I don't even remember when Coltrane became a huge force in my life. The only vinyl I have is A Love Supreme, so that gives me a bit of a point in time to refer to. Mid-nineties, I suppose, is when I acquired most of the CDs. I don't quite have everything that's commercially available, but I've got most of it. There's certainly not a week goes by that I don't listen to some of it.
I've read all of the full-length biographies that are available and I've been disappointed by every one. None of them brought me closer to the Coltrane that I hear. Not well written, or carrying too much of an agenda, or, frankly, not dealing too well with the fact that Coltrane was a pretty boring guy without any particularly dramatic incidents in his life. He was the furthest thing from a prodigy, so it wasn't until he was 30 that he began to be recognized as a player of the first rank. He drank too much and was a junkie in his twenties, but so was just about every other jazz musician. Then he went cold turkey and that was that. His first marriage ended, and he married again. Surely a personal story there with plenty of hurt and heartbreak in it, but whose life doesn't have plenty of that? Lives in a nice house on Long Island, drives a Jaguar, makes a bunch of records and dies of liver cancer at forty. Not very much for a biographer to work with.
Oh, and in the ten years of his prime, he created some of the most astonishing music that has ever sounded, transformed the world of jazz, and had a profound impact, by extension, on all of popular music & culture.
When I saw that Ben Ratliff had a Coltrane book out, I was hopeful. I've been reading his criticism in the New York Times for years and think very highly of it. He's an excellent writer, very perceptive about many forms of music, seems to approach his work from the stance of an acute listener without any particular agenda to push. Even if it turned out to be a disappointment as a book, I couldn't imagine that reading Ratliff at length on Coltrane could be less than enlightening and fun.
By the end of it, I was madly underlining passages and writing notes on the back pages -- "Yes, yes! Exactly right! Very perceptive on Branford's early response to Coltrane! Yes, yes -- it's about the band!"
Ratliff makes it clear up front that he's not writing a book about the life. He divides the book into two parts -- first is the biography of the music. He traces the route that Coltrane took musically, from his very early derivative and unformed experiments, through the mastery of balladry, the shifting into modal forms, the interplay with the classic quartet, and the continuing search to go past formal boundaries to find out what's next. He is particularly acute on discussing the nature and importance of Coltrane's sound and what that very word means within the context of jazz.
Ratliff is remarkable in his ability to describe, in very specific ways, what is going on technically with the music, without requiring the reader to have a detailed knowledge of music theory. Surely, a little bit of theory helps, but I can't imagine that any passionate music lover wouldn't be able to follow Ratliff's description and argument.
The second half of the book is about Coltrane's influence, and this is where Ratliff's acumen, knowledge of contemporary music, and skill in weaving excellent sentences, really shine. He's trying to sort out what Coltrane has meant to music and musicians in the forty years since he died and through very deft sketches and a fine arrangement of quotes & bits of interviews, he makes a very compelling case. It doesn't matter whether or not I agreed precisely with every point he was trying to make or not -- it was a thrilling ride.
James Breslin's biography of Rothko (about whom I am as passionate as I am about Coltrane) is one of the finest books I've ever read, and I was thrilled to discover that when he moved on from Rothko he started researching a book about 'Trane. Alas, he died too soon, and I was crushed to know that his book would never appear.
The perfect biography of Coltrane may be beyond anyone's grasp, but I'm pretty sure that I've just finished the finest book about his music.