Tricky question to answer.
When it comes to jazz, my list of legendary artists, those whose playing, compositions and band leadership had a significant and unique impact on the music would have to include — d’oh! — Miles Davis and John Coltrane.
The musical careers, and lives, of both, are examined in a recently published dual biography, Clawing at the Limits of Cool.
There’s no shortage of books addressing the work of jazz giants Miles Davis and John Coltrane, either individually or as separate chapters in larger histories. Two top-shelf recent examples are Howard Mandel’s Miles Ornette Cecil: Jazz Beyond Jazz and Ben Ratliff’s Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, both penned by music journalists and published last year.
Unlike its predecessors, Clawing at the Limits of Cool: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and the Greatest Jazz Collaboration Ever goes for something new: a dual biography. It’s an entirely sensible approach, given the titular musicians’ collaboration on trumpeter Davis’ blockbuster album Kind of Blue, released in 1959, and the impact these players had on each other, as instrumentalists, composers and bandleaders.
Farah Jasmine Griffin, a Columbia University literature professor, and saxophonist and Brooklyn College music professor Salim Washington mostly fulfill expectations, capably weaving together the story lines of these artists’ remarkable lives, offering valuable insight into how and why they connected, and sizing up the seismic results.
The co-authors also turn in generally well-informed musical analysis, some of which is sure to go over the heads of nonmusicians; readers would have been well served if the publisher had opted to include a CD or offer free downloads of a few key tunes — Milestones, Straight, No Chaser, Flamenco Sketches — discussed here.
In a recording age marked by digital downloads of instantly disposable hip-hop, tween pop and country hat acts, it’s easy to forget the centrality once held by jazz art and commerce, particularly in the black community. Davis, born the son of a dentist in a Chicago suburb in May 1926 and raised middle class in East St. Louis, Ill., and saxophonist Coltrane, born four months later, son of a tailor in small-town North Carolina, were creative artists who made jazz their professional and spiritual home.
They spent their lives pursuing their art. In doing so, Davis and Coltrane changed the music’s architecture, as Griffin and Washington point out, although critics and other listeners might argue with their first-page suggestion that the two “were the last major innovators in jazz.”
Few serious jazz trumpeters or saxophonists alive can honestly say that they haven’t been influenced by Davis’ use of space in his solos or his muted playing on ballads, or by Coltrane’s note-spraying sheets of sound. Their contrasting personality types — the trumpeter brash, flashy and sometimes arrogant, the saxophonist quiet, unassuming and usually gentle — have also been emulated by subsequent generations of musicians.
The authors touch on a related irony: “However, these qualities are reversed in their playing. When the two men came together in the mid ’50s, Coltrane’s style already displayed a ferocity not evident in his personality, whereas Miles possessed an extraordinarily tender, lyrical approach to his instrument.”
Still, trumping their work as instrumentalists were their achievements as bandleaders, redefining the limits to which groups could take jazz-rooted ensemble work — variously, bebop, hard bop, modal jazz, free jazz and jazz fusion.
Griffin and Washington, of course, focus on the musicians’ work together, in the Miles Davis Quintet and later, from 1958 to 1961, the Miles Davis Sextet. The latter group, which Coltrane joined after quitting heroin cold turkey and playing and studying with pianist-composer Thelonious Monk, was responsible for the groundbreaking Milestones album and, with a different lineup, the vastly influential Kind of Blue.
Davis, and Coltrane on tenor saxophone, proved ideal foils for one another on such now-standard pieces as Freddie Freeloader and All Blues. Alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, pianist Bill Evans, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Jimmy Cobb added indelibly to an understated but subtly intense album cited as the bestselling jazz recording of all time. It’s an achievement that wouldn’t have been possible if the paths of these two “cultural icons,” as the co-authors call them, had not crossed.
Times correspondent Philip Booth writes about music for Down Beat, Billboard, Jazziz and other publications, and plays bass with Tampa jazz group Trio Vibe. He played with ”Kind of Blue” drummer Jimmy Cobb in a Nat Adderley tribute concert in 2000.
Clawing at the Limits of Cool: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and the Greatest Jazz Collaboration Ever
By Farah Jasmine Griffin and Salim Washington
Thomas Dunne Books, 294 pages, $24.95