Review: “Coltrane On Coltrane”

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Coltrane On Coltrane: the John Coltrane Interviews, by Chris DeVito. Chicago: A Capella Books (an imprint of Chicago Review Press ). 379 pp., illustrated.

The life and legacy of John Coltrane embodies the spirit of Teddy Roosevelt’s battle-tested axiom “Speak softly and carry a big stick”. Coltrane recorded extensively in all types of musical settings, but he didn’t seem to make a big deal about it. He just worked and worked, always pushing forward for the next step along what was arguably the most unique path of musical progress ever walked.

“Coltrane On Coltrane” features some 55 articles, essays and interviews related to Coltrane, authored by some of the best jazz writers of that era, including Stanley Dance, Leonard Feather, Ira Gitler, Ralph J. Gleason, Nat Hentoff, Frank Kofsky and Gene Lees. The appendix features interviews with people who knew the subject from his roots in North Carolina and his musical matriculation in the smoking-hot Philadelphia jazz scene of the 1940s and ‘50s.

Coltrane’s status as a tireless student of the game is on full display as he nearly aces one of Downbeat’s famous “Blindfold Tests”. (Incidentally, some day it would be really nice to have all of the blindfold tests collected in an anthology; it’s truly one of the most unique gimmicks ever conceived in the journalism business, and it’s surprising that more media in other genres, especially hip-hop, haven’t made fuller use of it.) One also reads a lot of his love for artists like Ravi Shankar and Ornette Coleman, as well as his perpetual struggle to find the perfect reed. We learn that Coltrane’s rapid mastery of the soprano sax was not nearly so effortless as it might have seemed; the embrochure was very different, and for years he expected to reach an eventual crossroads, forced to choose between horns.

We also learn more than ever before about his early years, and the long, winding road he took to immortality, thanks in part to old interviews with a former childhood friend and one of his first music teachers. A key thing to remember about Coltrane, a fact reiterated over and over through the text, is that he was never particularly satisfied with any of his recorded work. He viewed everything in terms of evolution and exploration; the records were often months or years behind the pace of his restless spirit, and he viewed the records more as souvenirs from his journey.

The text ends around 1965, just as the tumult surrounding “A Love Supreme” gave way to the overt controversy of his last few years, as Coltrane became the crown jewel of the avant-garde movement, with multiple drummers and large horn sections; the transition from McCoy Tyner to Alice Coltrane, and Elvin Jones to Rashied Ali, were not just symbolic of his shift, but vital aspects of it. There’s not much record of how Coltrane felt about himself or his music toward the end; all we know is that he did not stop until he was physically unable to work any more. One has always suspected that the diagnosis of liver cancer that he apparently received around that time may have spurred him to speed up his musical experiments, thus making the schism between past and future even more profound. The critics did what they always do when confronted with art that defies their ability to explain: they either attacked his music or ignored it. To think that John Coltrane was denied coverage in Downbeat for years is unthinkable today, yet that is how strongly his music affected people.

This book is such a well-executed labor of love that offering any criticism at all feels almost bitchy, but there are minor flaws that can be easily corrected in later editions or the paperback version. The painting of Coltrane on the cover is nice, but I’d rather see one of the many iconic images instead, to reinforce the seminal nature of the text; DeVito found several unpublished photos that could be used for this purpose.

Also, a discography and partial bibliography would be nice; since everyone who reads this book will likely be a serious Coltrane buff, such information would make it even easier to follow-up his words with his actions. Granted, Coltrane’s did a massive amount of work in his short life, and the subsequent 45 years have seen countless reissues and a flood of new material being released. Putting together comprehensive backmatter of this sort would have been a full-time job in itself, and one can easily imagine how exhausting DeVito’s job already was. Still, such material would have pushed the text beyond 500 pages and made this book truly indispensable. But, as it is, Coltrane On Coltrane is a must-read for all fans of the artist and the times he lived in. DeVito has done yeoman work, and the results are recommended without hesitation.

sheltonhull@gmail.com; July 1, 2011

 

 

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