Monday, January 21, 2008

Chasing the Trane

I recently finished reading a great new book on my favorite jazz artist, John Coltrane (above)—Coltrane: The Story of a Sound by Ben Ratliff. What really sets Ratliff’s book apart from all the other Coltrane books I’ve read is how he not only delves into the intricacies of Coltrane’s music, but also how he places Coltrane in a larger cultural and artistic context, including the visual arts. (My short musical review: Like Coltrane’s music itself, Ratliff’s book is extremely challenging. I played an instrument for 8 years and can follow most discussions about music theory, but I labored to follow his argument at times. However, Ratliff writes well and knows the subject exhaustively. His ability to weave Coltrane’s music with popular culture, literature, and even the visual arts makes this the finest book on jazz I’ve read in years. In the second half in which he concentrates primarily on Coltrane’s influence, Ratliff manages to sum up the entire jazz world over the last 40 years at the same time. Very cool.)

I’m not sure how much of an art lover Coltrane was, but he certainly had an appreciation for artists and the struggle to create. (A 1960 photo of Coltrane at The Guggenheim Museum appears above.) In a letter from June 1962, Coltrane expressed just how much he admired Vincent Van Gogh:

I was reading a book on the life of Van Gogh today, and I had to pause and think of that wonderful and persistent force—the creative urge. The creative urge was in this man who found himself so much at odds with the world he lived in, and in spite of all the adversity, frustrations, rejections and so forth—beautiful and living art came forth abundantly… if only he could be here today.

Truth is indestructible. It seems history shows (and it’s the same way today) that the innovator is more often than not met with some degree of condemnation; usually according to the degree of departure from the prevailing modes of expression or what have you. Change is always so hard to accept. We also see that these innovators always seek to revitalize, extend and reconstruct the status quo in their given fields, whatever is needed. Quite often they are the rejects, outcasts, sub-citizens etc. of the very societies to which they bring so much sustenance. Often they are people who endure great personal tragedy in their lives. Whatever the case, whether accepted or rejected, rich or poor, they are forever guided by that great and eternal constant—the creative urge. Let us cherish it and give all praise to God.

Ratliff makes a great connection between Coltrane’s spiritual journey through music and the spiritual journeys of contemporary artists such as Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock. The picture that Ratliff later draws of artists such as Larry Rivers, Franz Kline, and Willem de Kooning sitting at the Five Spot and other New York jazz clubs of the 1950s and 1960s to hear Coltrane play sparked all kinds of associations in my head. I imagined de Kooning inspired by Coltrane’s “sheets of sound” (as described by the jazz critic Ira Gitler) to create “sheets of gesture” such as The Visit (above, from 1966-1967). Of course, de Kooning painted in that style before Coltrane developed his signature style, but the interaction between these two artists just makes them individually that more fascinating. As Ratliff would agree, John Coltrane remains the ultimate crossover artist.

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