Clear, sophisticated exploration of jazz’s most musically potent pairing.
Griffin (Comparative Literature/Columbia Univ.; Who Set You Flowin?, 1995, etc.) and saxophonist/composer Washington (Music/Brooklyn Coll.) pull readers into the world of Miles Davis and John Coltrane during their collaborations between 1955 and 1960, addressing the prescient dialogue their music engaged with the African-American experience and American culture as a whole. The authors bring the music to life with clarity, passion and detail, rarely straying into hyperbole or undue superlative. Largely avoiding technical pedantry or dull description, they put forth a cogent synthesis of musicological and cultural analysis. They offer admirably complete individual discussions of Davis’s and Coltrane’s personal histories to contextualize this historically unique musical partnership. The focus at times skews more toward Davis, whose public and private personality became part of celebrity culture in a way that cult-figure Coltrane never would. Indeed, the book’s greatest strengths emerge during the authors’ close study of Davis. Griffin and Washington’s sonic definition of “cool” embraces not only the trumpeter’s highly individualized musical sound, but his personal style, behavior and performance mannerisms as well. Fresh hearings of Kind of Blue and Milestones would assist readers with some of the more specific musical discussions.
An artfully crafted reminder that, at its best, jazz was and is as much a cultural mode as a musical genre.