Coltrane The Story of a Sound

Ben Ratliff




Trade Paperback

272 Pages


Request Exam Copy Request Desk Copy
Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle AwardAn Artforum Best Book of the Year What was the essence of John Coltrane’s achievement that makes him so prized forty years after his death? What was it about his improvising, his bands, his compositions, his place within his era of jazz that drew so many musicians and listeners to his music?  Jazz writer and New York Times music critic Ben Ratliff addresses these questions in Coltrane.  First Ratliff tells the story of Coltrane’s development, from his first recordings as a navy bandsman to his last recordings as a near-saint, paying special attention to the last ten years of his life, which contained a remarkable series of breakthroughs in a nearly religious search for deeper expression.  In the book’s second half, Ratliff traces another history: that of Coltrane’s influence and legacy. This story begins in the mid-’50s and considers the reactions of musicians, critics, and others who paid attention, asking: Why does Coltrane signify so heavily in the basic identity of jazz? Placing jazz among other art forms and American social history, and placing Coltrane not just among jazz musicians but among the greatest American artists, Ratliff tries to look for the sources of power in Coltrane’s music—not just in matters of technique, composition, and musical concepts, but in the deeper frequencies of Coltrane’s sound.


Praise for Coltrane

“Engaging . . . clear-sighted . . . Ratliff suggests, intelligently and persuasively, that Coltrane had, among other attributes, a 'mystic's sensitivity for the sublime, which runs like a secret river under American culture.'  Ratliff patiently explicates Coltrane's legend, writing in short, aphoristic bursts, often as elliptically as his subject played tenor saxophone, but never less than lucidly.”—Pankaj Mishra, The New York Times Book Review

Coltrane: The Story of a Sound is not a biography but an extended, deeply informed analysis of the qualities that make Coltrane and his music so meaningful to people today, four decades after his death.”—Matt Schudel, The Washington Post Book World

“Ratliff, a New York Times jazz critic, has written a book that’s neither a biography nor a critical study, although it has elements of both. It is, rather, a kind of cultural history . . . Ratliff writes extremely well, with terse, assured brio, as when he refers to Coltrane’s ‘serene intensity’ or the ‘incantational tumult’ of his vast, cathedral solos.”—Mark Feeney, The Boston Globe

"Ratliff has turned me on to more music over the last few years than any other writer . . . The listening skills of a great critic and the ability to convey what he hears are what he brings here."—R. J. Smith, Los Angeles Times

"Brilliant, economical . . . sharp . . . [Ratliff] skillfully and convincingly places Coltrane as something of a man apart from most other musicians—a cultural comet, as much as a musical one."—Henry C. Jackson, San Francisco Chronicle

“In his astute and unorthodox biography, Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, New York Times critic Ben Ratliff pays as much attention to Coltrane’s haunting absence over the last forty years as he does to his brief decade of renown . . . As attentive a reader as he is a listener, Ratliff charts the rapid expansion of the mythology in various, often contradictory tropes: the humble music student and theorist who never stopped practicing and learning, the Christian into Eastern religious for whom pride was a far graver sin than wrong notes, the wordless spokesman for black civil rights and revolution, the unbound thinker who tripped across inner and outer space.”—Richard B. Woodward, Bookforum

“Ratliff condenses the biography proper into the first part of the book in order to devote himself in part two to a lengthy consideration of the saxophonist’s influence since his death. Even more important, the book is less about music than it is about sound—as jazz musicians understand it . . . Ratliff’s book is intelligent and compelling. The text and its sources reveal how seriously he took his task. In addition to working with biographies and interviews, some of which must have been difficult to locate, Ratliff also draws on obscure radio programs, various unpublished materials, thirty-nine interviews he conducted with musicians and countless conversations with people knowledgeable about jazz, American culture and New York City. Throughout he tackles topics that might seem the province of academics—such as the merits of Theodor Adorno’s and Edward Said’s ideas about ‘late style’—with considerable skill and clarity . . . While Ratliff avers in his introduction that he is a writer rather than a musician, his discussions of the sound of Coltrane and Coltrane’s compatriots in performance are informative and compelling, especially when his own writing captures the spirit and feel of a recording in ways that a transcription never could . . . Most important, Ratliff focuses his observational eye again and again on the power and perils of repetition, both for Coltrane and the jazz musicians who have emerged since his death . . . Indeed, Ratliff’s reconsideration of a musician who has already been the subject of countless books, poems, and documentaries is perhaps a subtle reminder of how much joy there is in repetition. Like the best writing on music, his book not only provides food for thought but also creates an insatiable desire to go back to the recordings, in hopes that we too might discover some elusive truth.”—Travis A. Jackson, The Nation

"Were it not for the power and breadth of saxophonist John Coltrane’s legacy and the lithe prose of New York Times critic Ben Ratliff, Coltrane would be a scholarly monograph—it's that rich in historical detail and musicological analysis. But Ratliff aims beyond simple biography or ordinary criticism, toward a fresh form. It's a two-part tale: Ratliff follows Coltrane’s ‘path toward the sublime’—his work with Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, as leader of his own classic quartet, and as free-jazz avatar; then he charts his influence as expressed by musicians and critics, both past and present. Like Coltrane's legendary solos, Ratliff's book is first rigorous, then beautiful, always in search of empowering truths. Sidestepping a Great-Man narrative, Ratliff finds that ‘Above all, Coltrane created possibilities for good things to happen in bands.'"—

"American jazz writing needs more books like this, which engage jazz with an expansive literary imagination in a broad cultural context . . . This is an important and rewarding book."—Paul De Barros, Down Beat

"Overheated prose seems to follow Coltrane like an insistent stream of bum notes, but Ratliff, the dauntingly omnivorous New York Times critic, manages cool restraint in this clear-eyed, nuanced consideration of the jazz giant’s influence. Central to Ratliff’s success is his avoidance of that most Ken Burnsian of pitfalls: the temptation to apply an evolutionary model when evaluating America’s greatest original art form—a temptation amplified when the subject is the visionary commonly held to be the 'last major figure in the evolution of jazz.' Laudable, too, is the structural tack taken: The book is neatly bisected, with the first half devoted to the saxophonist’s artistic development (especially the spiritually questing final decade), while the second contextualizes and meditates on the transcendent frequencies that resulted."—The Atlantic Monthly

“A book that looks at the life through the work, or in Coltrane’s case, at the work as the life, which is what Ratliff, a music critic for The New York Times, has done superbly.”—Malcolm Jones, Newsweek

"Insightful . . . A lucid account of a career that would push the boundaries of music while turning its creator into an American icon."—Peder Zane, The News & Observer (Raleigh)

"Ben Ratliff's Coltrane is criticism with a sense of the man. It sees the '60s anew without distorting them beyond recognition for someone who was there. It conceptualizes jazz as a still-living music. It makes you want to listen again and think some more."—Robert Christgau

"Ben Ratliff's Coltrane is an extraordinarily vivid account of the creative process—both that of the artist and that of the people whose works respond to his. Ratliff is such a terrific writer that he can make musical points clear even to readers who know nothing about theory.  This book will be passed from hand to hand."—Luc Sante, author of Low Life and The Factory of Facts

"A triumphant analysis, which captures in well-chosen words the charisma of Coltrane's sound, the excitement of his journey, and the unique quality of his influence, without ever surrendering to the usual jazz book gush.  Ben Ratliff's measured intelligence and readable, elegant prose, his willingness to make necessary distinctions and unsentimental judgments, earn him a place among the best critics we have."—Phillip Lopate, author of Totally, Tenderly, Tragically

"John Coltrane’s stylistic evolution in the 1950s and 60s was a signal cultural event—as much spiritual and political as technical—and one whose repercussions continue to haunt us. In taking a new look at how Coltrane changed and what those changes have meant to the musicians who followed him, Ben Ratliff brings a mercurial era lucidly to life, sometimes sharply questioning received wisdom, paying close attention to the needs and difficulties of working musicians, and underscoring the continued massive relevance of Coltrane’s music."—Geoffrey O’Brien, author of Sonata for Jukebox

"Sonny Rollins made an album called Saxophone Colossus, but his contemporary John Coltrane became the embodiment of that title, the last soloist to date to dominate jazz as Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker had . . . Ratliff gives us not another biography but rather a history of Coltrane's 'sound,' his personal manner of playing. Half the book traces Coltrane from beginning on the alto sax to adopting the tenor during early jobs to initial fame in Miles Davis' and Thelonious Monk's working bands and as a leader on recordings in the 1950s. The rest analyzes his last seven years leading the most successful quartet of the 1960s, for which he took up soprano sax, and more experimental ventures after disbanding it. Ratliff demonstrates that the first period was one of increasing complexity in Coltrane's solos; the second, of increasing tonal variety and extra-musical (spiritual) motivation but decreasing structural underpinnings as Coltrane exploited modal scales over sparse or no Western chord changes. This is . . . nontechnical music analysis at its best.”—Booklist

“Ratliff, a music critic for The New York Times, investigates the sound and legacy of jazz icon John Coltrane. Instead of offering a standard biography, he first tackles the development of Coltrane's style from his initial bebop to the modal, breakneck-fast changes of his middle period to his post-1964 explorations of free jazz . . . He describes the legacy of the Coltrane sound after his sudden death in 1967. Ratliff begins with the near deification of Coltrane by such jazz disciples as Charles Tolliver, Billy Hart, and Frank Lowe and rock stars Carlos Santana and Iggy Pop in the late 1960s and 1970s. He shows how the Coltrane legacy nearly disappeared in the midst of the Wynton Marsalis-led mainstream heyday of the 1980s and finally inspired a new generation of jazz artists during the last 15 years. Ratliff's book complements the already extensive literature about John Coltrane.”—Dave Szatmary, Library Journal

“Ratliff . . . isn't interested in simply retelling the biographical facts of John Coltrane's life. Instead, he analyzes how the saxophone player came to be regarded as ‘the last major figure in the evolution of jazz,’ tracing both the evolution of his playing style and the critical reception to it. The first half of this study concentrates on Coltrane's career, from his early days as a semi-anonymous sideman to his final, increasingly experimental recordings, while the second half explores the growth of Coltrane's legacy after his death. Ratliff has a keen sense of Coltrane's constantly changing sound, highlighting the collaborative nature of jazz by discussing the bands he played in as both sideman and leader. (One of the more intriguing asides is a suggestion that Coltrane's alleged LSD use might have inclined him toward a more cooperative mode of performance.) The consideration of Coltrane's shifting influence on jazz—and other modern musical forms—up to the present day is equally vigorous, refusing to rely on simple adulation. Always going past the legend to focus on the real-life stories and the actual recordings, Ratliff's assessment is a model for music criticism.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

Ben Ratliff has been a jazz critic at The New York Times since 1996. He lives in Manhattan with his wife and their two sons. His New York Times Essential Library: Jazz was published in 2002.

Read the full excerpt


  • Ben Ratliff

  • Ben Ratliff has been a jazz critic at The New York Times since 1996. The author of The Jazz Ear and The New York Times Essential Library: Jazz, he lives in Manhattan with his wife and two sons.
  • Ben Ratliff Kate Fox Reynolds
    Ben Ratliff


    Ben Ratliff

    Macmillan Speakers Bureau

    represents thought-provoking authors and experts. We can find a speaker uniquely positioned for your audience and budget.

    More info