27
Aug 17

free-form thoughts on john coltrane and how NOT to remember or talk about him next time, maybe

FT14 comments • 302 views

so a friend and i went to see the john scheinfeld coltrane doc at the the ica a couple of weeks back: that’s one JC-stan and one JC-sceptic…

… and we both agreed it’s bad and here’s why

Chasing-Traneit does the usual documentary thing, of hunting out a bunch of talking heads — family, professional, the commentatative pundit — and then merely stitching them together with stills and live footage into the same version of the story we always already know… anything odd or interesting that pops out of someone’s mouth is not returned to or dwelt on or even apparently noticed

the shape it offers is utterly conventional: beginning times (where from, where first played); times with miles (interrupted by drugs); GIANT STEPS; break-up of marriage; A LOVE SUPREME; final tour of japan and sad early death

these mounting avant-garde milestones are all routinely invoked, but really no attempt is made to say what made them milestones — nearly a dozen musicians are presenting yabbing away, but nearly none of them say anything whatever about the changing content of the music, his technique, his approach, what was concretely at stake in the choices being made, on-stage or in the studio. there was no glimpse AT ALL abt what it is that JC actually did, that was new to and impressed other musicians — or bothered them. wayne shorter for example, a shrewd and highly intelligent man (as well as player), is on-screen for a little. I interviewed him once and got him to talk abt the effect the arrival of the beatles had on the scene in c.1964: he was funny and interesting abt how much they divided jazzers, how some pricked their ears up and others just said “more nonsense from whitey”. we know that jazz in the early 60s wasn’t a collegiate love-in, anything but… but JC has undergone retrospective MLK-ification, and the fights and fears are forgotten in the haze of blissed-in pro forma sanctification

coltrane-chimcheree(i’m not really dissing shorter, sonny rollins, mccoy tyner, benny golson or jimmy heath here — the latter two, as perhaps not-stellar-musicians who were JC’s friends and colleagues in the early days, did give good backstage anecdote, even if mainly abt the junk-ambience everyone was battling with, and the first three were either asked dull questions or — as likely? — had their interesting answers consigned to the cutting-room floor)

(here’s who I am somewhat dissing however: carlos santana, wynton marsalis, cornel west, BILL fkn CLINTON)

(tho west clearly knows little abt music in the sense I’m thinking abt, and somewhat gave that away in a performance of twinkly down-with-the-streets bullshitting that was at least somewhat signalling that he knew this doc was trash and was playing along, for you to spot and the director not to)

(and santana and also john densmore were at least talking as fans responding to something on the way to their own music and sensibility: the former a notorious spiritual-hat guitarwank bore after his early records, the latter apparently a massive elvin jones nut as a teen)

new-eye-roll-emoji_bdfl0c(cue for santana, the claim — do I believe this, I am not sure — that when he’s on tour he “purifies” every hotel room by burning incense and playing the whole of a love supreme) (cue for densmore lots of stills of JIM MORRISON, surely coltrane’s purest equivalent in the rock universe)

(also there were some historian-biographers and some embarrassed-seeming family members, who obviously love their dad but feel somewhat squinky abt this tin-eared project — their dad who I am happy to continue to believe was an unusually lovely and generous man, especially for a working musician) (scope for an ingenious approach: present JC as the anti-miles, and deal w/their journeys in compare-contrast parallel)

so yes, i was hoping at least to learn something or see or hear something that that wd help inch me in a little past my long-term JC-sceptic status: I get that people adore him and that he is considered important, but this very highly important contribution that none of us can put into words bores me, I find his tone entirely unappealing, and ditto the fetishisation of granite-hard everests of effort in the journey, like some kind of saxophonic rich piana. PEOPLE ONLY EVER TALK LIKE THIS ABOUT HIM — or if they don’t, they either weren’t selected for this doc or the relevant passages ending up unused

and I have no yen to push back on ppl’s veneration (much), but NOBODY TALKS ABOUT HIM WELL and I wish that could change: huckster-pundits clinton west and WYNTON FKN MARSALIS worst offenders in this respect. until the peerlessly maddening moment — my friend and and I p much turned to each other and shouted #SMDH — when EINSTEIN no less was wheeled out to explain and explore what GENIUS is, what it does and and how it work, completely with equations and everything floating past in the edit-collage.

of course they didn’t actually deploy the equations in any coherent or speculative or provocatising way, but they DID display them. the publisher’s motto is: every equation included in a popular science-writing book halves the readership…

einstein-eqwell, here we do get THIS —->> but nothing abt chords or scales or what gitler meant by “sheets of sound” or the west african sound of JC’s soprano in “naima”, the various things (political, “spiritual”) that the search for FREE actually meant to ppl. to coltrane or to anyone else…

(minor side issue: has relativity special or general even been used intelligibly to illuminate music? I think likely NO: i’d kind of love to see it pulled off somewhere, if only in the form of trolling, but — as an actual semi-credentialed mathematician w/a degree and everything, this was just halfwit piffle)

ipsum loremin general — and the einstein moment entirely fits here — the interstitial work was just lazy garbage. it was an era of strong photography, so it could hardly help looking OK from the stills angle, despite very few pictures you hadn’t seen 30 times before (and every photo was panned and zoomed in the same dull way): some of the live footage was genuinely new (at least to me; tho I very much doubt to an actual hard-seeking fan). it rested a lot too on some (I thought) quite bad mystical afro-futurist art as the backdrop point of rest. whenever they recreated a newspaper splash w/headline and photo, if you looked carefully you could see that the paragraphs of text too small to read were ALL just lorem ipsum fkn dolor, which wtf you half-measures cheapskates (obviously the recent TSwift hommage to same was witty and cheeky in comparison)

(scope for a second ingenious approach: shape the whole thing round lorem ipsum dolor, and the idea that the blow-the-top-of-yr-head-off playing is designed — lol like metal lachine music — to reach a plateau of buzzing calm… )

and a final bad decision: denzel washington reading as coltrane’s actual voice, which just took away any quirky sense of the man himself and replaced it with humbug hollywood gravitas

(tbf this^^^ is a super-toucg ask for any actor I think: but I’d almost have preferred — since we’re anyway in wynton-propinquity — something more outrageously ken burnsy as a v/o. something that gave a sense of past times and lost sensibilities: a courteous gentlemanly black north carolinan at sea in the turbulent city) (one of the takeaways from the stream of stills is how melancholy and also how gawky he often looked; his ungainly country-boy goofiness: he was no dapper hipster, quite the opposite)

so the move ppl use to dodge talking abt the music is donning the spiritual hat by proxy: and then — having invoked spirituality — say nothing whatever about it, what it means, how coltrane deployed it (as mask, as weapon, as balm, as what the fuck ever). closest to achieving actual concrete comment is sonny rollins, gnomic as ever and resplendent in an amazing crimson suit: for a start he substitutes the word “celestial” for the word “spiritual”, and does so in a context that implies the JC’s self-constructed pan-faith religiosity was a way to step away — away away far far away — from planet earth’s grief and crimes and conflict, and explore how to see and sketch and perhaps fashion shared samenesses among the belief-systems and cultural sonics of the many warring clans. “the big picture,” rollins calls it, simply and directly enough: and of course the doc sweeps past this and makes no connections, and hints at no sense that they just heard what they heard…

marshall allof course the word celestial (as slyboots rollins well knows) takes us to the jazz einstein who could (IMO) crack open all these issues, but we sweep past him entirely: this would be sun ra, whose chief sideman john gilmore is said to have inspired JC to exclaim “he’s got it! John’s got the concept!” ra is dead and so is gilmore, but marshall allen is (at time of posting) still alive and well and active!! why not get him in front of the camera? this film is after all clumsily named for a piece inspired by gilmore’s sound. “space music is an introductory prelude to the sound of greater infinity,” says ra. “it is a order of sounds synchronised to the different order of being”

yes this is opaque and riddling — hallo and welcome to the heliocentric worlds! — but ra’s sense of vaster hierarchies or orders and layered geometries as a recalibration of mere mundane perspective is at least a well enough trod approach to see coltrane’s journey somewhat from a side elevation: and ra’s bleak pessimism is also a help I think. instead of the somewhat numbing glad-hand positivity of (allegedly) achieved lovely oneness — which is what I’m most allergic to in the backward-looking coltrane discourse — there’s SR’s often-stated belief that the human race haven’t got the concept and won’t get it and it’s already after the end of the world, brother. i don’t believe JC believed this — or anyway couldn’t bear to concede it to himself — and all of his sound is a FIGHT against it, on the exact same battle, and a fight (I assume) against the elements in himself which were drawn to ra’s scornful (and invigorating) anti-humanism.

ascensioninstead of course we get wynton, riding the reverence trane with total chutzpah, given his known views on free: and — despite his endless ability to grab up his horn and demonstrate the rhythms of a king oliver joint — again saying nothing (good OR bad) abt the musical choices trane was making [EDIT: no, he says that the earliest recording of trane’s playing, from the late 40s, while he was still in the army i think, demonstrates he couldn’t really play yet — but we’re just supposed to be able to hear why they’re saying so, nobody stops to say “this bit is why it’s bad”]. It somewhat occurred to me to wonder whether his condition of involvement was the non-discussion of ra (who his mentor stanley crouch has dismissed as a pure charlatan). at least — speaking of charlatans, or anyway trickster-figures enjoying playing them on TV — cornel west has the grace to say of ASCENSION that he has no idea what the fuck is going on, but he’s happy to be long for the ride bcz no doubt one day he will (in other words, I’m kinda glad someone voice this sentiment and that it was someone embracing it not denouncing it) (I might as well say here that west is someone I’m super-ambivalent about, as observer and as troll)

(plus I quite like imagining how grumpy CW probably was at the screening to find himself alongside fellow huckster-pundit clinton, doing his own — different but equal — version of a similar hustle for would-be-woke but unwakaeble northern urban whitey)

so anyway it ends in a crazily aggravating place which (A) exactly — if timidly — approaches the pan-cultural sense of mourning and bearing witness, JC in japan on his final tour, visiting the temples at hiroshima and so on: and hunting for a celestial language that translates the feels and the meaning of this for him to lie interweaved with every other mode cultural expression, and then (B) inflects the entire story through the self-regarding narrative of an insane japanese collector-fan who lives in a room that’s a cave-shrine to the commodity god coltrane, just jam-packed with every single gatherable object. the fact of this guy at all is a tell; a symptom: except he of all people is the worst person to be telling it

(i mean, imaginably not: he might have had insightful perspective, it’s just that he very evidently — after just a few moments in his presence — doesn’t. meanwhile we’re watching JC touring and already — tho it’s not clear if he knows it yet — mortally ill: which is simultaneously moving and maddening)

coltrane in japantwo last points (good moments thrown away):
• there was a colour shoot from the early 60s I’d never seen before where the photographer had directed him to look about in portentous male-model style in some backstage space full of ropes and ladders, which made me grin, bcz you can see his ugh-this-is-dumb look as he does it (this may be why the pictures aren’t well known of course)
• the tale of trane and miles feels thrice-told and yet the evident interesting friction of it feels to me endless sidestepped and elided: so of course the “how do you stop? just take the horn our of your mouth!” story is trotted out, but of course it’s also referred to as joke and in-studio banter, miles being incrutable his non-corny self, and not at all explored as an actual real aesthetic flashpoint between the two. there’s even revealing live 1959 footage of miles side of stage while trane solos in (apt title) “so what” and you can absolutely tell he’s thinking GET ON WITH IT JOHN

(originally created on THIS ILX POST)

Comments

  1. 1
    Ed on 27 Aug 2017 #

    Lovely post. One of those pans that really makes me want to see the offending movie.

  2. 2
    Ed on 27 Aug 2017 #

    On “why can no-one talk / write well about Coltrane?”: it’s an endemic issue with jazz, surely? Especially post 1960.

    Greg Tate on electric Miles springs to mind as an exception. But otherwise…. ?

  3. 3

    jazz as a whole? no, i don’t think so

    (i mean obviously i used to edit a magazine that was dedicated — along other things — to the coverage of jazz, so i would say that)

  4. 4

    er and thank you :)

  5. 5
    Mark M on 28 Aug 2017 #

    So I take it at least there was no Bono? That’s got to be a huge plus in a music doc these days.

    As someone who knows pretty much nothing about jazz, my interest in Coltrane is how he became this consensus figure, one who (apparently) pushed the limits of the form fairly hard in one direction* but is still canonical as far as arch-reactionaries like W Marsalis are concerned. And is almost certainly the jazz musician most name-checked in non-jazz songs.

    *A mutual friend, before he renounced jazz and its evil ways, used to use Ascension (I think) to scare people away from his office in Leeds University Union.

  6. 6

    lol no, no bono

    my guess is they had him in the rolodex before even carlos santana but someone in the production knew the words to “angel of harlem” and that was enough to put the kibosh on his inclusion

    i do have a sorta kinda theory why coltrane is in this unusual position but it’s late now so i will leave it for when i’m less sleepy

  7. 7
    weej on 28 Aug 2017 #

    I don’t know a lot (or almost anything) about John Coltrane or in fact jazz as a whole, and am trying to find out about it now for a project I’m working on, and having read this, yeah, might not bother with it, but also, as a complete beginner – who is this Wynton Marsalis person and why does he play such a big part in the documentaries I’ve seen?

  8. 8
    Mark M on 28 Aug 2017 #

    Re7: Marsalis was a trumpet prodigy who in the 1980s became the embodiment of the notion that sometime in the early/mid-60s jazz had started to lose its way and that the way back was essentially the way forward. Wynton and chums said boo! to free jazz, assorted jazz fusions etc, and everything Miles did from the time when he started wearing brightly coloured clothes.

    He is an ally of the writer/theorist Stanley Crouch, who had once been a figure on the New York loft-jazz scene of the 1970s but repented of his own sins against tradition in a big way.

    Marsalis is a very ’80s figure – not exactly postmodern, because that would be tacky/over- playful, but against the messiness and supposed disconnection with the public created at the end of modernism (paralleling an attempted return to painting in the art world, for instance). He wore nicely tailored suits and was very welcome in highbrow concert halls.

    The (reasonable to me) gripe lots of people have against him was the fact that he was wedded to a fairly strict canon and that he and Crouch had effectively elected themselves as the guys who defined that canon. And also that his own music is boring (I have no view on his music either way).

    He gets a lot of screen time in documentaries because he is both a hugely successful musician and an ideologue, which is a fairly rare combination I guess.

    His brother, meanwhile, worked with Sting.

  9. 9
    Ed on 29 Aug 2017 #

    @3 Haha sorry that wasn’t meant to be a dig at The Wire!

    @5 My answer on the consensus reverence for Coltrane is that, for a Pinnacle of Western Civilisation (TM), A Love Supreme in particular is ridiculously accessible: fizzing with rhythm and lavishly melodic. Listening to it for the first time was like enjoying a Shakespeare play: “Everyone tells me I’ve got to love this, but actually it is pretty good!”

    @8 To be fair, Branford Marsalis is also responsible for my favourite 90 seconds of “jazz” ever: the scorching solo at the end of the soundtrack version of Fight The Power.

  10. 10

    marsalis is currently director of the jazz at the lincoln centre program in new york, and in constant employ as an “educator” re the backstory of jazz, so he’s not out of place here — i just think he’s misused (and is more culpable for allowing himself to be misused)

    weej: i’ve been told that ben ratliff’s “the story of a sound” is good on coltrane (ratliff’s in this doc but not to any useful purpose)

  11. 11

    so why did coltrane become what mark m calls “this consensus figure”?

    several reasons, i think
    1: unlike the other major names of the free jazz “new thing” — ornette, cecil taylor, ra, ayler — he spent several years earning a rep in the vanguard of the mainstream (most obviously working with miles, but with his own groups also) and proving himself against its pretty fierce tests (virtuosity; playing the changes at speed; writing his own tunes). plenty of musicians in said mainstream picked up and deployed elements from the innovations of the new thing (inc.miles, tho he went out of his way not to acknowledge this) but almost no one plunged quite so deeply and resolutely into it (off the top of my head the only player i can think of steve lacy, tho there must be others) (and he really wasn’t well known before he became a free improviser)
    b: coltrane’s contract with atlantic was bought out by impulse! — which would by the label most associated with the new thing (tho it actually put out quite a wide range of sounds) — and from then on (c.1961) increasingly pushed off away from what was seen as mainstream (or sometimes “real”) jazz, which included a framework of recognisable chord sequences that the improvisation followed
    c: unlike his fellow new thing names, he did not fashion a militantly contentious or a competitive or a “strange” persona — he was famously and enormously generous to other musics (some magazine asked him for a list of other players to look out for and he gave them more than a hundred names)
    d: his own aesthetic was — in my opinion — rigorously all-embracing: as well as the tones sounds and structures of raga and african music, he covered the terrain from full-on freeform blowing to deliberately “corny” pop material (“my favorite things” from the sound of music, “chim chim cheree” from mary poppins): i don’t think this latter move was ironic or aggressive, i think it belonged to his sense of a cultural exploration that touched everything humans have done
    e: he died young (just 41) — so (unlike ornette) he didn’t carry on bringing out records that tripped up anyone who’d just about got used to what came before (coleman employed his ten-yr-old kid denardo as his drummers for a while, and also started playing violin and trumpet depsite being *completely* untutored in both)
    f: a love supreme broke out and crossed over — despite its relative inaccessibility (or supposed relative inaccessibility), by the end of the 60s it was one of the best-selling jazz LPs ever (in fact, ppl with rock-trained ears were often MORE drawn to the intensities of free jazz than the filigree intricacy of its predecessors in structure and arrangement, so i think accessibility is a bit of a red herring)
    g: tho ed’s response is nonetheless germane — that ppl come to it expecting it to be daunting and find it quite the opposite! i have to say i am not really a fan, i find it a bit too saggy and ponderous… but my challopsy takes on the Undeniable Greats are perhaps too well expected to be persuasive any more :D
    h: the religious turn is also important (and what i called the MLK-ification) — the 60s was a turbulent and often a very horrible time, significant political figures on the american scene, black and white, were assassinated, the civil rights battle against racism stalled after its biggest success (the dismantling of jim crow), and as a backdrop there was the seemingly endless war in vietnam, with high body count among young black americans (and far higher among vietnamese of all ages) —- i think the assumed move towards a music of consolation and soothing richness (as opposed to one of open confrontation) was extremely appealing to many, on all sides
    i: to me — as with miles’s kind of blue — it’s indicative of a weakness in coltrane’s best-known music that it allows this misperception of it to hang over it; but i recognise that the misperception has been useful in motoring him to the top of consensus mountain

    tl;dr: he had standing in several opposed camps (mainstream/avant garde, political/spiritual) and his own ecumenical aesthetic and generous personality cemented the sense of consensus. i don’t know that any one of these elements would have produced the effect: but the aggregation (combined with the wish to find such a figure at all) helped it happen…

  12. 12
    Ed on 30 Aug 2017 #

    A Love Supreme can’t have been all that inaccessible: it got to #14!

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iSIEebXB6fU

  13. 13
    Ed on 30 Aug 2017 #

    OK yes, I know. But there was still something there in Coltrane that meant the “cover” made sense, in a way that’s hard to imagine for Albert Ayler or Sun Ra.

    I don’t think this ever troubled the charts, for example: https://vimeo.com/176222568

  14. 14
    Mark M on 1 Sep 2017 #

    Re11: Thanks – that all makes sense to me, esp the Picasso-like business of having shown he could do it the accepted way before heading towards stranger shores, plus the spiritual thing, and a death that, for the purposes of a long-term reputation, was well-timed.

    Also, though, for the purposes of citations in the lyrics of songs, he had a surname that is distinctive but easy to rhyme.

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