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.
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
and Amazon at the conclusion of this
© -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
to the end of his life. Davis
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
Only his recordings with the
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). Davis
John Coltrane was born in 1926 in Hamlet,
, a town of 4,500 in the south of the
state. He grew up in North Carolina , 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 High Point 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 Philadelphia . 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
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." Washington, D.C.
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
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
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
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
quintet played Davis on Sunset Boulevard and Jazz City Western Avenue in . Perkins said the in-person impact of
Coltrane's playing was enormous, as, ultimately, was his example of diligence. Los Angeles
"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.
in 1894, Slonimsky was active at the Russia and later in Eastman School and Massachusetts ; composer, conductor, teacher, author of
deeply difficult theoretical works on music.] California
"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
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
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.
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
and painfully kicked the drug habit, cold
turkey. ( Philadelphia did Coltrane three great favors. He hired
him, he fired him, and he gave him his first soprano saxophone.) Davis
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
, 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. New York
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
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. Davis
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
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." San Francisco
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
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
had influenced his style. His answer was typically
"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,
asked Coltrane why he went on at such
"It took that long to get it all in," said Coltrane, an answer that satisfied Miles. Another time, another marathon solo, another
question about duration, another Coltrane
answer: "Sometimes, I just don't seem to be able to stop." Davis
"You might try taking the horn out of your mouth,"
said, apparently good-naturedly; with
Miles, you're never quite sure. Davis
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
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
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. Davis
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
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 [ : Parkside, 2005]. Seattle
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/.