Speaking of Coltrane: Five Conversations (1)

How did it feel that John Coltrane was “back,” I asked the drummer Roy Haynes a dozen years ago, when Impulse reissued his classics and Whitney Balliett in The New Yorker solemnized a Coltrane revival.

I didn’t know he ever left!,” Roy shot back — all we needed to know, delivered with Haynesian snap, crackle and pop.

coltrane cover

Coltrane the Book

In this 40th anniversary autumn after his death, at 40, what lives with Coltrane and his music is the idea of love’s forgiveness, of redemption through suffering, and the excruciating sort of beauty that Dostoevsky thought “will save the world.”

A version of Orpheus, Gandhi, Herman Melville and Malcolm X, among others, Coltrane is the only jazz icon who — asked what he wanted for himself in ten years — actually said: “I would like to be a saint.”

He stands, of course, for innumerable collisions and paradoxes: pursuit of the sublime through screaming dissonance; an evolution from standard to exotic, “global” musical forms; the contradiction of “free jazz,” as his was sometimes called, and his, in fact, “frightfully controlled music — the next thing to geekdom,” as Ben Ratliff writes.

What we discover in this expandable set of conversations is that Coltrane is more than a canonical sound. He feels like a living master — here to stay, to astonish, to ravish and confound, to be attempted again and again. Hear for yourself that no two poets, musicians or listeners feel Coltrane the same way, even if almost everyone acknowledges his transcendence, in work and life.

The New York Times’ pithy, punchy jazz critic, Ben Ratliff has written not fan stuff or a biography but a catalog of ways to think about Coltrane: an athlete of improvisation who pushed forward through “an atmosphere of almost violent incomprehension.” Coltrane was a main builder of the jazz tradition “of not sounding like anybody else,” or like himself six months before. He had as many artistic periods as Picasso, starting with bebop, ballads and blues; but Coltrane’s development fit into just 12 essential years, not Picasso’s nearly 80.

Here are some versions of Coltrane’s story:

There is the coming-of-age of a tremendously gifted but tongue-tied student, learning to speak with assiduous practicing.

Ben Ratliff

Ratliff of the Times

There is the story of an acolyte finding his way out of jazz’s cheap and opportunistic operations — bad record-company dealings, hastily thrown-together sessions resulting in $41 for a day’s work, bumping along week to week as a sideman…

There is the story of a concentrated listener, opening jazz up to influences beyond its periphery, including Asian, African and Spanish music… There is a thoughtful musician’s establishing of a new kind of intellectual seriousness in jazz, one that didn’t need to rely on typically white middle-class or typically black street models of artistic coding and audience response. There is a mystic’s keen sensitivity for the sublime, which runs like a secret river under American culture — the meditative and semierotic aesthetic of endurance, of repetition, of ecstatic religion — which he first broached in 1960 and 1961. And, to judge from his song titles alone, his playing suggested an explorer’s mapping of some sort of terra incognita — meditative inside, astrological outside…

Ben Ratliff, Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, page 118.

Coltrane comes to represent a wholly new icon of the jazz star, “the non-verbal Negro superman”: sobered up, ascetic, prayerful, endlessly studious, earnest, naive. When bandsman Jimmy Heath went on one day about a sensational catch Willy Mays had made, Coltrane looked up and asked, “Who’s Willy Mays, Jim?” And then there’s the story that Coltrane once asked his co-star Miles Davis how to shorten his endless solos; and Miles quipped: “Why don’t you try taking the horn out of your mouth?”

Ratliff’s book reminds you of the misgivings about Coltrane that are faded now but not forgotten. Ratliff himself is reminded of the poet Robert Lowell’s observation that “What one finds wrong with American culture is the monotony of the sublime…” and of D. H. Lawrence’s picture of Melville: “He was a deep, great artist, even if he was rather a sententious man.” The astute old fogey Ralph Ellison worried that Coltrane and other modernists were “fucking up the blues.” Ellison’s pal Albert Murray put Coltrane in “the unswinging avant-garde.” And Murray’s pal Stanley Crouch wrote that “Coltrane jumped off the cliff into hysteria.” Gentle knocks all, compared to Philip Larkin’s dismissal of such “turgid suites” as “A Love Supreme” and the “insolent egotism” of Coltrane’s extension of “My Favorite Things.” And always there were offsetting ecstasies in the writing about Coltrane, as in Bill Mathieu’s Down Beat review of Coltrane’s Ascension, which began: “This is possibly the most powerful human sound ever recorded.”

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Ben Ratliff(26 MB MP3)

The conversation continues… If you feel a Coltrane sermon coming on, we want to hear it.

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  • OliverCranglesParrot

    Thank you Chris. This is superb work. I connect with both John Coltrane and Bob Marley in the same way when I hear their music: bliss. Two vastly different musicians/composers whose music converges within me in a very similar way. I enjoyed the anecdote about the Say Hey Kid.

  • hurley

    I’ve only listened to the first conversation so far, but it was super-fine. Thanks.

  • Potter

    Stopping 3/5fths of the way through to say a big thank you. I have always run away from talk about music feeling that listening is primary. On the other hand having studied the visual arts I know that this kind of discussion can open ones’s eyes ( ears in this case). In the last few years only have I opened my ears to Coltrane and now I am getting a rush of him. It’s probably been said but he has a language that one needs to become familiar with ( okay like Jackson Pollack). I can’t listen to Coltranes most chaotic work, not yet anyway, but that aside, I am transported. Youv’e played some great examples. Alain Pacowski ( I want to listen to him again!) talks of Coltrane’s different sounds and examples were given. But in each of those examples it’s always Coltrane- his voice. I have not listened to enough saxophone to be sure of this but it may have something to do with the breath itself. Of course it must be. I can always tell when it’s Johnny Hodges for instance. And now, with more listening, I can tell Coltrane. And yes, there are songs that just melt me away ( Everytime We Say Goodbye with McCoy Tyner), and others that take us to another world, another planet. Then there are other pieces that seem too, well, self-indulgent. But as was said, this is the man discovering himself and without that we don’t have the more accessible work. And so if I am not ready for his trip or up for it, I am not going to fret over it. Some of it just turns me away- I can’t take it. It makes me want to climb a tree. But it’s not only the ballads that I love either ( and I prefer no vocals) but pieces that are atmospheric and edgy and still communicate.

    “Lush Life” was awesome, Alain.

    I loved Alain’s descriptive phrases about Coltrane: his “force of conviciton” originality, intensity. Maybe it was the French accent ( which is why I have to listen again) 🙂

  • Potter

    Tin Pan Alley’s no prison, heavens! – I love and am stuck on those beautiful melodies and then what Coltrane does with them. That’s what ropes a lot of us in to Coltrane.

    I saved Amiri Baraka’s for last still upset with him for his 9/11 poem. He was not the angry man I remember in this interview and quite good. I like especially what he said about God and goodness. So Chris you are right about the softening.

    I’m just getting turned on ( or tuned in) to some of these recordings. Though I have identified the ones that drew me in, it would be helpful to have a little discography of the excerpts played for each interview.

    It was said in one of the interviews that the saxophone or tenor sax is the closest to a human voice. I think that can be said too about other instruments: the violin, the trombone.

    While listening, enveloped in Coltrane, Billie Holiday and the moody atmosphere she creates around a song came to mind.

    When Alain Pacowski spoke of the different sounds of Coltrane I think he was meaning the surfaces, mood or style whereas when (I think it was) Bill Pierce spoke of Coltrane’s sound (“nobody can repeat the things he did”) he meant something deeper and total- more like the vibration of his soul. On that level no one can copy another.

    What a gift! Thank you again.

  • Ben Ratliff said it all when he spoke about Coltrane’s generosity of spirit, his quest for that next inspiration, his basic human inner nature. These are the things that any saint would hold dear. You only want to be in his presence somehow. If it be by listening to his music or reading the stuff he read or visiting the places he was said to play or following the people who hung out with him or meditating on what a life like his might be like, so be it. The great vision that comes to you is that, should you somehow master communication to that extent, you would be no more a man than John Coltrane.

  • hurley

    I laugh to think these wonderful interviews might be coming to us under the auspices of the Watson Institute for International Studies. A credit to the Institute, in any case. The insight into the quality of Coltrane’s obsession a revelation of sorts, an inspiring one, as I’m sure he would have wished. Bill Pierce’s commentary riveting.

  • hurley

    A thought, lost as the rice began to burn, listening to Coltrane, concerning the spiritual dimensions of JC. The farther he goes the nearer I am, always susceptible to the heartbreak in his ballads, the heartbreak everywhere. He’s one of the few American artists to capture what a lot of Indian music conveys so well: a sense of yearning. If you listen closely you can only come away with more yearning, more joyful uncertaintly.

  • nother

    For me, John Coltrane is an embodiment of masculinity. Many people confuse macho and masculine, but macho is only a tiny part of masculine. If macho is the Yin in a masculine man, than tenderness is the yang…and my man Trane, scales all that terrain.

    His sound is at once voracious and subdued…it’s never tentative.

    Trane is the Splendid Splinter of Jazz, he can connect to all fields – and he just might take ya out of the ballpark all together.

    His blows are exerted in Muhammad Ali style…by that I mean the style that fits the occasion. Ali would dance whatever dance was your pleasure…only he would be sure to lead.

    Ultimately, John was a force.

    “You know, I want to be a force for real good. In other words, I know that there are bad forces, forces put here that bring suffering to others and misery to the world, but I want to be the force which is truly for good.”

    -John Coltrane

  • nother

    John Coltrane the individual:

    The Nobel Prize winning writer Gao Xingjian was sent into exile during the Cultural Revolution in China. As an artist, he like John Coltrane, expressed his art in a context of oppression – Yet, these men are not political activists. Xingjian writes, “The challenge leveled by the artist at society is, when all is said and done, an individual one.”

    Trane never played for an audience…he only played for him-self. Miles was famous for not addressing the crowd when he played…he would face the drummer. Yet even Miles spent an inordinate amount of time on his clothes and image. Trane’s mode of dress was indiscriminate…more like a blank slate for his sound.

    “I think the best thing I can do at this time is to try to get myself in shape and know myself. If I can do that, then I’ll just play, you see, and leave it at that. I belive that will do it, if I really can get to myself and be just as I feel I should be and play it. And I think they’ll get it, because music goes a long way – it can influence.”

    – John Coltrane

  • nother

    John Coltrane the experimenter:

    “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be.”

    -Henry David Thoreau

    For me, Trane’s transcendental trips into the abstract feel like hikes into a lush and dense rain forest…you might get pricked and bitten on the journey, but a wonderful waterfall potentially awaits your presence at the end.

    It’s folly to view Trane’s track as a linear journey to the abstract…he would have come back…and back…and back again.

    “There was a thing I wanted to do in music, see, and I figured I could do two things: I could have a band that played like the way we used to play, and a band that was going in the direction that the one I have now is going. And it could have been done.”

    -John Coltrane

    Trane’s answer to his critics:

    “Well this could be a real drag to a cat if he figures this is something that he won’t be able to cope with and he won’t be able to write about.” If he can’t write about it, he can’t make a living at this.”

  • nother

    “Jazz – if you want to call it that: we’ll talk about that later – to me, it is an expression of music; and this music is an expression of higher ideals, to me. So therefore, brotherhood is there; and I believe with brotherhood, there would be no poverty. And also, with brotherhoood, there would be no war.”

    -John Coltrane

    All of the quotes above came from an interview John did with Frank Kofsky in 1966.

  • katemcshane

    I have listened only to the interviews with Ben Ratliff and Amiri Baraka. (I’m a little high on wine.) First I listened to Baraka, whom I have enjoyed for decades, from the time he was Leroi Jones. I have enjoyed every interview I’ve ever heard with him — my heart is eased by what he says. Maybe he’s a kindred spirit. I always feel less alone when I hear him. I could listen to this interview 10 times and feel eased. I heard the interview, for the first time, yesterday and all day I’ve thought about the apartment he had in NYC over the club when he heard Coltrane live all the time downstairs. I know I’m just rambling, but I think — I wish I had lived there, I wish I could have gone downstairs in the evening and listened to the music. (I wish my life had been different.) When he talked about being in “solitary confinement” and the guard coming to say, Your man Coltrane died today, it reminded me of several times when I’ve loved an artist and thought about him all through a day and found out the next day that he had died. He was connected to John, to John’s spirit. When he talked about what a quiet, humble man John was, I thought about footage I saw in the Ken Burns’ film about jazz where John was walking across a street in NYC with one of his kids — I can’t explain why this happened, but when I was homeless, during the night when I was afraid, I would remember that image and feel comforted.

    I have a photograph of John Coltrane in my room.

    The interview with Ben Ratliff was very nice. Ratliff was intelligent and sane. I don’t usually read biographies about artists, because the biographers, for me, are so much less than the artists, themselves, but I want to hear what he says about Coltrane, because Ben Ratliff seemed humbler than most biographers. I liked what he said, for instance, about Miles Davis being “slick and weightless” (I love Miles, but some things about him as a person make me sick).

    I really loved the description of Coltrane’s inviting young musicians up onto the stage. I like any indication of someone raised in a western culture exhibiting eastern ideas. (Sometimes I wonder about drugs loosening someone’s mind so much that they can let go and swim with a less competitive ideology. I’m sure that statement falls WAY short of my actual idea.) I loved Ratliff’s description of the modest and generous guy who wanted to learn from other people, who never thought he could learn enough. This is the way I feel in life. I would like to live in an environment where I could learn from everyone — it has happened in the past, but it’s not happening right now. (Terrible job.)

    I loved the description of the books in Coltrane’s library.

    I’ve missed everyone this summer. This website meant a lot to me. I’ve wished I could write to some of you, like Hurley, Jazzman, Peggysue — among others — but I had a tough summer. Someone I loved very much died, someone who meant so much to me — Grace Paley, the most loving person I’ve ever known, the most exemplary human being I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing — and I can’t write about this even now without feeling a destructive, crushing loss. I have missed all of you. Chris, I have loved these interviews and I’ll listen to more in the next few days, because I have time off until Tuesday. I hope you’re doing well, but, apparently, you are.