Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Comments on Ben Ratliff’s Coltrane

I’ve been reading and enjoying the recent book by Ben Ratliff, Coltrane: The Story of a Sound. I’m currently about halfway through it and have already found a number of interesting points and had several interesting conversations with my partner, Reginald Shepherd, prompted by quotations from the book or points made by Ratliff.

I was both amused and “thought-provoked” (we often speak of something provoking thought without really have a conventional passive form construction to accompany it – and it was this that I experienced – whereas when we speak of being provoked by something, the implication is generally that it is irritation, and not thought, that has been so provoked) by the following passages from Ratliff’s book describing John Coltrane’s earliest recording session, an amateur session from 1946 while he was in the navy in Hawaii, with Coltrane alongside a few members of a navy band, the Melody Masters, almost ten years before Coltrane rose to any kind of serious prominence (or promise) in jazz circles. Ratliff writes:

“One tune from that amateur session was Tadd Dameron’s ‘Hot House,’ a song that later became known as one of the great compositions of early bebop. ‘Hot House’ is a 32-bar song that first borrows from the chord changes of the standard ‘What Is This Thing Called Love?’ before cleverly altering them. And the seamen try an effortful replication of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker’s version of the tune, cut a year earlier – except that the navy trumpeter doesn’t solo, as Gillespie did.
“Instead, Coltrane does. In fact, Coltrane, on alto saxophone, takes the only solo – a hideous, squeaking, lurching thing. But perhaps it didn’t matter to the thoroughly preprofessional Melody Masters, because Coltrane had met Bird.
“Some jazz musicians are off and running at nineteen – Charlie Christian, Johnny Griffin, Art Pepper, Clifford Brown, Sarah Vaughn. John Coltrane was not.”

Ratliff is not out here to denigrate Coltrane. On the contrary, Ratliff clearly (and correctly) sees Coltrane as a seminal figure in jazz and music history who was a sort of genius. (One of the things I like and respect about this book is that it’s neither got an ax to grind against Coltrane or any of his contemporaries – it’s not the sort of work that sees Coltrane’s entire oeuvre as one big hideous, squeaking, lurching thing [see “Vitriol and Jazz”], not is it hagiography – he’s critical and doesn’t count every note to have exited Coltrane’s horn equally golden.)

What Ratliff does here instead is clarify what sort of artistic development Coltrane underwent. Far from being a prodigy who burst onto the scene, Coltrane practiced prodigiously and gradually and organically over a long period. Importantly, this continual development of his talent, skill, and expression never stopped until his death, and as Ratliff argues, the development in Coltrane’s music from 1957 until his early death in 1967 is unparalleled by any completely analogous set of developments over a similar period in the creative expression of any other jazz musician. (Frankly, I draw a blank when trying to come up with any artist in any genre with a ten year period quite like Coltrane in 1957-1967.)

What Ratliff’s discussion prompted me to think about is the nature of talent, genius, and creative expression. In contrasting Coltrane’s gradual and organic development over long stretches of time with the sort of musician who is “off and running at nineteen,” Ratliff delineates two creative types (two types of geniuses in the case of those whose talent is great) with regard to the process of acquiring or having talent, those like Clifford Brown whose talent bloomed quite early, and those, like Coltrane, who only very slowly matured and emerged as a talent of great note. (Brown and Coltrane are clearly extreme cases here, with most creative talents falling somewhere on a continuum in between. I also don’t intend at all to imply that Brown’s genius sprung from nothing, as it clearly came from a lot of hard work on his part, but there’s also plenty of evidence to indicate Coltrane practiced about as hard as it would be possible to practice for a very long period before his promise began to emerge.)

Something I was prompted to think about by Ratliff’s discussion, but which is not the thrust of his arguments is that there are different sorts of talent (and genius) in terms of one’s approach to creative expression. There are also talents for different sorts of things (e.g. musical talent, talent for visual art, talent for thinking mathematically or verbally, etc.), but what I have in mind here are approaches to creative expression and ways of acquiring talent for expression that cut across the particular fields of creative expression, though I’ll use jazz examples to illustrate.

Two sorts of talent, two approaches to creative expression (without making any claim that these are by any means the only two sorts) correspond at least roughly to Lévi-Strauss’ distinction between bricoleur and engineer, between “mythic” and “scientific” thinking. (See also “Mythic Music.”)

The work of Miles Davis and Coltrane can illustrate.

Davis worked largely through assemblage. Over the course of his career as band leader, the nature of the music put out by his band continually changed, often heading in unexpected directions. (While probably no one could have predicted late Coltrane music like that found on albums such as Interstellar Space or Live in Japan from 1957’s Blue Train, from album to album, period to period, there was near continuous development in a direction unpredictable from the start but nonetheless in a direction. Davis’ music sometimes moved in startling directions after band changes; something like Bitches Brew was probably not just unpredictable from ten years earlier, but from just a couple years earlier in Davis’ career.) This is related to the way in which Davis often related to his bands over the years, choosing musicians who were on the cusp of new developments who might take the music in new directions and allowing them remarkable free reign, often offering his musicians little guidance. This is not to suggest Davis had no vision for his work, but that the vision consisted of assembling pieces that could create unpredictable results. As I discussed in the “Mythic Music” post, during the late 1960s and early 1970s, he took this creation through assemblage a step further (in the studio that is, not live where this would have been impossible), having the band create recordings of material that was used solely as raw material for he and producer Teo Macero to assemble a musical bricolage from.

Coltrane was much more concerned with musical theory and implementing music that expressed his concerns with harmony, rhythm, etc. (not that Davis was unaware of theory, but Coltrane was especially concerned with this as a component of expression). This is also not to suggest that Coltrane’s music was some sort of pure expression of some abstract idea either, nor that the music came solely from him. Far from it. Like Davis, or any artist, Coltrane drew ideas from all around himself, but much more so than someone like Davis, whose expression was working in a different sort of way, he tended to thoroughly assimilate all those influences, incorporate it thoroughly into a distinct “Coltrane sound.”

Ratliff writes (p. 119):

“… one of the most useful and overriding ways to comprehend the arc of Coltrane’s work, one that contains significance for jazz now, is to notice how much he could use of what was going on around him in music. He was hawklike toward arrivals to his world, immediately curious about how they could serve his own ends, and how he could serve theirs. Every time a jazz musician drifted into New York and began impressing people, every time he encountered a musician with a particular technique, system, or theory, every time a new kind of foreign music was being listened to by others in the scene, Coltrane wanted to know about it; he absorbed the foreign bodies, and tried to find a place for them in his own music. He learned as much as he could of the life around him and behind him, and retained only what best suited him, such that you usually couldn’t tell what he had been drinking up.”

Coltrane’s approach seems a bit like Star Trek’s Borg, assimilating all, gleaning what is unique and useful, but remaining fundamentally the Borg – except that in Coltrane’s case, that’s a good thing.

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