Although John Coltrane tragically died in 1967 of liver cancer at the age of forty, he left a body of work that transformed jazz. Ben Ratliff resolved that he did not wish to write a traditional biography about John Coltrane. As jazz critic of The New York Times, the author believed that he should write a full analysis of Coltrane’s musical journey. Over the years, there have been several biographies of Coltrane, but Ratliff believed that none of them have critically dissected Coltrane’s creative process or investigated the true impact his sound has had on generations of jazz musicians. While Ratliff cites many sources at the end of the book, he gives special acknowledgment to Lewis Porter’s 1998 incisive biography John Coltrane: His Life and Music and the 1995 book John Coltrane: A Discography and Musical Biography, written by Yasuhiro Fujioka, Yoh-Ichi Hamada, and Porter. Both of these sources were invaluable to Ratliff in the writing of Coltrane: The Story of a Sound. Ratliff also mentions that through the general editorship of Porter a new authoritative discography and chronology of Coltrane was published by Routledge in 2008 under the title The John Coltrane Reference.
In addition to the titles already mentioned and many others, Ratliff drew from the many interviews that he has conducted over the years with important musicians to complete this study, including Michael Brecker, George Coleman, Ornette Coleman, Coltrane’s son Ravi Coltrane, Benny Golson, Roy Haynes, Jimmy Heath, Branford Marsalis, Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter, and McCoy Tyner. The author also relied on interviews that Coltrane gave during his lifetime. One of the reasons why this study is so successful as a portrait of Coltrane’s sound is because Ratliff was willing to do his homework, to pull together disparate sources in order to get to the heart of what Coltrane the musician was all about. Never one to make snap judgments, the author presents the reader a very measured assessment of Coltrane’s musical maturation and the large shadow that he still casts into the twenty-first century.
Ratliff most emphatically believes in remaining objective in his presentation of Coltrane. For the many who love and admire Coltrane, it is not always easy to keep the necessary objectivity as they proceed in their assessment of his musical prowess. At his best, Ratliff finds the appropriate balance as he delineates the power of Coltrane’s music. This study is not for the casual jazz listener. It was written for anyone who is fascinated by the history of jazz in general and the place that Coltrane’s holds in that history specifically. While there is a fair amount of musical theory presented by the author, it is not so daunting as to be cracked or understood only by other musicians. In his introduction, Ratliff states that the purpose of this book is to attempt to “track the connections of his workhow and why he proceeded from A to B to Zand then, later, to ask why Coltrane has weighed so heavily in the basic identity of jazz for the last half century.” For the author, Coltrane is a massive musical force because of the work he produced.
Ratliff has divided his book into two parts. The first part includes seven chapters and focuses on Coltrane’s evolution as a musician. He was not born a fully formed jazz giant. Coltrane had to work very hard to achieve his stature, to discover his sound. It took time for him to establish his own unique musical signature. It was only during the last ten years of his life that Coltrane reached the astounding musical heights that he is remembered for today. The second part includes five chapters and primarily delves into the impact that Coltrane has had on the musicians who came after him. Coltrane definitely has cast a giant shadow.
At 250 pages, this study does not spend time taking apart Coltrane’s life piece by piece. As a jazz critic, Ratliff is intimately acquainted with Coltrane’s influence on jazz. He states in his introduction that he has written this book “through the sensibility of the critic, rather than the biographer.” Before the author was ready to write this study, he had to wrestle with his own hesitancy to become “immersed” in certain Coltrane recordings. He had to work out his...
(The entire section is 1755 words.)