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May 7, 2013 / robinswood

“Freedom Is, Freedom Ain’t” | recommending a book

I have just finished reading Scott Saul’s book Freedom Is, Freedom Ain’t, published by Harvard University Press in 2003. Subtitled “Jazz and the Making of the Sixties,” the book is a very readable and highly engaging social history which includes two chapters focused on the life and work of John Coltrane. Here are a few samples, just to whet your appetite:

Saul cover“With Coltrane, who was famous for his inability to stop practicing his instrument, his discipline had an inwardness, a quality of self-abnegation. His solos, taking their shape from his practice scales and exercises, operated on a similar timetable—which is to say, they had the devotional aspect of someone forever penitent.”

“Coltrane discovered and refined a style that he imprinted as his own, a style whose authority seemed purchased through the publicly performed anguish of his concerts and recordings. He pursued freedom not for the hell of it, but for the heaven of it – and he did so by creating settings of musical purgatory that forced him to confront his own limits. His classic quartet thrived by inventing and reinventing a thrashing drama of confusion and self-purification, errancy and ultimate reward.”

On “Acknowledgement” from A Love Supreme: “We are accustomed to hearing his voice through his instrument, and locked in extreme struggle with it, squawking, honking, screeching – doing everything, that is, except talking serenely. At least for this brief moment of chanting, he seems to have surpassed the resources of his instrument and found a new, calm voice. Ironically, he becomes God’s explicit vehicle by dropping his saxophone, the instrument that has brought him to this point of transcendence but now seems a mere accessory.”

In short, for the insights on Coltrane alone I’d recommend this book. Then add all that Saul has to say about Charles Mingus and Cannonball Adderley – to say nothing of Amiri Baraka, A.B. Spellman, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, and a host of others – and it becomes indispensable for the jazz fan who loves to read about this music. You don’t have to agree with everything Saul has to say (and personally I think Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues” has a far deeper spiritual “grip” than Saul seems to imagine…) to relish his insights.

And thanks to Adam Gussow, for putting this book in my path.


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