Longtime accomplished New York Times music critic Ben Ratliff has left the paper. He was a terrific writer who had the ability to pique my interest in an artist in short, reliable, and often brilliant reviews.
I had the privilege of meeting him a few times over the telephone and in person. He joined me in a 2003 conversation with Bruce Lundvall and Joshua Redman about the business of jazz music, talked with Paul Morris about his book Jazz: A Critic’s Guide to the 100 Most Important Recordings, and in 2008, we talked about his book on John Coltrane, The Story of a Sound, which is published below…
If you would like to listen to an August 5 popcast in which Ratliff discusses his tenure at the Times, click here.
What was the essence of John Coltranes achievement that makes him so prized forty years after his death? What was it about his improvising, his bands, his compositions, his place within his era of jazz that left so many musicians and listeners so powerfully drawn to him? What would a John Coltrane look like now — or are we looking for the wrong signs?
The acclaimed jazz writer Ben Ratliff addresses these questions in Coltrane. First Ratliff tells the story of Coltranes development, from his first recordings as a no-name navy bandsman to his last recordings as a near-saint, paying special attention to the last ten years of his life, which contained a remarkable series of breakthroughs in a nearly religious search for deeper expression.
In the books second half, Ratliff traces another history: that of Coltranes influence and legacy. This story begins in the mid – 1950’s and considers the reactions of musicians, critics, and others who paid attention, asking: Why does Coltrane signify so heavily in the basic identity of jazz?
Placing jazz among other art forms and American social history, and placing Coltrane not just among jazz musicians but among the greatest American artists, Ratliff tries to look for the sources of power in Coltranes music — not just in matters of technique, composition, and musical concepts, but in the deeper frequencies of Coltranes sound.#
Ratliff joins Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita in a conversation about Coltrane’s sound and influence in a January 29, 2008 interview.
Photo by Lee Tanner
“John Coltrane tends to be understood in either one of two ways, as the one-man academy of jazz — the king student, the exhaustively precise teacher — or as the great psychic liberator of jazz who rendered the academy obsolete.
“Indirectly, by example, Coltrane encouraged musicians to practice and study rudiments and scales and harmonic theory. He played the blues in unusual keys for the sheer challenge of it. He worked on himself until he became a great technical achievement, the complete jazz musician. Even more indirectly, he encouraged other musicians, in jazz and outside of jazz, to transcend their hang-ups and preconceptions and to play a pure intuitive expression, as opposed to learned figures. He helped people freak out; he gave them extramusical ideas.
“Whether or not the ideas were his prime motivation — I think they were not — Coltrane played all his music with such commitment that he could seem as if he were selling intellectual ideas outside of music. Even Duke Ellington’s later music pales by comparison in terms of its commitment to the “Afro-Eurasian Eclipse,” the “New Orleans Suite,” the “Sacred Concerts” — lovely works all, they are filled with niceties. Ellington never let you forget that music was his profession. On the other hand, the popular vision of Coltrane is that he seemed to ask you, repeatedly, to alter your life.”
– Ben Ratliff
JJM You wrote, “His career, especially the last ten years of it, was so unreasonably exceptional that when he became seen as the representative jazz musician, the general comprehension of how and why jazz works became changed; it also became jagged and dangerous with half-truths. Every half-truth needs a full explanation.” How did you prepare for writing this book?
BR In a very unscientific way. I felt like I was preparing for it just by observing jazz concerts for the last ten years or so, because half of the book is about what happened to jazz as a result of what Coltrane brought to it, and how we think about jazz after Coltrane.
He changed our perception of jazz in a really large way. At first it was just sitting down and listening to everything in sequence and then writing, because the first half of the book is making the connections between all the different parts of his work, and how they fit together and flow into each other. When I got to the second part of the book, which is about his reception as opposed to the making of the art, I tried to read everything there was to read — interviews and analysis — but I was very conscious of trying not to draw too much from the sources that everyone knows because I wanted this book to be different from others that have been written about him. When I told people I was writing a book about Coltrane, often times the first thing they would say was “Why another one, and how is this going to be any different than those that were already written?” I felt like I had an obligation to answer that question in my writing.
JJM For one thing your book is different because it is not a biography. In describing it, you wrote, “This is not a book about Coltrane’s life, but the story of his work. The first part tells the story of his music as it was made the second part tells the story of his influence.” Which was more impactful — his music or his influence?
BR The thing about Coltrane is that he was such a great musician that even after having listened to his music closely for five years, I never became bored or disillusioned because his level of craft was so high. Where it gets really interesting is the fact that he left us with a set of ideals, some of which even came to be contradictory. On one side is the ideal of the cathartic improviser who needs to get everything out of himself, to say everything he has to say regardless of whether it fits into bar lines or whether it has to do with traditional structure; and on the other side is the ideal of the completely prepared and educated student, who knows and analyzes the rules, and who understands the feeling of jazz from every era of the music before his own.
So, basically what I am talking about is the old idea of the split between free players and so-called traditional players — a split that becomes more and more imaginary as the years go by. The split was a relevant thing for a long time in jazz, and I found it incredible that both of these two schools of thought that for a while worked against each other, came from the same man. I found myself endlessly fascinated by the fact that he was able to contain so much inside his music.
JJM You wrote, “His art, nearly up to the end, was not insular, and kept signifying different things for different people of different cultures and races.” What did it signify for you when you first heard his music?
BR I remember my blank slate reaction very well. As a teenager I listened to the Miles Davis Quintet records from the fifties — Workin’, Relaxin’, Cookin’ –– and I felt as if I understood what Miles Davis was up to, probably because he phrased so simply. There was a little bit of a sense of humor and a flip attitude in the music, and I could recognize these human emotions and attributes and poses,
but every time it was Coltrane’s turn to solo, I didn’t quite understand what he was doing — he seemed to have a much faster idea about music, and it was intimidating, slightly off-putting and even a little bit scary. I felt that even then, and that is far from his scariest time! So, it took me a while to warm up to him, but I knew that I was interested. I also felt that learning about him would unlock some things for me, which ended up being a sound impulse, because I do keep learning more — not just about jazz but about many other things — by looking at and listening to Coltrane.
JJM How would you describe his sound?
BR Big, resonant, and it begins at a very high level. He comes to the microphone and delivers a big block of sound rather than doing the normal sort of bell-shape that the best soloists tend to do, where they start out small, then they get big, then they get small and elegant.
Physical descriptions of his sound, especially from my own mouth, always sound meager, because the whole thing about his sound — and the reason I keep using that word in the book —
has to do with the fact that if you follow his career, and if you look at what he was doing at the end of his life, you hear these tracks that seemed more and more similar from one to the next, so in the end the message of his work was not so much about composition or structure any more, it was about sound — both the sound coming out of his individual instrument, and the sound coming out of his band.
Coltrane’s sound was at its best when his bandswere at their best. Obviously, the music of the classic quartet is the best example of a great small band sound, but I also think the band that recorded Stellar Regions — with Rashied Ali, Jimmy Garrison, and his wife Alice — also had the potential for a great small band sound, it just wasn’t realized enough. The sound Coltrane got from his own instrument had so much width and depth, balance and power — it was almost a physical thing that transmitted a lot of information about who he was. When we say we understand where he was coming from, or when we say we have an understanding of who Coltrane was as a man or as a musician, I think we get that from his sound rather than from the melodies he wrote.
JJM He thought he could incorporate his sound into two different bands. In 1966, you quote him saying, “There was a thing I wanted to do in music, see. 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 [in 1966] is going in — I could combine these two, with these two concepts going. And it could have been done.”
BR That is one of the cooler things he ever said. I saw him as a guy who didn’t want to throw away any good ideas that came to him. He wanted to use as much as he could from what he heard around him as being provocative, and the good ideas would rise to the top, and the not-so-good ideas would go away. It was a very natural approach for him.
Similarly, when he was unbeatable in 1964 and 1965 — during the time was playing all those gigs at the Half Note in New York — he would often invite people on stage to play with his group, which I found quite amazing. Here he was, perhaps the greatest saxophone player in the world, with the greatest band, so why would he want to mess with that or dilute it by having other people on the bandstand? Because he wanted to see what would happen.
My reading of him is because he was such an intense, studious, pattern-oriented thinker, it was his inclination to study something until it couldn’t be studied any more, and to practice something until the patterns were completely a part of his bloodstream. That kind of thinking came very natural to him, and if he knew that was how his mind worked, he may have felt that it could be an impediment to making great music. So he welcomed these kind of wild cards or trip wires to get in his way, which could help make him stumble upon something new he may not have got to on his own.
JJM Sort of a collective learning experience
BR Yes, and this could be why he went to Ornette Coleman and told him he wanted to learn from him, and that he was doing something he didn’t quite understand and wanted to absorb it. I think that was a remarkably selfless thing for him to have done.
JJM On which recording did his “sound” first appear?
BR I can first hear his sound, as I understand it, on the 1951 bootleg recordings of him playing with Dizzy Gillespie. I can hear something of his voice, of that great cry, and some of the devices that he put into his improvising from that point forward. It was already there. But the moment when I feel he had risen to his feet completely, when his sound is heard in full, is in the Live at the Village Vanguard recordings of 1961. He had led this band for about a year by this time, and he had his bearings about him, and the way “Chasin’ the Trane” starts, bam!, and off they go at full projection — there is no warming up at all — the listener is immediately put into the middle of it. On a recording from Chicago during the spring of that same year, they play a blues called “John Paul Jones” — which was also called “Trane’s Blues” or “Vierd Blues” at different times — that is one of the greatest things I have ever heard him do. The blues line is so fantastically strong and beautiful — and his play is wild, it gets completely “out,” but it is the blues, and he plays it beautifully.