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on February 1, 2009
I share the authors' enthusiasm for Miles and Coltrane, but this book seems 1) unreliable and 2) unnecessary.

1) Some things are just wrong, like Charlie Parker's age when he died. Not a big deal except it undermines one's sense of the validity of the scholarship (or the proofreading). There are lots of other things that might not be disproved in a court of law but don't hold up and strain one's faith in the text. Miles, they say, is "known to musicians simply as...'The Chief'..." Oh? Maybe so, but I've never heard anyone else call him that, and it cloys that they keep referring to him that way. Then they refer repeatedly to Bird's (and Bach's) "diatonic ear" in ways that make me think that they don't know what "diatonic" means, but that they just think it sounds cool.

2) There are lots of other authors that treat basically the same topics well, as biography, as social commentary, and as music, for example, Ian Carr, J.K. Chambers, Lewis Porter, Ashley Kahn, all cited in the notes. Or Miles and Coltrane themselves. Read them instead.

It's amusing that John Szwed, who in his back cover blurb refers to this book as "lucid and graceful," "rich and always illuminating," is himself quoted and cited repeatedly within the text; in their acknowledgments the authors refer to him as "our sage." It looks to me like there's more scratching (each others' backs) than clawing going on here.
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on January 20, 2013
No doubt, you've traveled in a vehicle and pressed the SCAN Button on your radio. That's the experience you have by pressing SCAN on your radio and hearing the song being played as soon as the radio locks in on a particular radio station. You play some sort of rapid "Name That Tune" game in your mind and quickly decide whether the song on the radio is right for you. You undoubtedly make a snap judgement based on your personal musical preferences.

What does this have to do with the book Clawing at the Limits of Cool: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and the Greatest Jazz Collaboration Ever, you ask?

Here's one perspective:

I'm writing this review first of all because I really enjoyed this book! It was a great read. I'm a struggling Musician who treats such literary works like sponges - I want to squeeze every drop of knowledge out of it and appreciate it for all it's worth. Music is something I enjoy as a hobby and on rare occasions as a developing improviser so this book shared a series of stories from two Jazz Greats I admire - Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Maybe you do too.

Before I bought this book, I read the reviews. At the time of this writing, if you happened to select the other Amazon listing for this title, you would not have found any reviews. Since you're obviously reading this, you might have noticed several reviews, and if you drill down on the comments on some of them, a series of lively discussions about this book is fast approaching the 290-plus pages in Clawing at the Limits of Cool!(That's a lot of review & commentary to read if you care to! Not to mention, my two cents.)

So, back to the Scan Button analogy. Whenever your radio locks in on a particular radio station, you make quick decision about the music. You probably think or actually say things such as; "I hate Rap!", "I hate Country!", "I can stand Classical!", "What is this noise?!?!" (Yes, "hate" is a strong word, but let's be honest, we usually say that!)

We seem too quick to label music and people sometimes.

Yet, behind every style of music there's a story. If my judgement and "hatred" toward a particular style of music creates a roadblock to appreciating the underlying context of the Musician's point of view, I'm the one who loses. If the Musician has the skills to produce and record a song that hits the airwaves, yet I immediately dismiss it due to my personal tastes, my respect for people diminished since I refuse to let their story find a brain cell within me. If I don't take the time to get to know and understand where this Musician is coming from, (their unique perspective or point of view) I miss out in the end.

We treat Authors in the same manner.

Many reviews on this thread suggest that the Authors didn't do their homework. I disagree. At least one reviewer questioned the validity of Miles Davis being nicknamed "Chief". I guess Guitarist Mike Stern didn't do his homework either, or he just one day woke up and randomly penned a tune called Chief for his album Jigsaw?

What's more, Miles Davis studied art and loved to paint. As further evidence of the "Chief" moniker, here's a quote from Miles Davis as written by Writer/Columnist/Musician Mike Zwerin:

"The guy who looks after my house in California, Mike, he calls me Chief. I say 'Mike, how do you like this?' He says, 'I liked it, Chief...just before you finished it.' So he thinks I spoiled it by making too much. I have to learn to stop. I know how to stop with music, but you have this problem of balance with paint and it's different." (Read it in it's entirety at [...]
By the way, if you decide to read Clawing at the Limits of Cool, pay close attention to how the Authors unpack the differences between how John Coltrane and Miles Davis 'learn to stop'. Just know that this book is different.

So just understand that when you read Clawing at the Limits of Cool, it is as though your radio has locked in on the Black Radio Station. The song selection is Jazz, but the Deejays are Black(Authors Farah Jasmine Griffin and Salim Washington). This is not your typical public radio style and format. Expect an African-American vernacular, swagger, and some urban edge. Expect to hear things said in a way you might not hear on NPR. The differences between American Bandstand's Dick Clark's and Soul Train's Don Cornelius' television shows would present two totally different styles and target audiences, yet we can learn to appreciate both and expand our limited framework we tend to place on our musical choices and preferences.

This book is a raw, rough, and real account of two Jazz Powerhouses. When reading this book, you must remember the environment and times these famed Musicians came up in. On page 260, you'll find a glossary and the word "Chitlin Circuit". If you don't know what that term means, you'll have all the "facts" presented in this book, but still miss the point! I had relatives who lived through these times and even heard Coltrane within arm's reach. It was a wonderful time and I hung on every word as they shared this with me. To fully understand the times, you need to either have lived them or pay intensely close attention to someone who has. Not from afar, not from a casual visit, but from someone who lived, breathed, and was part of the fabric of that experience. This book is a close representation of folklore passed from one generation to the next. Those who choose to just hear instead of listen will miss the context.

Clawing at the Limits of Cool will take you back in time to a degree. You'll soon be able to wrap your brain around the experience from a perspective that might be counter to your upbringing or lifestyle. You'll get a peek behind the curtain, backstage when Musicians tend to cut-up, hang loose, and say stuff that they normally might not say in polite company! Let's not be naive here, we all say stuff we shouldn't say or write things others won't agree with. It's as though someone left the microphone on either on accident, but probably on purpose since this story needed to be told. And, the Authors told the story well!

Don't be afraid, embrace the perspective shared in this book.

So, whether you choose to take the time or make the time to read this book or not, just be prepared for a perspective that may or may not be familiar to you. It was very familiar to me, yet I know many people of various background who could instantly relate to what's being communicated in this book - regardless of their "station" in life!
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on June 27, 2011
This was one of the best books I read in 2008 and maybe is the best work I have ever read about jazz. The concept of examining these two men through their work together and their music is brilliant. The writing is sparse, but deep and the research is tremendous. There are better individual books about both musicians, but this is the best combined effort.
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on March 24, 2009
I thoroughly enjoyed this book which chronicles the ascension of two of America's greatest jazz artists. Not as enjoyable as MILES by Miles Davis or as informative as CHASIN'THE TRANE by J.C. Thomas but in it's own right an interesting piece of work.
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VINE VOICEon September 26, 2010
I don't have a strong background in the history of jazz, but this book seems to be a good one for studying the history and influence of two jazz greats, Davis and Train. I particularly like the second half of the book in which the authors devote extended interpretations and the cultural history of albums and single compositions, such as Milestones, Blue Train, Kind of Blue, A Love Supreme, Giant Steps, `Round About Midnight. The first half of the book delves more into the personal background of the two musicians.

Washing and Griffin's book is by no means a definitive study. It simply sheds light on the relationship between Davis and Coltrane. It ends with the emergence of Miles Davis and the jazz fusion era. But it provides an overview of the history of the two great giants, describing how so different they were--Davis, the cool and more confident jazz band leader, and Coltrane, the more spiritual, sometimes timid, gentler of the two. Of course, Coltrane by 1961 formed his own group, and that time he was jazz figure breaking new territory. I had not known about there differences until reading this book.

This book focuses a little more Davis than it does on Coltrane, which makes me want to definitely read a full biography of Coltrane, because he seems such a complex figure, that there's much more to him than what they book conveys.

Finally, I would add, that in this era of digital technology, I really hope that jazz books like this do more to link readers to particular compositions that will be discussed in this book. It would be great if the authors had a website in which they list all the titles of compositions that will be discussed, and perhaps allow readers to listen to those songs on their website. I have several Davis and Coltrane albums, but I still needed to go on YouTube to find many of compositions that the authors write about. This book will be very accessible to those who have a strong background in jazz music, but it will be somewhat challenging to those of us who are just beginning to study the jazz, beyond just listening to it.

Clawing at the Limits of Cool will be among several books on the history of jazz that I will be reading in the coming months.
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on July 23, 2010
A very impressive and different POV of a a very important jazz collaboration between two giants of jazz. A very interesting perspective from two black writers.
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on April 27, 2013
poorly researched. the author went for style over substance. The title says it all. She states that Coltrane had a beer belly in 59.
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on November 16, 2009
Farah Jasmine Griffin and Salim Washington have looked at Miles Davis and John Coltrane and their musical reelationship. This is done not only with intelligence, good judgment, and scholarship, but with compassion, even love. Every sentence is warm and penetrating. The book achieves its main purpose by drawing the reader directly to the music itself: I listened to the records all over again (repeatedly) with new enlightenment and feeling.

Rev. Peter F. O'Brien, S.J.
Executive Director
The Mary Lou Williams Foundation, Inc.
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on March 9, 2009
It's as though the authors would like to recreate the personalities and musical accomplishments of the musicians to reflect their own sociological and ideological theories and prejudices. There are multitudes of books available to those who want to read about black history and social issues. Of course, both Miles Davis and John Coltrane were Black. Miles achieved some success in the 1940's and early 1950's when playing with Charlie Parker and with his own Birth Of The Cool group. At the time,however, he was overshadowed by Dizzy Gillespie, Fats Navarro and Clifford Brown. Davis then made some fine recordings with such artists as Sonny Rollins, Jackie McLean, J.J. Johnson, Horace Silver, Thelonious Monk, Milt Jackson and Lucky Thompson. His career really launched when he joined together with Coltrane in the Famous Quintet with Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones. Then was to come more success with Gil Evans collaborations. Coltrane recorded in the early 1950's with Dizzy Gillespie. But did not achieve widespread recognition until joining up with Miles in the mid 1950's. Coltrane contributions both as a leader and sideman began to come with great frequency. In 1956 he recorded with Paul Chambers, Curtis Fuller, Elmo Hope the album Tenor Madness with Sonny Rollins and Tenor Conclave with Hank Mobley, Zoot Sims and Al Cohn. Mating Call with Tadd Dameron was also released that year. 1957 showed him recording with Monk and the famous Blue Trane album. 1958 brought release of the Soultrane set. He was considered to be an innovator by the mid to late 1950's and early 1960's.

My sense is that artists gradually evolve. Some characteristics that separate talent are based on their creativity, dedication, inherent ability,tone, technical facility, rhythm, concept, practice, perserverance and drive. To suggest that history and the civil rights movement are key issues that propelled their success is, I think,more than a bit of a stretch. It's almost as though artistic abilities are secondary and incidental to the message the authors wish to convey.

Here, for your evaluation, are some passages which I think evidence much of the tenor of the book:

pp3 Mile's manner seemed to say the coon show is officially over; we are here to play......Miles was raised to be a confident black genius..

pp4 According to Carl Grubbs, Coltrane's nephew by marriage....We are not trying to be like Pops (Louis Armstrong). Nobody wanted to be that guy sweating with the handkerchief.

pp6 (Coltrane) stands as a premier example of black creative genius..

pp7 According to the poet Michael Harper Coltrane's energy and passion was the kind of energy it takes to break oppressive conditions...and oppressive societal situations..

pp53 ..this sense of racial confidence and belief in black possibility would allow Davis and Trane to recognize the genius of the music they loved and would push them to pursue their art with complete dedication and passion.

pp 56 The music communicated the longings, postures, and desires for greater freedom of the emerging generations that had reached adulthood during the war years (WWII): freedom to explore one's political and aesthetic sensibilities without reprimand or violence..

pp58 For Miles, this quest for collective political freedom paralleled his own quest to liberate himself from the racism that sought to limit his ambitions as man and as an artist..

pp63 discussing the song Now's The Time..This song is an important recording for a number of reasons: First is its political connotation, suggesting the militancy and postwar expectations of black Americans. This twelve bar blues based tune was recorded in November 1945 for the Newark based Savoy label. It later became a R&B hit when recorded in 1949 by Paul Williams. To suggest that the title of this song was based on anything to do with the civil rights movement, black militancy, political connotations or postwar expectations in simply absurd.

pp104 discussion of "walking the bar" which was often done by rhythm and blues was Uncle Tom-ish...demeaning..humiliating..Well, the audiences and players seemed to enjoy this and participated quite enthusiastically. I remember Big Jay McNeely would sometimes even lead the audience outside and around the block.

pp 113 this was a period of repressive anti-communist hysteria...The decolonization of counties in Africa and Asia brought inspiration to those engaged in domestic battles...

pp 114 According to Naima(Coltrane's first wife) He very much loved his people. I don't know if people know that, but he did. He very much loved black people, and he was concerned for us.

pp114 Davis and Coltrane were critically aware of the political enviornment they inhabited. And each would come to be representative of a more rebellious side of the supposedly conformist fifties. Serious, intelligent young black men: articulate, confident, refusing the antics of earlier entertainers and self consciously affirming the complexity and unique universality of black art forms...

pp126 discussing the song Airegin..Is Nigeria spelled backward, a nod to the anticolonial struggles sweeping across Africa and Asia. I might here call attention to what's happened in the aftermath of colonialization in such places as Rwanda,The Congo (Zaire), Zimbabwe, Guinea, Zambia, Gambia, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Uganda. Such things as genocide, disease, rape, plunder, corruption, joblessness,famine, torture, mutilation,assassinations,cannibalism,banditry, witchcraft, as well as other unspeakable physical cruelties and astoundingly unheard of inflation became the rule.

pp 189.. By the late 1960's, the old forms of civil disobedience were no longer satisfactory for a younger generation--a generation that came to possess a new sense of urgency and militancy..

pp 204 We learn that after Cannonball Adderly joined the group he became the "straw boss."

pp221 Coltrane's music would become the sound track for a growing political and spiritual consciousness that came to characterize some of the most radical sections of both black power and the anti-war struggles of the late sixties and early seventies.....along the way, both (Miles & Trane)had become international icons who would continue to inform our understanding of jazz music, black masculinity, and artistic genius.

pp 226 Coltrane's cachet as a cultural icon derives largely from the 1960's, an era where young people fashioned a new society .....where black urban youths grew impatient and began to develop a more militant movement..

pp 250 Ultimately, Coltrane speaks to the poets of black liberation..

pp 252 Trane led the way to the expressionism that gave life to the new black aesthetic..

Oh, by the way, on page 159, we are informed that Paul Quinichette was a hard bop tenor saxophonist, In fact, he was such a disciple of The President, Lester Young that he was frequently called "The Vice President." Neither Lester Young or Paul Quinichette were considered to be "hardboppers."

The author refer to Miles as "The Chief." While Charlie Parker was commonly called "Bird" I have never heard anyone refer to Miles as "The Chief" other than in this book. In fact, when I hear mention of "The Chief" I tend to think of former New York Yankee pitcher Allie Reynolds who was referred to by that name.

Nowhere in the book did I notice mention of Max Roach's "sit in" at the famous Davis 1961 Carnegie Hall concert. Roach sat in to disrupt the performance because he felt the concert was a benefit sponsored by an organization supportive of the Apartheid regime in South Africa.

To me, the most enjoyable part of the book was the excellent discussion of the great classic Davis rhythm section of Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones. More of such and less politics would have been much better!
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on February 21, 2015
Great book
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