I love jazz biographies as much as the next music nerd, but Ben Ratliff’s latest book on jazz giant John Coltrane, Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, transcends typical expectations of a biography. It documents how one of the most famous and revered jazz musicians of all time actually developed his sound, style, and technique.
Coltrane, in the hands of this New York Times music critic, is a man constantly searching—and practicing—and pushing himself to the next level musically. He’s also a music theory-obsessed saxophonist that people didn’t always know what to make of, but he was consistently invited to play anyway; and repeatedly blew people away with his power and tenacity.
The first-person accounts given by fellow musicians, friends, peers and admirers are the charm of the book. French-horn player David Amram recalls Coltrane sitting outside of a club, eating a piece of pie and talking about Einstein’s theory of relativity. Testimonies from rock musicians help contextualize Coltrane’s influence outside of New York’s jazz clubs. The Stooges’ singer Iggy Pop, known for his wild physicality on stage, explains “What I heard John Coltrane do with his horn, I tried to do physically.” Mike Watt, bassist for the post-punk band The Minutemen, says “[Coltrane] didn’t want to get fuckin’ nailed down. That’s the anarchistic spirit.”
In short, it takes Ratcliff 200 pages to describe how an amazing, controversial jazz man worked to transform himself and the instrument he played, and as a result, challenged what people thought (and still think) jazz music should sound like.