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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