Miles Davis detested liner notes, regarding them almost as a form of insult. Though less vehemently opposed to them than Davis was, John Coltrane also failed to see their point. Like Davis, he believed that technical analysis was superfluous, and that an annotator's subjective descriptions were likely to inhibit a listener from forming his own impressions. I think pride entered into it as well. For a musician to bother to explain himself—to discuss his aims with a hired expert, who would then pass the information along to record buyers—was a tacit admission of failure. Never mind what you were trying to do. Music ought not just be allowed to speak for itself, but forced to—to Davis and Coltrane's way of thinking, this was the only true measure of its success.
I am of a different mind on the value of liner notes—not surprisingly, you might be thinking, given that I've earned a buck or two signing my name to them. But trust me, it often wasn't much more than a buck or two, and besides, I have been reading liner notes a lot longer than I have been writing them. I started listening to jazz in earnest—that is to say, buying albums—in 1964, midway through my senior year in high school. One difference between pop albums and jazz LPs that I spotted immediately was that the essays on the back covers of the latter were far more substantive, comparable in their offhand way to the introductory essays in the Signet Mentor editions of Hawthorne and Melville that I was reading for class. Months before I stumbled on Martin Williams's monthly column in Saturday Review, liner notes were my introduction to jazz criticism. Unless written by a disc jockey, in which case they