltrane's legacy, all while contextualizing his meteoric career with regards to social, political, and cultural histories. This is explicitly not a biography, although the first half of the book moves chronologically through the different phases of Coltrane's development; the second half of the book is more or less where the real analytical heft of the book is located, where Ratliff writes a series of essays that discuss the Coltrane mythology, the music's relationship to differing spheres of aesthetic movements, and other topics that are often understood in terms of received wisdom, rather than through thoughtful, critical attention.

I'll admit that I have not read any other works on Coltrane, but I'm hoping to get around to working through Lewis Porter's book and the other landmark works when I get a chance. This was a good place to start, I think, and is a good place to start for most because of the book's length (only a couple hundred pages, and with relatively large type) and because of the clarity with which Ratliff contextualizes Coltrane historically and digs through the mess of half-baked misunderstandings that have accrued regarding Coltrane's stated intentions, his personal relationship to his historical moment, etc.

Ratliff covers a lot of ground quickly, but he takes care to consider the different angles from which to look at various claims that have been levied against Coltrane over the years. 

There is no evidence anywhere that Coltrane ever tried to be provocative. But the disposition he had grown into represented a subversion of artist-to-audience relations in jazz up to that point. Primarily, jazz had been a music for working people, in cities, people who had limited time and money. A musician on a bandstand had a responsibility to get hot quickly. But given Coltrane’s interest in spirituals, we can infer that he may have been importing an idea from church—not only the musical rhetoric of gospel music, but the actual worship. A religious performance could go on much longer than the typical secular entertainment. And the assumption, too, was that your interest went beyond just entertaining yourself. Otherwise, you hadn’t earned your right to be there.
His position was not antisocial. There is no question that Coltrane’s intent was generosity, and that he wasn’t interested in the shocking-diversion aspect of modernity, or even particular in art for its own sake. I have searched through his written and spoken comments, and unless I’m mistaken, Coltrane never used the word “art” on the record. 
How Coltrane's music might be thought of as "art" or understood within some sort of established framework about art has always been a contentious subject; it relates directly to the role of jazz and various labels critics, fans, and players have attached to the music: "America's classical music," "Black American Music," "America's only original art form." Ratliff replies to these concerns in a way that doesn't flagrantly espouse one agenda over others, but instead tries to understand why Coltrane has been appropriated so often for such diverse purposes:
Late Coltrane satisfies both ideals of culture. It can, for some, confirm the notion of art for art’s sake, a sealed-off container that doesn’t depend on a practical reason for being. (Believe this: there is a type of free-jazz record collector—in fact, after punk, part of a flourishing breed—who does not necessarily think of Africa when he hears a Coltrane album like Expression. Having come through punk, Japanese noise, and electro-acoustic improvisation, he may just like it because it sounds extreme and nonnegotiable.) And it can also reflect the notion of an art of religiosity and spiritual power, related by extension both to West African music and to American gospel. 
Possibly of greatest interest to me was how Ratliff addressed the various mythologies that fans have created about Coltrane: the narratives that have been constructed to fit or affirm people's notions about art, genius, the individual artist. With regards to many positive reviews of late-era Coltrane, Ratliff does two great things. First, he succinctly summarizes a number of comments made by various reviewers in the '60s about late-era Coltrane:
Let’s put these ideas [about the Coltrane mythology) in concentrated form. This is their essence: Coltrane’s loud and dense late-period music cannot be separated from the path toward racial tolerance and absolute worldwide human equality. It is not really meant to be recorded—such enormities can’t be frozen and sold in measured units—yet the recordings are transcendent in spite of themselves. Resistance or intolerance toward this music is a kind of sclerosis; to open oneself to it is to admit honesty and greater feeling. “Understanding it” is empirical Western foolishness; the will to understand is just more sclerosis. Bach and Billie Holiday may enter our emotions at prescripted levels, but this music requires new inventions of selfhood. Understanding yourself is important, but to try to use explanatory language about how the music achieves such power is churlish. The music separates itself from jazz of the past (if it is relevant at all to reduce it to “jazz”) by its call for freedom and oppression; by extension, to pine for the jazz of the past is to pine for oppression.
And second, he identifies the reason why many of these reviewers were misguided in their evaluation of Coltrane, which relates to inevitable limitations of mythology:

No art can hold up under the weight of these hopes. They mystify and sanctify the art beyond possibility, and do damage to all that lies in propinquity to it. Giving Coltrane such thunderous credence, too, automatically minimized the work of others around him. Coltrane was connected in so many ways with nearly all the greatest jazz of the period: with elder figures like Duke Ellington and Johnny Hartman; with bright and brilliant hard-bop like Cannonball Adderley’s and Horace Silver’s; with a line of compositionally ambitious music for standard jazz ensembles, neither “inside” and mainstream nor “outside” and abstract, represented by Andrew Hill and Booker Little. But it seemed that the really titanic claims of importance could only be attached to one person.             
In claiming the music was beyond language and understanding, writing like this used a specific language. It is the language of nineteenth-century Romanticism, and it tended to be used vestigially, mostly above three things: deities, psychedelic drugs, and music. 
It's not that Coltrane wasn't great—it's that by lionizing him out of all proportion, you end up marginalizing the rest of scene and harming the very community that provided the diversity of approach and musicianship that enabled Coltrane to became who he was. And Ratliff draws a line straight from this process of deification in the '60s to the present day, where this inadvertent legacy of Coltrane has extended and generated some other insidious side-effects:
All of his music slots into this mythology, which he—amazingly—seemed uninterested in building or furthering while he was alive. To most people, it is much less interesting to consider Coltrane as a slow but unstoppable process than as someone who had a clear modernist agenda, who discarded “the past” and rode blindfolded into “the future.” Coltrane was reluctant to talk to liner-note writers about his music, believing that if it were any good it would speak for itself. Nevertheless, the favoring of the Big Statement in jazz, a suite or an homage or a cross-discipline work, as a measure of artistic value—particularly as practiced by grant committees like the MacArthur Foundation—is entirely due to the influence of John Coltrane.
The unqualified "entirely" might be a bit of a rhetorical flourish, but I can't help but largely agree with Ratliff's highly compelling argument. Aside from these brilliant essayistic moments in Coltrane, I was also very impressed by the breadth and depth of research Ratliff carried out in preparation for the book (the sources section is unreal). So many great anecdotes and quotes:

He [Rashied Ali] remembers playing at the Village Vanguard with Coltrane in 1966 and being asked by Coltrane, in the club’s back room before the gig, what he thought about Frank Wright, the young free-jazz tenor player. He knew that Ali and Wright were friends, and Wright, who had come ot the club that night, had independently approached Coltrane about the possibility of sitting in with Coltrane’s band at the club. Ali reacted skeptically. I said, “Aw, man, he ain’t playing shit.” 
He looked at me. I said, “Man, he ain’t playing shit.”
We go out on the bandstand, and the first thing he does is say [to Wright], “Hey, man, come on up.” 
In the dressing room, after it was over, he said something I never forgot. He said, “I don’t care what a cat plays. If you’re into music, there’ll be something you hear [in that musician] that you might like. One note, one sound, that you might like.” 
When I read the above anecdote I couldn't help but think of James Joyce, who once reportedly said "I have never met a bore." The same sense of universal curiosity (not to mention some serious optimism) in Coltrane as in Joyce becomes readily apparent when you compare their encyclopedic approaches to their art. There's plenty more to learn in this great book; check it out if you haven't already.

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A year ago, I wrote my first post for this blog about the similarity between some ideas in Descartes's Discourse on Method and Miguel Zenón's approach to teaching and studying the saxophone, which I gleaned from the first couple lessons with him. I never could have imagined that I would have ever written so much—or transcribed so many solos—as I did over the past year, but my project worked: having a public website helped me maintain a steady pace of practicing and study, and I've gotten plenty of positive feedback. In a year, this site has grown from getting 25 pageviews a day to getting into the quadruple-digits (hey, big deal for me!), and it's almost hit 100,000, which I didn't expect to happen so soon (I have a pageview widget in the sidebar, if you haven't noticed, that mentions that the world will end when the pageview counter hits 100,000, but I'd be willing to bet against that now). 

So thanks, everybody, for reading. Hopefully in the coming year I'll be able to write some more substantive reflections on music and make some arguments and counterarguments of my own, which I've generally strayed away from considering my general unfamiliarity with the immense body of literature about jazz. This might mean fewer transcriptions, but it seems like the Internet is growing increasingly inundated with transcription pooling websites and the like, so I don't foresee any shortage of transcriptions in the near future.

There's nothing like getting free reeds!
In other news, I'll be starting a part-time position as a research assist for Daniel Henderson, who teaches jazz improvisation and harmony in the music department at Harvard, which'll probably mean some posts in the future about topics like differing approaches to phrasing melodies and the like, so watch out for that. I'll also be traveling to Indiana in mid-March to play as a guest soloist with the Jazz Band of America as per the awards packaged tied to the Vandoren Emerging Artist Competition, which should be a good time. That's all for now. I'm looking forward to another year of horizontal searching.