NBCC Award Finalists in Criticism: Ben Ratliff’s “Coltrane”


This is the nineteenth in a series of blog posts by NBCC board members covering the finalists for the NBCC awards. The awards will be announced on March 6, 2008, at the New School.

Ben Ratliff, “Coltrane: The Story of a Sound,” FSG.

Ben Ratliff, who has been Music Critic at the New York Times for over a decade, writes this about his NBCC Finalist work of criticism, “Coltrane: The Story of a Sound.”

This is not a book about Coltrane’s life, but the story of his work. The first part tells the story of his music as it was made, from his first recordings as a no-name navy bandsman in 1946 until his death as a near-saint of jazz in 1967. The second part tells the story of his influence, starting in his lifetime and continuing until today. The reason that the two stories are separated—even though one will cross over into the other’s territory now and then—is because the work and its reception have had distinct, different, and individually logical lives.

This is a book about jazz as a sound. I mean “sound” as it has long functioned among jazz players, as a mystical term of art: as in, every musician finally needs a sound, a full and sensible embodiment of his artistic personality, such that it can be heard, at best, in a single note. Miles Davis’s was fragile and pointed. Coleman Hawkins’s was ripe and mellow and generous. John Coltrane’s was large and dry, slightly undercooked, and urgent.

Many books about music are incomprehensible to people not well versed in music theory, and still other works are oversimplified and cult-ified so much that the books tend not to be about music, but about quirky personalities, drug binges, and trashed hotel rooms.
Neither is the case with Ben Ratliff’s “Coltrane: The Story of a Sound.” Written with uncommon elegance and precision, Ratliff balances understandable technical analysis of the actual music with a rendering of the actual life of Coltrane’s music. So well-written is this book that its readers will never be able to listen to jazz in the same way again. Ratliff doesn’t strip the magic out of jazz: rather, he shows readers how to discover that magic from the perspective of music’s primary element: sound.—NBCC board member Eric Miles Williamson. Williamson’s “Oakland, Jack London and Me,” is due out in April.

Review in the New York Times Book Review.

Review in The Phoenix.

Review in

Ben Ratliff on YouTube, on the “mythification” of Coltrane.

A conversation with Ben Ratliff.

Excerpt from “Coltrane.”

Ben Ratliff review of “Thelonius Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall.”