O legado de John Coltrane

A sound supreme: Geoff Dyer tunes in to Ben Ratliff’s stimulating biography of the man who was a god to jazz fans, John Coltrane

It is more difficult to write about John Coltrane than almost any other major 20th-century artist. By the standards of many jazz musicians his life was uneventful. Sure, he had a heroin habit for a while and Miles Davis punched him, but once he’d experienced the “spiritual awakening” described in the liner notes of A Love Supreme he dedicated himself to his music with extreme single-mindedness.

Novelists and poets lead eventless lives too, but since they’re working in the same medium as the person writing about them there is a compensating overlap between creation and commentary. Instrumental music leaves the critic straining across an abyss. How to convey what’s happening in this non-verbal, contentless form? One way is to explore the relationship between music and the larger social context from which it emerged.


The problem, as Ben Ratliff acknowledges in his consistently stimulating new book, is best understood within the hermetic context of, um, music. While hardly unique to Coltrane, this dilemma profoundly affects the way we listen to him. Recorded on November 18 1963, the mournful “Alabama” is assumed have been written in response to the bombing of a church in Montgomery, Alabama, two months earlier. A few years ago, however, the jazz critic Francis Davis provocatively suggested that if this “was what Coltrane meant for the piece to be ‘about’, he kept it to himself in the recording studio, not saying a word about the deaths of those children to the pianist McCoy Tyner or the drummer Elvin Jones, both of whom were sidemen at the session. As far as they remember, the piece didn’t even have a name yet.”

If this sounds vaguely blasphemous then it is an indication of the other obstacle to writing about Coltrane: the sheer awe he inspires. Sonny Rollins is a great saxophonist. Miles Davis was a genius. Coltrane was – what? A visionary seeker? A saint? Miles may have taken music in “New Directions” but Coltrane was compelled “to go cosmic. The words are those of the trumpeter Charles Tolliver, who spoke for many when he said Coltrane “was God”. Founded after his death in 1967, the Church of John Coltrane in San Francisco was of similar mind, though this belief proved rather costly when, in 1981, his widow Alice sued for 7.5 million bucks for copyright infringement.

Coltrane’s death, aged 40, had about it the air of self-immolation. Rashied Ali, who duetted with him on the last studio recordings, Interstellar Space, reckoned Coltrane “exhausted the saxophone”. Ratliff wonders if this is to understate the matter: did he also exhaust jazz itself?

Ratliff’s unusual approach to the compound difficulties of writing about Coltrane is not to rehearse the story of his life but to trace the history of his sound. Not just the way he sounded – and we run into familiar linguistic shortcomings quite early on, when that sound is described as “large and dry, slightly undercooked” – but the evolution of what jazzers used to refer to as his “concept”. Ratliff then extends his investigation, in the second half of the book, to examine Coltrane’s legacy.

John Coltrane in concert in 1960, seven years before his death

Coltrane’s style evolved in traditional journeyman fashion: he heard Charlie Parker, played alto with Dizzy Gillespie’s big band, switched to tenor and toured with Earl Bostic. After a brief period with Davis he did a long stint with Thelonious Monk. What Ratliff calls “the beginning of Coltrane’s trance music” can be heard in 1958 when he was back with Davis, playing the Monk tune “Straight, No Chaser” on the album Milestones. A year later the Miles Davis quintet recorded Kind of Blue but, impatient to pursue his own explorations of the potential for modal jazz opened up by Davis, Coltrane formed his own quartet with Jones, Tyner and Jimmy Garrison (bass). They remained together for six years. During that stretch, Tyner estimates, they “rehearsed four or five times“. The rest of the time they were performing and recording, flat out.

Coltrane often embellished the core quartet with extra players and instruments but after the addition of a second drummer (Ali) and tenor player (Pharoah Sanders) the centre could not hold. Tyner and Jones quit (“All I could hear was a lot of noise,” the drummer complained). Garrison stayed till the end, alongside Ali, Sanders and Alice Coltrane on piano.

Ratliff correctly insists that Coltrane always “did his best work in quartets, no matter how much a fifth member had to offer“. Revered for his uncompromising oddity, Eric Dolphy lacked an “internal clamp on time“; his presence, “instead of intensifying” the benchmark Village Vanguard residency of 1961, invariably “made it slacker“.

john coltrane village vanguard again cover

The fact that Ratliff gets so much right makes some of his decisions of emphasis all the more surprising. For anyone wishing to trace the tensions and transitions that led the quartet to swell into a sextet before dissolving into the eventual quintet, there is an absolute godsend in that Meditations was recorded first with Tyner, Jones and Garrison and then rerecorded and rearranged a few months later, in November 1965, with the addition of Sanders and Ali. Shelved at the time but released posthumously, the quartet version is performed on a precipice. Coltrane drives ahead even though there is nowhere to go. As the first track, “Love“, moves into the second, “Compassion“, there is an interlude of sublime weightlessness. From then on we are pretty much in freefall. Ratliff chooses not to examine this forensically crucial evidence. When considering the final tour of Japan in the summer of 1966 he does not even mention the single most extraordinary feature of the resulting four-CD set: going right back to his days with Gillespie, Coltrane plays alto.

Ravi Shankar was “disturbed” by the frustration, turbulence and turmoil he detected in this terminal phase of his friend’s career. Having produced music of an unprecedented intensity, Coltrane was heaven-bent on achieving still greater intensity. As a consequence the main question jazz had to face after his death was very simple: if your starting point is a scream where do you go from there? The answer, in brief, is that you keep on screaming until you’re hoarse. Or – never a bad idea when faced with a dead end – you go back and, like the brothers Marsalis, consolidate the pre-free tradition. Or you move sideways, out of jazz, towards rock (Davis) or “world” music. Some people (Archie Shepp, David Murray) did two of the above. A few (Sanders, Don Cherry) did a bit of all three.


Ratliff’s problem in examining the post-Coltrane aftermath is inextricably tied up with the excellence of his credentials. He is the jazz critic for the New York Times. To his credit he deploys a wider range of cultural reference than many jobbing music critics (“Ali Akbar Khan, Thomas Bernhard, Björk, James Brown, [and] Mark Rothko” all come pouring out in one extraordinary outburst) but his outlook is provincial in two important ways. Blinkered by the New Yorker’s assumption that his city is the centre of the world, he appears deaf to the claims of great British Coltrane-obsessed tenor players such as Evan Parker or Alan Skidmore. While acknowledging Coltrane as a determining influence on composer Steve Reich – who saw him play about 50 times – Ratliff tends to confine himself to jazz as a narrowly defined and increasingly atrophied musical form.

Expand the search area and Coltrane’s enduring presence is felt in all sorts of unexpected places and ways, from the pioneers of Detroit techno, to the Australia-based, post-everything trio the Necks. These links are revealing precisely because they are not obvious in the way of the genealogical connections between Coltrane and the sax-playing Parkers, Charlie and Evan. For Lloyd Swanton, bassist with the Necks, it was not the saxophone but “the hypnotic rhythm section vamp on the first version of ‘My Favorite Things‘ that set him thinking along the lines of hour-long, tranced-out grooves that came to characterise the Necks’ output.

To return, Coltrane-like, to where we started: Ratliff has set himself an almost impossible task. Coltrane’s music was so powerful that it mystified even those who were part of its creation. A couple of years ago the American poet Philip Levine told me how, in the early 1960s, a friend had taken him to hear the quartet play a club date (in Detroit, I think). Blown away by what they heard, they were quite incapable of making sense of it. Fortunately the poet’s friend knew Elvin Jones and asked him, in the interval, what Coltrane was up to, what they were doing together. Jones shrugged: “Beats the shit outta me,” he said.

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