Chasin’ the Trane
Nov 8th 2007
From The Economist print edition
THE vaulting-off point of Ben Ratliff’s biography is the belief that John Coltrane, tenor and soprano saxophonist, was not only a towering performer but also the last major figure in the evolution of jazz. Indeed, jazz seemed to lose its way after he died in 1967, aged 40.
Mr Ratliff, jazz critic for the New York Times, leaves Coltrane’s private life largely alone. For a jazzman, he kicked drugs and drink pretty early and afterwards led a remarkably suburban life. Rather, it is a biography of the Coltrane sound: an urgent, non-vibrato intensity that the saxophonist constantly reinvented—unlike most jazz musicians who professionally settle into a comfortable groove or who reinvent themselves at most once or twice in their lives.
The Coltrane sound, unlike Charlie Parker’s, did not spring fully formed on the listening public. Coltrane was something of a late and hesitant starter. He was nearly 30 when an assuredness settled in and he was able to harness his phenomenal technique and mastery of jazz lore to his urgent driven style, soloing in riffles and cascades of scales and arpeggios. The late 1950s were exceptional years for jazz. Though rock-and-roll had not yet swamped it, jazz big bands were no longer commercially viable. The fizz was in small clubs where quartets and quintets played live, and Coltrane was lucky to be hired by two superb bandleaders and teachers, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk.
But for Coltrane, all this was the beginning of the journey, not the end. At first he attempted to cram ever more into the Western harmony of jazz tunes: an ever-denser architecture of chord changes. Before long, even his technique exhausted those possibilities. He began to abandon harmony, turning to modes that seemed to speak of older things: African and native-American history, Eastern spiritual power, universal love. Then even the modes started to go. Many of his audiences lost him as he encouraged younger, more wayward players into his regular group; then his regular musicians went. Asked by a Japanese reporter in 1966 what he wished to be in ten years’ time, Coltrane replied simply that he wanted to be a saint.
And that, in many circles, is what after his death he became. To the cult’s adherents, Coltrane’s music by the end had ascended to a plane of intensity that was close to godliness, and could not be questioned. A Church of St John Coltrane exists in San Francisco: the founders first claimed that the musician was an incarnation of god, but later demoted him to sainthood.
Mr Ratliff’s biography is particularly good in exploring Coltrane’s afterlife. Coltrane’s musical presence remains so powerful that even today jazz musicians, particularly horn players, are influenced by it—unless they define themselves in sharp contradistinction to it. But Mr Ratliff investigates the charge that, if jazz as an evolutionary folk form died with Coltrane, it was he who killed it: pulling down its harmonic structure, destroying its sense of swing and knocking the pleasure and fun out of it in an ecstasy of self-indulgence. The late Robert Lowell, an American poet, spoke of “the monotony of the sublime”; this could be applied to Coltrane.
On the charge of destroying jazz, Mr Ratliff finds Coltrane not guilty. But it is hard to escape a sense, both among those jazz players who followed him out to the wilder edges or those who struggled to bring the idiom back to its earlier harmonic forms, that jazz has been chasing its tail ever since he died. Had Coltrane’s life not been cut short, where would his sound have chased next?
Coltrane: The Story of a Sound.
By Ben Ratliff.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 272 pages; $24.
Faber and Faber; £16.99