John Coltrane: His Life and Music by Lewis Porter
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Dr. Lewis Porter's "John Coltrane. His Life and Music" is an extraordinarily well-researched book, with meticulous references (571 reference notes spanning 37 pages), and quite detailed chronology of performances and recorded interviews (38 pages). The author is a noted musicologist, an author of several books on jazz greats and jazz history, a professor of music at Rutgers, and an accomplished pianist. The book sets a very high standard for future jazz biographies.
I first heard John Coltrane's music on the radio about 1965, when I was in high school. This strange, intense, and powerful music (it was one of the late-period works) made a huge impression; it was so wonderfully different from the simple, cheap pap of the then Animals or Beatles. But I did not seriously get into Coltrane until the 1980s, and since then I have read several books about his life and music as he is, to me, one of greatest artists who ever lived. Dr. Porter's book is most likely the best, although readers such as myself can only make sense of less than half of the text. Without basic knowledge of music theory one cannot understand the remaining portions of the book, which are dedicated to musicological analysis of Coltrane's works.
There is no point in summarizing the book. It alternates between presenting events from Coltrane's life and discussing the music in chronological order. Curiously, his early life is shown in more detail than the period after 1960, when he gained wide prominence. There are numerous interesting observations in the book, for example that "one can become one of the great musicians of all time and not start off as some kind of prodigy." The chapter about "A Love Supreme", Coltrane's most famous suite, clearly stands out. Perhaps because it validates my belief that "A Love Supreme" is a stunning musical tour de force, comparable in its power and majesty to, say, Bach's "Mass in B minor."
In addition to being about Coltrane's breathtakingly compelling and beautiful music, the book shows John Coltrane the man, profoundly humble, quiet, serious, and deeply spiritual. "I feel I want to be a force for good," he says. World would be so much a better place if more of us followed this simple motto.
If I weren't so completely ignorant of music theory, I would likely rate the book higher.
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