Ben Ratliff's Coltrane by Aaron Hayes
There is a general sense that, even after a hundred years of jazz, no one really has completely figured it out. We could hide behind the esoteric “if you don’t know by now, you won’t ever know” mentality, but only thereby avoiding the challenge which comes with every calling of something significant. The will to jazz lives equally in performances, recordings and, I would argue, in the attempt at interpretation. Even the Dao de Jing, beginning with saying that the Dao which can be put into words is not the real Dao, continues for a time with some manner of instruction. Some music is more open to explanation than others, and some, needless to say, is really hard to get into. It is jazz at its most difficult, that of the last 50 years, for which we have an almost traumatic relation with, a phenomenon we want at once to come out into the open and want to keep hidden, like some subconscious force which we suppress and yet which defines our socio-musical egos.Perhaps we desire no artist to be kept hidden behind a mystical veil more than John Coltrane. His music is for the initiated, for those first, second, third generation acolytes who have transcribed and learned his solos, who hear in his music spirituality and transcendence which are transmitted unspoken from teacher to pupil. He is also reserved for literal worshippers, those who take to heart so many words to that affect: that music has always in its potential a relation to the divine, and the prophet, the seer, is placed on a special pedestal. We hear in Coltrane’s music and his suggestive statements a pursuance, a forward searching for something else, desire for a state of knowing and being not yet fulfilled for himself by any other structure, musical or religious, extant in the world. In this way he becomes the musical, or perhaps literal, oracle who has some methexis in the absolute. Naturally, the sober minded ‘rest of the world’ who still would otherwise like to appreciate Coltrane’s music, must focus on the theoretical, technical, and biographical details which are accessible and reasonable pieces of knowledge for everyone. Even in this context, though, an artist like Coltrane is taken up into larger stories of modernism, Marxism, or civil rights, and interpreted as a character in something ‘more’ meaningful. That he comes ‘after’ Charlie Parker and before the current scene takes on various levels of meaning, but his music is always prescient enough to help define some context, some paradigm or historical theme. Without any mysticism whatsoever, Coltrane’s music requires some interpreting, if only to wallow out of the murk of the thousand stories which pre-package him for each generation. The historian critic and the jazz theologian would equally like to work through all of this in a rigorous manner. And in more of the former spirit, New York Times music critic Ben Ratliff has written the recently released Coltrane: the Story of a Sound (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $24). Choosing to focus on issues of style more than biographical or strictly theoretical discussions of Coltrane’s music, Ratliff weaves in and out of quotes, anecdotes, analyses of recordings, and glosses of guiding concepts to attempt to come to a better understanding of the sound of Coltrane. ‘Sound’ –what does this mean? You know, a player’s sound. His tone color? More than that. His harmonic vocabulary, his participation with rhythm sections? Sort of, but… – then what? You know man, his sound. Right, I do know; I got Giant Steps when I was 14, studied music alongside Coltrane addicts, and have discussed jazz with enough self-defined hep-cat-in-touch musicians to know what people mean by ‘sound’. And I can sum up for you where Coltrane’s
came from somewhat quickly: Coltrane practiced non-stop, studied harmony extensively, listened to a wide variety of other music, and played with great musicians. That’s where it came from, and to know what it is, you just listen to Coltrane. If this book is merely a story, a story with no moral or thesis, then it accomplishes this, but little else. The mystery remains untouched. Ratliff, I would have to guess, suspected that the central issue he wished to discuss was not exactly the details surrounding the sound itself, since this is a vague and limiting category sort of encompassing a diverse set of musical elements. And, he knew he didn’t want to cover the well-studied biographical and analytical elements of Coltrane. But the central issue which he wanted to broach continually escapes the book: each detail, each discussion of the next solo or album, the next opinion from the next critic or fellow musician moves along the periphery of a realm of truly difficult questioning into the significance of Coltrane’s music, in itself as the work of this human being and for us as students of the history of jazz these decades later. He suspected this because he felt the need to write a book about Coltrane’s music: The department of Coltrane Studies has not published its definitive statement. No unified field theory of Coltrane, or jazz itself is even on the horizon. Ratliff’s book does help to focus the details of Coltrane’s life and work to better understand the dynamics of its development, giving, as it promises, a story of the development of the music. He does not really commit himself to the investigation of Coltrane’s sound per se, since this really is not a productive name for any part of the music. It is not always safe to play the naïve nominalist, but here it seems that nothing more central lies between the technical facts of the music and the spiritual content. A seer does not search for a tone of voice, a seer looks to articulate something through the voice. But Ratliff quickly discovers this. The book is full of discussions on the harmony, the tone color, the personnel, and the more discreet elements which make up the musical work (not artwork, but work accomplished, force over time) in which Coltrane labored. What would be necessary is not the investigation of a central focal point like sound, but a larger investigation which attempted to unify the extremes of technique and content. Ratliff works towards this, but stays a safe distance from a synthesis of any larger interpretation. But even the down to earth discussions of musical elements skirt around even local issues of significance. This seems to arise from the book’s commitment to non-technical analysis, the inevitably loquacious reconstitutions of musical meaning for those who would not be able to follow anything with more detail. But here, this commitment to the non-specialist reader drowns any true unity between the discreet technical elements and the themes of sound, whether they be historical, religious, Marxist, or what have you. For example, when, in the end of the book, Ratliff discusses the ‘sound’ passing from Coltrane himself to the next generation of great saxophone players, this transmission is emphasized with a number of quotes, stories, and interviews which tell of the particular captivation of the many musicians who were influenced by him. In many ways, this lineage had a connection which was unique in comparison to other jazz greats and their followers. It was not merely about the transmission of technical skills (although every jazz player from now to eternity will study Giant Steps changes) nor simply about the possibilities of the small jazz ensemble, or any other number of musical legacies. The transmission was much more emotional, having to do with what personal motivations are for making music. There is a telos which accompanies searching: a direction, a goal. And if one buys into the search at all, if one even speaks of it as searching, then one commits, if not to saying what Coltrane was searching for, at least saying what he was not. Ratliff does not commit. Chalking up all the mysticism to the ‘50s and ‘60s era hippie mentality, and chalking up all the modernism to the newly academic study of jazz and Coltrane’s role therein, discussion of Coltrane’s music returns to a safe level of historical contextualizing which fits nicely into the music connoisseur paradigm of appreciation: that Mr. Coltrane’s music is so interesting! Still, no matter how sober a historian Ratliff or his reader may be, it is difficult to escape the fact that the figure and the music of Coltrane consummates so many Romantic notions of expressivity, subjectivity, artistic genius, modernism, and religiosity, that to not interpret him in some of these ways, at least to an extent, is to miss out on some provocative ideas concerning the possible meaning and significance of his music, or music in general. Ratliff, or anyone who wants to take up the noble pursuit of discussing Coltrane’s music, must commit not only to the details of the music, but to interpreting the music with a respect for its possible significance. This might require taking some sides, might require some different textuality, and it might require, (perhaps inevitably today) more of an academic context, or at least one willing to move beyond the market for easy-to-read, relatively brief, quick moving and elementary analyses. Unfortunately, the Story of a Sound rarely escapes this level.