"In 1957, John Coltrane was a young sax player still figuring out his sound. Ten years later, he was either jazz’s savior or destroyer, and dead from cancer. In his new biography, Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, New York Times jazz critic Ben Ratliff traces the evolution of one of music’s most bewildering titans.
ESQUIRE: For someone who blew a lot of minds, Coltrane seemed incredibly serious and mild-mannered.
BEN RATLIFF: Lots of people have stories about Coltrane and nobody says anything bad about him. He was a very careful and honorable guy, but artistically he was reckless. Alice Coltrane talked about how he would study pictures of cathedrals and somehow play them. I have no idea how that worked, but those were the kinds of things he was thinking about.
ESQ: You also write that he practiced obsessively, even in the twenty-minute breaks between live sets. Isn’t that at odds with what most people think about jazz improvisation?
BR: There’s a myth about any kind of music, and the myth about jazz is that it’s spontaneous, it comes from God, and you just play what you feel. But Coltrane established this new level of preparation and study. He was really into Eastern philosophies and meditation in the late fifties, way before all the free jazz shit was happening and everyone was a Buddhist. He could concentrate for a long time. And he understood that practice makes you a better person, makes music better, makes the crowds more receptive. It’s not at all uncommon now to know jazz musicians who probably study as hard as Coltrane did, but it was unusual then.
ESQ: In April of ‘57, Coltrane is fired by Miles Davis for showing up to shows high. The critics are giving him a hard time. His sound still isn’t together. He’s depressed. And yet, by the end of the year, he’s transformed himself into a major artist. What turned him around?
BR: Well, it was getting off heroin, it was stopping drinking, and he talks about having a religious awakening of some kind. But he also had his apprenticeship with Thelonious Monk, and that put him on an incredible stage, with an amazing band, and set him free to figure himself out as a soloist. Monk would get up from the piano for long stretches and it was up to Coltrane to figure out what he was going to do. So it was like lifting weights, like having an unbelievable trainer for six months, and it really woke him up.
ESQ: As the sixties progressed, his music became more and more unhinged. Instead of songs and melodies, he was playing long, noisy, formless solos. The jazz audience began to desert him. What happened?
BR: The sixties were a tumultuous time. Everything was questioned. And things became so politically identified that all of a sudden there was such a thing as conservative jazz and radical jazz. Some people say he had too much sympathy for these people who were telling him, “Coltrane, your music is going to change the world. You just have to keep going further and further toward freedom.” People were talking this way. I’m not making this shit up. “You don’t want to be shackled by the tyranny of rhythm.” But I can’t believe it’s that simple. Coltrane was a really smart guy. I don’t read him as someone who’s susceptible to flattery to the point where he’ll change everything so he can be down with the young people. I think he just found some of these concepts interesting and figured, “Let’s see what happens.” It’s entirely possible that, had he lived, his music would have come back from space and become more earthbound again.
ESQ: When Coltrane starting playing, jazz was popular music. By the time he died, he had pushed it to places most people weren’t willing to follow. Did he kill it?
BR: I don’t think he’s responsible. Realistically, what happened was rock smothered it. Jazz is a live music, but it’s also a business. If you look at Coltrane’s itinerary as a journeyman player through the early fifties, he’s playing in towns you’ve never heard of. Sewickley, PA. Tululu, LA. Inkster, MI. Every little town had some kind of roadhouse club. But then people weren’t going out to do that anymore. Music became a lot less local and more national and international. And jazz is a really good example of a local art because the more contained it is, the smaller the room, the more spur of the moment the playing is, the better it is. Mass-produced jazz in a big sterile room in the biggest mall in Houston would be terrible, but that would be the most efficient way to get it out there.
ESQ: Why are people scared of jazz today?
BR: I think because it’s serious, because it has a long history, because it has intellectual overtones, but also because it’s sort of earnest. Part of the reason jazz doesn’t fit within pop culture anymore is because it can’t really be self-consciously rebellious and shocking, which is very standard stuff now. And I guess that’s why there’s this cliché that you turn thirty and all of a sudden start to think, “Maybe I should learn about jazz, because now I’m old enough.”
ESQ: What was Coltrane’s greatest contribution to jazz?
BR: He opened it up. A lot of people refer to him as almost the father of world music. He was very early in the trend of American musicians looking to outside cultures. Even before he got into African and Indian music, there was a cheesy exotica sound in the late fifties -- records of bullfighting music, Hawaiian tiki lounge music -- and a lot of that music is ridiculous, but it’s an important chapter in American pop culture. Coltrane was as aware of it as anybody, but he didn’t want to make something that just had the outer trappings of some other culture. He wanted to take ideas from other kinds of music and bring them into himself as deeply as possible. And now everybody is doing this.
ESQ: So why should everyone listen to Coltrane? Give us your best argument.
BR: His work contains most of the well-known ideals of jazz. If you want to know something about swing, his stuff is incredibly swinging. If you’re interested in improvisation, this guy pushed improvisation to the wall. He was the best blues player of his time. He wrote and played incredible ballads. Record companies are still putting out compilations of Coltrane ballads called Coltrane for Lovers or whatever. You can poke fun at the idea, but if you ever listen to one, they’re indescribably beautiful.
ESQ: What’s the album to start with?
BR: I always say Crescent. It has some of the tumult and drive, but also incredibly beautiful music. A masterpiece."