A Book Review of Bill Cole’s
BY: B. Michael Long
I was first exposed to the jazz great, John Coltrane around 1994 by an uncle of mine who at the time lived in the Baltimore area. I was greatly intrigued by the distinct and “hard” sound that this musician made from his instrument, because at that time, I was truly “uninitiated” in the mystery of sound, which Trane had become like a priest in his conduction. So this year, 8 years after my first experience of Trane’s vibrations, I was prepared to initiate myself in the science of sound and art, and study one of my biggest sources of artistic inspiration.
In his book, “John Coltrane,” Bill Cole, Professor emeritus of music at Dartmouth College, follows Coltrane’s journey from disciple to master. Cole shows the bitter struggles of Trane’s early life as a member of the Miles Davis band, and others, to his meteoric rise in redefining the sound of Jazz music.
What is powerful about Cole’s examination of Trane’s life, is how he shows the way Trane was directly influenced by his African roots, and the way he integrated the spirit of African traditions into his sound. Each chapter begins with a quote from a “philosopher” who defines the role of sound, the impact of sound, and how Coltrane became a master at manipulating and controlling sound through the tenor, alto and soprano saxophones. Perhaps the most profound of those who he quotes is Nigerian composer and folklorist Fela Sowande, who shows the connection between the physical and spiritual worlds, as it relates to the role of the artist.
Cole makes the connection between Trane’s “spiritual/religious“ life, and how this inspired him to not only become a great musician, but a great human being. Cole states that “where religion is not a living force, the so-called art that emerges is, at best, no more than a mechanical contrivance which no matter how cleverly done can only succeed in substantially reducing the mind’s affirmative resonance with nature. Its unrelieved dissonance is indicative of a disunified God-man-nature, an evil art. Hence, what is religion and how can it be made a living force is the first riddle the would-be artist most solve.” It is this force of uniting with God and nature, as a man, that Cole says Trane had become aware of, that was the “central energy,” the connecting mechanism between the medium and the ancestors and all the unifying processes that prompted Trane’s transformation from drug dependency to a spiritually elevated consciousness, which his music was a clear reflection of. Without a doubt, John Coltrane’s legacy is one that will forever be etched in the fabric of time, as this man life has allowed him to become an Orisha.