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Clawing at the Limits of Cool

Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and the Greatest Jazz Collaboration Ever

Farah Jasmine Griffin and Salim Washington

Thomas Dunne Books

When the renowned trumpeter and bandleader Miles Davis chose the members of his quintet in 1955, he passed over well-known, respected saxophonists such as Sonny Rollins to pick out the young, still untested John Coltrane. What might have seemed like a minor decision at the time would instead set the course not just for each of their careers but for jazz itself.

Clawing at the Limits of Cool is the first book to focus on Davis and Coltrane’s musical interaction and its historical context, on the ways they influenced each other and the tremendous impact they’ve had on culture since then. It chronicles the drama of their collaboration, from their initial historic partnership to the interlude of their breakup, during which each man made tremendous progress toward his personal artistic goals. And it continues with the last leg of their journey together, a time when the Miles Davis group, featuring John Coltrane, forever changed the landscape of jazz.

Authors Farah Jasmine Griffin and Salim Washington examine the profound implications that the Davis/Coltrane collaboration would have for jazz and African American culture, drawing parallels to the changing standards of African American identity with their public personas and private difficulties. With vastly different personal and musical styles, the two men could not have been more different. One exemplified the tough, closemouthed cool of the fifties while the other made the transition during this time from unfocused junkie to a religious pilgrim who would inspire others to pursue spiritual enlightenment in the coming decade.

Their years together mark a watershed moment, and Clawing at the Limits of Cool draws on both cultural history and precise musical detail to illuminate the importance that their collaboration would have for jazz and American history as a whole.


BOOK EXCERPTS

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PRELUDE: THE HEAD

I think it was the beginning of another level of expression in this music.

—RASHIED ALI

FOR MANY, MILES DAVIS AND JOHN COLTRANE were the last major innovators in jazz. Decades after their deaths, their shadows linger over modern music, affecting genres from soul and hip-hop to the experimental wings of European concert music. Within the world of jazz there has been no musician since whose influence runs as wide and as deep. The only artists whose contributions are comparable, in the sense of affecting the way other musicians think and play, are the great
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REVIEWS

Praise for Clawing at the Limits of Cool

“This marvelous book constitutes a much-needed paradigm shift in the story of jazz---a shift that skillfully fuses cultural and music criticism with a rich historical sensibility that highlights black genius as an artistic exploration and an existential adventure against the backdrop of our flawed democratic experiment called America. Griffin and Washington are preeminent critics of our time!”

---Cornel West, author of Race Matters

 

“Griffin and Washington explore the lives of two of the geniuses of twentieth-century music and follow them as their paths crossed to form what Amiri Baraka once called the ‘all-time classical hydrogen bomb and switchblade band.’ Though neither Miles Davis nor John Coltrane were wont to elaborate on their work in words, their lives and their music nonetheless still speak to us. This lucid and graceful book situates these two men in their times, listens closely to what they played, and the result is a social and musical history that is rich and always illuminating.”

---John Szwed, author of So What: The Life of Miles Davis

Reviews from Goodreads

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

  • Farah Jasmine Griffin and Salim Washington

  • Farah Jasmine Griffin is a professor of English and comparative literature and African American Studies at Columbia University, where she has served as director of the Institute for Research in African American studies. She is the author of “Who Set You Flowin’”: The African-American Migration Narrative and If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday, and has edited several collections of letters and essays. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, Harper’s Bazaar, Callaloo, and African American Review, and she is also a frequent commentator on WNPR’s News & Notes.

    An accomplished saxophonist, Salim Washington has led two bands, the Roxbury Blues Aesthetic and the Harlem Arts Ensemble. He has recorded four CDs as a bandleader, including Love in Exile and Harlem Homecoming. He is an avid composer and teaches music and Africana Studies at Brooklyn College.

  • Salim Washington © Salim Washington
  • Farah Jasmine Griffin © Stephen G. Gregory
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    Clawing at the Limits of Cool

    Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and the Greatest Jazz Collaboration Ever

    Farah Jasmine Griffin and Salim Washington

    • e-Book

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    FROM THE PUBLISHER

    Thomas Dunne Books

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