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Book Reviews

John Coltrane: His Life and Music

By Published: February 24, 2004

Porter interweaves a nice tapestry of Coltrane's life with one of the deepest explorations of a musical heritage that you will ever find in the jazz literature.

John Coltrane: His Life and Music
Lewis Porter
Univ of Michigan Press
ISBN: 0472101617

This is a great big bear hug of a biography of one of the greatest jazz legends and jazz masters of all time. As with all great and legendary individuals, much has been written about John Coltrane, and it is often difficult to separate the apocryphal from the true. As time passes, myths grow up around the realities- and the difference between the two becomes less and less discernible. Lewis Porter, Associate Professor of Music at Rutgers University, and Founding Director of their Master's Program in Jazz History and Research, as well as an accomplished pianist and saxophonist himself, has tried to set the record on Coltrane straight, by relying as much as possible on primary sources (interviews and original documents) and, somewhat like the perennial Civil War buff, carefully re-tracing the ground that other Coltrane scholars have trod. Such a biography could have turned out to be ponderous and overwhelming. The saving grace of this venture is that with all the details and attempts at clarification- and the honest admissions of where what happened simply are not available- John Coltrane: His Life and Music is, in my opinion, highly readable, and at times downright exciting, as indeed Coltrane's era of jazz music-making was itself electrifying.

Several universal impressions of Coltrane are amply reinforced by the detailed information Porter has assembled in this book. One is that he was virtually obsessed with his horn and his music. From his teen-age years following upon the death of his father and other family members, nearly until his own death from liver cancer at the age of 41, Coltrane practiced nearly all the time (he would even practice in a nightclub bathroom while the members of his group were playing on stage!), and when he wasn't practicing, he was studying musical ideas and investigating new possibilities. Another is that, after his recovery from an early bout with heroin and alcohol addiction, Coltrane seemed to have a spiritual awakening which led him increasingly to see his musical prurpose as a God-given expression of his own being and striving for the good. This was not mere talk on Coltrane's part. He seemed to live it, and his music increasingly became an expression of this inner conviction. A third impression is that Coltrane, influenced by innovators like Sun Ra, Pharaoh Sanders, and Ornette Coleman, went out on a creative limb in his last years, inviting hostility even from ardent fans. Eventually, he left behind his own faithful musicians, or, in some instances, they left him. Some of his final works and recordings, such as Impressions and Meditations , border on the cacophonous and are to say the least, disturbing and upsetting to most listeners. Porter- who is a very astute musical analyst- goes out of his way to show the coherence and conceptual basis of even the most chaotic-sounding of Coltrane's composing and improvising from that time period. Anyone with a serious interest in contemporary music will want to go back and listen to these recordings all over again after reading Porter's views. Those with more traditional tastes, will stick with "My Favorite Things" and Coltrane's earlier recordings with McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones, Miles Davis, and the like. In any case, one has to admire how Coltrane, even after he achieved fame and success, kept pushing the limits, placing the music above the approval of the crowd. For him, it was a compulsion, a destiny, as if he were moved by inner forces larger than his conscious ego. This is the mode of greatness in life and in music.

The book takes us from Coltrane's ancestry (Porter has a great interest in genealogies and family history), through his childhood in North Carolina and the major losses of his father and several other family members, to his adolescence and emerging interest in music and the saxophone, to his move to Philadelphia and his young peer group, including Benny Golson, his early band gigs, and his WWII stint in the Navy, where he made several fledgeling recordings which still exist! Then we see Trane's coming of age as a musician, and his seminal affiliations with Thelonius Monk and Miles Davis. With the formulation of his own legendary group with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, and Elvin Jones, Trane's career soared, and he reached new heights of creativity and popularity. But somehow, sustained achievement within a "straight ahead" groove wasn't enough for him, and he ventured into new musical territory which in some cases alienated his most ardent fans. At the height of both his popularity and controversy, he became ill with liver cancer, and died about two months before his 41st birthday. Porter interweaves a nice tapestry of Coltrane's life with one of the deepest explorations of a musical heritage that you will ever find in the jazz literature. The depth and extent of the musical analysis is one of the salient features of the book, and more than equals the rigor of the historical research.

Porter's John Coltrane: His Life and Music is bound to be one of the great classics of jazz biography. Readers looking for an "easy read" will perhaps not find it here, but, regardless of whether they are avid listeners or seasoned musicians, they will be greatly enriched by this rigorous and insightful book.

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