Farah Jasmine Griffin with Salim Washington 

St. Martin’s Press

Farah Jasmine Griffin is the professor of comparative literature and African American studies at Columbia University and the director of the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia University in New York City. Salim Washington is saxophonist and composer and teaches music and Africana Studies at Brooklyn College.

The quote at the beginning of the book is a strong indication of the writers’ attitudes. ‘For many, Miles Davis and John Coltrane were the last major innovators in Jazz’.

The book analyses the upbringing and the early lives of the two musicians. The contrasts are emphasised. Davis with affluent parents who were able to secure privilege for their son.  Coltrane was reared by two women, his mother and an aunt who supported him and shielded him from racism and gave him space and time to develop his music.

The writers see Davis as a mixture of complex masculinity and misogyny that enthralled the advertising agencies. With Coltrane the emphasis in the book is on his religious background, humility, hardship and eventually the stubborn need to forge his own path.

Davis developed earlier than Coltrane.   He left Juilliard to work with Charlie Parker and was soon associating with Gil Evans, Lee Konitz and Max Roach. It is interesting to note that the authors are keen to emphasise the quality of the music that Davis made with Parker, whereas most critics have been critical of his playing in that period. In contrast, Coltrane worked in a junior capacity with Dizzy Gillespie, Johnny Hodges and Earl Bostic, which gave his work variety and an edge.

According to the writers, Davis was ‘raised to be a confident black genius; sustained achievement had been a matter of course in his family for generations. Once Coltrane reached his mature stages, it was as if he were dealing directly in spirit matter.’  The writers admire the way that Coltrane risked critical disapproval in his quest to express his artistic integrity.  The writers note that in person Davis could be caustic, brash, biting and harsh whereas Coltrane was gentle.  Their playing was opposite: Coltrane had a ferocity and Davis a lyrical tender approach.  Coltrane could be verbose when he played whereas Davis was more economical.

The background to the lives of both men in the nineteen forties was the end of the war and the turmoil associated with that.  During the war progress on racism had been demoted in the interests of patriotism. The growth of New York as a jazz centre is described well with such figures as Thelonious Monk and Coleman Hawkins becoming major figures.  Davis apparently commented that Monk had taught him more about composing than any one on 52nd St.

The adventurous questing Davis led him to associate with figures such as George Russell, John Lewis, Gerry Mulligan and Lee Konitz.  Eventually, the remarkable band which became known as the birth of the cool attracted small audiences and a great reputation.  The authors describe well the way that the diverse personalities worked together to produce extraordinary music.

Davis, however, had been seduced by narcotics.  In 1953 he kicked the habit with a great personal struggle.   Coltrane was still addicted, struggling and attempting to use alcohol to deal with the drugs only to lead to his dependence on both.

Eventually, drummer Philly Joe Jones who had heard Coltrane persuaded Davis to hire the tenor player.   At first, Coltrane resisted but joined on his 29th birthday.  The band consisted of Philly Joe Jones, Red Garland and Paul Chambers.  One of the highlights of the book is the way that the authors describe the output of the band, the contribution of each player and the analysis of original pieces such as ‘Airegin’. The material the band recorded was for Prestige.  There were thirty-one tracks issued on LPs under the titles Workin’, Steamin’, Relaxin’, and Cookin’.

Nevertheless, Miles became irritated by Coltrane’s addiction and he replaced him with Sonny Rollins. In October 1956 Davis attacked Coltrane and slapped him for nodding on stage. Thelonious Monk saw this and told Coltrane not to stand for behaviour like that.  Davis replaced Coltrane. Coltrane returned to his home in Philadelphia and eventually cleared his addiction. He developed his own career and recorded albums on Prestige but his crucial work was done with Thelonious Monk.  They worked together.  Monk encouraged him to take long solos and deepened the younger man’s harmonic knowledge.  The sessions at the Five Spot Cafe even attracted Davis to attend.

When Coltrane returned to the Davis band, the years 1958 to 1961 were the highlight of the collaboration. The recordings on Columbia are universally admired. Admittedly, the work of that band has been written about extensively, but there are useful authorial insights: the description of modal jazz, the implications of the soundtrack that Davis did for French film director Louis Malle, the techniques of individual players. The authors’ comments on the sessions that produced ‘Kind of Blue’ are detailed and insightful. There is not really a great deal of room for them to add much to the extensive literature already available about those sessions

The final chapter is about the legacy of the two musicians. Both Coltrane and Davis went on to lead bands dominated by drummers: Tony Williams and Elvin Jones.  Davis’ adoption of fusion is noted, although ‘fusion became associated with facile technical runs devoid of deep thought and feeling’. Miles is absolved because the writers claim his fusion had elements of free jazz, funk and swing.  Coltrane, on the other hand, played ‘spirit filled modal jazz’. The authors argue that Coltrane became one of the pioneers of what became known as World Music.

The authors’ summary is that: ‘Davis and Coltrane lived in a world where black people were daily confronted with demands for deference and submission to arbitrary, racist authority. Then, as now, the humanity, intelligence, beauty, and moral integrity of black folk were always held in suspicion. In this context, the two men engaged in an epic and heroic spiritual battle as they fought for dignity and for a world in which we can all be cool.’

The test of any book on jazz is:  does it drive you back to the music?  This one does. This is a compelling book about two of the greatest musicians in jazz written by authors who have a passionate interest in the two musicians and their place in the culture.