Coltrane the Cultural Icon

I’m moved to write about the Great Jazz Messiah after reading what Ben Ratliff wrote in the Washington Post the other day. Ben, a good critic now somewhat retired from journalism, pokes and probes around the cultural goings-on of the early ‘60s to explain Coltrane’s evolution, from 1961 to be exact.

It’s a kind of “rambling, unfocused piece,” as one commenter put it. And it makes the usual generalizations about the era that can ring false to those who lived through it, as I did. His piece also testifies to why I don’t write jazz criticism anymore.

Ratliff focuses on 1961 because it was the time of Coltrane’s pathbreaking Live at the Village Vanguard recordings. Here’s part of his negative take on the culture of that time:

From my standpoint—I wasn’t born until seven years later—the culture of that period seems marked by tension, diffusion, doubt, repetition, foreboding, lengthiness, savviness, taut aggression, wary knowledge, inspired dread, disciplined joy. The music sounds post-heroic and pre-cynical; interestingly free from grandiosity; full of room for the listener to find a place within it and make up their own mind. I want to live in it—not necessarily in its material evidence (I am looking forward to the next Playboi Carti record, just like you), but in its sensitivity, its skepticism and refusals. I think I can.

(Whew! Some tortured language here. Just like you, I had to Google “Playboi Carti.”) Ben finds all this as a cornerstone to Coltrane’s music of the period. I heard it rather differently. As a college kid I had spent an evening hearing Coltrane live with the first Miles Davis Quintet, as recounted in Jive-Colored Glasses. In 1956-57 that marked a whole new sound from the hard bop noises we were used to.

When I came to New York in 1965 to teach at NYU I also found a quasi-career as a jazz writer. Coltrane’s music by then had moved on to its final phase, a sound of total feeling—formless, powerful, and to a degree ineffable. Ben Ratliff, it turns out, wrote one of the best critical books about this development—in Coltrane: The Story of a Sound).

If you came at the later Coltrane from a more analytical (and less cultural) point of view as I did, you’d find the music hard to get into, hard to move you musically. After A Love Supreme he just lost me. Ben’s book quotes trumpeter Don Ellis’s criticisms (p. 163). Here are a couple of things Ellis points up that also bothered me. One is Coltrane’s sense of time:

That is, he never really gets “inside” the pulse, but rather plays over it. He now has his whole group playing with this same feeling! This is a good device, but it would be even more effective if balanced by strong “inside time” sections. In fact contrast in general is one of the weaknesses of this group.

 . . . In the great bulk of Coltrane’s work we get a good deal of filigree or decoration (in the form of continuous scales and arpeggios performed at a rapid velocity) but very little “meat” or positive strong statements or ideas. It is like he is playing chorus after chorus, solo after solo on only one idea—that of continually varying scale patterns and arpeggios.

That is valid technical criticism, but it really got under the skin of all those who wanted to find echoes of Africa in all that Coltrane did, to the exclusion of other influences. A kind of reverse racism, it seemed to me, and I wrote a piece about it that generated some commentary.

There has been so much written about the ‘60s, the white-black polarizations, the push for new Black Art, the musical cries of cultural pain. Coltrane’s late music, especially in Meditations and after, values feeling over form and rapidly became part of how American culture came to view jazz as a whole.

In that sense Saint John was certainly a revolutionary. But, like so much in our cultural life, his late music was not really open to replication. For all its angry devotional power, I think its closed, hermetic appeal was one reason why jazz lost its way and became a music only for the committed few.

2 Replies to “Coltrane the Cultural Icon”

  1. Very interesting pieces, yours and Ratliff’s, thanks. Not sure I would read his description of the times as “negative.” I’d just graduated from high school in 1961 and wasn’t aware enough to feel it then, but even in college in SoCal, having read Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time and Another Country by 1963, I began to grasp the brewing, roiling unsettledness in the land, well described in my opinion by Ratleff here:
    “A lot of eeriness, a lot of confused, threatened, concealed or failed aggression, a lot of what Frantz Fanon (in “The Wretched of the Earth,” published that year in France) called “that violence which is just under the skin.” The American commencement of secret operations against the Viet Cong, and the American Bay of Pigs invasion. The psychotic reprisals against the Freedom Riders in Alabama, somewhat shown on national television. The construction of the Berlin Wall, hopelessness in concrete. The quelling and murdering of several hundred Algerian demonstrators by Parisian police on one night in October, followed by denials and an underplaying in the press. The assassination of Patrice Lumumba, prime minister of the Congolese Republic, seven months after Congo’s independence from Belgium. The trial of the Nazi functionary Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, who — as Hannah Arendt would later describe — tended toward lighthearted clichés in speaking about the organized killing of millions.”
    I’m gonna stream that 1961 Coltrane Vanguard box set soon, but the music from it presently roiling through my brain captures my recollected feel of the times well.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts here, Pedro, much appreciated. Ratliff is surely right about the unsettledness in the land and gives good instances of it in the passage you quoted. Yet I don’t hear (really!) those echoes in Coltrane’s music of that time. And as I said, I look at it more technically than as an emotional evocation of the culture. What you can say about his late music is that John was on a quest for an ultimate goodness of spirit, God if you will. To me that is quest music, not protest music. Others hear it differently.

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