[JPL] NYTs Book Review COLTRANE The Story of a Sound.By Ben Ratliff

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October 28, 2007

Music Issue
Favorite Things

By PANKAJ MISHRA
COLTRANE


The Story of a Sound.


By Ben Ratliff.

250 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $24.

I regret Coltrane¹s death,² the English poet Philip Larkin wrote in 1967,
³as I regret the death of any man, but I can¹t conceal the fact that it
leaves in jazz a vast, blessed silence.² In his last years, John Coltrane,
who began his career with a Navy band, had moved through modal improvising
to what the New York Times music critic Ben Ratliff, in this engaging study
of the jazz saxophonist¹s artistic influence, calls the ³music of meditation
and chant.² Coltrane would often discard the principle of harmony in order
to produce a trancelike effect on his audience; his later compositions
recall the scalar complexity of North Indian classical music more than
anything in the Western tradition. But they didn¹t impress Larkin, who
reviewed jazz records from 1961 to 1971 for The Daily Telegraph and could
barely tolerate even Coltrane¹s most accessible late music, like the
devotional suite ³A Love Supreme.²

Entranced in his youth by Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman and Fats Waller,
Larkin believed jazz had lost its ability to give pleasure by going ³modern²
‹ a word that, for him, usually signaled extreme pretentiousness and
boredom. Jazz performers, he asserted, had no business embracing (as
Coltrane did) Indian, African and Latin music. Grumpily
counter-countercultural as the 1960s progressed ‹ he didn¹t have much time
for Bob Dylan either ‹ Larkin became convinced that everything that had gone
wrong with jazz reached its grim apotheosis with Coltrane, who offered
³squeals, squeaks, Bronx cheers and throttled slate-pencil noises for
serious consideration.² Collecting his jazz reviews in 1970, Larkin asserted
that ³it was with Coltrane that jazz started to be ugly on purpose.²

One can only wonder what Larkin would have made of the African Orthodox
Church of St. John Coltrane, established the next year in San Francisco.
Coltrane¹s last years (during which he pursued new musical styles with the
intensity and purity of an ascetic) and his early death (in 1967, when he
was only 40) ensured his canonization. Still, it¹s surprising to learn that
Coltrane, as Ratliff claims, ³has been more widely imitated in jazz over the
last 50 years than any other figure² and that his recordings, ³particularly
from 1961 to 1964,² sound ³like the thing we know as modern jazz, just the
way that Stravinsky sounds like the thing we know as modern classical
music.²

How did this happen? Afflicted with the modernist longing to make it new,
Coltrane read widely, from Aristotle to Krishnamurti, and borrowed from
ancient Indian ragas as well as Western atonal music. But he was reticent
about analyzing his own work. His occasional attempts to explain it were
tinged with the self-regard and sententiousness commonplace among many
artists in the 1950s and ¹60s who, like Coltrane, almost lost themselves to
drugs and alcohol before finding religion. Ratliff patiently explicates
Coltrane¹s legend, writing in short, aphoristic bursts, often as
elliptically as his subject played tenor saxophone, but never less than
lucidly.

Coltrane¹s reputation, which traveled as far as Carlos Santana and Iggy Pop,
turns out to be easier to explain than his intentions and motivations. He
played both tenor and soprano saxophone with a highly individual big-toned
sound; he was always likely to exert as much influence on later generations
as Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young had on him. Then, too, his
improvisational style, which often allowed him to endlessly play
predetermined chord sequences, was a boon to less talented performers. As
Ratliff points out, in one of his book¹s many clearsighted moments, ³lots of
musicians² could adopt Coltrane¹s modal playing, especially in a minor
pentatonic scale, and ³sound good.²

Ratliff succeeds in rescuing Coltrane from adherents who disregard his
strenuous work ethic (even his endless and apparently aimless solos were
carefully rehearsed) but adopt the easiest bits of his legacy ‹ the yowling
and shrieking. And he¹s gently skeptical about Coltrane¹s ambition to turn
jazz into a bridge to the divine. (It seems clear that program music,
however sincerely motivated, can mean anything to the listener when Ratliff
quotes the lead singer of the Byrds saying he was interested in ³the angry
barking² of Coltrane¹s saxophone playing.)

Ratliff is too young to fall for the strident 1960s interpretation that
Coltrane¹s more maniacal music reflected black rage and frustration.
Instead, he suggests, intelligently and persuasively, that Coltrane had,
among other attributes, a ³mystic¹s keen sensitivity for the sublime, which
runs like a secret river under American culture.² ³Coltrane,² Ratliff
writes, ³was acutely self-possessed in his identity as an artist, at a time
when a lot of celebrated American art had become seen as a kind of
sanctuary, an escape from military conspiracies, war and television.²

Certainly Coltrane was serenely indifferent to the easier commercial and
political temptations of the 1960s. It was after acquiring a mainstream
audience with ³My Favorite Things,² a big radio hit in 1961, that he
expanded his experiments with modal music, which he then interrupted to
record some beautifully melodic ballads. Anyone committed to confronting a
white middle-class audience with the musical equivalent of Bobby Seale¹s
speeches wouldn¹t have recorded ³Lush Life² with Johnny Hartman or so
wonderfully and definitively reconfigured ³In a Sentimental Mood² with Duke
Ellington.

Tracing Coltrane¹s tentative first steps, the early refuge in standards, the
religious conversion, the casting around in other cultures and languages,
the change of instruments and the final preference for pure incantation,
Ratliff¹s book seems to describe an odyssey that¹s primarily spiritual
rather than aesthetic or political. In this light, Coltrane¹s last
recordings, which make few concessions to a conventional audience, now
appear to be a final push for inner freedom, a flight from the dwindling
possibilities of jazz itself.

Ratliff outlines only faintly the broader context of what seemed, by the
mid-¹60s, to be a private and eccentric journey. Jazz, a minority interest
even during the heyday of swing, suffered in the postwar period from the
rapid disappearance of its social setting, a diminishment only heightened by
the flight of the young to rock music, a brash new rival that,
paradoxically, also derived from American blues.

Jazz¹s turn to the avant-garde and the exoticisms of the 1960s now seems as
inevitable as the rise of atonal classical music after the breakup of the
stable societies of 19th-century Europe. Of course, jazz, which emerged from
post-Reconstruction black America, wasn¹t like any other art. Its primary
promise ‹ which attracted Larkin, among millions of others ‹ was to
entertain a paying audience, and its avant-garde could only flourish in the
bourgeois security of what Ratliff calls ³the jazz curriculum, the postwar
black-studies curriculum and the punk-rock curriculum.² Coltrane, Ratliff
writes, ³was moving a little too fast for most of his audience.² It could
also be said that Coltrane was trying to escape the impasse of
antiquarianism in which so much of jazz finds itself today, or that he was
working out, in his most inward quests, the melancholy logic of
obsolescence.

Pankaj Mishra is the author, most recently, of ³Temptations of the West: How
to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and Beyond.²


Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company
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