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Even as a college student who loved jazz biographies but hadn’t quite grasped the mechanics of prose, I could tell that many of the books about John Coltrane left something to be desired. One sentence that sticks in my mind was intended, if I remember correctly, to explain his dental problems: “Coltrane loved hoagies!”
What the selection of Coltrane books lacks in quality it more than makes up in quantity. A search of the Library of Congress catalog yielded no less than 13 books with the legendary saxophonist’s full name in the title. And that can’t be everything, because the same search in Amazon’s books database gives me 3,177 hits.
So, while it’s hard to get excited about yet another Coltrane bio, it is nice to see New York Times jazz critic Ben Ratliff tackling the subject, because, well, it’s nice to see him tackling just about any subject. The guy’s writing—the way he describes the actual sound of his subject matter—is a model of clarity. His previous book, The New York Times Essential Library: Jazz: A Critic’s Guide to the 100 Most Important Recordings, is as essential as the records he writes about. And, though I have yet to crack open my copy, Coltrane: The Story of a Sound seems as if it is a worthy follow-up.
The one review I’ve read thus far, which calls it a “not-quite” bio, includes Ratliff’s tantalizing critique of a certain portion of Coltrane’s present-day fan base:
“Believe this: there is a type of free-jazz record collector—in fact, after punk, part of an increasingly flourishing breed—who does not necessarily think of Africa when he hears a Coltrane album like Expression . Having come through punk, Japanese noise, and electro-acoustic improvisation, he may just like it because it sounds extreme and nonnegotiable.”
It’s one thing to like or dislike Coltrane’s noisy late-period stuff, but it’s quite another to appreciate it (just see his piece on Interstellar Space from Jazz: A Critic’s Guide…) and still be able to explain its pitfalls and the pitfalls of the culture that surrounds it. Coltrane tends to attract the true believers, which is one reason I’ve had trouble listening to his music the past few years, but not always those who can deal with the towering figure in an intellectually honest fashion.
Let’s hope this is the final word on Coltrane. Ratliff deserves the honor. Plus, it would be nice to go to the jazz shelf in a bookstore and see some less-explored topics.