Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, by Ben Ratliff, Faber, 250 pp. £16.99, ISBN: 978-0571232741
There was a time, forty years ago, when I knew I was cool, and in case I had any doubts about this coat of varnish I’d applied to my culchie self I only had to lend an ear to the music that was in the air to have them dispelled. Needless to say, it couldn’t just be any music. It had to be progressive. There was no clear consensus as to what this term meant, which was all to the good and in keeping with the imprecise but ardent and eclectic spirit of the times. So, the multitude of items it covered included The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, Thunderclap Newman, Morning Dew, the Third Ear Band, My White Bicycle, the MC5, Van der Graaf Generator and on up, or down, or sideways to Luciano Berio, Soft Machine, Cornelius Cardew, Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath, Love, John Cage, Ravi Shankar … Lennon but not McCartney.
The meaning didn’t matter. Progressive was all the more itself for being expressed through buzz, feel, sensation, cool, a dissolving of the pre-prepared and the predictable, a set of alarums and excursions signified by a fondness for minor keys and novel chord changes. But if meaning has to be assigned to it, two features are worth considering. One is an obvious resistance to the form and content of the Tin Pan Alley musical product, and the effective identification of such musical eructations as just that – product. Its very imaginative impoverishment, its slack tempi and banal lyrics, were nothing but expressions of limits and control, as ersatz as they were dispassionate. This kind of thing might be Big Brother’s idea of a good time, but it was pretty obviously just another of the many mind games he practised back in the good old days, when he wasn’t the family member he’s since become. One thing about progressive music was that it came across as self-consciously averse to being commercial. This greatly helped its sales.
The second point is that the age of sound was coming into being. At the technical level, improved amplification made possible the proliferation of live performances and a resultant gig culture and economy. And it also brought rock festivals, events which not only temporarily took over places hitherto known as Squaresville (the Isle of Wight, say) but were attended in numbers at least the equal of those participating in political demonstrations and which gave just as vivid but rather more illusory sense of there being a “movement”. Recorded sound was becoming more accessible, and there was much more of it now that the height of ambition for pretty much everybody recording was to make an LP.
Broadcast music had to scramble to keep up, with pirate radio leading the way. The attempts of the BBC to become hip show a kind of cultural politics of sound – and of course it was the Sixties which made explicit the political dimensions of cultural choice and cultural practices. Tin Pan Alley caught on to the sound challenge plenty soon, but didn’t know what to do about it except to repackage sounds that came across as playfully passé – trad and numbers like Pasadena by The Temperance Seven featuring Whispering Paul McDowell, the New Vaudeville Band’s Winchester Cathedral and Finchley Central, bonbons for whom the audience was obscure despite chart-topping success and which confirmed the vanguard status of the progressives, the hash-brownie crowd, the cool ones.
Old instruments like piano and guitar were put to unexpected uses to produce what was confidently described as noise. New instruments – electric organs, electric basses – made for new blends of sound. Even for individual performers, sound could become a site of provocation, as the reception of Dylan going electric shows. And if the projection of a distinctive vocal sound dates from at least the heyday of Bing Crosby, that didn’t mean that the majority of people were ready for Little Richard – or Dylan, for that matter. But it did mean that a lot of people were ready for them. Other items for consideration – doo-wop, Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, the scratch in Ben E King’s Stand By Me, the motorbikes in the Shangri-Las’ Leader of the Pack, the screaming Beatles, Levi Stubbs’s immortal “Hah!” in Reach Out I’ll Be There (or, if you like, everything on that record). The times they were a-changin’ and sound, in whatever way, shape or form, was where it was at. And if the sound wasn’t especially verbal, or its oral aspect was not particularly comprehensible, so much the better. That created a whatever-turns-you-on openness, which in properly progressive circles was affirmed as a licence to solo, a procedure whereby the soul and electricity became one.
It was in this highly elaborate and in a strange way tense acoustic environment that John Coltrane became so very well known. This is a conjunction to which there are several odd features. One fairly minor one is that what happened can’t be seen as anything other than a conjunction. As Ben Ratliff brings out, part of Coltrane’s posthumous reputation for saintliness – a reputation to which, among many other pieces of evidence, the two churches founded in his name testify – was that he didn’t seek the fans his music unexpectedly attracted. He was interested in Indian music and in African music also, but this was on strictly musical grounds, and when these interests were incorporated in his own recordings it was not as pieces of facile mimicry, or alluring splashes of tonal colour, but as technical resources providing increased potential and imaginative firepower. And what imaginative firepower means is difficulty, as the development of Coltrane’s output clearly reveals.
But the question of where Coltrane stands with regard to progressive music, never mind in relation to Sixties culture generally, raises another more basic one. And that concerns the rather reserved, or even marginal, place of jazz during the decade. An unfortunate distance came to exist between jazz and rock, not just because of how the music industry used its resources or how radio programmed its offerings. After all, the Sixties saw some extraordinary jazz musicians: Davis, Monk, Mingus, to name only the very biggest names, also produced their finest work while Coltrane was producing his. Different though Mingus’s The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady and Davis’s Bitches Brew are from anything by Coltrane (and from each other), both are remarkable statements, extending a challenge whose modernity and sophistication is not easy to take up even now. Add Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come or Free Jazz, the music of Cecil Taylor and Albert Ayler, and the place of jazz in Ray Charles’s excursions in hybridity , and the range of both development and accomplishment becomes clear. And yet comparatively little of this extraordinary – and in the cases of Taylor, Coleman, Coltrane and Davis, revolutionary – music-making impinged on the very listeners who, in their conceit of progressiveness, might be thought to have had ears to hear it.
In view of achievements of this kind, it would be silly to claim that jazz was silenced by the wail of the wah-wah pedal or the sitar’s slinky chimes. When it was edited and issued as a single, Coltrane’s My Favourite Things sold well, though of course selling in the record business is a deceptive yardstick by which to measure pretty much anything, including sales. Jazz tends to have a longer shelf-life than pop, the notion of the “hit” applies differently, the whole matrix of studio, marketing, labels, radio time and related considerations are so different that they have not always been recognised or allowed for by the parent companies who own jazz labels, so that the cumulative sales of a given record can ultimately be surprisingly substantial (in his A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album, Ashley Kahn has a few comments regarding that album’s going gold – or not). And no doubt a lot of jazz could be heard at the time – Charles Lloyd, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Don Ellis, certainly made the scene. But I don’t remember there being any real consciousness of the expressive ambitions or cultural integrity of jazz at the time, painful as it is for a self-styled progressive fan to admit, since jazz is nothing if not progressive music. And at the time, of course, there was an explosive development in black political and cultural self-awareness, the enactment of which in the civil rights movement proved exemplary in its discipline, organisation, vision and moral authority – the kind of enterprise for which the term progressive would appear to have been invented.
The ways in which jazz may be regarded as providing a soundtrack to the civil rights movement make too complicated a subject to go into here. It may be noted in passing, however, that among the areas the subject embraces are those of self-assertion, a rhetoric of possibility, the winning articulation of difficult themes and the recognition of the spirit’s place in secular settings, collective discipline. Not that the movement identified these areas as new-found resources. They already existed, and of course continue to exist, in the black church, and if a musical partnership is sought then the choirs of those churches readily supply it. Still, it’s difficult not to think of jazz as exploring its own vocabulary of freedom in ways that were much more explicit – and in ways which were less a part of the entertainment industry – than in earlier periods.
Such exploration, too, can be thought of as a matter of sound: compare the softly-voice music of saxophonists like Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins, or even Charlie Parker, with the full-bodied, frontal attack of saxophonists who came to the fore in the 1950s – Sonny Rollins and Cannonball Adderley, say, never mind Coltrane’s huge clamant calling, whose intensity and incessantness remains one of the most distinctive cries in postwar music. (And by the way, those excursions of Ray Charles may also be regarded as statements of musical desegregation; what does Georgia on My Mind exactly signify when Charles sings it? That’s a whole new acoustic – Take These Chains from My Heart indeed! Country music with a gospel choir – that’s telling it not like it is.)
As it so happens, Coltrane’s background as a black Southerner was in the church. His father and grandfather were clergymen, with the latter an exponent of what Coltrane himself described as a “militant” religious perspective. Ben Ratliff, however, doesn’t want anything to do with either the notion of Coltrane as apostle of freedom or with the hagiographical, spiritually liberated leader.
And yet last night I played Meditations
& it told me what to do
Live, you crazy mother
This kind of thing (Amiri Baraka, Am/Trak), also very important in its own right to allow oneself to hear, is far from the tone and perspective of Coltrane: The Story of a Sound. In fact, one of the problems Ratliff has with Coltrane’s cultural identity comes across in the somewhat dismissive acknowledgment of how many poems have been written in his honour. At the same time, imbalance at the other end of the critical spectrum, represented by an assessment written by Philip Larkin which is even more bilious than the views aired in his All That Jazz, is also knocked on the head. For Ratliff, Coltrane is first and last a musician, the consequences of whose musical development continue to be both enormous and stultifying.
The magnitude of what Coltrane accomplished is detailed in terms of his growth, and more importantly in the light of the struggle and commitment of his growth (the “argument with himself” from which Yeats said poetry is made). Key moments along the way include such periods of apprenticeship with Thelonius Monk, and perhaps just as revealingly with Johnny Hodges, together of course with the periods spent playing with Miles Davis. Coltrane practised to an obsessive degree – at clubs in breaks between sets even – and voraciously studied musical manuals such as Slonimsky’s Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns (one of Ratliff’s chapters is called “theory-mad”). There is in this, as well as the need to “fit it all in” which the saxophonist gave as a reason for the length of his solos, not only a remarkable sense of dedication but also, of course, a strong sense of command and intention. This sense is perhaps one of the basic pistons driving the rapid trajectory of Coltrane’s music from Giant Steps through A Love Supreme and on out onto unheard of regions of sonic possibility in such late works as the well-named Interstellar Space. The challenge of the music – and Coltrane’s music is always challenging, not least because of its muscularity and ambition – is nothing other than the challenge the artist continually set himself, his confident journey towards an obviously unknown but just as obviously realisable future. And presumably that’s one value that the progressive affirms, a belief in a future, a future the very thought of which is going to entail a large measure of improvisation and invention and a transgressive realignment of truths formerly thought to be immutable and self-evident. That’s one of the reasons why a political dimension can be inferred from progressive aesthetic engagements.
As mentioned, however, Ratliff understandably refuses to reduce Coltrane to “dare to struggle, dare to win” or any facile formula whatever, be it Black Power, radicalism or any other of the related Sixties terms re-echoed during the recent US presidential campaign. There’s something a little nerdy in Ratliff’s substantially musical orientation, and I was sorry to have not been able to appreciate some of the points made about Coltrane’s musicianship due to my not sharing the author’s high degree of musical literacy. At the same time, by using technical musical language to describe what a given solo is accomplishing in the terms it proposes for itself, the book does give a practical, demonstrable conception of the saxophonist at work. Coltrane was as big as his ambition, something not every artist succeeds in being, and whether that means he was “greedy”, as Miles Davis thought, or an image of a peculiarly American artist-type, described in a quotation from Robert Lowell as the “all-in” type. Comments such as Eric Hobsbawm’s (in The Jazz Scene) that Coltrane “is … in urgent need of sub-editing” miss the point. As Ratliff remarks, “the point of jazz, at least to some degree, is being yourself”.
In addition, as well as serving as a portrait of the artist as a self-made man, this book’s musicological inclinations obviously serve its interest in sound. The interesting thing is that “sound”, which in Coltrane’s case not only reflected a particular aesthetic of presence – wholehearted, argumentative and forthright, in contrast, for example, to the elliptical, understated Miles, something of an invisible man – which the volume at which he played the tenor and soprano saxes expresses, but in highly sensitised pursuits of tonal variation and probing of tonal integrity (even as that pertains to a single tone, as though imagining other shades even among the primary colours), is the means whereby he made himself.
Powerful though Coltrane’s playing is though, it had to take place within a collective context, with the so-called classic quartet, the optimum ensemble (McCoy Tyner, piano; Jimmy Garrison, bass; Elvin Jones, drums, all major innovators in their own right, not at all sidemen, but each of them elected into lead roles, almost to the point of resembling the approach of Ornette Coleman’s groups, if not indeed going further by virtue of the status given Jones, whom some musicians from those days whom Ratliff interviews view as second in importance only to the leader). Ratliff’s final sentence is “The truth of jazz is in its bands”, and this quartet proves again the validity and arguably the necessity of that statement.
The first of Coltrane: The Story of a Sound’s two parts is devoted to life, development, achievement, methods. The second deals with Coltrane’s legacy, which has been, it’s claimed, overawing, and there’s an inventory of mimics and camp-followers of what musicians considered the Coltrane ethos (Archie Shepp and Pharaoh Sanders are the main men here, with the art of Wayne Shorter providing an interesting critique of the ethos). Lists and such are, of course, the stuff of argument, and that’s all to the good, as are Ratliff’s comments on the institutionalisation of jazz in academia, and even more interestingly through the cultural politics and public prominence of Wynton Marsalis and his critical shadow Stanley Crouch.
As to the Coltrane legacy, my own tuppenceworth here would be that not enough attention is paid to players like David Murray for one, through whose voluminous output an approach to Coltrane can interestingly be made in retrospect. And that might well be an approach that’s being made. Back in the day, Miles Davis reckoned that Coltrane’s A Love Supreme appealed to “people who were into peace … Hippies and people like that”, and even if that remark manages both to judge the work by its title and depict its audience as passive dropouts, there’s also the fact that forty years on those hippies have grown up and may be better able to appreciate Coltrane’s artistry. One of the ways that has been possible is through the number of different attempts musicians have made to catch up to Coltrane. What his music communicates has been a resource much in demand these late years – and not just his music but the whole range of what is signified by, to cite the title of one highly stimulating collection of essays, The Jazz Cadence of American Culture. As we’ve lately been happily reminded, things have come a long way since Coltrane’s death in 1967 (at the age of forty), and it’s hard not to think of jazz, in its challenging exhortations, its life of innovation and nothing but, its forward-lookingness, as having spoken of something of that complicated, imperfect but undeniable onward progress. What’s going to happen now, musically and otherwise, is surely going to be worth keeping an ear to the ground for.
George O’Brien is Professor of English at Georgetown University, Washington. His publications include the noted memoir The Village of Longing. He will spend the spring term teaching in the Trinity College Creative Writing Programme.