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.