Ben Ratliff, author of Coltrane: The Story of a Sound

June 9th, 2013

JJM  The way you described how “Chasin’ the Trane” begins reminds me of a conversation between Coltrane and Wayne Shorter that you report on. You wrote, “…they talked about improvising and language, and how it might be ideal to start a sentence in the middle, then travel backward and forward, toward both the subject and the predicate, simultaneously.”

BR  These are guys who were into Zen riddles, and propositions that could be transferred from one discipline to another — ideas that have nothing to do with music they could possibly take something from and apply it to their music. That was the way Coltrane thought. These days we would call it “outside the box” thinking. One of Coltrane’s motivations for wanting to go to Africa at the end of his life was because he was interested in the rhythms of speech in West African languages, and he saw this as something he could apply to his phrasing on the saxophone. This is another example of how he would always look for something that would break up his own iron-clad pattern, and bring him into a new area.

JJM  You wrote in the book that “Straight, No Chaser” from the Miles Davis LP Milestones is one of his great moments. Why?

BR  Because it is where he has the new-found freedom to just sort of babble — but it is a controlled babbling that has an inherent language. It is a really shocking and energetic solo, but it coheres. The problem with a lot of Coltrane’s playing until this point is that while there were always great ideas in it, they didn’t cohere. He was even working that out in 1957, during the period with Thelonious Monk, when he was working out all these original licks, stringing them together and then just kind of shooting them out as if through an automatic rifle. I hear lots of study and preparation and energy and stamina, but I don’t hear the well-rounded refinements that improvisers get to with their own coherent language. That started to get communicated in the “Straight, No Chaser” solo.

JJM Some of the era’s great artists attended the shows with Monk at the Five Spot in 1957. Did this audience affect his growth as a player?

BR  The fact that famous people were coming in?

JJM  Yes, creative artists who probably weren’t particularly interested in being entertained by a clichéd performance. Do you think their presence had anything to do with his growth?

BR  That isn’t something I have given much thought to — it is hard to know how interested he may have been in who was there and who he wanted to impress, and I get the sense that his own standing within the jazz world and intellectual world was not important to him. He was very sanguine about that. There is no doubt that those performances were an important cultural event that built up a lot of steam over six months, and they helped get the word out about Coltrane, although jazz people had known about him for a few years by that point.

1957 was an incredibly important year for Coltrane. He quit drugs and alcohol, he experienced some sort of religious awakening, may have been getting over some sort of depression, and had this incredibly long-standing gig with a great group. One of the points of my book is that being able to work as often as he did that year is so critical to a musician like Coltrane. He was able to play night after night in the same place for months on end, which is what made the band take off and become really good. We can talk all we want about individual figures, and how they are geniuses and whatever, but, finally, the labor history of jazz is something that should never be underestimated.

Another reason that playing in that group was so important to Coltrane was that Monk would get up from the piano for long stretches of time, which left just Coltrane, bass and drums — which meant he needed content, he had to have things to play. He was in a really intense studying and learning mode that year, and he could play all the licks he was practicing in this setting at the Five Spot. They sounded new and exciting to the audiences. He wasn’t yet at the time when he played these songs and came out sounding like Superman, but it was a necessary experience for him to become great.

JJM When did the negative reaction to his work begin?

BR  You are definitely seeing it by 1958, during the “Straight, No Chaser” time we talked about, which is when his playing got really wild, and people were getting the sense that he was potentially a long-winded musician. He got more criticism in 1960, when he went on tour with Miles Davis for the last time. But anybody can hear his recording from Stockholm or Paris and think, “Oh my God. There is something strange about this guy.” You don’t have to be a person in tune with the subtleties of jazz to hear this. At times it sounded like he was having a baby! There was something supercharged about every time he steps up to solo. In 1960, when he played like this, it became evident that the music of the 1950’s was over, but maybe the rest of band doesn’t quite know it yet. It is as if somebody gave him permission to play in a completely different way from the rest of the band. Those are strange and amazing records, but many critics and listeners would determine that they couldn’t condone the music because it was just too self-indulgent.

JJM  It also must have been difficult for his audiences when he began playing with Eric Dolphy…

BR  It was, and what is so interesting about that is Dolphy joined him right after Coltrane’s big hit, “My Favorite Things.” This was a song that was being played on the radio, and his next move was to bring Dolphy into the band. That is one of the things I love about Coltrane — he was a reflective, interior man who clearly was not obsessed with career advancement.

JJM  Concerning his turning inward during the 1960’s, you wrote, “As the ambient noise of the sixties culture grew louder around him, the more he desired to block it out and hear only himself; the more he went inward.” In which of his recordings did the sound of the 1960’s emerge?

BR You could look at Africa Brass as the beginning of that. It is really interesting how the two major recording events of 1959 — Kind of Blue and Giant Steps –– were so close to each other in terms of recording dates yet were so different musically. While Giant Steps changes chords every other beat and is a challenging harmonic exercise, Kind of Blue is about playing modes for long stretches of time before changing. There was this sense that you can play for a long time within one scale. I love the fact that they happen so close to one another because it is absolute proof that there is no logic concerning how jazz evolved.

It’s not like jazz went one way until it couldn’t go any further, and then it turned in another direction. No, two opposite things could be happening at the same time. What the modal thing may have suggested for Coltrane wasn’t that he could be self-indulgent inside this kind of droning music, but that there was whole new song for jazz — a kind of folk music — that people reacted positively to because it sounded like ancient music, and in some weird way it sounded recognizable.

JJM  Did he feel that going in the Giant Steps direction was right for him?

BR  In the liner notes, he talks about being worried that his music was sounding too much like an academic exercise, and was trying to make it sound prettier. So, yes, he was concerned that he was going in the right direction. Clearly, he felt that his sound was narrowing down, which is the moment he likely thought the solution was to expand as much as he possibly could. He began looking at black spiritual books, and started listening to recordings of African and Indian music, trying to figure out how to bring all these things into his music. That was a very 1960’s notion — bringing in more, the more the merrier, let’s not worry about closing the door, no limits, let’s think about making it inclusive. Obviously, that is what he started to do on his bandstand…

JJM  There is definitely some rebellion in that…A song of Coltrane’s that epitomizes the sound of the 1960’s is “Alabama, which you wrote was “…an accurate psychological portrait of a time, a complicated mood that nobody else could render so well.”

BR  “Alabama” is amazing because it is so succinct, and it contains so much of what he was good at — not just the cathartic stuff, but the really detailed stuff and the really thoughtful, sad, and almost romantic stuff. It demonstrates his way of playing quietly and persuasively. I don’t think that he just ever let it all go and said, “Ok, from now on I am going to play for hours at a time, and I don’t care about self-editing.” He kept returning to this idea of self-editing and craft. One of the reasons his record Stellar Regions succeeds so well is because all of the songs on the record are short.

Things are never just black and white with him, which is another reason why I never got bored thinking about him or listening to him, because he never became a zealot only in one direction — he never closed the door on any possibilities.

JJM Regarding Coltrane’s influence, the saxophonist Art Pepper wrote, “More and more I found myself sounding like Coltrane. Never copied any of his licks consciously, but from my ear and my feeling and my sense of music…When I got out of the joint the last time, in ’66, I had no horns. I could only afford one horn, and I got a tenor because, I told myself, to make a living I had to play rock. But what I really wanted to do was play like Coltrane.” When did this desire among musicians to play like Coltrane begin?

BR  Wayne Shorter had this desire in something like 1957, but I think for a lot of people the turnaround moment was either the recording of “My Favorite Things” or the album Live at Birdland. That is when many of the musicians young enough to be awed by him at the time — people like David Liebman and Sonny Fortune — went to see him a lot and were waking up to the idea that they wanted to play like him. It was at this time when, in terms of the records and information about him becoming available, things reached their critical mass.

JJM  In 1970, Gene Ammons told Down Beat, “Before John died, he had gone into a very advanced thing, and had quite a few cats like Pharoah [Sanders] and Archie [Shepp] in the middle of this thing, and leaving the scene as suddenly as he did — he sort of left their minds in a turmoil, to the effect that they weren’t quite sure in what direction they wanted to go.” Is contemporary jazz still feeling the effects of that?

BR  I feel much more positive about where jazz is now because many of the old divisions are healing themselves. Part of that is just due to the passing of time, and part of that is due to a new generation of teachers who have come along and assessed the situation.

The timing of Coltrane’s death really did a number on jazz because it made the music he was making toward the end be understood as a kind of ending place — like you can’t get any freer than this, and you can’t get any more liberated than this. I think some musicians looked at that and said it was the ultimate place for them to be, and that it was where they wanted to go, but it was not just music but a new way of thinking and a new way of living. And then perhaps some other musicians looked at this place and saw it as a trap, as the darkness. His sudden disappearance did really weird things for free jazz, especially, because the great practical and philosophical example is gone, so now what’s to be done?

JJM The saxophonist Von Freeman said that Coltrane “…left a lot of wounded soldiers along the way. See, cats are still trying to recover from the Trane explosion. And, of course, they shouldn’t look at it that way…Trane assimilated everything; they’ve got to assimilate everything up to Trane and move on.”  What is he suggesting here?

BR  I believe what he is saying is that Coltrane is part of you, it is filled in now, so don’t worry about that so much. Learn about what produced a Coltrane so you can naturally find a way to get beyond him.

Not every artist is patient enough and curious enough to look outside of their own art form to figure out what to do next, but Coltrane was. He was interested in life — in science, math, religion, architecture, dance, history, and he was sort of self-taught in these areas, but he was sure that he could find ways of drawing on those interests and re-routing them back into his music. That kind of confidence is what we need to hear more of in jazz.

JJM  Sure, because there is such a danger to any contemporary musician who falls too deeply into what Coltrane’s sound was. After all, a major component in jazz is its individuality…

BR  Yes, there is a danger in glorifying Coltrane’s sound, of course. It is one of the best rules for any artist, including writers. You have to move on from what you loved when you were most impressionable. It isn’t necessary to throw that stuff away, but you have to keep moving, you have to keep looking for something new. That’s the point.

JJM  Who among contemporary musicians comes closest to the influence Coltrane had on musicians?

BR  It is very hard to say, and I really don’t think I can come up with anyone, because we are not talking just about a “music as music” language, nor is it just an improvisational or sound language. It is a philosophical language. I am sorry to say that I don’t think there is anyone out there doing this now, but that’s ok — there doesn’t have to be somebody like that. We can do fine trying to answer other questions and trying to solve other problems.

Coltrane was also a man who created great opportunities, and since he was well-liked and trusted, it might have been easier for him to have opportunities come his way. But it is important we don’t forget that he was in the right place at the right time. The world was ready for a John Coltrane, and jazz was ready to receive him and elevate him. It is quite possible it isn’t ready for someone like Coltrane right now.


Photo by Lee Tanner

“Coltrane was always concerned with blazing ahead, one popular line of reasoning goes; he didn’t place much value in what he left behind him.”

– Ben Ratliff


All Or Nothing At All

My Favorite Things, a filmed performance



Coltrane: The Story of a Sound


Ben Ratliff



About Ben Ratliff

Ben Ratliff has been a jazz critic at The New York Times since 1996. He lives in Manhattan with his wife and their two sons. His New York Times Essential Library: Jazz was published in 2002.



Critical Acclaim for Coltrane: The Story of a Sound


“Ben Ratliff’s Coltrane is criticism with a sense of the man. It sees the ’60s anew without distorting them beyond recognition for someone who was there. It conceptualizes jazz as a still-living music. It makes you want to listen again and think some more.”

— Robert Christgau

“Ben Ratliff’s Coltrane is an extraordinarily vivid account of the creative process — both that of the artist and that of the people whose works respond to his. Ratliff is such a terrific writer that he can make musical points clear even to readers who know nothing about theory. This book will be passed from hand to hand.”

— Luc Sante, author of Low Life and The Factory of Facts

“A triumphant analysis, which captures in well-chosen words the charisma of Coltrane’s sound, the excitement of his journey, and the unique quality of his influence, without ever surrendering to the usual jazz book gush. Ben Ratliff’s measured intelligence and readable, elegant prose, his willingness to make necessary distinctions and unsentimental judgments, earn him a place among the best critics we have.”

— Phillip Lopate

“John Coltrane’s stylistic evolution in the 1950s and 60s was a signal cultural event—as much spiritual and political as technical–and one whose repercussions continue to haunt us. In taking a new look at how Coltrane changed and what those changes have meant to the musicians who followed him, Ben Ratliff brings a mercurial era lucidly to life, sometimes sharply questioning received wisdom, paying close attention to the needs and difficulties of working musicians, and underscoring the continued massive relevance of Coltrane’s music.”

— Geoffrey O’Brien, author of Sonata for Jukebox


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This interview took place on January 29, 2008


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