Coltrane: The Story of a Sound BY Ben Ratliff. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Hardcover, 272 pages. $24.

The cover of Coltrane: The Story of a Sound

Never underestimate what a “tragic” death can do for an artist’s reputation. Who knows whether the romance of Jackson Pollock as cowboy existentialist would be intact if he had survived that car crash, entered AA, and continued to drip paintings while the art world tuned into Warhol and Koons. Or imagine a seventyfive-year-old Sylvia Plath on her third marriage, exhausted after thirty years of leading poetry workshops, reciting “Daddy” on Fresh Air. Autumn Rhythm and “Ariel” would rank as masterworks even if their creators had enjoyed a fuller measure of years. But by dying precociously, neither had to face the inevitability of cultural backlash or declining mental acuity. Athletes who died young, they remain forever poised in midstride, still clearing hurdles.

John Coltrane was in top form—still taking giant steps, if you will—when he died of liver cancer in 1967 at the age of forty. This fate spared him many quandaries. He never had to figure out where he stood vis-à-vis rock, funk, disco, or hip-hop. Nor did he have to confront his own looming influence over jazz or choose sides in the war over his legacy. Were he alive, would he still be allied with his once-numerous, now-scarce free-blowing acolytes, those guided by his post-1965 sonic adventures? Or would he have judged this path to be a dead end and, like so many young antiquarians today who have modeled their groups on his early-’60s quartet, reverted to his “classic” sound in hopes of winning back the diminished jazz audience?

We’ll never know, but the image of an eighty-one-year-old Coltrane being wheeled onstage to reprise A Love Supreme at a JVC Jazz Festival is hard to conjure. Not because this sight would be sad and undignified— that’s what becomes a jazz legend most these days—but because it would dissolve the aura of Coltrane as tireless explorer of new musical worlds.


In his astute and unorthodox biography, Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, New York Times critic Ben Ratliff pays as much attention to Coltrane’s haunting absence over the last forty years as he does to his brief decade of renown. The first half of Ratliff’s book traces the phases of Coltrane’s career through a careful record-by-record analysis of his “sound,” which Ratliff defines as the “full and sensible embodiment of [Coltrane’s] artistic personality, such that it can be heard, at best, in a single note.” Ratliff hears Coltrane’s distinctive musical voice as “large and dry, slightly undercooked, and urgent.”

The second half looks at the posthumous apotheosis of Coltrane, a musical god whose followers by now rival even Charlie Parker’s in numbers. (Ratliff speculates that more poems have been written in memoriam to Trane than to any other jazz musician.) As attentive a reader as he is a listener, Ratliff charts the rapid expansion of the mythology in various, often contradictory tropes: the humble music student and theorist who never stopped practicing and learning, the Christian into Eastern religions for whom pride was a far graver sin than wrong notes, the wordless spokesman for black civil rights and revolution, the unbounded thinker who tripped across inner and outer space. (Coltrane favored cosmic imagery in titling cuts on his later records, and the arc of his fame coincided with the rise of psychedelic culture and America’s race to the moon.)

Although a little too aware of popular critical attitudes and how to strengthen his own position by asserting himself against them, Ratliff aims in these chapters not to deflate the veneration of Coltrane but to understand why he has maintained such a hold over generations of musicians and listeners. Having heard far too many imitators in New York clubs during the ’80s, Ratliff was wary of being seduced himself. “It seemed that you could go in there and not be able to find your way out,” he says of the music on Coltrane’s Live at the Village Vanguard, from 1961. The book is Ratliff’s struggle to acknowledge a unique, vital force in music now while trying not to succumb to the common view of Coltrane as a musician who could not err, the “perfect academic subject.”

Much of the first part of the story is familiar. Except for a five-year period of drinking and heroin addiction in his late twenties, Coltrane led a fairly uneventful life. His blinkered focus from high school forward was jazz. Ratliff glides over his subject’s youth in North Carolina, where Coltrane grew up in a deeply religious AME household, in order to introduce us to him as a US Navy man trying in vain on a 78-rpm recording from 1946 to master the changes on Tadd Dameron’s “Hot House.” Coleman Hawkins and Dexter Gordon were Coltrane’s chief role models during his years of apprenticeship in Dizzy Gillespie’s big band, with R&B leaders Earl Bostic and Gay Crosse, and in Johnny Hodges’s front line.

Lewis Porter’s 1998 Coltrane biography is the foundation for a lot of the musical analysis here. That valuable book has more than a hundred musical examples; this has none. Ratliff more than compensates with a darting prose style, his own set of ears—he notes how Coltrane favored three-beat compositions when he played soprano sax—and extensive interviews with former colleagues, as well as with many musicians born after his death. Ratliff finds echoes of Coltrane’s Big Bang in everyone from Terry Riley and Steve Reich to the Grateful Dead, the Byrds, the Doors, and Iggy Pop. The pleasures of working in a group with Coltrane are brought out in choice quotes. “For a drummer to play with Coltrane is just to accompany the guy,” said Roy Haynes. “With others, you gotta hold down the fort. With Coltrane, I could do things I had dreamed about.”

While charting the development of Coltrane’s sound in recordings for Prestige and Atlantic and the glory years (1961–67) with Impulse, Ratliff drops in micro-bios of Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner, from the quartet, and of crucial, less permanent figures, such as saxophonist Albert Ayler. Jazz critics present at the time have long cited 1957, when Coltrane played for six months with Thelonious Monk at the Five Spot in New York, as decisive. Ratliff is one of the first to benefit from a live recording, made at Carnegie Hall on November 29 of that year and released in 2005, to back up these claims. “Mostly, he is executing beautifully, leagues beyond the anxious, fractured feeling of his long solos from only a few months before,” he writes about the playing on this “magic record, mellifluous in its provocations.”

Coltrane was not yet a marquee name, however; his off-and-on years with Miles Davis in the late ’50s, especially his solos on Kind of Blue, had raised his profile, but not above that of other midlevel tenor men. In the critics’ polls in the major jazz magazines in 1957–58, he never ranked in the top three: Hawkins, Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz, and Zoot Sims were the top vote getters. Even at the height of Coltrane’s prominence, in the mid-’60s, the critics Martin Williams and Gunther Schuller were respectful but cool about those endless choruses over a modal drone, preferring to champion the trickier formal experiments of Ornette Coleman and Charles Mingus. Other musicians were also skeptical. Wes Montgomery played with Coltrane’s quartet only briefly, leaving when the time between solos grew longer than the time between sets.

Stardom arrived with the March 1961 release on Atlantic of “My Favorite Things.” In retrospect, it was shrewd to piggyback on the current success of The Sound of Music, but no one guessed that when its thirteen minutes and forty-one seconds were cut down to fit on a 45-rpm record it would become that most incongruous of avantgarde creations: a radio hit—on soprano sax, no less. Not long after, Coltrane became the first artist signed to Impulse. Soon, the producer Bob Thiele and the company’s main attraction were happily exploiting each other until, by 1966–67, Impulse was releasing four Coltrane records a year.

From all reports, celebrity altered Coltrane’s habits and behavior very little. As Ratliff points out, except for divorcing his first wife, buying a white Jaguar, and moving to the Long Island suburbs, Coltrane never exhibited star behavior. He spoke constantly to reporters eager to interview him. However much critics remain divided about his increasingly bruitous later recordings, after he had disbanded the quartet and begun to incorporate a new cast of characters, Coltrane’s sincerity was never in doubt. “There is no evidence anywhere that Coltrane ever tried to be provocative,” writes Ratliff. No one charges, as many do with Davis, that he changed styles in pursuit of money. Quite the opposite.

The book emphasizes Coltrane’s up-tempo technical feats. “He had taught musicians a new flat, high plane of delivery; the playing wasn’t as dynamically varied as jazz used to be,” writes Ratliff. “Now the pieces of music began strong and stayed strong.” He cites the importance for contemporary jazz practice of the ripsnorting “Chasin’ the Trane,” as heard on the 1961 recording at the Vanguard, calling it what “free jazz and straight-ahead jazz—Lower East Side, post-hippie, ragged blow-out jams, and Branford Marsalis— have in common.”

But the enduring popularity of Coltrane with audiences (and not just musicians) is surely thanks as much to his ballads. His improvisations at slow tempi adhere to the line of the melody, in the style of Hodges and Billie Holiday. No saxophonist except maybe Wayne Shorter has composed so many heartrending standards—“Naima,” “Alabama,” “After the Rain,” “Central Park West,” “Crescent,” “Equinox,” “Dear Lord,” “Welcome”—and no player before or since has been able to suggest bottomless wells of despair along with their antidote through the catharsis of performance and listening. The extreme weight of Coltrane’s mature sound, the high-pitched wail and chthonic moan, the roughness and the flaws, was always grounded in the corpus of the human cry.

More than anything else, Coltrane’s musical purity makes him a beacon. “Rock had started to eclipse jazz as a young thinking people’s music,” writes Ratliff about the final years. “But within jazz, Coltrane’s jazz took monolithic precedence as the model for what noncommercial jazz should be. It had a bully pulpit of morality—virtue was so scant in popular music. . . . Only Coltrane had momentum: the possible authority to lead listeners back to jazz as music.”

In 1966, Coltrane was asked at a Tokyo press conference what he wanted to be in ten years. “I would like to be a saint,” he replied. No one laughed, perhaps because they suspected it was already true.

Richard B. Woodward is a writer based in New York.