Monk moves!

Monk moves!

Monday, July 30, 2018

Sonny and John: The Rollins-Coltrane Prestige Recordings

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved

Sonny Rollins' longevity as a performer coupled with the discovery and recent Impulse! release of John Coltrane's Both Directions At Once: The Lost Album [look for a posting on this recording in the near-future] prompted a bit of nostalgia centered on the first time I heard both Sonny and Trane perform on a variety of 1950's Prestige LPs, all of which have since been collectively issued on CD in the form of boxed sets by each artist, respectively.

Although attenuated by his early death in 1967, Coltrane did make many more recordings for Atlantic and Impulse! [there is also, of course, his recorded library with Miles Davis] and Sonny continued to perform on record for over a half-a-century subsequent to his Prestige albums.

As an all-in-one-place feature, I thought it would be fun to combine the insert notes from both of these boxed sets and post them as a blog feature.

I mean it's not every day that we get the likes of Bob Blumenthal and Doug Ramsey visiting the site.


“Sonny Rollins first recorded for Bob Weinstock's new Prestige label in 1949, when he was not yet 19 years old and at the very beginning of his professional career, although he had already appeared on three recording sessions (one with JJ. Johnson, and two with singer Babs Gonzales). Rollins went on to participate in a total of eighteen sessions for Prestige between 1949 and 1956—formative years in which the saxophonist would make some of his greatest strides as an improviser.”
- Charles Blancq

One of the great things about the boxed set Sonny Rollins- The Complete Prestige Recordings is that a good portion of the sleeve notes are authored by Bob Blumenthal.

So not only does the owner get a ton of brilliant music from tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins’ earliest recordings, a purchase of the set also brings the observations, comments and insights of a Jazz writer who has been awarded Grammys for the excellence of his insert notes [In 1999 for Coltrane: The Classic Quartet/Complete Impulse! Studio Recordings and 2000 for Miles Davis and John Coltrane: The Complete Columbia Recordings 1955-61].

You can read more about Bob’s background and current activities at www.jazzinamerica.org/.

As was the case with our earlier posting of Doug Ramsey’s brilliant insert notes to The Complete John Coltrane Prestige Recordings, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles is very grateful to Nick Phillips and his team at The Concord Music Group for granting copyright permission to reprint Bob’s writings on these pages. Order information regarding Sonny Rollins- The Complete Prestige Recordings is available at www.concordmusicgroup.com/.

And, of course, our thanks go out to Bob as well for his continuing generosity in allowing us to represent his work once again on the blog.

© -Bob Blumenthal/The Concord Music Group, copyright protected; all rights reserved; used with permission.


Sonny Rollins – The Prestige Years by BOB BLUMENTHAL

““Spontaneous". . ."A music of personal expression". . ."Different every performance". . . "The sound of surprise."  

It's amazing how frequently catchphrases of jazz are honored only in the breach, how often even ranking stars of the music settle for reliable choices when navigating through the potential minefield of the improvised solo. 

But when Sonny Rollins plays, the spontaneity, surprise, and freshly-minted personal expression are always present, which is one reason he has been cited more frequently than any of his peers as the greatest living jazz improviser (and hence jazz musician) in the two decades since he emerged from his last sabbatical.

Rollins has deserved the designation of model jazz artist for about twice that long, as the music in this collection indicates. At the age of 25, while he was still working primarily as a sideman, and had only recently returned from an earlier absence, his achievement was already imposing enough to justify the album title Saxophone Colossus. Few of those who had heard his previous Prestige sessions considered the designation mere record-company hyperbole. Rollins, who began as far more than just a promising talent, had been growing by leaps and bounds into one of those rare artists who define a musical epoch. His aggressive virtuosity, searing energy, caustic humor, and boundless imagination were already well documented, and had contributed to the evolved conception of jazz modernism known as "hard bop." Rollins's music would continue to grow in later years, as would his mystique; but by the time his Prestige contract expired at the end of 1956 he was already an acknowledged giant.

Rollins earned his reputation through the music contained on the present seven compact discs, which can be heard as Acts 1 and 2 in one of the longest (and still-running) sagas in jazz history. As such collections go, it is uncommonly comprehensive. While Rollins had made three prior visits to a recording studio before his New Jazz/Prestige debut with trombonist J.J. Johnson in 1949, and actually cut his most important session as a teenager three months later (with Bud Powell on Blue Note), the early Fifties found the tenor saxophonist establishing an exclusive base on Prestige. Over a period of five years, from his first session with Miles Davis through his first 12-inch LP tour de force Work Time, all of Rollins's commercial recording was done for that label. While 1956 would also find him making important studio appearances elsewhere—with Clifford Brown/Max Roach and the succeeding Roach quintet on EmArcy, with Thelonious Monk on Riverside, and on the first of his own Blue Note albums—he still turned out the bulk of his performances for Prestige founder/producer Bob Weinstock.

Despite the music they were creating, these were not the best of times for Rollins or his contemporaries. America had only begun to confront the racism that permeated its society, jazz was still trying to make a case for itself as an art form, and the scourge of heroin addiction among young jazz players added another and often insurmountable obstacle to personal growth. That Rollins could overcome these circumstances testifies to a strength of character equal to the strength of his sound and conception. Even when witnesses report that he was not in the best of physical shape during one or another of his early sessions, Rollins always provided at least some intimations of brilliance. His rich and bellicose tone, the bold way in which he extended and often anticipated a tune's underlying harmonies, his emphatic swing and frequently abstract counter-rhythms, and the astounding continuity he was able to generate with such diverse techniques made Rollins an influence before he had pulled himself together. This is the erratic but invaluable Rollins heard on the first half of this collection. After he had dealt with his personal problems and emerged as a featured sideman with the Brown/Roach quintet at the end of 1955, he was unstoppable.

Rollins enjoyed the luxury of working almost exclusively with jazz giants during his Prestige years — although few of them were as yet recognized as such. A quick glance at the collective personnel of this package indicates the wealth of talent involved, and also that the evolution of an entire musical style is documented here. With Brown, Davis, Kenny Dorham, or Art Farmer on trumpet; John Lewis, Monk, and Horace Silver among the pianists; a roll of drummers including Art Blakey, Kenny Clarke, Roy Haynes, Philly Joe Jones, Roach, and Art Taylor; and appearances by fellow saxophonists John Coltrane, Jackie McLean, and Charlie Parker, Rollins's Prestige recordings serve as a mini-history of hard bop. This more percussive and blues-centered wing of jazz modernism, which soon came to be known as East Coast style (to differentiate it from the less assertive West Coast variety), made its first appearance on early Miles Davis sessions recorded for Prestige and Blue Note. Certainly Blakey's drumming on the October 1951 Davis date in this collection, and Philly Joe's work on the trumpeter's subsequent January 1953 recordings, are prototypes of hard bop accompaniment, just as the Rollins solos they support helped to define the hard bop approach to the tenor.

These performances document as well the technological and marketing changes in record formats that strongly influenced the music's evolution. The very first sessions were produced for release as 78-rpm singles, yet as early as the late-1951 Davis date the possibility for extended performance offered by the 33-rpm, 10-inch "long-playing" album was being explored. By 1955, the 10-inch discs were already obsolescent, being replaced by 12-inch albums, which contained far more playing time. It was a new era for recorded jazz, and Rollins was one of the era's prophets.


Sonny was well positioned to reach such early eminence, for he grew up in one of the richest environments a young jazz musician could imagine. Theodore Walter Rollins was born in New York City on September 7, 1930; some references have listed the year as 1929 because he had once claimed to be a year older in order to obtain working papers. The Rollins family first lived in an apartment in the heart of Harlem, on 137th Street between Lenox and Seventh Avenues. The Savoy Ballroom was right around the corner, and the Cotton Club was nearby. "I used to walk by both [places] as a kid," he once recalled, "wishing I could go inside. You didn't have to be grown up to go to the Apollo, though, so I went down there at least once a week and caught practically everybody—Lionel Hampton, Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, Count Basie .... We used to see those guys do a stage show, and then there'd be a movie. Boy, those were the days; go get some candy, see maybe a murder mystery. You'd hear the bands warming up in the background, and then you'd actually see them. You caught a great show."

The movies, and the popular music heard on the radio, also made an impression on the young Rollins, and explain his ongoing fondness for both the staples and the obscurities of Tin Pan Alley. "I'm attracted to the older standards because I listened to them growing up. I remember a lot of them, and was influenced by Hollywood songs, songs from pictures. A lot of these songs I can still relate to," he has said. His family also played a role in shaping his tastes. "My playing calypso is mainly due to my mother coming from the Virgin Islands. I went with her to a lot of calypso dances, and heard many of the songs I play at a fairly early age."

By the time Rollins was 10, his interest in music had been focused: "What made me want to be a musician was seeing a saxophone in a case. It was so beautiful and shiny, I fell in love with the instrument." His fondness for Louis Jordan led Rollins to begin on an alto sax. When his family moved further uptown in the early Forties, to Harlem's Sugar Hill section, the youngster's enthusiasm grew into passion. The new neighborhood was full of established musicians, including his early idol Coleman Hawkins, as well as such like-minded youngsters as Jackie McLean, Art Taylor, and Kenny Drew. The teenage friends would often play together in pickup bands. "For some reason, I was always the leader," Rollins recalls, "although Kenny was the most schooled in terms of classical training.

"We were thoroughly dedicated to playing all through school," Rollins continues. "And as we got older, we got to hang out with a lot of the musicians. I got all kinds of things from a lot of people—the meticu­lous shine on Buddy Tate's shoes when he came out front to solo with Basic was something that registered. We'd also go down to 52nd Street and try to get into the clubs. We'd put eyebrow pencil around our lips and wear big hats pulled over our faces so no one would see how young we were. Charlie Parker was down there, and we pestered Bird a lot, but he was always very nice.

"I first heard Parker when I was 15, on his record 'Ko-Ko.' I was attracted to
him, but wasn't with him completely. At the time there was a rumor that Bird was dead, then Savoy put out 'Now's the Time' and 'Billie's Bounce' and that was all you would hear in Harlem. I began to get the message. At the same time, I was a devotee of Coleman Hawkins—I had an alto, but wanted a tenor so I could be like Coleman. I got my first tenor in 1946, so these influences were intertwined. A few years later, guys in Chicago called me 'the Bird of the tenor.'"

Rollins also acknowledges hearing a lot of other players in this formative period. "There was this older guy in the neighborhood who knew I played sax and asked me, 'Who's the greatest tenor man in the world?' I said Coleman Hawkins, but he said 'No, Lester Young.' So I went out and got my first Lester Young record, 'Afternoon of a Basie-ite,' and started paying attention to Lester. Of course, I also loved Don Byas, Ben Webster, and Georgie Auld.... All of the great tenor players made an impression."

The teenaged Rollins lacked confidence in his playing, and seriously considered pursuing his talents in the visual arts by becoming a cartoonist or painter until he received critical encouragement from several of the period's innovators, including two who would employ the young tenor man on their own Prestige recordings. He met Monk through Lowell Lewis, a trumpet-playing friend and classmate who led a high-school combo with Rollins.

"Lowell and I lived up on the Hill, but went to high school on 116th Street on the East Side. This was the beginning of New York City's efforts to desegregate the schools, so we were sent to Benjamin Franklin High School in an Italian neighborhood, and the situation was tense. Frank Sinatra came to sing at the school after one of the incidents. He was a big star, and an Italian-American, and it made an impression to have him come to a school in an Italian neighborhood and tell the students to settle down. Nat Cole's trio came to the school and played as well around this time." A decade later, Rollins would remember Sinatra's visit when selecting "The House I Live In" (which had been closely associated with the singer) for one of his final Prestige sessions.

"After school, Lewis would go down to Monk's apartment for rehearsals, and he'd bring me along. Monk was using another young tenor player in his band at the time, and Lowell was convinced that I was a better horn player. I learned a lot rehearsing with Monk, trying to learn that music." Indeed, the complex rhythms and harmonies, daring use of space, and idiosyncratic humor that became trademarks of the Rollins style can be traced back to Monk, and can already be heard in embryonic form in his first recorded solos, cut with Babs Gonzalez for Capitol in January and April of 1949, when Rollins was 18.


It was at about this time that he was first heard by Davis. "I used to play in the jam sessions at Minton's. There was a promoter who heard me there who ran Sunday afternoon sessions at the 845 Club in the Bronx. He would get people like Miles, Bud Powell, Dexter Gordon, and J.J. to be the featured attractions, then hire younger guys to play intermission. Miles first met me on one of those Sunday sessions, where I was playing with my trio. [Rollins was already working in the tenor-bass-drums format that he would popularize in the late Fifties.] He invited me to work with his band, and those were some of the most memorable playing experiences I had. Miles was an idol of mine, and we seemed to have a lot in common; our styles blended. Encouragement from Miles, Monk, Bud Powell, and Art Blakey finally convinced me not to be so self-deprecating and to try to make it."

The musical odyssey charted in this collection begins with an example of Rollins from this period, his early 1949 session with the sextet known as Jay Jay [sic] Johnson's Boppers. It was the tenorman's fourth visit to a recording studio, and his second with Johnson, who had used him two weeks earlier on a quintet date for Savoy that included Rollins's first two recorded compositions. The Prestige debut contains another early Rollins original, the bop blues "Hilo," and coincidentally includes three-fifths of a future Max Roach quintet, Roach, Sonny, and Kenny Dorham. About the brass giants on hand here, Rollins says: "I knew Kenny from when he moved up on the Hill. We were tight, and used to practice and rehearse together. J.J. had been on my first record date with Babs Gonzalez, but I may have met him earlier at a session."

By 1951 and his first session with Davis, Rollins had begun paying the dues that were all too common during the period. After leaving New York for Chicago to work briefly with the respected but unrecorded drummer Ike Day in late 1949, he was incarcerated for eight months on a drug-related charge in 1950. Rollins was even more intense and rambunctious after his release from prison, and his work with Davis reveals that he was a perfect contrast to the more pensive trumpeter. "Miles always needed a strong, aggressive sax player to play off his style," Rollins notes. Davis was so enthusiastic that he persuaded Weinstock to tape a track featuring Rollins at the end of the session, and, since John Lewis had already left the studio, provided the piano accompaniment. These themeless choruses on the chords of Parker's "Confirmation," ultimately titled "I Know" when released as a 78-rpm single, apparently led the Prestige executive to give the young saxophonist a recording contract.

Another studio appearance with Davis preceded the first official Rollins session in December 1951. While these dates include several intimations that the young tenor player was already something special (how many musicians would have quoted "Well, You Needn't" then, as he does during his chorus on "Out of the Blue"?), Rollins was scuffling at the time, a situation indicated by his reported use of a coat hanger and a length of rope in place of a neck strap on his first session.


"Drugs passed through like a tornado in the early Fifties," he has recalled in frank evaluation. "Guys came back from Korea smoking heroin. It was plentiful, and I was hooked pretty bad, along with everybody else. It was a thing we all went through; some of us came out of it, and some didn't. I did."

The battle was not easily won. He was arrested again in 1952 for parole violation. Out once again and back on the scene in January 1953, Rollins made his third studio appearance with Davis in a sextet that also included Charlie Parker on tenor. This summit meeting proved to be a tension-filled affair that went unreleased until 1956, after Parker's death. Rollins sounds like the most together of the soloists through much of the date, although his actual condition led to a pivotal conversation with Parker.

"I'm sure Bird thought it was because of him that I was using heroin," Rollins recalls, "and he asked me at the session if I was straight, because he knew I was on parole at the time. I had just messed around with another musician before the session, but I lied and told Bird I was straight. At a break, somebody else mentioned that I had gotten high. That's when Bird told me I could be a great musician if I didn't mess around, and that stayed on my mind. He couldn't get off of it, and when he saw all of these young kids hooked, he took it on himself. This motivated me—I wanted to show him that one of his followers got the message. The sad thing was that Bird died while I was in Lexington the second time, so I never got to tell him." His respect for Parker was clear enough at the time, despite suggestions to the contrary after he quoted "Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better" on both takes of "The Serpent's Tooth." "Miles and I both liked to play that song. The quote really had no particular significance, although I thought later about how it could be taken the wrong way."

Rollins continued to grow as a musical force during 1953 and '54 despite two more years of personal turmoil. His October 1953 recordings with the Modern Jazz Quartet reveal a more mature soloist and composer. A month later, he cut his first session with Monk. More of the rough edges had been planed away on a January 1954 date with Art Farmer, who had approached Rollins about recording after the two had played together at sessions. Among its other features, the Farmer session included the Horace Silver/Percy Heath/Kenny Clarke rhythm section that would go on to make three important sessions for Miles Davis later in 1954. The last of these was the June 29th date on which Rollins came into his own.

Not only was the saxophonist playing on an elevated level on this most famous of his five Prestige sessions with Davis, but the presence of "Airegin," "Oleo," and "Doxy" made Rollins the composer a force to be reckoned with as well. The trumpeter was already an acknowledged star maker at the time, and his inclusion of a sideman's tunes on his recordings was the ultimate seal of approval. "Those tunes had all been written prior to the date," Sonny recalls, "some of them while I was incarcerated. I don't recall playing them on jobs with Miles, though; it was probably a situation where we were in the studio and Miles said 'Got any tunes?'" The arrangements of "Oleo" and "Airegin," which build tension by having pianist Silver lay out for extended stretches, were also highly influential. Rollins, like many later Davis sidemen, cannot recall if this idea was his own or the trumpeter's. "I'll give Miles the benefit of the doubt, since it was his date, but I don't really know who had the idea. When I played with Miles during this period, the piano would often inhibit what we wanted to do, and both of us would ask the pianist to stroll. We had a lot of similar ideas about music."

Musicians and fans were starting to pay attention to Rollins, and Prestige responded in the latter half of 1954 with two 10-inch albums under the saxophonist's name. As commanding as he sounds on Sonny Rollins Quintet (with Dorham and Elmo Hope) and Sonny Rollins (the quartet encounter with Monk), he was still wrestling with his drug habit. By year's end he had checked himself into the federal drug facility in LexingtonKentucky, motivated by Parker's earlier advice to cure himself once and for all. After four and a half months in Lexington, Rollins returned to Chicago, where he felt that he had experienced important musical growth four years earlier. He took a room at the YMCA, found work as a janitor and as a laborer loading trucks, and used his spare time to practice.

Months passed before he began playing in public. "Then it started," he has recalled, "the real test. Guys coming up to you at sessions and offering you stuff, and your palms sweating; you've seen it in the movies. There I was struggling, working my little day job, and right around the corner from the YMCA where I was living was a record store with my quartet album with Monk in the window! It was tough, but I came through that okay." His practice time was spent "just working on things. I had my loose-leaf notebook—I still have that notebook, in my apartment in New York—and it had various individual things that I wanted to work on. I was always working on something, and I was also learning songs. I remember rehearsing 'There's No Business Like Show Business' in the basement of the T with Booker Little."


Rollins took the majority of 1955 to pull himself together. While in Chicago, he turned down an offer to join the newly formed Miles Davis quintet, which made a place for the then-unknown John Coltrane. In November, he subbed for Harold Land when the Clifford Brown/Max Roach quintet visited Chicago; some of their first performances at the Beehive club were taped and released a quarter-century later. When the quintet left town, Rollins was on board as a full-time member, creating one of the most inspired (and sadly short-lived) front-line pairings in jazz history. Act 1 of the Rollins saga had concluded; and Work Time, recorded in New York shortly after he had joined Brown/Roach, brings up the curtain on Act 2.

In little more than a year, Rollins would record six sessions under his own name for Prestige, as well as a final studio appearance under Davis's leadership. This is a truly prodigious output, particularly for an artist who takes so much time to prepare his contemporary releases. "All recording is a traumatic experience for me," Rollins once told Orrin Keepnews; but it was an experience he was more readily willing to undergo after his return from Lexington and Chicago. The demand for product in the dawn of the era of the 12-inch album may explain in part this burst of activity, although the determination of Prestige to stockpile material before Rollins's contract expired may have also played a role. From Rollins's own perspective, he recalls simply wanting to work and make some money after his period of struggle. Whatever the reason, Rollins approached these albums with a mixture of furious energy and intellectual rigor that announced a new creative plateau. Viewed as a group, they form an intriguing pyramid, with the first and last being the most hard-driving and confrontational, the second and fifth capturing Rollins at the head of bands where he appeared nightly as a sideman, and the middle masterpieces Tenor Madness and Saxophone Colossus revealing more subtlety and an even greater range of expression.

Work Time, from December '55, and Tour de Force, made almost exactly one year later, are the most heated of the efforts. The former has often been identified as one of Rollins's greatest achievements, while the latter features starkly contrasting moods, given the two ballads with Earl Coleman. ("Earl's recordings with Parker put him in an exalted place, in my view. Since Bird did a record with Earl, I wanted to do one too.") What earned the latter album its title, though, were the themeless dashes through the chord changes of "Lover" ("B. Swift") and "Cherokee" ("B. Quick"), as well as the voracious invention of the blues "Ee-ah." "Max and I did want to see how fast we could play," Rollins admits about this last session. "I was young and strong, and able to at least try anything."

Sonny Rollins Plus 4 and Rollins Plays for Bird found the saxophonist fronting the Brown/Roach and Roach quintets, respectively. In each instance, Rollins chose material that was not a part of the regular group repertoire. "I wrote 'Valse Hot' on the road, right after I joined the band, but never performed it in person until after the album came out. The rest of the material was just current pop tunes that I liked or, in the case of the Bird medley, songs that Max and I associated with Parker. I was interested in writing a waltz; the precedent was Fats Waller's 'Jitterbug Waltz,' that was in my mind, and I used the chords from 'Over the Rainbow.' Tent-Up House' was not based on another tune. The title comes from my situation when I wrote it. I was staying in someone's house at the time, and felt pent up because I couldn't practice."

The session with Clifford Brown is one of only two studio encounters between the trumpet giant and Rollins, who had taken part in a Brown/Roach session for EmArcy earlier in the year. It is one of the few albums of his own that the perpetually self-critical Rollins admits to liking. "I like the different moods I got with Clifford on that session. We really sound compatible." He will also express fondness for "The House I Live In" from the Plays for Bird session, although Prestige did not release the track with the other material recorded at the date. "I was never consulted about what would and would not get released," Rollins explains. This track, as well as "Sonny Boy" from the final session, only surfaced in the early Sixties after Rollins mentioned them in a conversation with critic Joe Goldberg, whose subsequent reminder to Weinstock led to their rediscovery.


The Tenor Madness album features Rollins with the Davis band of the time minus its leader, an inspired pairing of undetermined origin. "I'm not sure whose idea it was, to be honest, mine or the record company's. At that time, everybody was hanging out together, and you'd see each other all the time. Groups would be put together for albums without a lot of premeditation. It was a much smaller, tighter world." Whatever the source, the empathy of Red Garland, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones inspired Rollins to some of his most relaxed and lyrical- work, before John Coltrane was added for an extended performance on a line that Kenny Clarke had recorded ten years earlier under the name "Royal Roost." "I have to plead innocent for taking a composer's credit on 'Tenor Madness,'" Rollins emphasizes. "A lot of record companies wanted to claim publishing rights at the time, and would put your name on a piece and publish it through their company. . . .The same thing happened with 'St. Thomas,' which of course is a traditional song that I heard my mother singing."

"Tenor Madness" presents the only recorded opportunity to hear Rollins and his good friend John Coltrane together, and it points up one significant difference in their outlook: Coltrane was relentlessly serious, to the point of humorlessness, while Rollins had a profound wit that ranged from whimsical innuendo to broad musical pratfalls. One particular exchange epitomizes the distinction so clearly that I have frequently played it for friends who want to hear the difference between the two giants. It takes place during the last four bars of the third chorus of "fours," and the first four bars of the next chorus. Coltrane grows increasingly heated in his turn, laboring over a pet ascending figure; then Rollins responds by juggling the lick and ultimately playing it backwards. "Humor in music is a very subjective thing," Rollins has said. "I feel whether a person has humor should be a natural thing. Because of the humor in my music, people have accused me of not really playing, of just playing around. In fact John told me that about 'Tenor Madness'; he said, 'Aw, man, you were just playing with me.'"

The consensus masterpiece of the Prestige years is Saxophone Colossus, recorded a month after Tenor Madness. Rollins describes it as "very clean for me—I'm a rough player usually," and has admitted that "it caught everybody on a good day." It has the first great Rollins calypso, "St. Thomas"; and another unique original composition, "Strode Rode." ("I might have written that one in Chicago. It was named for a legendary place there called the Strode Hotel, which is where Freddie Webster [an influential but little-recorded trumpet star of the Forties] died. I never even saw the Strode Hotel when I was in Chicago, but I wanted to dedicate something to Freddie Webster.") And it includes the most celebrated performance of Rollins's career, "Blue 7." Several essays have been written about this performance, most notably by Gunther Schuller in The Jazz Review. "I didn't really understand what I was doing until I read Gunther Schuller," Rollins would remark later.

"It's really funny. I didn't know what I was doing. This thing about the thematic approach, I guess it's true, but I had never thought about it; I was just playing it. But I guess it could be analyzed and you could find some sort of theme developing all the way through, which is nice."

Rollins would continue on his way, leaving the analysis to others while he blazed new paths. The Tour de Force session was his last for Prestige. Another two-year cycle of intense recording followed, with the saxophonist preferring to spread his masterpieces among the Blue Note, Contemporary, and Riverside labels rather than signing another exclusive contract. Keepnews, his Riverside producer (and the producer of this collection), sees this as a first attempt to take control of his own career, rather than be at the mercy of contractual demands. Rollins would push the boundaries of what had quickly become hard bop convention further in this period with his use of various piano less rhythm sections, and with his first totally unaccompanied performances. Then, in 1959, he abruptly retired, and was out of sight until a critic came upon him practicing on the Williamsburg Bridge two years later. Upon his return in 1962, he was criticized from one direction for not radically altering his style, then put down from the opposite quarter when he reorganized his band to include former Ornette Coleman sidemen. After a few years he dropped out again, this time to find spiritual fulfillment in Japan and India.

Rollins has been a more constant presence since his return to active playing in 1972, and his performances of the past 20 years have received numerous accolades. His recent working bands cannot compare, however, with the units regularly assembled in the studios for Prestige; and too many of the standards and originals that served him so well on his early recordings now go unplayed. "Actually," he reports, "I still play most of the tunes from Saxophone Colossus, including 'Moritat,' when I'm in Japan, because that was the best-selling jazz saxophone album of all time in Japan, and the fans still want to hear it. And I do hope to play with some of my old friends again. Tommy Flanagan was on a recent album, Falling in Love with Jazz [Milestone 9179]- I'd like to play with Max again, too. We were going to do something, but had problems with the proposed venue. But I would like to play with Max and some of the others, while we're all still around."

One can only hope that such encounters come to pass, and lament that similar reunions did not occur while Blakey, Davis, Monk, and the other departed giants who assisted in the coming of age of Sonny Rollins were still among us. They are all present here on this audio Bildungsroman [generally, something such as a novel dealing with one person's formative years or spiritual education], this document of one musical pilgrim's progress from promise to lasting mastery.” 

As you would imagine, it was almost impossible to select an audio track from the bounty of riches that is the boxed collection Sonny Rollins-The Prestige Years, but in the end we had to go with Sonny's Pent-Up House because it features Brownie on trumpet along with Richie Powell on piano, George Morrow on bass and Max Roach on drums.




© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


“In less than five years from his debut with Miles Davis, Coltrane moved from virtual obscurity to acclaim as the tenor saxophone innovator of the decade. With his own quartet, he became a hero of the free jazz movement, although he had relatively little in common with other figures in the move­ment. By 1965 he had become a cult idol.”
- Doug Ramsey, Jazz author, critic and blogger

''… [John Coltrane] was a very good musician. But he was young; he hadn't perfected his style. That began when he was with Miles Davis. With Miles, it was obvious that he had gone deep into applying harmonies over standard chord changes. He became a master at superimposing secondary dominants over standard songs and his own compositions. He developed a sound that was original and personal, and an approach to rhythmical improvisation that I had never heard before. He introduced innovations in harmony, melody, rhythm, form and sound that influenced a lot of people.”
- Yusef Lateef, Jazz saxophonist

"I can't explain anything,” he said. "It's all in the music. Come to the club and hear the music." 

It's all in the music.

- John Coltrane to Doug Ramsey

It’s a banner day whenever the editorial staff at JazzProfiles has the opportunity to present more of the writings of Doug Ramsey on the blog.

For over fifty years, Doug has produced some of the most insightful and well-written work on the music and its makers in the canon of Jazz literature.

Not surprisingly, then, when we looked for information on John Coltrane’s formative years before he achieved iconic status in the 1960s, we found it all in the introduction that Doug wrote for the CD boxed-set entitled John Coltrane: The Prestige Recordings.

We asked Doug for his permission to represent that essay here and he graciously offered his consent as did Nick Phillips who is the Vice President, Catalog and Jazz AR for Concord Music Group, the current owner of the Prestige copyrights.


You can find a link to his site, as well as, links for ordering copies of John Coltrane: The Prestige Recordings through Concord and Amazon at the conclusion of this feature.


© -Doug Ramsey/Concord Records; used with permission, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“John Coltrane: In The Fifties”

John Coltrane died at the age of 40 on July 17, 1967. A month or so later, Julian "Cannonball" Adderley was my guest on a radio pro­gram. Asked to re­flect on his saxo­phone partner in the Miles Davis sextet of the late 1950s, Adderley said that it might be too soon to try to talk about Coltrane, but that he would try. Hear­ing his reply on tape is still an emotional experience. A man known for his vol­ubility finds himself unable to speak.

"We were very close. I learned more from him than from anybody." Julian's voice trails away as he finishes the sentence. He can be heard swallowing hard as he blinks, looks away, and says, almost inaudibly as his voice breaks, "That's it, that's all," and waves me off.

That is not all, of course. There was no further opportunity to take up the question with Cannonball. But what he learned from Coltrane can be heard in Adderley's playing from the time when they worked with Davis to the end of his life.

Cannonball's music was enriched and strengthened. The Coltrane component of his playing can be heard forming as early as July 1958 in Davis's Newport Jazz Festival recordings on Columbia, blos­soming six months later in radio broadcasts recently issued on the French label Jazz Band Records, and full blown in the Sixties on pieces like "Nippon Soul" on Riverside and "Fun" from his Mercy, Mercy album on Capitol.

Adderley's study of Coltrane gave him greater complexity and daring, but Cannonball remained Cannonball. His control of his mature style was firm. Other saxophonists, veterans and novices alike, were submerged, overwhelmed, their musical personalities subsumed by the most pervasive saxo­phone influence since Charlie Parker. A generation of tenor saxophonists was held captive by Coltrane's power, the force of his ideas, his departures from the strict guidelines of Parker's bebop, his sheer virtuosi­ty. When, in the mid-1970s, a young tenor player named Scott Hamilton emerged in the tradition of Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster, he was viewed as an anomaly, a product of the Coltrane era who had somehow escaped or ignored the Coltrane imperative.

This compilation contains virtually everything John Coltrane recorded as a leader or sideman for Prestige (and its New Jazz subsidiary) from May 7, 1956 to December 26, 1958, a period encompassed by his membership in the Miles Davis quintet and sextet. In a field notable for early and rapid growth of musicians, it is all but impossible to find docu­mentation of another career to match the pace and intensity of his artistic development during those 32 months.

Only his recordings with the Davis band are not included here. They are all to be found in Miles Davis: Chronicle, the complete Prestige recordings of that artist from 1951 to 1956 (PCD-012-2).


John Coltrane was born in 1926 in Hamlet, North Carolina, a town of 4,500 in the south of the state. He grew up in High Point, a small city 75 miles to the north. His father, a tailor, played violin, clarinet, and ukulele and taught John the essentials of music. At 12, the boy was playing clarinet in school and learned the E-flat horn. When the family moved to Philadelphia in 1944, he had been playing alto saxophone for about three years. He studied at the Ornstein School of Music and the Granoff Studios in Philadelphia. During his stint in the ser­vice in 1945 and 1946, he was in a Navy band in Hawaii.

Before he was 21, Coltrane was on alto in bands headed by King Kolax and Joe Webb. He adapted to the tenor saxophone to work with alto player and blues singer Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson in 1947 and 1948. Later, he used alto or tenor as needed in bands led by Jimmy Heath, Howard McGhee, Earl Bostic, Dizzy Gillespie, and a handful of barely remembered rhythm and blues outfits. Coltrane’s first recording was in the saxophone section of Gillespie's big band in 1949, on alto, for Capitol Records. His first commercially recorded solo, on tenor, was on Gillespie's "We Love to Boogie" on the Dee Gee label in 1951.

With Johnny Hodges in 1953 and 1954, and with Davis and Thelonious Monk from 1955 to 1960, Coltrane was exclusively on tenor. (The only excep­tion was when he picked up the alto for a 1958 Gene Ammons Prestige session, included in this col­lection.) In the early 1960s Coltrane added the soprano saxophone, inspiring a jazz resurgence of that instrument.

Yusef Lateef, an early admirer of Coltrane, remembers him first as "a humble human being, memorably so, because those moral fibers have tran­scendent being. He was a very gentle, kind person." Six years older than Coltrane, Lateef was with Dizzy Gillespie when he first heard the young saxophonist in 1948.


''He was a very good musician. But he was young; he hadn't perfected his style. That began when he was with Miles Davis. With Miles, it was obvious that he had gone deep into applying harmonies over standard chord changes. He became a master at superimposing secondary dominants over standard songs and his own compositions. He developed a sound that was original and personal, and an approach to rhythmical improvisation that I had never heard before. He introduced innovations in harmony, melody, rhythm, form and sound that influenced a lot of people.”

Lateef admires Coltrane unreservedly. He says that he finds value in the music from every period of Coltrane's odyssey, including the mystical search that he seemed to be on at the end of his life, when Miles Davis and other Coltrane admirers found his playing pointless and repetitious.

Andrew White, a WashingtonD.C. tenor saxo­phonist and musicologist, has for years run a Coltrane cottage industry. White has transcribed hundreds of Coltrane solos and published them in a ten-volume set, The Works of John Coltrane. The material is divided into four creative periods. Saxophonists and other musicians from all over the world seek out White's transcriptions and analyses of Coltrane's music as they work through the chal­lenges set by his recorded solos. "After all," says James Moody, one of White's customers, "the best way to find out what somebody's doing is to look and see how they do it. And when the changes are coming every two beats, what musicians now call 'Coltrane changes,' you have to study them. You can't wing it."

Moody, an established star five years before Coltrane's name was generally known, first heard Coltrane before the Miles Davis period and says Trane was playing like Sonny Stitt and Dexter Gordon. "It was hipper than that," Moody says, "but that was the sound. He was already exploring new avenues of chord changes. I heard him in Cleveland playing alto saxophone with a bandleader name Gay Crosse, and I said, 'damn, who was that cat?' Trane was smokin'. He had another kind of drive. He sounded different from Charlie Parker and Dexter and everybody. Then, later when he got into what they called sheets of sound, he gave us all a hell of a saxophone lesson to work on for a long time to come."

The "sheets of sound" aspect of Coltrane's play­ing was alluded to by Ira Gitler in the liner notes for Traneing In in 1957, when he enthusiastically wrote of the "... excruciatingly exhilarating intensity of rapid, exigent runs with their residual harmonic impact/' Later, Gitler actually applied the phrase to Trane's solos in discussing "Russian Lullaby" from the 1958 Soultrane album.

Not all critics were as admiring as Gitler. John S. Wilson of The New York Times wrote that Coltrane "often plays his tenor sax as if he were determined to blow it apart, but his desperate attacks almost invariably lead nowhere." Philip Larkin, the British poet, traditional jazz enthusiast, and cranky detrac­tor of modern jazz, wrote upon Coltrane's death, "If he was boring, he was enormously boring. If he was ugly, he was massively ugly. To squeak and gibber for sixteen bars is nothing; Coltrane could do it for sixteen minutes, stunning the listener into a kind of hypnotic state__"

Possibly considering it praise, The New Yorker's Whitney Balliett wrote that Coltrane proved "that ugliness, like life, can be beautiful."


Some musicians came later than others to what James Moody calls the saxophone lesson. Bill Perkins, of whom Stan Getz once said, "Perk is play­ing more than any of us," was in the 1950s an admired and warmly individual musical offspring of Lester Young. His solos on the classic album, 2 Degrees East, 3 Degrees West are among the most lyri­cal tenor playing of the decade. In recent years, his work has had a harder edge, more dynamism, and a complex approach to harmony. Perkins credits the change to a firmer intellectual understanding of the achievements not only of Coltrane, but of Sonny Rollins and Charlie Parker. His remarks are interest­ing for their insight into the change Coltrane's example worked on a successful veteran musician.

"It's just in the last ten years that John Coltrane has had a tremendous effect on my thinking about music," Perkins told me in early 1991. "Before that, I enjoyed his music peripherally and had great respect for him from the time I first heard him live."

That was in 1956, when the Davis quintet played Jazz City on Sunset Boulevard and Western Avenue in Los Angeles. Perkins said the in-person impact of Coltrane's playing was enormous, as, ultimately, was his example of diligence.

"It felt like he was struggling. His phrases were short and chopped, whereas Miles was smooth and flowing, melodically. He was like an engine that was sputtering. But he would get some things off that were utterly remarkable. It came out in bursts. I kept listening. A couple of years later, he had made it all come together.

"The experience was punctuated by the fact that I spoke to him in the back room of the club that night. I was impressed with what a gentleman he was and how helpful he was to me about mouth­pieces and reeds, the usual saxophonist talk. He was studying out of Nicolas Slonimsky's* book, a the­saurus of scales. I looked at it and it didn't mean anything to me. Even today, I go to lesser books on scales because Slonimsky requires tremendous perse­verance. It's strictly dry mathematics. John went through it and found scales he liked, maybe one out of a hundred that would work for him. He did a lot of study. He was a serious man.

[*Born in Russia in 1894, Slonimsky was active at the Eastman School and later in Massachusetts and California; composer, conductor, teacher, author of deeply difficult theoretical works on music.]

"Slonimsky was on the Tonight Show a couple of years ago, by the way, and said Coltrane had made him famous. People all over the world bought his book on the basis of Coltrane's use of it. Slonimsky said his real intention was to do a mathematical run-through of every possible scale. But he was being self-deprecating; he's a great humorist."

I suggested that many people have accused Coltrane of doing a mathematical run-through of every possible scale. No, Perkins said. Emphatically, no.

"Personally, I get tremendous poetry out of his playing. He had a direction. It was so formidable, so powerful that you feel it today in his music, 20 and 30 years later. I have to say that it's only in the last four or five years that I've been able to grasp the harmonic content of what he was doing. Until then, I hadn't even gotten into scales developing out of chords. That approach frees you. Now, it makes total sense to me and, obviously, to a whole genera­tion of younger players. I try not to imitate; it's too late for me to do that because the influences are all in place. But his sound on the tenor saxophone was so powerful, it's had its effect."


Shortly after Coltrane died, the Assembly, the lower house of the California legislature, unani­mously approved a resolution honoring a man it called "a musical genius," certainly a popular char­acterization of Coltrane. It is not, however, necessar­ily an accurate description or the most fitting trib­ute. In a stimulating 1978 essay that accompanied an earlier reissue of some of the recordings in this compendium, Andrew White took a clear-eyed approach to the proposition that Coltrane was a genius. Writing from the perspective of his exhaus­tive Coltrane scholarship, White implied that to assume that Coltrane's achievements were the spon­taneous products of genius (or, in some circles, of divinity) is to downgrade or ignore the diligence that made his innovations possible. It is a much greater recognition of the man, White suggested, to acknowledge him as "a very diligent and studious player"... “an extremely gifted player who matched his talent with equal amounts of hard work and of self-indulgence."

James Moody and many other musicians recall stories of friends who visited the Coltrane home to find Trane practicing. His typical greeting procedure was to point out the refrigerator and the bathroom and return to his labors with the saxophone, leaving the visitor to entertain himself. In Miles, his autobi­ography, Miles Davis tells of Coltrane often playing three sets in a club, then practicing in his hotel room for three hours while the other band members were out winding down from the night's work.

Davis had wrestled with his drug addiction and won. But his great 1950s quintet was populated with sidemen strung out on heroin. Paul Chambers, Philly Joe Jones, and Coltrane caused him continual concern because of the laxity, bizarre behavior, and heavy indebtedness brought about by their addic­tion. He fired Coltrane in 1956 for problems caused by drug and alcohol abuse and sent him home to Philadelphia to pull himself together. A couple of months later, Trane was back, playing beautifully but often nodding off on the stand. In 1957, Davis again fired Coltrane, along with Philly Joe.

Having been dismissed by his leader because of the undependability that grew out of his narcotics addiction, there were two momentous events in Coltrane's life, one a redemption, the other an epiphany. Shocked by the firing and disgusted with himself, he stayed at his mother's house in Philadelphia and painfully kicked the drug habit, cold turkey. (Davis did Coltrane three great favors. He hired him, he fired him, and he gave him his first soprano saxophone.)

About shedding his addiction, Coltrane told Ralph J. Gleason in 1961: "I went through a person­al crisis, you know, and I came out of it. I felt so for­tunate to have come through it successfully, that all I wanted to do, if I could, would be to play music that would make people happy. That's basically all I want to do. But so many other things come in along the way and I often forget that. I let technical things surround me so often that I kind of lose sight. I can't keep them both together, you know. Maybe, if I think of it more, I may be able to find a way, a path to follow...."

Then came the epiphany that put him on the path. Trane began a six-month association with Thelonious Monk.


The conventional wisdom is that during their long engagement at the Five Spot Cafe in New York, Monk brought out in Coltrane the qualities that took him from accomplishment to greatness. There is little reason to doubt the conventional wisdom. The gift, the dedication, the hard work and study, the searching that had the qualities of a mythic quest; all of it coalesced that summer. In the heat of this compressed development, suddenly those sec­ondary dominants Yusef Lateef talks about began to be applied with great complexity in longer and longer solos, played with increasing confidence.

Monk fed Coltrane’s capacity for vertical impro­visation, for exploring all of the possibilities in a chord, for organized flows of notes so crowded it seemed incredible that they were coming from one instrument. Indeed, one note at a time wasn't enough for Coltrane, and he said that Monk was the one who showed him how to make two or three at once, a feature technically known as multiphonics that he used increasingly in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Otherwise, Coltrane was sketchy in his description of what he gained from Monk, except for his celebrated paean in a Down Beat interview in 1960:

"Working with Monk brought me close to a musical architect of the highest order. I felt I learned from him in every way—through the senses, theo­retically, technically. I would talk to Monk about musical problems and he would sit at the piano and show me the answers by playing them. I could watch him play and find out the things I wanted to know. Also, I could see a lot of things I didn't know at the time."

From at least the time he joined Miles Davis in 1955, Coltrane was a player of extraordinary con­centration and intensity. After Monk, the intensity took on a Monkish aspect that had as much to do with improvising on themes as with using harmonic changes. That approach was some of what Coltrane absorbed during his half-year with Monk. It was a method that would meld into the improvisation on modes and scales that Davis was to perfect in his sextet from 1958 through 1960 and that was to have so profound an impact on Coltrane. But in early 1958, Coltrane's primary legacy from the Monk rela­tionship seemed to have been assurance. All but swaggering, he moves through songs, at any tempo, with none of the frustration and groping sensed in some of his early solos with the Davis quintet.

As for those long solos, objects of criticism and even derision, Coltrane had ambivalent feelings about them. He told Ralph Gleason, "...if I'm going to take an hour to say something I can say in ten minutes, maybe I'd better say it in ten minutes then have another horn there and get something else.... I wanted to expand myself musically because I've been soloing for years, and that's about all, and I feel a need to learn more about the production of music and expression and how to do things musi­cally. I could really go on just playing like I am now, I mean I enjoy it, playing that long. It does me a lot of good to play until I don't feel like playing any more, though I've found out I don't say that much more."


Friends and musical contemporaries inevitably remember Coltrane for his warmth and gentleness, his musical gift, and his hard work and study even through periods of ill health and destructive habits. Others heard or read into his music things that made him a symbol of their yearnings. The Vietnam war and the black struggle in American were at their most intense during the years immediately preced­ing and following the death of Coltrane.

The legend of Coltrane created since 1967 exists alongside his music as if on a separate plane. It is of a divinely inspired mystic with an appropriately mystical name, Ohnedaruth, who ultimately tran­scended music to deliver to the world a spiritual message of love and salvation. In the late 1960s and early 70s, I saw in the pads of youngsters in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury and the French Quarter of New Orleans shrines with the centerpiece a print of the cover photograph from Coltrane's album A Love Supreme. Coltrane became a convenient object of the search for heroes, for martyrs. In San Francisco in the early 1980s, the One Mind Temple Evolutionary Church of Christ distributed to schools loaves of bread bearing Coltrane's picture. It was called the daily bread. The church's leader said his congregation saw Coltrane as "the will of God, the incarnation truth."

In light of the comfort thus gained, it may be of no real importance beyond the satisfaction of accu­racy that (except for his very real religious convic­tion toward the end of his life) during his 12 years of living fame all that Coltrane said he aspired to was to be the best musician he could become. He told Ralph Gleason in that 1961 interview that when it came to opinions on virtually anything, he inevitably took a middle position, usually saying nothing. He told Ralph that all of his conviction and aggressiveness was expressed in his playing.

Coltrane's solos had grandeur, passion, frenzy, conviction, fervor, inner peace. People seize upon such attributes in art and transmute them into emo­tional and intellectual capital that they can spend to satisfy their own needs. It is a tribute to the power of music and a commentary on the human condi­tion that after Coltrane died he became the metaphoric representative of a range of concerns rooted in politics, class and ethnic aspirations, longings for faith, searches for ideologies.

The legend created disciples. Many of them were saxophonists who chose as their entry point in music the arena of freedom from the conventions of harmony, rhythm, and form in which Coltrane was searching during his final years. Lacking their idol's encyclopedic musical knowledge, his work ethic, his capacity for painstaking study and practice, they thrashed about in imitation of the playing of his free period. Some worked through the engulfing influence of Coltrane to develop individual means of expression. Others continue to flail.


For all of his innovations, his speed and tech­nique, his harmonic and rhythmic mastery, in the final analysis the most gripping aspect of Coltrane's playing was its vocal quality, its incredibly human sound. Most laymen who love Coltrane's playing wouldn't know a secondary dominant from a rim shot; his music pulls at them because it speaks to them. During the period of searching and growth represented by the recordings in this collection, he sustained an effusion of humanity and warmth. By December 1958, when his Prestige connection ended ("Time After Time" was the ultimate Prestige track), the "sheets of sound" phase was coming up. There are hints of its development in places in these recordings: strongly in "Little Melonae," as an example, and, most emphatically, in "Lover.”

In his remarkable blues solo on "By the Numbers” Coltrane both affirms his roots and announces a new direction, making harmonic leaps more daring than anything he attempted on either take of the August 1957 blues variously titled "Slowtrane" and "Trane's Slo Blues.” By the time of "Bahia," in late 1958, he was running out of patience with the standard song form as a vehicle for improvisation. His energies were increasingly directed into modal and scalar channels that would lead him to some of the most expansive and, ulti­mately, mysterious creative expression in all of jazz. "Bahia" and "Goldsboro Express" present Coltrane still working within the song form, and he practical­ly explodes it. In the ballads of the period, he caress­es the melodies and embellishes the chords as if preparing to bid them a reluctant farewell.

In an interview on Swedish radio shortly before he left Miles Davis for the last time, Coltrane was asked about charges by critics that his music was "unbeautiful" and angry. "Do you feel angry?" the interviewer asked.

"No, I don't," Coltrane replied. "Maybe it sounds angry because I'm trying so many things at one time. I haven't sorted them out. I have a whole bag of things I'm trying to work through and get the one essential. There are some set things that I know, some harmonic devices that will take me out of the ordinary path if I use them. But I'm not familiar enough with them yet to take the one single line through them. So I play all of them, trying to accli­mate my ear so I can hear.

"Tonewise, I would like to be able to produce a more beautiful sound, but now I'm primarily inter­ested in trying to work what I know down into a more lyrical line —That's what I mean by beauti­ful... so that it can be more easily understood."

Coltrane was asked how the association with Davis had influenced his style. His answer was typi­cally generous.

"It has led me into most of the things I'm doing now. I've been so free here, that almost anything I want to try, I'm welcome to do it. The freedom has helped me to experiment."

A couple of stories about Miles and Coltrane on the stand apply to the freedom principle. On one occasion, irritated by the long bombardment of a tenor solo, Davis asked Coltrane why he went on at such length.

"It took that long to get it all in," said Coltrane, an answer that satisfied Miles. Another time, anoth­er marathon solo, another Davis question about duration, another Coltrane answer: "Sometimes, I just don't seem to be able to stop."

"You might try taking the horn out of your mouth," Davis said, apparently good-naturedly; with Miles, you're never quite sure.


Coltrane's idioms and innovations of the 1950s now flow as a primary current of the mainstream of music. Even casual listeners can respond to the incandescence and human feeling in his work. But in pieces like "Black Pearls" and 'The Believer" there are strings of sixteenth notes, complete with sec­ondary dominants, ripped off with such precision and passion that it is not difficult to understand why Coltrane's music seemed forbidding to laymen first hearing it, let alone to other saxophonists. There had never been anything like it.

Finally, of course, looking for what he described in his final years as a "universal sound," Coltrane set aside the standard song in favor of approaches that freed him from the strictures of traditional forms. In light of the bursting force and rushing ideas to be heard here, it was probably inevitable that he would have to work outside the song form. But it was the very struggle against containment by the pieces he played that resulted in the tension that contributes so greatly to the attraction of the work of his middle period. Even in the supreme relaxation of a ballad like "I See Your Face Before Me," there is a certain impatience and sense of urgency as he begins to rummage through the chords for possibilities.

In less than five years from his debut with Miles Davis, Coltrane moved from virtual obscurity to acclaim as the tenor saxophone innovator of the decade. With his own quartet, he became a hero of the free jazz movement, although he had relatively little in common with other figures in the move­ment. By 1965 he had become a cult idol. Following the coherence and spiritual peak of his 1964 album A Love Supreme, he moved deeper into personal and musical mysticism. His performances began to be dominated by percussion. He took up chanting.

His great quartet with McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones, and Jimmy Garrison dissolved. Coltrane was often surrounded by sidemen who were not qualified to be in his company. His music had virtually become pure energy. For the most part, it was impenetrable. Nonetheless, he was still capable of focusing. As late as February of 1967, in a duo album of free music with the drummer Rashied Ali, his playing had astounding clarity and power, and the lyricism he mentioned in the interview in Sweden.

When the last of the sessions in the album at hand were recorded, Coltrane had ascended to a level of artistic development attained by few musi­cians. He had rejoined Davis in that incredible sex­tet with Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones. The influence of the concept made real in the Kind of Blue album was to set Coltrane on a course that took him to "Giant Steps," "My Favorite Things," "A Love Supreme," and the search for further revelation that he was on when he died.

To those who worship Trane as a burning prophet, I commend his playing of the second half of the 1950s for its humor and humanity; to the instrumentalists who think that music started with Coltrane and that Coltrane started with freedom, for its discipline; and to listeners in search of agony, for its lyricism and beauty.

In 1962, I asked John Coltrane for an interview. He declined.

"I can't explain anything,” he said. "It's all in the music. Come to the club and hear the music." 

It's all in the music.

- Doug Ramsey

Doug Ramsey is a longtime annotator, reviewer, and observer of the jazz scene. He is the author of Jazz Matters: Reflections on the Music and Some of Its Makers (University of Arkansas Press; 1989). This book also includes Doug's Coltrane/Prestige essay. More recently, Doug authored TAKE FIVE: The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond [Seattle: Parkside, 2005].

Doug’s blog can be located at http://www.rifftides.com/

Here’s the link to the Amazon page for ordering the Coltrane/Prestige set:  http://www.amazon.com/The-Prestige-Recordings-John-Coltrane/dp/B000000ZC3/.


And you’ll find the Coltrane/Prestige set on the Concord Music Group site via this link: http://www.concordmusicgroup.com/albums/The-Prestige-Recordings/.