Ben Ratliff, Coltrane: The Story of a Sound

I was a bit down one afternoon but found myself in the library, and to be constructive about my emotions I figured I’d check out to see if there were any new jazz biographies on the shelf.  I don’t read any books more quickly than biographies of jazz musicians I love, and Coltrane is near the top of the list.

I had heard the name Ben Ratliff or more likely read it, as he writes for the New York Times.  The book seemed promising enough: not a biography per se but more of a biography of Coltrane’s “sound,” both as it evolved during his lifetime and, in the second part of the book, in its reception after his death.  I will point out that I read the whole thing, something I do not bind myself to do as a rule with books I lose interest in or which upset me.  I read for pleasure, above all.  That said, the only thing that got me through was that I was reading about Coltrane.  In the process, I have cultivated a great antipathy for Ben Ratliff, on par with that I feel for Jon Krakauer.  This is a man who knows a moderate amount, understands little, and apparently makes his living writing for people who know and understand even less.  Like the great standard puts it: “Nice Work If You Can Get It.”

I have no idea where Ratliff went to school, but his references are those of someone educated at a second-rate prep school (just like I was) who has deluded himself that he’s become more real because he quotes Amiri Baraka and Eldridge Cleaver but has, in fact, never questioned the fundamental categories of a canonical Western-Civ. approach to the liberal arts.  He quotes Cleaver, but frames ideas in terms of the opposition between Enlightenment and nineteenth century (see “people who know and understand less,” above) Romanticism:

the rawest, most basic, wildest version of Coltrane, like the decadent stage of the Romantic movement.  (109)


“He was a deep, great artist, even if he was a rather sententious man, D. H. Lawrence wrote of Melville in Studies in Classic American Literature.  Lawrence might have been describing the Coltrane of late 1965.  (101)

Gratuitous references are hard for me to take.  I will go on record and say that, despite having gone to a second-rate prep school (as most prep schools are), I have read neither Lawrence nor Melville.  I have a greater desire to read Melville, but I’ve never quite gotten there.  Nor is there anything in the least wrong with reading either one.  The problem here is that Ratliff shows his hand, as if his day job wasn’t enough.  He situates Coltrane’s jazz, that most precious of Black American cultural properties, using white cultural points of reference.  I can’t imagine that Coltrane was ignorant of the details of the Enlightenment, Romanticism, Lawrence or Melville, because one thing the book makes fairly clear and which is also clear from the other biography I’ve read of Coltrane or the cool book I read about A Love Supreme, there was very little of which Coltrane was ignorant.  Equally, and to my point, I can’t imagine that Coltrane would think that Ratliff’s choices facilitate either an intellectual understanding of Trane’s music or an improved experience of the actual music itself.

That said, I am certain that Ratliff’s references facilitate consumption by the type of white people–those with enough disposable income so that they buy his book rather than go about it the socialist way: getting it at the public library–his publishers and he want to target.  This is not to say that one should avoid European cultural points of reference when writing about or discussing jazz.  To be sure, jazz musicians used them all the time.  They did not and do not do so, generally speaking, do so within a strictly European/white American intellectual framework, as does Ratliff.  It’s a demographically forbidding enterprise.

To take it a step further: I get the distinct impression that Ratliff respects Black people as much as he can make money off of their culture, which is to say, not very much, and which is different too than saying he respects Black culture but not, particularly, Black people.  It’s a tangled web he weaves (and there!  I’ve done it myself).

Here are the money quotes:

What was taking shape here was an ugly circle of irritation, based on reductive white-listener notions and reductive black notions of the white notions and reductive white notions of the black-listener notions. (165)

It’s a dead giveaway, for the white liberal “I’m not a racist” racist, to pretend that racism or racially related disagreements are somehow merely based on differing perspectives, a he-said, she-said, or, as they say in Russian, “on skazal, ona skazala”.  You don’t want to make your target demographic uncomfortable in, literally, their own skin, so the New York Times jazz critic has to take this approach, for the job’s sake.  Unfortunately, reality is a different matter.  Nothing related to race is merely the matter of two differing, yet equivalent perspectives.  Nor, not as an aside but as a central point, is it ever a matter of only two perspectives.  But, hey, what better way to get white hipster cred than to feel free to critique Black radical responses–responses!–to white ignorance.  “Those people are so…so…extreme…but I’m really into early ’60’s Blue Note recordings by Rudy Van Gelder.”

Yes, Ratliff has it in for those Black Radicals.  Noting the creation of different community-based organizations for the performance of the new jazz–free jazz, “the new thing,” etc.–Ratliff points to the Collective Black Artists:

…included a biographical sketch of Coltrane which neatly encapsulates the rhetoric of that period vis-a-vis Coltrane, with its righteous, uncompromising tone, its trenchant anger toward critics, its capitalization of the word “Black.” (187)

So, to Ratliff, radical Black critique of the 1960’s and 1970’s is a matter of rhetoric.  I understand that it is rhetorically (in the literal sense of the word) incorrect to dismiss one’s adversary as a mere idiot.  I will say, then, that this approach is idiocy.  Look at the Panthers’ 10-Point Program.  One gets a clear impression from it that, indeed, there are real problems that real Black people faced at the time.  Moreover, and at least as telling, Ratliff takes a to-me-not-at-all-subtle snotty tone toward the capitalization of Black.  We at One Book After Another are in agreement with Diversity, Inc. on the subject.  The capitalization question is an interesting litmus test.  Ratliff wants “black” and “white,” following the same rules, as if in reality Black people (and anyone else who is not white) and white people follow the same rules in the United States.  They don’t.  Hence, for among other reasons, the appropriateness of differing syntax.

Ratliff takes it further and impugns radicals’ motives:

…The members of the CBA [Collective Black Artists] were looking out for themselves…(187)

Since when could Black people in America afford to not look out for themselves?  And since when was looking out for oneself a bad thing, when, in this case, musicians had been systematically shut out by the music industry?  I’m a folkie at heart, and for my money music comes out best when it is as popular–of the people rather than the industry–as can be.  Ratliff, though, disapproves of these Black people who have the gall to take matters into their own hands and produce culture that doesn’t need the approval of white critics like him.  So, like a petulant child, he witholds his approval and passive-aggressively suggests that they, the CBA in particular but by insinuation radicals in general, were at best impure in their motives and at worst were hustling.  Ratliff, to be clear, is wrong, however.  The radicals were the good guys, and Ratliff’s forebears in the industry and media who shut out the radicals were moldy figs.

It is telling, as a final pot-shot, that Ratliff references white musicians to explain the technical aspects of the music, viz.:

Coltrane’s phrasing, [Conrad] Herwig explains, was asymmetrical within an even number of bars…(192)

There are three possible explanations for this tendency, none of them flattering:

  1. Ratliff doesn’t know any Black musicians.
  2. Ratliff thinks that Black musicians intuit jazz because they’re naturally good at it, whereas white musicians have a rational, technical understanding of the music.
  3. Both 1 and 2.

Very, very not cool.

There, I’m done.  To regain my sanity, I read Amiri Baraka’s Black Music after this.  It helped.  Coming soon.


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