Tuesday, February 4, 2020

John Coltrane – Supremely Loved and Loathed

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

"Tony Whyton has brilliantly revealed how it has become impossible to know
John Coltrane's A Love Supreme outside notions of race, spirituality, history,
authenticity, and nostalgia. For me, it's like hearing the music for the first
– Krin Gabbard, author of Hotter Than That: The Trumpet, Jazz, and
American Culture

"Smart and engaging, Whyton's study highlights the multiple and ever-changing interpretations of Coltrane's most famous recording. In the process, Beyond a Love Supreme serves as an important corrective to those efforts—however well-meaning—that might limit how we understand jazz and its people."
- David Ake, Jazz pianist and author of Jazz Cultures and Jazz Matters

In Mahayana Buddhism, which is practiced in many forms mainly in Southeast Asia, China and Japan, a Bodhisattva is an enlightened being who has gained entrance into Nirvana [an equivalent of “heaven”], but holds back [i.e.: stays in the world] to help others accomplish the steps necessary to attain it for themselves.

In doing so, the Bodhisattva makes the world a better place for all concerned by exemplifying the state of enlightenment which results from the devolution of the Self.

Although reasoning by analogy is full of pitfalls, one could say that for many Jazz fans, and especially, many tenor and soprano saxophonists, John Coltrane has been the Jazz equivalent of a Bodhisattva for almost a half century since his death in 1967.

Here, however, I must emphasize the word “many,” because there are those in the Jazz world who view John Coltrane as Mara, the Evil One; a sort of loose Buddhist equivalent of the devil.

Nat Hentoff, the distinguished Jazz author and critic explains it this way in his collection of essays entitled Jazz Is [New York: Limelight Editions, 1991]:

“Coltrane, a man of almost unbelievable gentleness made human to us lesser mortals by his very occasional rages. Col­trane, was an authentically spiritual man, but not innocent of car­nal imperatives. Or perhaps more accurately, a man, in his last years, especially but not exclusively consumed by affairs of the spirit. That is, having constructed a personal world view (or view of the cosmos) on a residue of Christianity and an infu­sion of Eastern meditative practices and concerns, Coltrane became a theosophist of jazz.

The music was a way of self-purgation so that he could learn more about himself to the end of making himself and his music part of the unity of all being. He truly believed this, and in this respect, as well as musically, he has been a powerful influence on many musicians since. He considered music to be a healing art, an "uplifting" art.

Yet through most of his most relatively short career (he died at forty), Coltrane divided jazz listeners, creating furiously negative reactions to his work among some. (‘Anti-Jazz’ was one of the epithets frequently cast at him in print.) He was hurt and somewhat bewildered by this reaction, but with monumental stubbornness went on exploring and creat­ing what to many seemed at first to be chaos—self-indulgent, long-winded noise. Some still think that's what it was.

Others believed Coltrane to be a prophet, a musical prophet, heralding an enormous expansion of what it might now be possible to say on an instrument.”

The line of demarcation for mainstream Jazz enthusiasts concerning their acceptance of Coltrane’s work seems to be the changes in his playing that coincided with the recordings he issued on the Impulse! label during the last half-dozen or so years of his career.

Prior to that time, Coltrane’s work on Prestige, Bethlehem and Blue Note, and especially his work as part of the Miles Davis Quintet and Sextet as recorded on Columbia, met with general approval, if not, occasional, outright admiration.

John was a tenor saxophonist who rankled those who preferred the likes of Coleman Hawkins, Chu Berry, Lester Young, Don Byas, Stan Getz and Sonny Rollins. They liked their Jazz soloist to have a melodic orientation and not the more harmonic one favored by Coltrane.  And then there was the matter of his sound – harsh, abrasive and grating – to his critics, not to mention the sheer number of notes that John played during his solos which prompted Jazz critic Ira Gitler to describe Coltrane’s style as “sheets of sound.”

In my recollection, one of John’s earliest Impulse! LP’s seemed to really set his critics off – A Love Supreme [CD# 05155-2]. Although Coltrane may have intended the recording to be a liturgical act of expression, his detractors had a field day with it. The recording provoked a storm of controversy that in many ways continues to this day.

At the time of its issuance in 1964, very few gave it the kind of acceptance and understanding contained in the following account from Richard Cook and Brian Morton’s The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.:

“The first records in Coltrane's career as a leader were the work of a man who had submerged himself in heroin and alcohol and who had mortgaged his physical health as a result. If, as super­stition and a measure of biological science suggest, people are transformed every seven years, then Coltrane is something like proof positive. Few spiritual breakthroughs have been so hard won, but he had also reinvented himself technically in that time, creating a body of music in which simplicity of materials gen­erates an almost absurd complexity of harmonic and expressive detail. This is quintessentially true of A Love Supreme. Its foun­dations seem almost childishly slight, and yet what one hears is a majestic outpouring of sound, couched in a language that is often brutally violent, replete with split notes, multiphonics and toneless breath noises.”

When A Love Supreme first appeared, the Jazz press, by and large, excoriated it and consigned its fate to some form of eternal damnation. [Does music have a Dante’s Inferno?]

Few realized at the time, that A Love Supreme, Ascension, First Meditations along with the remainder of Coltrane’s Impulse! output were to become a clarion call for future generations of young tenor saxophonists in much the same way that the work of Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young influenced the tenorists of the 1940’s and 1950’s.

To modern-day saxophonists such as the late, Michael Brecker, Bob Berg, Bill Evans, Larry Schneider and myriad others around the world, Coltrane became the musical equivalent of a Bodhisattva. John’s modal, scalar and harmonic patterns, lengthy, liberated and laboriously-drawn improvisations, and mastery of multi-rhythmic song structures were their keys to Jazz “enlightenment.” John “spoke" to them and they became his followers.

It seems that A Love Supreme would never cease to illicit strong feelings – pro and con [mostly con].

Thirty years later, while starring out at the night lights of San Francisco from my balcony, the husband of a work colleague that I was meeting for the first time at our flat for dinner asked me what I thought of Coltrane’s playing on it.

When I mentioned that I hadn’t listen to A Love Supreme recently, but that I was planning on purchasing a CD version of it in order to do so [the world had switched from analog to digital], he rushed off to collect something from his jacket which was hanging in the living room and was back in a flash saying: “Here, please take mine. I can’t stand the thing!”

Since Coltrane’s death in 1967, there have been many books written about him and his music. I’ve read a number of them and have especially enjoyed those by Lewis Porter, Eric Nisenson and Brian Priestly.

Each has offered me different angles of acceptance from which to view Coltrane’s music.

Recently, another such work has allowed me a more specific prism in which to understand the music on A Love Supreme.

Published in paperback on June 18, 2013, by the always-Jazz-friendly Oxford University Press, the book is entitled Beyond a Love Supreme: John Coltrane and the Legacy of an Album.

Authored by Tony Whyton, who is a Professor of Jazz and Musical Cultures at the University of Salford and the co-editor of the Jazz Research Journal, this “book takes us through Coltrane's creative process and examines A Love Supreme as a cultural artifact, leading us towards a deeper appreciate of jazz as a whole. As Whyton states, ‘Coltrane's music... continues to have currency today and provides people with a way of understanding the past as well as envisaging the future of jazz.’”

The Oxford University Press media release goes on to say:

“Commonly believed to be one of the greatest albums ever recorded, John Coltrane's A Love Supreme has had a lasting influence on our culture. Recorded in 1964, by the 1970s it had sold nearly a half a million copies, an almost unimaginable number for a jazz musician today. Coltrane's free jazz style has become the industry standard, and popular musicians of all genres, like rock star Bono and guitarist Santana, cite A Love Supreme as being an influence on their work.

In BEYOND A LOVE SUPREME: jazz professor Tony Whyton provides us with a fresh, detailed analysis of this legendary, almost mythic album. Whyton discusses the deeply spiritual aspects of the album, the album's most common interpretations, and compares Coltrane's later work to this masterpiece album. He also explains how A Love Supreme challenged many of the traditional assumptions that still permeate jazz culture, such as the oppositions between improvisation and composition, black music and white music, and live performances and studio recordings.”

And this annotation is from the book’s dust jacket:

“Recorded by his quartet in a single session in 1964, A Love Supreme is widely considered John Coltrane's magnum opus and one of the greatest jazz albums of all time. In Beyond A Love Supreme, Tony Whyton explores both the musical 111    complexities of A Love Supreme and the album's seminal importance in jazz ill   history. Marking Coltrane's transition from the bebop and hard bop of his earlier recordings to the free jazz style perfected throughout the rest of his career, the album also embodies the deep spirituality that characterized the final years of his life.

The titles of the four part suite—"Acknowledgment," "Resolution," "Pursuance," and "Psalm"—along with the poem Coltrane composed for inclusion in the liner notes, which he "recites" instrumentally in "Psalm," reflect the religious aspect of the album, a quality that contributes to its mystique and symbolic importance within the canon of major jazz recordings. But Whyton also shows how A Love Supreme challenges many of the traditional, unreflective assumptions that permeate jazz culture — the binary oppositions between improvisation and composition, black music and white music, live performance and studio recording.

He critically examines many of the mythologizing narratives about how the album was conceived and recorded and about what it signifies in terms of the trajectory of Coltrane's personal life. Sifting through the criticism of late Coltrane, Whyton suggests ways of listening to these recordings that go beyond the conventional ideologies of mainstream jazz practice and open the music to a wider range of responses.

Filled with fresh insights into one of the most influential recordings in jazz history, Beyond A Love Supreme is an indispensable resource for jazz scholars, jazz musicians, and fans and aficionados at all levels.”

Totaling a little over 150 pages, Professor’s Whyton’s book is a relatively quick read, but nonetheless, a thought-provoking one.

Not only does it afford a deeper, socio-cultural context in which to view Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, but it also represents another example of how Jazz is becoming more and more, what the late pianist, educator and broadcaster Dr. Billy Taylor and the late, writer and critic Grover Sales once described as “America’s Classical music.”

Put another way, Jazz has evolved to a point where it is researched, studied and reinterpreted almost as often as it is performed.

What better example can there be of this emerging phenomena than Professor’s Whyton reference to Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra’s 2004 concert of their version of A Love Supreme?

Jazz, the music of spontaneity, forty years after the recording of A Love Supreme, becomes music that is scored [written out], conducted and orchestrated in much the same manner that the music of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms became canonized in the years following their deaths.

It is so odd to think that a half-century ago, books on the subject of Jazz would barely fill a living room bookcase.

And now it seems there are so many of them that they may very well fill the entire floor of a good-sized research library.

Books like Professor Whyton’s Beyond A Love Supreme will become invaluable to future generations of Jazz fans who were not around to witness and listen to John Coltrane’s music as it was being created.

For those of us who were, Dr. Whyton's work can serve to pull-the-lens back a bit and give us a wider angle from which to appreciate all of John Coltrane’s music.

Beyond a Love Supreme: John Coltrane and the Legacy of an Album is available through online sellers and you can purchase it directly from Oxford University Press at www.oup.com./

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