Coltrane, a biography by Ben Ratliff (Farrar Straus Giroux)

In his autobiography Straight Life, Art Pepper talked about how deeply he was influenced by John Coltrane – so much so that when he came out of prison in 1964 without his alto horns, he acquired a tenor sax. Ben Ratliff plucks the following quotation from Pepper’s book: “ ‘More and more I found myself sounding like Coltrane,’ he wrote. ‘Never copied any of his licks consciously, but from my ear and my feeling and my sense of music … what I really wanted to do was play like Coltrane.’” But later in Pepper’s book, he goes further: “That experience – it lasted about four years [starting 1964] that I was influenced so much by John Coltrane – was a freeing experience. It enabled me to be more adventurous, to extend myself notewise and emotionally … But since the day I picked up the alto again I’ve realized that if you don’t play yourself you’re nothing. And since that day I’ve been playing what I felt, regardless of what those around me were playing or how they thought I should sound.” Coltrane taught Pepper about freedom -- but Pepper recouped his own style and thus didn't make the mistake of equating Coltrane's mode as somehow more genuine and deeply felt than others.

coltrane.jpgFor many of us, Lewis Porter’s John Coltrane, His Life and Music (University of Michigan Press, 1998) became the definitive take on Coltrane, rich as that book is in musical and personal detail; there are 83 pages of notes, including a meticulously assembled chronology of his recording and performance dates. But Ben Ratliff has added valuable new assessment that keeps a steady, inquiring eye not only on Coltrane’s development, but on the fluctuating views on Coltrane as illustrated by Pepper above. Embrace of and recoil from Coltrane are movements familiar to Ratliff's own ear.

Every sax player paid attention to Coltrane’s techniques, some becoming unshakable converts, others tasting and moving on. But Coltrane’s constant drive to evolve resonated thematically with virtually everyone. Ratliff’s significant accomplishment is to track the tensions at play in Coltrane’s artistic development, and also in the minds of his followers, listeners, critics and bandstand colleagues. In the very first sentence of his remarkable introduction, Ratliff writes, “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.” Ratliff doesn’t exactly challenge or discredit the common wisdom. But the kinds of questions he asks, and leaves open, about the quality of Coltrane’s genius, the culture’s demand for newness, and the mentality of the American artist, lend an invigorating tone to the discussion.

In fact, Ratliff’s Coltrane is the book to read about genius, talent and influence in the post-modern age – whether you’re a fiction writer, poet, painter or performance artist, jazz lover or more casual listener. It's also a study of how the great artist is absorbed by technique (studying and honoring tradition) while in pursuit freedom. The first section tracks Coltrane's development; the second section considers his influence and how the icon of a master works in our minds. But because Ratliff writes and thinks dynamically and without pedantry, the lively first section foreshadows the second, and the candid latter section qualifies the first.

The painter Georges Braque said of his competitor Picasso, “He used to be a great artist, but now he’s only a genius.” For those who followed Coltrane from the early ballads and the famous sets captured on Live at the Village Vanguard (1961) to the modal, pentatonic scales of A Love Supreme (1964) and beyond, his “questing-without-end attitude became his signature, what people expected from him.” His manner of playing came to stand for something beyond the sound, and complemented the command of the “counter-culture,” or as in Ratliff’s paraphrasing of Amiri Baraka, that “art exists so that you can change your consciousness in its presence.” The genius of Coltrane was continually to expose his desire to change. He heard religiosity and spiritual power in Ravi Shankar’s music and in the traditional music of West Africa, and thus moved from the chords and changes of Charlie Parker, Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins to highly structured but modally continuous sounds, droning but also melodious. Ratliff takes a few well chosen moments to align Coltrane with the artistic and literary traits of his time, including a generous portion of Robert Lowell’s BBC interview with A. Alvarez wherein he talks about “the monotony of the sublime” in American culture, a phrase that sums up Coltrane’s later music.

coltrane2.jpgBut many people either wouldn’t valorize Coltrane’s spiritual mission over that of the music, or didn’t believe that only his type of “free” music could change consciousness. The great tenor player Johnny Griffin said, “The critics messed Trane up.” Ratliff takes this to mean that “Coltrane had adopted the transgressive romanticism of his white defenders, that he was perhaps acting out their desires for what they wanted him to be.” Ratliff charts the enthusiasms and critiques – but his own ear, sorting out the sound, informs the multi-dimensional view of Coltrane. “Some musicians have told me that after a period of immersion [in Coltrane,] they could not listen to him anymore … When I first heard Coltrane’s records as a teenager in the 1980s … he sounded to me like a great lake whose dimensions I knew I wanted to trace. Next was Giant Steps, with its brightness, concision, harmonic acuity, and strong original melodies. It did me no harm – not until later, when I began to hear a rote mathematical stiffness in his playing that I reacted against.”

This makes Ratliff the perfect critic to describe Coltrane’s vacillations between structure and freedom. In 1965, Coltrane actually led two bands, one looking back to his days working with Thelonius Monk and Miles Davis, the other looking ahead and including many younger musicians. But where other musicians saw these categories as opposites and turned I’ll play whatever I want into a political or nationalistic statement, Coltrane never did separate them. He simply leaned one way or the other at different times. Sonny Sharrock, who played in Coltrane’s band in 1965, was advised by Jimmy Garrison, Coltrane’s bassist, to improve his skill in getting his changes right, even though the band was playing “freely”; when Sharrock dismissed the importance of changes, he was told, “Coltrane can play his changes.” In other words, Coltrane tutored himself for years, practicing, rehearsing, until the fundamentals were second nature. He was always reacting against something he had embraced and loved. He showed us that reacting against is something we can do with love.

In 1962, the jazz critic Ira Gitler said of Coltrane’s increasingly dissonant style, “Coltrane may be searching for new avenues of expression, but if it is going to take this form of yawps, squawks, and countless repetitive runs, then it should be confined to the woodshed.” But as Ratliff notes, by 1964, with the “new talk of the Black Art” movement, Coltrane’s mystique tended to dampen the possibility of thoughtful critique. He writes, “That, roughly, was the moment when it became a much more common gesture for jazz critics to align Coltrane’s musical truths with human truths, and the moment when it was a loaded gesture for a white man to criticize John Coltrane in public.” By 1971, four years after Coltrane’s death, Martin Williams reflected in The Jazz Tradition, “From one point of view, the post-Monk Coltrane had pushed jazz harmonies as far as they could go. From another, such complex, sophisticated knowledge set its own trap, and Coltrane, still a vertical thinker, careened around like a laboratory hamster trapped in a three-dimensional harmonic maze of his own making.”

In this way, Coltrane illuminates what has happened to all artforms and their critique since the 60s: the fracturing of mainstream genres into antagonistic camps and of criticism into demagoguery. "What was taking shape was an ugly circle of irritation, based on reductive white-listener notions and reductive black notions of the white notions and reductive white notions of the black-listener notions," Ratliff writes. "It was the supposed morality of variation versus the supposed corrupting influence of repetition. The faith that wider possibilities of tonality and rhythm could bring psychic liberation, versus the suspicion that such developments were diluting jazz."

Ratliff gives us convincing insights into Coltrane’s technical maturation that must be weighed with the standard criticism about aimless indulgence. The episodes involving Monk and Miles Davis, especially the former, are studies in how to teach and how to learn. Ratliff shows us “how the blues form challenged [Coltrane] to invent crucial differences between him and his colleagues." Certainly, Coltrane’s story in general gives us a chance to think about the topic of how and why we go about creating differences between ourselves as artists. Ratliff’s writing is alive to the complex notion, wonderment, skepticism. Snappy and informed, Coltrane is a tour of Ratliff's thoughtful musical and cultural considerations, all of which resist simple conclusiveness. He backs everything up with comment from 39 interviews with the likes of Michael Brecker, Ornette Coleman, Ravi Coltrane, Roy Haynes, Branford Marsalis, Danilo Perez, Joshua Redman, Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter, and McCoy Tyner.

The French 19th-century painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres said, “With talent, you do what you like. With genius, you do what you can.” A crude view of Coltrane pictures him as someone who did what he liked, as an icon of freedom. But in fact, he did only what he could do and what his temperament and psyche dictated – to learn all he could about form from the masters and then access his own maximum freedom to learn even more. Something in the violence and the speed of that access – not the clash of form and freedom – seems to have been the tragic issue. Art Pepper, whose own stated goal was to become the best alto player in the world, put it this way:

“But success trapped him. He got so successful that everyone was expecting him to be always in the forefront … Coltrane did the avant-garde thing until there was no place else to go. What he finally had, what he really had and wanted and had developed, he could no longer play because that wasn‘t new anymore. He got on that treadmill and ran himself ragged trying to be new and to change. It destroyed him. It was too wearing, too draining. And he became frustrated and worried. Then he started hurting, getting pains, and he got scared. He was afraid of doctors, hospitals, audiences, bandstands. He lost his teeth. He was afraid that his sound wasn’t strong enough, afraid that the new, young black kids wouldn’t think he was the greatest thing that ever lived anymore. And the pains got worse and worse, so bad he couldn’t stand the pain. So they carried him to a hospital but he was too far gone. He had cirrhosis, and he died that night. Fear killed him. His life killed him. That thing killed him.”

[250 pages, $25.00]

[Ben Ratliff has been the jazz critic at The New York Times since 1996.]