The Art of John Coltrane and Ralph Ellison

The combination of economic exploitation and racism has made one facet of the so-called "Black American experience" poverty and degradation. One could cite a myriad of statistics about higher unemployment,[1] lower wages,[2] lower funding for schools,[3] and disproportionate numbers of blacks in prison[4] or on death row.[5] And yet, that is only one side of a very complex story, one far too complex to be understood in terms of mere statistics, or to be discussed as an all-inclusive "experience." How can one take the lives of millions of people, with diverse conditions and interests, clump them all together, and talk about it in any meaningful way? How can one hope to explain such diverse things as jazz and the blues, the tremendous wealth of Black Literature, the Civil Rights Movement, Black Power, Malcolm X, Jimi Hendrix, Frederick Douglas, Richard Wright, Martin Luther King Jr., John Coltrane, Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington, Clarence Thomas, the Million Man March, Louis Farrakhan, Wilson Goode,[6] Tom Bradley, Rodney King and the Los Angeles rebellion in 1992,[7] or any other person, event, idea, or work of art from all of history in one all-inclusive concept? "The Black American Experience" is such an ambiguous, ill-defined concept that I feel it's basically useless. As Ralph Ellison writes, "What I understand by the term 'Negro Culture' is so vague as to be meaningless."[8]

From the very beginning, the "Black American Experience" was a diverse thing. One might think slavery imposed a far more homogeneous experience on Blacks in the U.S. than we find today, but even then, there was great variation in the conditions, attitudes, and interests of blacks. For example, there were differences between the conditions that "house slaves" and "field slaves" lived in. The conditions for slaves varied among states, regions, individual slave owners, and over time. Moreover, there were many differences in their responses to slavery. In an interview, Ralph Ellison uses a verse of blues to illustrate this point:

Ole Aunt Dinah, she's just like me
She work so hard she want to be free
But old Aunt Dinah's gittin' kinda ole
She's afraid to go to Canada on account of the cold.

Ole Uncle Jack, now he's a mighty "good nigger"
You tell him that you want to be free for a fac'
Next thing you know they done stripped the skin off your back.

Now old Uncle Ned, he want to be free
He found his way north by the moss on the tree
He cross that river floating in a tub
The patateroller give him a mighty close rub.

He goes on to say, "It's crude, but in it you have three universal attitudes toward the problem of freedom. You can refine it and sketch in the psychological subtleties and historical and philosophical allusions, action and what not, but don't think its basic definition can be exhausted."[9] Ellison is talking about different attitudes about freedom, let alone different attitudes about family, religion, the slave owners, and so on. This example gives us some insight into the universality of art, and its capacity to express the complexity of feelings and conditions of our world in ways that numbers and figures can never hope to.

Not only was there great variation within the conditions and attitudes of Black slaves; not all Blacks were slaves. Even during the times of slavery there was a small Black elite whose interests were tied to maintaining capitalism, not liberating the mass of slaves. Manning Marable writes, "Even before the Civil War there were a number of southern Blacks who had access to property and considerable privileges. A group of over 800 Blacks in New Orleans owned property and private businesses worth more than $2.5 million in 1836, including 620 slaves."[10] The class differences within the "Black community" have always been around, and have only become more pronounced.[11]

The "Black American experience" is just as diverse and varied as the "White American experience" which is just as diverse and varied as the "Chinese experience", and so on. That's not to say that the "Black American Experience" is the same as the "White American Experience;" the point is that both are so vague and internally inconsistent that the notion of even comparing one to the other is nonsense. Anthropologists and biologists have found that there is far more variation within the so-called "races" than there is between them[12]; and that's just genes, which is only a small part of defining who you are and what your life will be like. The color of your skin is only one of many factors in defining what your experience will be and how you'll respond to it. It is also vital to consider your class affiliations, how much money your parents have, what their attitudes are, how much "education" you get, what ideas you've been exposed to, whether you're born in a rural or urban place, etc. Amiri Baraka notes, "The fact that someone might be `biologically' African-American means less today socially in terms of who they will be in the world."[13] I'm not at all denying the fact there are, for example, certain similarities in the lives of many poor blacks; indeed there are, but those lives are probably more similar to the lives of many poor whites than to the lives of rich blacks. On the other hand, a rich black person may feel the sting of racism just as a poor black would, something a white would never feel; yet a homeless white man may be discriminated against and harassed just as any poor black would, something a rich person of any race would never know. As Ellison writes: "[Negroes] share a hatred for the alienation forced upon us by Europeans during the process of colonization and empire and we are bound by our common suffering more than by our pigmentation. But even this identification is shared by most non-white peoples, and while it has political value of great potency, its cultural value is almost nil."[14] Common suffering extends beyond "most non-whites" to most people of the world. The simple fact that two people are both black doesn't guarantee vast (if any) similarities between them at all, and one may have far more in common with someone else who is white than with the other. The point here is that one must be very careful when talking about the "Black American Experience" as any kind of all-inclusive concept; the differences within it, primarily the class differences I've described, are simply far too important to gloss over.

So in what sense can one use the term "Black American Experience"? I think there is utility in this term, but only when defined more narrowly than the way it is commonly used. The "Black American Experience" is a meaningful category when used to describe the conditions of working class urban Blacks. Of course there will still be profound differences in attitude or political outlook among Blacks in urban areas, however there are still some common experiences about which meaningful generalizations can be made. The kinds of generalizations I am concerned with here are the connections between artistic expression in jazz and literature and the social conditions of working class blacks. I am interested in the intersection of these two art forms: how they have influenced each other, what common techniques they have drawn upon, what issues are central to both, what functions they serve, and most importantly, what they can tell us of our world. An understanding of these two art forms can yield insight into the conditions of American society that go beyond what numbers alone can convey. Ralph Ellison, a writer, and John Coltrane, a musician, are the two artists I'm going to focus on. I'm not going to rest my case on the fact that they are both black men, appealing to the "common suffering of all blacks" as the only source of their artistic endeavors, influences and inspirations; something I've tried to establish as a misleading claim. Both of these artists were, consciously or not, very much concerned with expressing their own identity through their work. Both were experimenters, yet both had a strong foundation in the tradition and history of their art. In all art, there is a tension between artistic spontaneity, passion, and emotion on the one hand, and the technical discipline to communicate them on the other. The struggle of the artist against his own limitations is embodied in his quest for technique, and this struggle is a vital part in the creation of art. Finally, jazz and the blues play a direct role in much of Ellison's writing, and Coltrane's music was highly influenced by his spirituality, which he discovered through literature. However, one must be careful in assuming that these two men directly influenced each other, for it is hard to say if Coltrane ever read one page of any of Ellison's work, and a lot of Ellison's work was written before Trane became popular. What I hope to show is that the two art forms themselves, not necessarily the artists, are inter-related.


One of the most harmful elements of the society we live in is that it tends to make people feel that they have no identity. Conformity is often sought in formal education and creativity is generally de-prioritized. For example, when money is running low in a school, the first things to get cut are almost always music and art programs. The emphasis in school is placed on grades, competition and "individual effort", not creativity, cooperation or individual thought. Allegedly, Lyndon B. Johnson once accidentally said, mixing his metaphors, yet striking far closer to the truth, "We're going to seek out the spark of genius and water it." Even in "higher education", you'll often find that "learning" consists of cramming certain facts into your head, fed to you by a professor at the front of a large lecture hall, only to regurgitate them on an exam in a few days, and to forget them all in a few months. Success in the colleges of our world usually has more to do with jumping through hoops than learning, expressing yourself, creating, or understanding.

In spite of all this, the world has managed to produce some wonderfully creative art. Coltrane and Ellison, to their great credit, use their art to define not only their own identity, but also something which thousands of people can identify with. As LeRoi Jones writes in the beginning of the liner notes to Coltrane Live at Birdland, "One of the most baffling things about America is that despite its essentially vile profile, so much beauty continues to exist here."[15] Some people are driven to create simply as a means of surviving the dehumanizing effects of society, as a way to affirm their individuality and humanity. They may write, paint, play music or perform any other creative act for a number of different reasons, but one goal is almost always to show others how they perceive the world, and thus affirm that they do, in fact, have a role in the world. The most successful artists (in terms of recognition by other artists or fans, influence on others, financial success, or any other measure you wish) are usually the ones who forge their own identity, break with tradition, express their conditions and experiences in a new, more relevant way.

In particular, the history of jazz has been an on-going story of individuals attempting to define who they are in relation to what has come before them, and their own sense of the world and music. The most influential jazz players have been the ones who most successfully create a new identity, a new style, a new way to approach the music. Along with Coltrane, Miles Davis was one of the most famous jazz musicians of all time. He was responsible for the birth of three distinct schools of jazz: the "cool school", the "modal style" of hard bop, and "fusion", each of which is radically different from the others. The "cool school" glorified European music and tried to form jazz exclusively from its techniques. It emphasized complicated arraignments among many instruments, intricate melodies and harmonies, and a soft tone. Terms like "jazz fugue," "chamber jazz," and "contrapuntal jazz" came into existence to describe the music.[16] However, the "cool school" was eventually overrun by this glorification of European music and was taken up by many middle brow musicians, mostly white, who put little emotion into the music. They emphasized technical ability and complicated compositions over all else, even at the expense of improvisation, one of the essential elements of jazz. Removed from the social conditions of urban blacks, and predominantly lacking improvisation, the music was sterile and often boring.[17] In response to this watered-down music, many musicians, mostly from New York, began playing what was known as "hard bop." They brought the music back under the influence of the poor urban Black experience, with fast, furious songs, a harsher tone, and a renewed emphasis on improvisation. This music reflected the harsh, fast-paced environment of urban life, and the need for individuals to improvise a solution to their problem of daily survival. Miles Davis originated a certain harmonic style within the hard bop school called "modal playing." Here, the musicians would improvise over simple scales and harmonic relations, called "modes." The songs often had very few chords and the music relied heavily on improvisation.[18] Eventually Miles grew tired of hard bop, and he sought a new way to express his feelings and experiences. Davis then created "fusion," a blend of jazz with rock and roll. He incorporated electric instruments, sound effects and rock styles into his music. Miles was constantly experimenting with the music, and was able to gain tremendous recognition for his work.

Another musician who was never satisfied with his music, who was always experimenting, growing, redefining himself, redrawing the boundaries of his instrument and moving the music beyond anything that had come before was John Coltrane. His ceaseless search for his own identity and his own sound led him through a number of different styles and he became one of the greatest musicians of all time. He opened the doors to whole new realms of music, and his influence has been wide and deep.

Even when he was playing with Thelonious Monk, an incredibly unique musician with a style totally his own, Coltrane was defining himself. As David Amram, a french horn player and avid Coltrane fan recalls, "One thing I really noticed, though, was that Trane was always playing himself, even in the context of Monk's music."[19] Coltrane was developing his unique sound on the Tenor which was characterized by a harsh, powerful tone. At the same time, his sound had great subtlety and compassion, and his music was often very melancholy. Coltrane was also developing his own approach to harmony and chords. He was outlining chords with notes and scales in ways that no one had heard before. Later in his career, Trane was playing with Miles Davis. Nesuhi Ertegun, one of the founders of Atlantic Records, saw Coltrane and Miles play together at the Cafe Bohemia in 1956 and later said, "Coltrane was already way ahead of any records he'd previously made. His music seemed so different from what the rest of the band was playing. The construction of his solos, his advanced harmonics, the strange way the notes succeeded each other and the speed with which they were played..."[20] Although Trane was a member of a fabulously successful band, his own visions of the music led him to leave Miles and start a group of his own.

To Coltrane, drums were a vital part of the music. He sought a drummer who was extremely powerful and skilled enough to play polyrhythmically. In other words, Trane wanted a single person who could sit behind a set of drums and play many independent rhythmical parts, like you find in an African drum group of multiple players. He eventually found these talents in Elvin Jones, with whom he recorded for most of his career. The sheer power of Elvin's playing was only rivaled by that of Trane. In the later years of his career, Coltrane would often have everyone in his band, except Elvin, leave the stage and they would play duets for as long as an hour.

Coltrane was the first jazz musician to be so greatly influenced by Eastern music and philosophy. Although he was terribly interested in Indian music and culture (he named one of his sons "Ravi" after Ravi Shankar, the famous Indian sitar player) ,it was more of a spiritual and philosophical interest than a direct musical one. His spirituality had a huge effect on his playing though, and this led him to create an entirely new sound to try to express his spiritual experiences and feelings. He would expand his ideas to develop them over huge periods of time, often soloing for over an hour in one song. He continued to develop his tone and sound, to express more basic emotions and to more closely resemble the human voice: crying, cheering, screaming, remorse, melancholy, whatever mood or sound he was trying to convey. One of the most distinguished characteristics of Coltrane's sound was his use of multiphonics, having many different notes come out of his horn at once, which he used to create effects on the saxophone that no one had developed before. One pivotal recording in his career was A Love Supreme which was inspired by a series of profound spiritual experiences. In the liner notes from the album he writes: "During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music."[21] The album itself was directly inspired by another spiritual experience. At 4:00am on a fall day in 1964, Coltrane went into his room to meditate. He sought clarity and the knowledge that he and his music were following the right path. After hours of deep meditation, he was suddenly filled with music. He awoke from his meditation and promptly went to work writing out and arranging A Love Supreme. He later said of the experience, "For the first time in my life, I have the whole album from beginning to end."[22] From this point on, his music was incredibly spiritual, just look at the album titles: A Love Supreme,23 Transition,24 First Meditations,25 Om,26 Meditations,27 etc. While he did incorporate some elements of Indian music, such as repetitive droning, trying to improvise for extended periods on a very simple theme (as is common in Indian ragas), and the use of quarter-tones (notes that lie between the conventional half-step intervals of Western music), it was his unique synthesis of spirituality and music that gave him such a distinctive sound. Horace Silver, a famous jazz pianist once said, "We're now entering the Aquarian Age and musicians, who are quite sensitive to these things, are picking up these vibrations and getting attuned with the spiritual concepts of life through their music. I think we can thank John Coltrane for leading the way."[28]

Jazz musicians have always sought to define their own identities and their own sounds. However, this same phenomenon is not limited to music by any means. All artists are in some way attempting to define themselves through their work. Ralph Ellison, as a writer, was very concerned with discovering and expressing his own voice and ideals. He was very critical of writers who didn't write for their own reasons, who didn't express what they felt. During an interview, Ellison said, "If the Negro, or any other writer, is going to do what is expected of him, he's lost the battle before he takes the field. I suspect that all the agony that goes into writing is borne precisely because the writer longs for acceptance -- but it must be acceptance on his own terms."[29] For Ellison, writing is a way for the writer to find himself, to discover who he is and how he sees the world. The writer, or any artist for that matter, has to create for his own reasons to achieve a truly great piece of art. Falling into pressures from critics, popular tastes, or "what will sell" are all doomed to ruin the effectiveness of any work. For Ellison, writing has to be such a personal act that the work and the self are completely intertwined. In the same interview he says, "...For all his conscious concern with technique, a writer did not so much create the novel as he was created by the novel... Fictional techniques are not a mere set of objective tools, but something much more intimate: a way of feeling, of seeing and of expressing one's sense of life."[30]

Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man is a tale of a young man's quest for his own self. The novel is a very conscious attempt to warn the reader of the dangers of letting others define who you are, be they formal education, bosses, or an authoritarian, Stalinist group which poses itself against the first two. In Invisible Man, Ellison's anti-hero spends the course of the novel, which covers most of his youth and young-adulthood, running from his past, trying to ignore it, and letting others define who he is and what his goals should be.

Early in the novel, invisible man has bought into the illusion of the "American Dream." He aspires to receive a college education, go off, become an influential and powerful educator, and live a life of luxury. His idol, Dr. Bledsoe, is the head of the school he attends, which Ellison models after the Tuskegee Institute. The invisible man writes, "...[Bledsoe] was the example of everything I hoped to be: Influential with wealthy men all over the country; consulted in matters concerning the race; a leader of his people; the possessor of not one, but two Cadillacs, a good salary and a soft, good-looking and creamy-complexioned wife."[31] Indeed, the whole campus is set up to help foster the notion that achieving the great "American Dream" is possible, which is why rich white trustees had such interest in supporting it. Consider the dialogue between one trustee, Mr. Norton, and a veteran of war who is a psychiatrist:

"Tell me," the vet said, suddenly calm. "Why have you been interested in the school, Mr. Norton?

"Out of a sense of my destined role... I felt, and still feel, that your people are in some important manner tied to my destiny."

"What do you mean, destiny?" the vet said.

"Why, the success of my work, of course."[32]

This trustee is correct in realizing, consciously or not, that the blacks of this country are a crucial part of the economic system. Without involving some of them in the positions of prestige and wealth, and without instilling in the whole race a sense that "pulling yourself up by your bootstraps" is a real possibility, there would be a crisis. The school is an attempt to instill the illusion in its students that "getting ahead in the world" is possible. The invisible man has certainly bought into this illusion and sticks with it for nearly the whole book. At the school he says to Mr. Norton, "You have yours and you got it yourself, and we have to lift ourselves up the same way."[33]

Even when our invisible man has joined the Brotherhood, modeled after the Stalinist Communist Party of the 1930's and 40's, and is supposed to be acting in the interests of equality and working class solidarity, he hasn't shed his illusions of "getting ahead." This is fostered by the fact that the Brotherhood is not a political organization that is connected to and represents the interests of Black workers, but rather a bureaucratic structure to be climbed in order to gain prestige and power. The invisible man cares more about how he fits into the power structure of the organization than he does anything else, including his own beliefs and desires. He is accused of opportunism, and the central committee decides to suspend his work in the Harlem district to investigate him. He is given the choice of becoming inactive or moving to another district to take up the "Women Question." His thoughts are as follows, "Now was certainly no time for inactivity; not just when I was beginning to approach some of the aspects of the organization about which I knew nothing (of higher committees and the leaders who never appeared, of the sympathizers and allies in groups that seemed far removed from our concerns), not at a time when all the secrets of power and authority still shrouded from me in mystery appeared on the way toward revelation...and my main concern was to work my way ahead in the movement (emphasis mine)."[34] So, without any interest or knowledge of his own, he is forced into lecturing on the official party line about women and taken out of the district where he lived and was comfortable. This happened simply because he felt he was advancing in the party power structure, and that was all he cared about.

Throughout his life, invisible man lets others define who he is, and believes that he is what they tell him to be. This leads him to a life of unhappiness, futility and exploitation. He is full of illusions, because he refuses to accept his past, his heritage, and refuses to ask himself, "who am I and what do I want?" He claims that he is invisible because others refuse to see who he is, yet he is just as guilty of not seeing himself. Only at the end of the novel, when he is living in his hole and reflecting upon his life does he realize that "I carried my sickness and though for a long time I tried to place it in the outside world, the attempt to write it down shows me that at least half of it lay within me."[35]

Invisible man dreams of becoming the next Dr. Bledsoe, of becoming "A younger version of the doctor, less crude, indeed polished... I would be charming... Here in the North I would slough off my southern ways of speech."[36] Instead of accepting his heritage, he tries to deny and hide it. The success of artists like Ellison and Coltrane stems both from their sense of heritage, as well as their capacity to further define themselves and their work in relation to it. People who try to reject their identity, or to assume the identity of others, make themselves vulnerable into many of the traps that befall invisible man. Just like "southern ways of speech", some upper class blacks have (generally speaking, of course) looked down upon jazz as crude and backward. Ellison is keenly aware of this in relation to music, and writes in The Charlie Christian Story, "More important, jazz was regarded by most of the respectable Negroes of the town as a backward, low-class form of expression, and there was a marked difference between those who accepted and lived close to their folk experience and those whose status strivings led them to reject and deny it."[37] Granted, he's writing about the 1920's and 30's, but certainly this same phenomenon has continued even to this day. In 1963, LeRoi Jones comments, "...Jazz, for the black middle class, has only comparatively recently lost some of its stigma (though by no means is it yet as popular among them as any vapid musical product that comes sanctioned by the taste of the white majority."[38] In 1996, jazz may finally be acceptable and supported by even the most high class audiences (witness the success and clientele of the Lincoln Center jazz program in New York, for example), but how about hip-hop? There's no accounting for taste, and many people simply don't like this or that style of music for purely personal reasons. More over, any generalization is bound not to be one hundred percent accurate in all cases. However, the fact remains that historically, and currently, certain styles of music have been looked down upon by the majority of the upper class, primarily because of the attitudes expressed in the music. Some artists have been actively censored because their attitudes are too explicit in condemning the ruling class and the horrors of the society they own.[39]


Often, what inspires an artist to begin creating art in the first place is experiencing some other work of art. For example, Ellison writes, "I went to Tuskegee to study music...and there, during my second year, I read The Waste Land and that...was the real transition to writing."[40] Albert Murray states, "T.S. Eliot addressed himself to what he defined as the problem of tradition and the individual talent and concluded that it was necessary for the writer to live in what is not merely the present but the present moment of the past... not something dead but rather that which is already living."[41] Obviously, this applies more generally to all of art, not just writing. In an interview with Don DeMicheal in 1960 for Down Beat, John Coltrane said, "I've found you've got to look back at the old things and see them in a new light. I'm not finished with these studies because I haven't assimilated everything into my playing."[42]

Coltrane never lost sight of his roots, although he was constantly trying to stretch beyond them. In late October of 1960, he recorded Coltrane Plays the Blues[43] which was a stunning work of blues playing, demonstrating his total mastery of the blues and giving them elements of his unique style. Blues to Bechet, played on soprano saxophone, so closely resembles the feel and style of Sidney Bechet's playing from the 1930's that if you find the right Sidney Bechet song, you can have the two playing simultaneously, switch back and forth between them, and they will match beautifully.[44] The mood is the same, the tone is the same, and even more startling, the phrasing matches perfectly. You can literally let Bechet and Coltrane trade phrases as if they were playing together, and you get a perfect fit. One can only assume that this was entirely luck that the two match so perfectly, yet entirely might be too strong a qualifier. This is not to say that Coltrane was merely mimicking Bechet, for the entire album, including Blues to Bechet, is most certainly a Coltrane album, but rather, that Coltrane knew the roots of his instrument and knew where he was coming from. What I also find amazing is that this song, along with the whole Coltrane Plays the Blues album was recorded in the same five day recording session as My Favorite Things[45] and Coltrane's Sound,46 two of Coltrane's most unique and characteristic recordings defining his own sound, tone, musical ability and harmonic style. He knew where he came from, but he also knew he wanted to be going somewhere else.

I want to briefly recount all the different influences that affected Coltrane in order to emphasize the diversity of artistic traditions he drew on. Jazz musicians (such as Sidney Bechet and Thelonius Monk) were only one influence on Trane's playing. Another source of inspiration was African music and rhythms, as evidenced by his fascination with the polyrhythms of Elvin Jones' playing. Eastern music and philosophy were other influences. Yet another was European classical music.[47] Indeed, much like jazz itself, Coltrane's music represents a synthesis of many diverse styles and sounds. Babatunde Olatunji was a man from western Africa who gave Coltrane a lot of books on African culture and records of African music. Coltrane once told him, "I must go back to the roots; I'm sure I'll find what I have been looking for there."[48]

Even today in New Orleans, there are dozens of brass bands, following, making, and breaking the traditions of music that first appeared over a hundred years ago; yet this music has been influenced by everything that has come in the past century, and for all its similarities, is very different from what was heard at the beginnings of the 1900s. For instance, if you go hear one of these bands play today, you will undoubtedly hear the influence of Coltrane's playing on the horn players, and you'll probably hear the influence of hip hop and other rhythmic ideas on the drummers. Writers, too, are constantly making references to, borrowing images and metaphors from, or in other ways drawing on past literature. This same phenomenon comes across in a lot of improvisational jazz playing in the form of "quotes," playing or mimicking the styles and phrases of other musicians, other songs, even nursery rhymes or European classical music. Art cannot exist in a vacuum, it is constantly evaluated and conceived in relation to other art.

Like Coltrane, Ralph Ellison is no stranger to tradition; in fact Invisible Man is so full of allusions to other works and writers that volumes of essays have been written identifying and analyzing them.[49] Moreover, the images, language, trickster figures, and stories from black folklore play a vital role in the novel. Ellison writes of folklore in general, "For us the question should be, What are the specific forms of [Negro] humanity, and what in our background is worth preserving or abandoning. The clue to this can be found in folklore, which offers the first drawings of any group's character. It preserves mainly those situations which have repeated themselves again and again in the history of any given group."[50] The major themes in Ellison's work: the quest for the self, the struggle against ignorance, blindness, the dehumanization of Blacks, "keep this nigger-boy running", the journey from the rural South to the industrialized North, have all been previously addressed in some way through literature and folklore. Ellison's mastery of literary technique allows him to use this tradition for his own ends, drawing on the images and metaphors that most universally convey the specific meaning of invisible man's experience.


Ellison dedicated himself to learning literary tradition as a way to understand the technique of writing; how to organize his thoughts, how to create and give life to characters, how to make use of images, metaphors, language, and so on. In the process of learning, he realized that the tradition itself is a vital part of the technique. However, tradition is only a part of literary technique, just as technical training on an instrument is only a part of being able to play jazz. Ellison writes, "The process of acquiring technique is a process of modifying one's responses, of learning to see and feel, to hear and observe, to evoke and evaluate the images of memory and of summoning up and directing the imagination... It is through technique that he comes to possess and express the meaning of his life."[51] In another essay, Ellison writes, "It is through the process of making artistic forms -- plays, poems, novels -- out of one's experience that one becomes a writer, and it is through this process, this struggle, that the writer helps give meaning to the experience of the group. And it is the process of mastering the discipline, the techniques, the fortitude, the culture, through which this is made possible that constitutes the writer's real experience as writer, as artist. If this sounds like an argument for the writer's withdrawal from social struggles, I would recall you to W. H. Auden's comment to the effect that: 'In our age, the mere making of a work of art is itself a political act. So long as artists exist, making what they please, and think they ought to make, even if it is not terribly good, even if it appeals to only a handful of people, they remind Management of something managers need to be reminded of, namely, that the managed are people with faces, not anonymous members, that Homo Laborans is also Homo Ludens...'"[52]

Coltrane, too, was a master of technique; he would practice his horn for many hours each day. In these periods of acquiring technique, Trane truly found himself, and found a way to musically express his experiences and feelings. He was genuinely obsessed with the basics of his horn, the basics of his sound. A musician once recounted to me how Coltrane's practice sessions went (I'm not exactly sure how the musician actually found this out, since Trane rarely practiced with anyone else, but it fits Coltrane's personality and musicianship so well that I tend to believe it). First he played an entire hour of only whole notes, focusing exclusively on his tone. Then came another hour of just half notes, then another hour of quarter notes, working on scales, arpeggios, along with his tone. Next was an hour of eighth notes, sixteenth notes, and faster runs, incorporating everything he had done so far with speed as well. He would then spend a few hours working on exercise books for other instruments, such as violin and harp. Finally came time spent on actual songs or compositions, which would often consume a few more hours. Every musician practices technique and scales, but very few are obsessed with the basics of sound in the way Coltrane was. Most musicians I know (myself included) will begin a practice session with a few minutes of whole notes to focus their tone and warm themselves up. Coltrane spent over an hour on whole notes. He was simply never content with the skill he achieved, the harmonic knowledge he had, the success of his work, or simply the sound of his horn. What is most remarkable was his tireless dedication to the technical mastery of his craft, not for its own sake (which is what far too many musicians dedicate themselves to), but for the sake of expressing himself in ways he hadn't yet found.

Coltrane's technical control often amazed listeners as much as his creativity and the originality of his work. As J.C. Thomas writes of Gerald McKeever, a drummer and one of Coltrane's biggest fans, "Trane's solo on So What grabbed him; its driving, energetic outpouring of notes, all with such tight, incredible control, the intelligence behind the passion, the discipline that controlled the creativity."[53]

The Dialogue Between Jazz and Literature

Jazz itself plays an important role in Ellison's major work, Invisible Man. The whole novel is framed by the prologue in which invisible man sits in his hole, listening to Satchmo sing What Did I Do to be so Black and Blue? This one line carries tremendous meaning. What did I do to be so black; with all the discrimination, racism, and alienation that entails? What did I do to be so blue; sad and depressed? What did I do to be so black and blue; beaten, bruised, and sore? It is in terms of music that invisible man tries to explain his invisibility, and the sense of time and rhythm that comes with it. At many critical points in the novel he hears a blues being sung, such as when he is running out of the chapel on the campus. Here, the campus, all it stands for, and all his dreams and aspirations are beginning to crumble. Before and after the visit to Mr. Emerson in New York, invisible man encounters the blues; first with Peter Wheatstraw, the blue-print man on the way there, and then in the bus on the way back. This is a pivotal chapter for him, where his illusions of the campus, Bledsoe, and the trustees finally dissolve. When he is semi-conscious in the hospital after the explosion in the paint factory, music keeps flowing into his head. During the riot at the climax of the novel, a blues singer rides through the streets of Harlem, singing and giving out free beer. This is only a small sampling of all the mentions of blues, jazz or music in the novel.

Jazz indirectly affected the creation of Invisible Man as well. The name for one of the more important characters, Rinehart, came to Ellison through a blues song. He writes, "My old Oklahoma friend, Jimmy Rushing, the blues singer, used to sing one with a refrain that went:

Rinehart, Rinehart,
It's so lonesome up here
On Beacon Hill...

which haunted me, and as I was thinking of a character who was a master of disguise, of coincidence, this name with its suggestion of inner and outer came to my mind."[54] Music was also a constant presence in Ellison's life, from early childhood to his adult life in Harlem.[55]

References to jazz and the blues are very common in 20th century literature, since jazz is such a vital aspect of the culture and folklore of this country. At the same time, many jazz musicians, especially Coltrane, were influenced by literature. J.C. Thomas writes, "Besides playing and writing music, John Coltrane seemed to spend much of his time with books, mostly non-musical ones... He was particularly fond of books about religion and philosophy... Edgar Cayce, Kahlil Gibran, Egyptology, Scientology, Plato, Aristotle; hundreds of books were stacked on the shelves."[56]


Literature and jazz should not be discussed as though they are completely separate things, in reality, they are both subsets of a larger culture, and they cannot be taken out of that context. Both of these art forms seek to express the realities of life as experienced by the artist. You can't begin to understand jazz as an art by simply discussing its musicality, without addressing the broader social and cultural forces at work. It's not enough to talk about this musician's solo or that musician's composition, without understanding the experience that led the musician to write the song or to play the solo the way they did. As LeRoi Jones writes, "We take for granted the social and cultural milieu and philosophy that produced Mozart... The socio-cultural philosophy of the Negro in America (as a continuous historical phenomenon) is no less specific and no less important in any intelligent critical speculation about the music that came out of it. And again, this is not a plea for narrow sociological analysis of jazz, but rather that this music cannot be completely understood (in critical terms) without some attention to the attitudes which produced it... A printed musical example of an Armstrong solo, or of a Thelonious Monk solo, tells us almost nothing except the futility of formal musicology when dealing with jazz... Coltrane's cries are not "musical," but they are music and quite moving music. Ornette Coleman's screams and rants are only musical once one understands the music his emotional attitude seeks to create. This attitude is real, and perhaps the most singularly important aspect of his music."[57] What would make these musicians, who were incredibly talented and technically proficient on their instruments, make sounds that on first impression would be considered amateurish and crude? It was an outpouring of deep anger, dissatisfaction, or remorse that related to the conditions the artists found themselves in. The world around the artists had a massive effect on their playing and the moods they conveyed.

Mike Canterino, one of the owners of the Half Note Club in New York once said, "We seemed to attract the most politically advanced blacks whenever Trane was appearing. He'd take a long solo, probably close to an hour, and these guys would be shouting 'Freedom Now!' all over the place. It was like they were using his music as a rallying cry for whatever political movements they were into."[58] If someone were at a jazz club in New York today, listening to music and shouting "Freedom now!" they'd be considered crazy and laughed out of the place, because there's no movement on the ground that could possibly make "freedom now" a reality. In the late 60's, "freedom now" was a legitimate claim and seemed perfectly natural for Coltrane's fans to be yelling. Again, you can't take the music out of the social context in which it was created.

Literature depends upon a large body of literary techniques and styles, but also draws on the experience of the artist in his environment in much the same way that jazz does. Analyzing any work of art from either a purely technical viewpoint, or a purely sociological one, is bound to miss the point. One must take into account both the techniques used, and the experiences and history that led to the creation of a particular work of art to gain any meaningful insight into it, its creator, or its significance.

The roles art can play in our lives are tremendous. Art's primary function is to capture some essential truth about our world. It may not try to directly express literal fact, indeed most of art does not. However, through art we can gain insight into things which facts alone cannot explain. Artists strive to understand the human condition, and to make sense of their own experience in relation to previous art, history, and the world they find themselves in. Art can identify anything from beauty to horror. The complexity of human life can be expressed in ways that escape the ability of statistics and simple formulas. LeRoi Jones writes, "That's one function of art, to reveal beauty, common or uncommon, uncommonly."[59] Another function is to expose the tragedies of human existence and bring them out into the open. Art serves as a way to approach the horrors inherent in the world we live in and to help us survive them. Albert Murray writes, "Not unlike ancient tragedy, [the blues] would have the people for whom it is composed and performed confront, acknowledge, and proceed in spite of, and even in terms of, the ugliness and meanness inherent in the human condition. It is thus a device for making the best of a bad situation."[60] I don't think the human condition itself is inherently mean and ugly, but the conditions humans are in now sure are. As Jimi Hendrix said to a capacity crowd at the L.A. forum on April 26, 1969, "Yeah, everybody want to know what `American Soul' is. Everybody think it's Motown, or it's this, everybody think it's that... `American Soul' is something that goes like this here, a thing called, `Red House.'"[61] He's right. "American Soul," if it's anything, is the blues. As Richard Davis says, "The blues is the Negro National Anthem."[62]

Although both jazz and literature (indeed all of art) is in some way concerned with defining identities and asserting humanity, that alone will not change the dehumanizing and gruesome conditions in society. Neither works of art, songs, nor books ended slavery, the struggles of people did. Art, folklore, and the blues all made surviving slavery possible, and in that respect, they did help put an end to slavery. However, to rid the world of its meanness, its drive toward conformity, its racism, inequalities, the widening gap between the rich and poor, its poverty, hunger, warfare, and all its horrors, it is not simply enough for a few individuals to stand out and show their individual humanity. More fundamental changes will have to take place to re-prioritize our society and what its goals are. Until these changes take place, we can look to artists like Coltrane and Ellison to inspire and sustain us.