№ 4

His Are a Few of Our Favourite Sounds

—The Globe and Mail, Dec. 22, 2007

The Story of a Sound

By Ben Ratliff
Far­rar, Straus and Giroux, 250 pages, $27.50

When sax­o­phon­ist Bran­ford Marsalis was in his first year at Boston’s pres­ti­gious Berklee Col­lege of Music, he dreamed of becom­ing a record pro­ducer. It was 1979. Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall had just been released. Despite his for­mal jazz train­ing, Marsalis fan­cied him­self a next-generation Quincy Jones, the jazz trum­peter turned mas­ter pop pro­ducer, ini­tially with Off the Wall, then with its follow-up, Thriller.

Marsalis’s sax­o­phone instruc­tor, how­ever, sug­gested another direc­tion: He urged his young stu­dent to con­sider John Coltrane.

I don’t want to lis­ten to that stuff,” Marsalis remem­bers telling his teacher.

He’d been quite con­sciously avoid­ing Coltrane’s work. Every­where Marsalis looked, he saw Coltrane clones and cookie-cutter tech­ni­cians. “Lis­ten to the way these guys sound,” he said, damn­ing a whole seg­ment of the scene, ter­ri­fied of falling into a trap seem­ingly set by the great man’s legacy.

That inher­i­tance — strad­dling rev­er­ence and fear and duti­ful obser­vance — is at the heart of Ben Ratliff’s excel­lent (and decep­tively mod­est) Coltrane: The Story of a Sound. Ratliff, a critic with the New York Times, could eas­ily have writ­ten some­thing per­snick­ety and parochial; music writ­ers too often adore the equiv­a­lent of inside base­ball. Instead, he’s turned a real jazz book into an imme­di­ate dec­la­ra­tion of rel­e­vance. Coltrane is about artis­tic influ­ence and Amer­i­can cul­ture, and Ratliff uses per­haps the tough­est mat­ter at a critic’s dis­posal to tell this story: a musician’s sound.

I mean ‘sound’ as it has long func­tioned among jazz play­ers,” he writes, “as a mys­ti­cal term of art … a full and sen­si­ble embod­i­ment of [a musician’s] artis­tic personality.”

Hold on. Can you really explain — in words — how a musician’s tone “feels in the ear and later how it feels in the mem­ory, as mass and as metaphor?”

It’s tough. But just con­sider for a moment Ratliff’s sharply cut prose. He traces Coltrane’s incre­men­tal evo­lu­tion, album by album, from the “acrid grapeshot bursts and long tones” (with Sonny Rollins) to the “great twisted skirls of notes” (with Thelo­nious Monk), locat­ing Coltrane’s tone in just a sin­gle image: “large and dry, slightly under­cooked, and urgent.” This isn’t music the­ory; Ratliff’s sen­tences will res­onate for spe­cial­ists and gen­eral read­ers alike.

If jazz has always been fuelled by Great Man the­ory, John Coltrane holds an unbreak­able spot in the pan­theon. He was just 40 when he died from liver can­cer in 1967, yet by then he’d already tran­scended sim­ple ado­ra­tion. The “spir­i­tual awak­en­ing” he alluded to on the 1964 album A Love Supreme infused his late music with a mys­ti­cal, vision­ary qual­ity, despite its some­times bru­tal avant-garde dis­cord. He was, as Ratliff writes, a man of “unusual sta­mina, phleg­matic tem­pera­ment and stoic charisma, who found ecstasy in his labour.” Four years after his death, the Church of St. John Coltrane was estab­lished in San Fran­cisco. Its parish­ioners have been known to bake Coltrane’s image into their “daily bread.”

This tenor and some­times soprano saxophonist’s influ­ence took root in the mid-1950s, espe­cially dur­ing his spells with Miles Davis and Thelo­nious Monk. Later, on records such as My Favorite Things and Cres­cent, Coltrane’s own quar­tet (with pianist McCoy Tyner and drum­mer Elvin Jones) re-imagined the way a small jazz ensem­ble might oper­ate: fear­some and ten­der and unafraid of new musi­cal forms. Between 1961 and 1964, Ratliff argues, Coltrane “sounds like the thing we know as mod­ern jazz, just the way that Stravin­sky sounds like the thing we known as mod­ern clas­si­cal music.”

But how did this hap­pen? How did Coltrane, as Ratliff claims, become the most widely imi­tated jazz musi­cian of the past half-century?

To answer this, Ratliff digs, draw­ing con­nec­tions ever out­ward from Coltrane’s orig­i­nal work — in sources such as old radio shows, panel dis­cus­sions and nearly 40 of his own inter­views with musi­cians (Marsalis’s anec­dote comes from one). Iggy Pop, “a Coltrane-head,” is here. So are Steve Reich and the Grate­ful Dead’s Phil Lesh. Jazz musi­cians in the club range from Roy Haynes, octo­ge­nar­ian drum­mer, to Mar­cus Strick­land, 20-something saxophonist.

The jazz busi­ness may have fal­tered long ago, its aes­thetic sev­ered into “hun­dreds of micro­cli­mates,” as Ratliff con­tends. Per­haps that’s why Ratliff isn’t prac­tis­ing pure spe­cial­ist his­tory. He’s con­stantly broad­en­ing the dis­cus­sion, bring­ing in, among oth­ers, Jane Jacobs (to show jazz’s decline as an “organic part of small-scale, local daily life”), Robert Low­ell (on the sub­lime) and Susan Son­tag (Against Inter­pre­ta­tion).

Coltrane: The Story of a Sound is above all about influ­ence and style and how it trick­les down from one arts com­mu­nity to the next. It is a prob­ing, ques­tion­ing book that asks where jazz has gone, and where it’s going. And, ulti­mately, it throws you right back to the records. How else should you judge a book on music? After hav­ing Ratliff’s read­ing in your head, you’ll just want to listen.