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The Death of Jazz

Coltrane: The Story of a Sound by Ben Ratliff

Reviewed by Ben Hughes

Saxophone nerd, heroin junkie, psychedelic warrior, holy man, mild-mannered suburban dad -- John Coltrane didn't just reinvent what we think of as jazz, he constantly reinvented himself in the process.

And so in Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, by Ben Ratliff, we see Coltrane bursting with talent but crippled by drugs. We see Coltrane kicking the habit, then calmly unleashing a series of revolutions that threatened to both save jazz and entirely destroy it. It's a portrait of a bewildering genius and an elegy for an art form; after Coltrane's death in 1967, jazz slipped into a long illness from which it has yet to recover.

The jazz critic for the New York Times, Ratliff is engaging and opinionated throughout, picking up the loose strands of Coltrane's myth and weaving them back into the sturdy line of his music. But better yet, at 272 pages, he's a great editor. Whereas most jazz writing is like most jazz -- too long, too wanky, too dense -- Ratliff learned an important lesson from his subject: Sometimes a few well-chosen notes are more powerful than a barrage of impenetrable sound.

6 Responses to "The Death of Jazz"

    John Pasco August 29th, 2007 at 6:14 am

    Why would you post a review of a biography of John Coltrane, one of the major figures in 20th century music, by someone who does not even like "most jazz"?

    This is evidence that Powells has overreached by attempting a review of the day. Try fewer reviews, and choose only those of substance.

    John Ruttner August 29th, 2007 at 9:42 am

    To echo the sentiments of the previous comment -- why would you post a review that states "most jazz writing is like most jazz -- too long, too wanky, too dense" and contains dumb, uniformed comments like "after Coltrane's death in 1967, jazz slipped into a long illness from which it has yet to recover". Hughes doesn't know or understand jazz, and is singularly unqualified to review this book. There is no point in featuring these kind of reviews because they won't be taken serious -- not exactly what Powells had in mind with their review section.

    Richard Jenson August 29th, 2007 at 10:14 am

    To reverse the sentiments above: why would Powells post comments from people who have no tolerance for anyone whose opinion differs from their own? If a review doesn't say precisely what every single person wants it to, then it should never be published!

    And never mind that Esquire actually published the review to begin with--it's Powells fault! There is no point in featuring these kinds of comments because the people who write them won't be taken serious.

    manwith7talents August 29th, 2007 at 11:08 am

    We're all losing track of the essential point here, which is that Coltrane is God.

    Adrienne August 29th, 2007 at 2:57 pm

    I really had a problem with the review of the Coltrane biography this morning when I read it. I was delighted to read these customer comment's this afternoon. This was how I felt. I especially agree with "Coltrane is God". Because Powell's did use this review that I otherwise would not have read, it generated a thought provoking dialogue.

    JASON EDWARDS August 30th, 2007 at 10:25 am

    I continue to find it amazing as well as enraging the stupidity & arrogance of [espescially young] writers & reviewers, espescially in "jazz", who literally don't know what the fuck they are talking about. All comments & observations are not impersonally factual but are slanted towards the writers bias's, which, uniformally, are inacurate if not ignorant. The reason for writing a book or review is for the writer to make $ & try to satisfy his own ego & find/create a reason for his existance, not to truly inform & great journalism etc. It gets worse & worse as time goes by as younger writers are seemingly more ambitious, greedy & have less reverence for ethics etc. due to thier own self serving selfishness. Plus the longer time goes by misinformation & myths etcc. start being accepted as fact without anyone knowing it.
    How can writers make statements of assumptions, which in time turn into facts, when they were not "there" to know the true facts of the Artist's real motivations etc., which, usually are not as provocative, dramatic nor romantic, as would like to be percieved & believed.
    John Coltrane was a "normal man", who, like many of all walks of life, as a young man in an enviornment rapt with drug use, [far before whiteys psycheldic era]lived his life in that era. He loved saxophone & music. He was a serious gentle man. [If he was alive to hear he was thought of as "a god" it would be enraging to him if not more.]Like many, after surviving his early young man mistakes with drugs, he realised the seriousness & presciousness of time & life. He dove into music as his life source & tied in his new spiritual revelations [don't most ex-alcoholics, drug users etc. use & find "jesus" or "god" to help them master their problems?]with great passion. He happened to have, as any talented creative Artist, his own musical [as well as sociological]ideas ideas with no grandiose agenda's except to play music. Everyone else made a "big deal" out of his music to John's bewilderment. Why? To him he was just a guy playing music & loving it with great gratitude & passion. He neither "made" nor "destroyed" jazz. "Jazz has never been the same since"; you say? My god jazz & any music & art form is always & is supposed to be changing. Are things to stop after John Phillips Sousa marches or Duke Ellington etc.? Of course not. The true revealing of this writers ignorance etc. is that, supposedly like Coltrane's music, this writer excercised a "less is more" "quality". While John was certainly aware of such, if you know his music & innovative style of "sheets of sound" with a zillion notes, it would be known that John's thing was "more is less". Any reviewer & writer is a "self appointed" suppossed "authority".
    What is really humorous if not profound is that John etc., being so absorbed in their work, couldn't really give a shit nor respect anything these uniformed people have to say, other than, like all human beings, wanting to be clearly understood as to what & why they are doing what they are doing. Thier percieved & advertised motivations by writers etc. is never as romantic, dramatic, complicated & provocative as is believed & advertised as. You can't believe what idiots like this, with no integrity, intelligence, experience, depth or talent etc. write. Just listen to the music & get out of it what you do or don't like. That is all John & others ever expected.

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