© - Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
Lewis Porter’s John Coltrane: His Life and Music [Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998] is considered by many in Jazz circles to be the definitive study of ‘Trane and his music.
The editorial staff at JazzProfiles is diligently at work preparing a long treatment on the work that will post to the blog in its entirety at a later date.
In the meantime, I thought I’d share with you some segments and/or excerpts from the book that I found to be of particular interest.
Chapter 10 - The Turning Point: Miles and Monk
“The period from the time Coltrane joined Miles Davis in late September 1955 through the end of 1957 was critical. This was his shot at the big time, and the beginning of his fame—and notoriety—as a soloist. But his drug problem was holding him back, and he finally had to make the commitment once and for all to try and beat it.
Davis had been working with Sonny Rollins, but Rollins had decided to take a year off from performing to rid himself of his own heroin habit. In early September, Davis had tried out John Gilmore, an innovative tenorist known for his work with Sun Ra, at a Philadelphia club, but he wasn't quite what Davis wanted. "And then," said Davis, "Philly Joe brought up Coltrane." They brought Coltrane to New York for several days of rehearsals—probably in early September—but he and Davis didn't quite click, musically or personally. Coltrane returned to Philadelphia to work with Jimmy Smith.1 But Davis already had gigs lined up as result of his success at Newport that July, and he and Philly Joe persuaded Coltrane to join. Davis said, "We practically had to beg him to come join the band," but he thinks Coltrane was playing hard to get (Miles, 195). (John got Odean Pope to take over with Smith at Spider Kelly's.) Coltrane joined the band at the Club Las Vegas in Baltimore, for a gig beginning Tuesday, September 27, 1955; Naima came down on the weekend. Soon, Davis recalled, "As a group, on and off stage, we hit it off together. . . . And faster than I could have imagined, the music that we were playing together was just unbelievable." He hadn't been sure about Coltrane, "But after we started playing together for a while, I knew that this guy was a bad motherfucker who was just the voice I needed on tenor to set off my voice. . . . The group I had with Coltrane made me and him a legend."
That's not to say that there was no controversy. Coltrane was only a few months younger than Davis, but whereas Davis had been recording since 1945 and had been featured with all the jazz greats, Coltrane was unknown to the public. So to the world at large, Davis was an established artist who had discovered this young talent Coltrane. Partly for this reason, that he was seemingly some young kid without strong credentials, Coltrane was an easy target for critics.
For example, Nat Hentoff, reviewing the first LP released by the group, delighted that Davis was in "wonderfully cohesive form," but criticized Coltrane for sounding too much like his influences, Gordon, Stitt, and perhaps Rollins, showing a "general lack of individuality."-'' An English critic named Edgar Jackson was guarded in his praise. Writing that Davis "can be a most exciting player at almost any tempo," he continues: "One can say much the same about John Coltrane—except that he will try to say too much at once, thereby tending to befog his meaning and lessen his impact." But Coltrane already had supporters as well. Bob Dawbarn, reviewing the Prestige LP Relaxin, wrote that "Coltrane and Garland are two of the most underrated musicians in jazz and Coltrane in particular plays magnificently throughout. I particularly like his lyrical solos on '[You're My] Everything' and aggressive swooping on '[I Could Write a) Book.'"'
Sy Johnson, composer and pianist, remembers that when the Davis quintet first came to Los Angeles to play at Jazz City early in 1956, "Nobody knew what to expect. It literally blew everybody out of the water. It destroyed West Coast jazz overnight. I had to convince people to listen to Coltrane. They would say, 'When that tenor player plays I just tune him out and listen to the bass player.' . . . One problem was that everybody [was sure| the tenor player was going to be Sonny Rollins." Johnson recalls that one night at Jazz City, Stan Getz sat in—a great musician whom Coltrane respected. He says that Davis had to order Coltrane not to leave the bandstand when Getz came on; Coltrane didn't want to get into a cutting session against the great Getz. But Getz was a little out of practice—having had recent drug problems—"and he had a tough time playing with that rhythm section, so Trane just mopped him up." People were impressed "to see Trane rise to the occasion and cut Stan," and this may have changed a few minds in favor of Coltrane.
"I got to know the entire band during those weeks," recalls Johnson. "Coltrane was very strung out (on drugs] but was quite willing to talk about his musical problems. He couldn't get the horn to work the way he wanted to—he was aware that he was not doing what he wanted to. Nevertheless, there were a few of us who got an immediate positive reaction to Trane. He wasn't the greatest tenor player I ever heard, but what he was doing was good and interesting and worked well with the band." Johnson also says Coltrane was glad to meet somebody who appreciated him.
At first Coltrane was apparently unsure what Davis wanted. Davis admitted in his autobiography that even at the first rehearsals, in September 1955, he
had been hard on Coltrane: "Trane liked to ask all these motherfucking questions back then about what he should or shouldn't play. Man, fuck that shit; to me he was a professional musician and I have always wanted whoever played with me to find their own place in the music. So my silence and evil looks probably turned him off."
Coltrane explained how that felt from his point of view: "Miles is a strange guy: he doesn't talk much and he rarely discusses music. You always have the impression that he's in a bad mood, and that what concerns others doesn't interest him or move him. It's very difficult, under these conditions, to know exactly what to do, and maybe that's the reason I just ended up doing what I wanted. . . . Miles's reactions are completely unpredictable: he'll play with us for a few measures, then—you never know when—he'll leave us on our own. And if you ask him something about music, you never know how he's going to take it. You always have to listen carefully to stay in the same mood as he!" (Postif).
In 1961, when a French critic asked Coltrane if he had played so far out because Davis told him to—thinking that "the public liked novelty"-"Coltrane stifled a silent laugh: 'Miles? Tell me something? That's a good one! No, Miles never told me anything of the sort. I always played exactly how I wanted.'"
Coltrane, always his own worst critic, had mixed feelings about his performance in the group. He was delighted to be with the group, saying in "Coltrane on Coltrane," "I always felt I wanted to play with Miles. He really put me to work." He was challenged in a positive way, but he wasn't quite pleased with himself: "I began trying to add to what I was playing because of Miles's group, Being there, I just couldn't be satisfied any longer with what I was doing. The standards were so high, and I felt that I wasn't really contributing like I should." And he also seemed regretful of time lost: "All the things I started to do in 1955, when I went with him, were some of the things I felt 1 should have done in "47-'48" ("Coltrane on Coltrane").
Later, in a little-known 1961 interview with Kitty Grime published in the English magazine Jazz News, he was downright self-critical: "When I first joined Miles in 1955 I had a lot to learn. I felt I was lacking in general musicianship. I had all kinds of technical problems—for example, I didn't have the right mouthpiece—and I hadn't the necessary harmonic understanding. I am quite ashamed of those early records I made with Miles. Why he picked me, I don't know. Maybe he saw something in my playing that he hoped would grow. I had this desire, which I think we all have, to be as original as I could, and as honest as I could be. But there were so many musical conclusions I hadn't arrived at, that I felt inadequate. All this was naturally frustrating in those days, and it came through in the music."
At this time, Davis was finishing out a commitment with Prestige Records and beginning what was to be a career-building relationship with Columbia …”
To be continued ….