Coltrane: Still Jazz Demigod

At a press conference in Tokyo in 1966, almost exactly a year before he died of liver cancer at the age of 40, John Coltrane was asked, "What would you like to be in 10 years?" He replied, "I would like to be a saint." It was an arresting answer, but by then Coltrane believed he had found the divine in music and was desperate to share what he had discovered. "I believe that men are here to grow themselves into the best good that they can be," he said. "If I ever become this, it will just come out of the horn." From «mnp»the Coltrane we meet in Ben Ratliff's new biography, "Coltrane: The Story of a Sound,"«mnp» that Coltrane became the best good seems indisputable.«ok?jm «okmj» In his all-too-short career he radically reshaped the world of jazz both as a composer and a performer. Before he came along, most jazz musicians took standards and then improvised over the chord changes. Coltrane thought nothing of playing for half an hour over a single chord ("India"). Or he might use an established form like the blues as the takeoff point for improvisation so fast and blistering that he all but incinerates the form as he goes along ("Chasin' the Trane"). He could compose and play with etudelike exactitude ("Countdown"), and he could play music that seems to have no form except as he defines it note by frenetic note, as though he were translating the contents of his soul into musical form right on the spot ("Intersteller Space"). In roughly a decade he went from being a more or less conventional sideman to the creator of music so radical it still sounds as if it was written tomorrow. If it is in fact a question of sainthood, there's certainly no one ahead of him in line.

He was in many ways ordinary, or at least as subject to frailty as anyone. In his 20s he became a heroin addict, and he drank too much, both problems that he tackled and put behind him. He married, divorced, remarried. He drove a white Jaguar XKE. That's about it for trivia. He almost seems to have had no life outside of his music as far back as anyone can remember. When he wasn't on a bandstand he was practicing, hours and hours every day, often until the reed of his sax was red with blood. Music—as a discipline, as a means of expression and finally as a spiritual path—was all he was about. Jimmy Heath, another sax player who first knew Coltrane when both were struggling young musicians in Philadelphia in the early '50s, recalls once mentioning something about a play that Willie Mays had made in a baseball game the day before. Coltrane looked at him blankly and said, "Who's Willie Mays, Jim?"

The only possible biography of a man like that is a book that looks at the life through the work, or in Coltrane's case, at the work as the life, which is what Ratliff, a music critic for The New York Times, has done superbly. After sketching in the details of Coltrane's sketchy life, he concentrates on two themes: how Coltrane did what he did, and then how he influenced and shaped the world of jazz that came after him. The first part might seem unnecessary. After all, the facts of Coltrane's trajectory are available on the liner notes of almost any of the dozens of his albums still in print: his beginnings in a post-World War II Navy band, his stint with Dizzy Gillespie's big band, his two formative tours with Miles Davis separated by a crucially important stint with Thelonious Monk, followed by his years as a leader of his own small-group units, all of it characterized, with increasing focus and intensity, by the Coltrane sound, which Ratliff so adeptly characterizes as "large and dry, slightly undercooked, and urgent." The various labels that Coltrane recorded for have kept all of his music available, either as individual albums or box sets. This year even more of Coltrane's voluminous output has been repackaged by Prestige, for whom he recorded in the '50s, and Naxos has issued a DVD of three televised performances in Europe in the '60s. Last year a recently discovered concert recording of Coltrane playing with Monk in 1957 came to light—the jazz world equivalent of finding the Ark. The titles of the boxed sets leave no doubt as to his place in the jazz pantheon (e.g., "Fearless Leader," "The Heavyweight Champion"). Coltrane has surely gotten his due.

But having access to his music and comprehending his achievement are two entirely separate things. Here is an artist who was, for lots of reasons, controversial for almost his whole career. When he played with Davis, critics complained about his hard sound and the length of his solos. He was called self-indulgent and pompous. Toward the end of his life, when his acclaimed quartet dissolved and he began playing with unknown free-jazz players, he was accused of indulging his inferiors on the bandstand. A lot of jazz lovers simply refuse to listen to late Coltrane, because nothing that he played corresponds to anything familiar to them. This is not completely foolish: when Whitman's "barbaric yawp" comes out of Coltrane's horn, it can be a tough sound to take.

Coltrane's talent was as unique as it was huge, but as Ratliff points out more than once, "Nothing in Coltrane's work came out of the blue." He was "connected in so many ways with nearly all the greatest jazz of the period," from Ellington to the hard bop of Cannonball Adderley. Ratliff never plays the worshipful apologist, and he never tries to guilt-trip you into liking Coltrane. Instead he always helps you find a way into the music that, on first, second or even third listen often sounds forbiddingly, titanically strange (and just as often ravishingly, almost sweetly beautiful: no one ever composed or played a better ballad.) Sometimes the writing gets a little theory-heavy, but not often, because one of Ratliff's chief points is that you don't have to be a jazz insider to comprehend this beauty. Quite the opposite, in fact: Coltrane was capable of impressing his peers, but he wasn't only playing for some elite cadre who knew the secret handshake. He just wanted to reach as many people as possible without compromising himself. But compromise, of course, was out of the question.

Four decades after his death, he continues to cast a long, almost devouring shadow. The problem for those musicians who have come after him is that while his accomplishments are beyond question, he, like nearly all great artists, shut more doors than he opened. As Ratliff says, the "point of jazz, at least to some degree, is being yourself. And you'd better not fall too deeply into Coltrane if you want to be yourself." (Or, as Walker Percy said when he cautioned against trying to write like Faulkner: "There's nothing more feckless than imitating an eccentric.") That's not to say that young musicians can't go to school on the drill-team precision of "Giant Steps" or the serenity of those ballads. Of course they can. But the one truly useful thing Coltrane left as a legacy is his example as an artist and as a human being—his stamina, his diligence, his questing refusal to be satisfied with himself. Here, in the ceaseless striving to find more in his music and in himself, jazz players can find inspiration—hell, who can't? Either way, though, he cannot be ignored. His music remains startling, beguiling and fresh, no matter how many times we hear it. Ratliff leaves his readers with the inescapable conclusion that for jazz musicians and their audience, it's still Coltrane's world—we just live in it. But what a wonderful, sanctified world it is.