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“He called me up and asked if I would join his band. I was very interested in trying to get the things I was playing in the public's eye, but I was having too much trouble with the business, so I hadn't been out in clubs for a long time. I thought I'd better go out and see what's going on. When I went to the Vanguard. Max Gordon called me over and said, "Somebody just canceled — could you bring in a band?" And that's the only thing that stopped me from joining Coltrane.
In the early Sixties he was studying with me. He was interested in non chordal playing, and I had cut my teeth on that stuff, he later sent me a letter which included thirty dollars for each lesson, and thanked me. (That influence) showed up very clearly because all of a sudden a guy who had been playing very "legitimately" started playing strictly from his own spiritual and emotional state without worrying about his past, Had he lived, Trane would probably have legitimized that concept. I thought he had a beautiful tone. I thought it was very humane.”
- Ornette Coleman
“For me, Coltrane's astounding emotional power comes from his sound, that chillingly personal cry that's his identity, … It's not a warm or a friendly sound; it's simply a fact that carries with it an indifference to acceptability. To me Coltrane has always sounded lonely, a three A.M. blue wail that gives succor and sympathy to those in trouble.
There's passion in everything he played, even the hundreds of blowing sessions he tossed off to remind us what it means to be alive. You feel his rawness, his lack of equivocation, his honesty.
Coltrane was a natural. He also worked extremely hard at cultivating his talent. He didn't "do" anything in a Hollywood sense: His life reflects an almost monastic dedication to learning and to advancing, both as a musician and as a person.”
- Pete Watrous, Jazz author and critic
"When there's something you don't understand, you have to go humbly to it. You don't go to school and sit down and say, 'I know what you're getting ready to teach me,' You sit there and you learn. You open your mind. You absorb, but you have to be quiet, you have to be still.”
- John Coltrane
In the 50+ years since his death in 1967 at the ridiculously young age of 41, John Coltrane has assumed a God-like status in some areas of American culture.
This is no figurative expression as for many years I lived near the corner of Turk and Baker Streets in San Francisco and on my morning walks along Turk, I would pass - literally - The Saint John William Coltrane African Orthodox Church!
Knowing what a humble person John was during his lifetime, I wonder what he would have made of all of this liturgical or public worship, but given his gentle soul, I would imagine that anything which brought more joy, peace and comfort into peoples’ lives was all right with him, irrespective of the name of the adoration under which it happens.
Compiled and written in 1987 before much of the hagiographic build-up surrounding John had launched, it is one of the best short pieces about Coltrane that I’ve ever read, especially so not only because of Pete Watrous’ masterful insights and observations about John and his music, but also because he took the time to conduct and populate his essay with interviews about ‘Trane with musicians who knew him well and/or worked with him including, Sonny Rollins, Jimmy Heath, Ornette Coleman, Reggie Workman, Tommy Flanagan, Art Taylor, Wayne Shorter, McCoy Tyner, Greg Osby, Marty Erhlich, and David Bowie.
The following appeared in the July 1987 edition of The Jazz Musician under the title of John Coltrane: A Love Supreme.
“John Coltrane died in 1967, twenty years ago this summer. America had seen the rise and assassination of Malcolm A and was about to experience Martin Luther Ring's death. It was more than just dancing in the streets; there was a riot going on, perhaps the greatest urban turmoil in the country's history. The arts were in upheaval, too: The Beatles were finishing Sgt. Pepper's and reshaping notions of pop; the Grand Union, a New York school of dance including Twyla Tharp and Merce Cunningham, were using improvisation and random motion; junk and pop art were replacing the established abstract expressionists. There was a rupture with the past going on, in other words, and John Coltrane, who'd started out as a saxophonist deep in the jazz traditions, was one of its leaders.
In a sense he is the archetypal sixties artist, the man who reshaped the iconography of the jazz genius from the brilliant burnout of Charlie Parker — a fifties beat idea — to that of the abstaining saint, paradoxically meditative and angry, Eastern and American. He became the paradigm of the searching artist. Though it can be argued that Collrane helped end jazz's mass popularity with his expressionistic, visceral approach to music, his own appeal and influence were immense, reaching beyond the confines of jazz or even music. And after two subsequent decades of often jarring cultural and political cynicism, his trademarks of honesty, forthrightness, and an overwhelming desire to change, to do things that haven't been done before, seem more than just appealing — they seem necessary.
For me, Coltrane's astounding emotional power comes from his sound, that chillingly personal cry that's his identity, the one note that can be heard from his fumbling, early recordings with Dizzy Gillespie to the last dates five months before he died, It's not a warm or a friendly sound; it's simply a fact that carries with it an indifference to acceptability. To me Coltrane has always sounded lonely, a three A.M. blue wail that gives succor and sympathy to those in trouble. There's passion in everything he played, even the hundreds of blowing sessions he tossed off to remind us what it means to be alive. You feel his rawness, his lack of equivocation, his honesty.
Coltrane was a natural. He also worked extremely hard at cultivating his talent. He didn't "do" anything in a Hollywood sense: His life reflects an almost monastic dedication to learning and to advancing, both as a musician and as a person. The son of a tailor and grandchild of two ministers (his mother's father, also a state senator, was known for fire-and-brimstone sermons) grew up in High Point, North Carolina, in what passed for the black aristocracy. In school he played alto sax in Reverend Steele's Community Band. By the time he graduated from high school in 1943, he already exhibited the sort of aloofness that made him seem mysterious — actually, he was shy — and he was known as the musician in High Point.
In 1944 Coltrane moved to Philadelphia and began his fanatical practice routine, from ten to twelve hours a day. Following a navy stint, he joined an R&B band led by Joe Webb and featuring the great blues shouter Big Maybelle, then twenty-two, who loved Coltrane's tone. He went to California as part of Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson's group, where he met and played with his idol, Charlie Parker. Vinson wanted Coltrane as a tenor player, not an altoist; the change of instruments allowed him to move away from Parker's influence. "On tenor," said Coltrane, "I found there was no one man whose ideas were so dominant. I listened to almost all the good tenor men, beginning with Lester, and believe me, I've picked up something from all of them, including several who haven't recorded."
I first heard him in a band with Kenny Clarke. I remember very well. John and Kenny, it was fantastic. And I recall thinking that John was a puzzle. I could never figure out how he arrived at, how he came up with, what he played. It was one of the things that made him unique. I never got a better fix on it through the years. Like any genius, it's hard to get a handle on how they come up with their ideas.
His influence was very pervasive. But I don't think it's necessarily bad to have influences. It's inevitable. Any guy who's that much into music is bound to be listening heavily to someone before him, like I did with Coleman Hawkins. The individuality will come out if it's there. It depends whether or not the individual player can transcend the influence. To play what we call modern music, you need some antecedents.
Although he had a sense of humor, he was quite serious most of the time. Almost like a guy who would be a minister, especially about music. You realized you were in the presence of someone who held the sacred in high regard. His humor wasn't about cracking jokes or anything like that, he was more droll or wry.
I remember when I heard the news of his death. I was working somewhere and I took some people back to Brooklyn. In those days we wouldn't get out of the clubs until four in the morning. By the time I got back home it was light out. I was listening to WOR and there was a quote from Elvin [Jones] to the effect that John never hurt anybody. It was a shock; I had just talked to him two weeks earlier. We were always close.
Postwar Philadelphia was musically fertile; clubs were everywhere, and since the city was on the black tour circuit, local people were often picked up by big-name groups. "Philadelphia was a mecca for bebop," says saxophonist Jimmy Heath, a soft-spoken man who was one of Coltrane's best friends.
"There was a lot of jamming going on; everybody was trying to learn. It was a family type of affair." That year Miles Davis blew into town; having recorded with Charlie Parker's group, he wasn't quite a star but his style was already well-known.
"I heard Trane in Philadelphia," says Miles Davis. "When he picked up the tenor, his eyes were on Dexter and Sonny Stilt. I used to have him and Sonny Rollins in the same band, and Art Blakey That was a baad band. I
had, goddamn! So he started working with me. I got him and Philly Joe. And Paul Chambers. He was playing, you know, like Dexter, kicking out different long phrases. I loved when he would do that, when he would imitate, like Eddie Davis. It was so funny."
Heroin was endemic to the jazz community of the time; it was cheap, and the long-term effects of addiction hadn't yet become obvious. Coltrane, twenty-two, was fitting in. "There were a lot of guys that were messed up on drugs," says Sonny Rollins, "but I never looked at John in that way. He was never that type of guy. It's incongruous. But I guess it happened, and at times he was messed up. It was out of character." To support himself, Coltrane would play R&B dates around the city, walking the bar and honking, "We all had to walk the bar," says Heath. "That was the fad of the time. People would throw money in the bell of your horn. John could adapt to it, but that isn't his forte, there was too much repetition, the 'Flying Home' type solos." One night Benny Golson entered a club just as Coltrane was stalking the bar. Embarrassed, Coltrane jumped off the bar, walked out the door, and never came back.
Nineteen fifty-five, when Charlie Parker died, was also the year Miles Davis put together his first famous quintet, with Philly Joe Jones, Paul Chambers, Red Garland, and Coltrane. John had been working a two-week stint with organist Jimmy Smith, who asked him to join when Philly Joe called him to make a date with Miles. The same week, Coltrane married Naima Grubbs, alter whom he would name two songs. She was both traditionally religious (a Muslim) and into astrology, interests Coltrane himself would pursue for the rest of his life.
The Miles Davis group of 1955 set the course for jazz over the next five years. The two horn players, though rooted in bop, took idiosyncratic approaches to its language, Miles by distilling the essence of a phrase into a few notes, Coltrane by cramming bushels of them into a small harmonic space. His early playing with Miles seems slightly out of control; snatches of undigested Dexter Gordon and Sonny Stitt float by and Coltrane's lines come at you in all directions, sputtering one moment, graceful the next. But he has the "it" Jack Kcrouac wrote about: the sound, the excitement and unpredictability of blowing, the way he puts together notes, the way he's thinking about what phrase makes sense next to what phrase. Mark him, Miles would say to Coltrane's critics, as someone who is finding his own way.
He was starting to record frequently: a Davis date in late 1955 (New Miles Davis Quintet), with Elmo Hope for Prestige in 1956, and the Tenor Madness date with Sonny Rollins, a legendary matchup of the up-and-coming tenorists.
The session, their only recorded meeting, came about by accident. "John went out to the date with us," says Sonny Rollins with characteristic offhandedness, "because in those days a lot of musicians hung out together. There were more friendships; people would be immersed in music twenty-four hours a day. You'd be over at somebody's house listening to records for days at a time. John was either with Red Garland or Philly Joe Jones, I believe. Money wouldn't have entered it. John had asked me right after that period to make another record together. Much to my regret, we never did."
Much was made about tensions between the two top young tenor saxophonists of the time. Rollins, who considered Coltrane one of his closest friends, never saw it that way. "It was hard to be competitive with John, because he was bigger than that, his playing and his person. We were competitive in musical terms, sure, to a degree. I think all guys are judged by who's around you. But I don't think he spent a lot of time trying to consciously compete with other people."
By 1956, Coltrane's drug and drinking problems had worsened; he was looking bad onstage and using up all his money. In St. Louis, Paul Chambers and Coltrane cheeked out of their hotel via the window. Miles disbanded the group. "He was no trouble," says Miles, "but when he was there he used to say [in a hurt tone|, 'You never talk to us.' Well, 'You never sober up enough for me to talk to you.' "
Back in New York, Coltrane was still drinking heavily and playing badly, and bassist Reggie Workman confronted him about it. He went off the bottle, but after three days his thought patterns had screwed up and he couldn't speak properly. He stayed in his house for about two weeks, prayed a lot, then woke up one day without the urge for a drink. “The person who gets all the credit for helping him to clean up is Naima," says Workman. "She's the one who stayed with him through everything and helped him clear his life."
Nineteen fifty-seven was the turning point in Coltrane's odyssey, a watershed that only an extremely disciplined person could effect. He set up schedules for studying, practicing, listening to other players. He had a dream, the second actually, in which Charlie Parker came to him (in the first, Parker had told him to give up alto) and suggested he "keep on those progressions 'cause that's the right thing to do."
Prestige Records, not known for its largesse to musicians, offered Coltrane a contract in March 1957, and he began to record regularly (at least thirteen dates in '57 alone, including Dakar, his first as a leader). Critics, who for the most part hadn't liked what Coltrane was playing, soon realized he'd achieved a profound mastery of his instrument, that he was crossing musical frontiers. He came in second in the New Star category in Down Beat, recorded the well-received Blue Train, and, most importantly joined Monk for his legendary gig at the Five Spot in New York, which drew audiences beyond jazz circles, including painters Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning; the latter called Coltrane "an Einstein of music."
The difference from his tentative solos with Miles the year before is astonishing. A marvel of technique, he started experimenting with different ways to approach the same chords. On Blue Train he played hot and fast, a sort of hyper-bopper, draping the changes with waves of notes. By now he'd shed his influences and was deep into harmony, superimposing chord on chord, creating a sheen critic Ira Gitler would name "sheets of sound." He was working on multiphonics, which he'd learned from saxophonist John Glenn and from Monk. Intrigued by harp music, he would check the paper for Marx Brothers movies, and persistently asked Naima to lake up the instrument.
Coltrane rejoined Miles at the end of the year; the group now featured Bill Evans on piano, Cannonball Adderley on alto and a book that used modes as a way to simplify harmonic movement. It was completely antithetical to what Coltrane was working on at the time — the superimposition of chords, dense harmonic webs — yet he fit in perfectly, using the harmonic spaces to experiment with all the chord substitutions he was thinking about. Miles places Coltrane's development: "I said, Trane, you can play these chords against the tonic of another chord,' and he was the only one who could do it. Lucky Thompson, maybe. Plus, when I did Milestones, with Bill Evans, I wrote out these little things for Trane, these little things within a mode, to see what he could do on them. It was always a challenge for him. The chords I showed him were just like dominant chords against dominant chords, a minor, diminished and half step... he could play that in one chord and the trick is, not the trick, but to play them so you can hear the sound of the chord you're playing against. It's always a challenge if you're up in the air, because you're tired of the suspended diminished chord after everything. It's like not having an orgasm, but holding it in."
By late 1958 Coltrane had become a big enough star to leave Prestige and ask for a thousand-dollar advance per album. Not only was he playing with Miles Davis, which was placing him in front of audiences beyond jazz fans, he was becoming a figure of controversy, acknowledged to be doing something different.
Coltrane's own commitment had gotten to the point where he'd take the saxophone to the dinner table with him, fall asleep in bed with the reed in his mouth. He'd practice until he couldn't play anymore, sometimes for twenty-four hours straight. One result was Giant Steps, recorded in May 1959, an album that seemed to put an end at the time to the possibilities of chord changes. The title composition sounds like the sort of complicated exercise music students write for themselves to help master chordal playing. Coltrane sounds mechanical; the tune reinforces his occasional rhythmic stiffness. Still, the record is rightly considered a masterpiece. Partly it's the writing — listen to the stunning forthrightness of "Cousin Mary" — and partly Coltrane's assertive, startling playing.
"I was living on 101st and Coltrane was on 103rd Street," pianist Tommy Flanagan recalls. "He came by my apartment with this piece, 'Giant Steps.' I guess he thought there was something different about it, because he sat down and played the changes. He said, 'It's no problem. I know you can do it, Maestro' — which is what he called me. 'If I can play this, you can.' There was no problem just looking at the changes. But I didn't realize he was going to play it at that tempo. There was no time to shed on it [“shed” is from “woodshed,” music speak for practice], there was no melody; it was just a set of chords, like we usually get. So we ran it down and we had maybe one lake, because he played marvelous on everything, he was ready. As he said later on, the whole date was tunes he wanted to get out of his system. He was using that sequence in the bridge."
I thought it ["Body and Soul"] went down very smooth. "Giant Steps" was Just a part of three songs he was to use called Suite Sioux. One was based on "Cherokee." it was one of the ones we really didn't get, it posed too much of a problem. It was still at that tempo, and it was supposed to go from "Giant Steps" to "Suite Sioux," to "Countdown," which I think was faster yet. Paul (Chambers! had no solo on those pieces, but just keeping up with the sequence of the chords was hard, they were going down fast.
I had no idea (how influential the date would become. A date with Trane, you knew it was going to be important. It seemed like years later people started saying, "What was it like?" It was like any other date to me. It was a date.”
"We had rehearsed al my mother's house in Harlem," says Arthur Taylor, the drummer on the session. "He wanted to rehearse with me before the date. So he brought his horn. We just ran over the pieces for about half an hour or so, and he left.
"I don't put that much importance on the record myself. I've done better records than that with Coltrane. It still remains a heck of a document, people all around the world look to that, and musicians also; that's the thing. I don't like the sound of it. John was very serious, like a magician too. He was serious and we just got down to the business at hand."
Ironically, Giant Steps ended Coltrane's dense approach to harmony. Kind of Blue, Miles Davis's masterpiece of modality, was recorded at the same time, with Coltrane playing an integral part. Coltrane absorbed a lot of knowledge through mentors — Miles and Monk are just two examples. By late 1959, he was talking with Sun Ra about recording together. Soon after that he began to play the soprano saxophone.
He'd increased his reading to include books on art, music theory, African history, physics, math, anthropology. His record collection had music from Africa, Afghanistan, Russia, France, early England, Greece, American Indians, India, Arabia and all types of black American music. "He was into Indian music and into African music, and different social groups," says McCoy Tyner, the pianist who charted the idiosyncratic harmonic sound of the classic Coltrane quartet of the sixties. "On 'Dahomey Dance' from Ole he had a record of these guys who were from Dahomey, which is why he used two bassists. He showed that rhythm to Art Davis and Reggie Workman. So the influence was there."
By 1960 it was time to leave Miles Davis's group and head out on his own. A live recording from March of that year, done in Europe during Coltrane's last tour with Davis, finds him straitjacketed by Jimmy Cobb's drumming. His intensely detailed, whirling lines seem to be seeking the more mutable, interactive drumming he'd find with Elvin Jones, and a less rigid context for improvisation. On "Green Dolphin Street" he reduces the tune to nothing, unleashing torrents of notes that obliterate the changes.
Giant Steps was well received, and after returning from the European tour, Coltrane gave Miles two weeks' notice. The owners of the Five Spot (the club that had presented Monk and Coltrane three years earlier) now ran a club called the Jazz Gallery; they offered him a twenty-week engagement, which shows their appraisal of his drawing power. Collrane put his first quartet together for the gig: drummer Pete La Rocca, Steve Kuhn on piano, and Philadelphia bassist Steve Davis. The first set of the first night, during a Coltrane solo, a bald man dressed in a loincloth ran up to the stage yelling "Coltrane, Coltrane," followed by Monk. Though Coltrane left after nine weeks, the stay was hugely successful, with Ravi Shankar, Cecil Taylor and others coming by to listen. Coltrane quickly fired Kuhn and La Rocca, replacing them with McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones (whom Coltrane had wanted anyway). In a few months Steve Davis was replaced by Reggie Workman, who later gave way to Jimmy Garrison, and the quartet found its sound for the next four years.
“He invited me to his house after we met and said he wanted to get together with me because we were playing ... not the same way, but in the same areas of the horn. He said, "You 're playing some funny stuff." He wanted to sit down and talk about it. He was playing the piano mostly, I think it was the beginning of "Giant Steps," those augmented thirds over and over. He'd get his horn and play two notes for a long time. Then two others, then two others. We also talked about doing impossible things with your instrument, he also talked about starting a sentence in the middle, and then going to the beginning and the end of it at the same time.
George Tucker, the bassist, would come by, Cedar Walton too. Freddie Hubbard. John would ask me to spend the night. That happened more than once. He'd cook food. Then he came to Jersey to my parents' house, on Thanksgiving. He'd talk with Albert Ayler, he liked him. He wanted to check out what was going on with the scene. not just tenor, flute and other things; I think that’s why he grabbed that bagpipe toward the end. It was all-encompassing. Charlie Parker was realizing that before he died too.
From 1955 on, he had a sense of urgency. Like he couldn't get everything he wanted out. I think Trane knew something about his health, even if he couldn't pin it down.
I think one of John’s legacies is that any melody has a flexibility beyond what it initially seems. Nothing is frozen. He said that everything can be opened up but it's a lot of work. There are people who say you've got to do "Nature Boy" just the way it is. And the "Star Spangled banner." Hey, you can really take the "Star Spangled Banner" out!”
Coltrane ran his groups like Miles Davis had his, without interfering. They rehearsed a total of six or seven times during McCoy Tyner's entire tenure. "He was a great leader," says Tyner. "Never self-imposing. I loved working for him. He was more like a brother. I had a chance to develop. Just playing and listening to him every night and creating something underneath him and creating our own thing when it came time, was quite challenging for a young guy.
"Never did he say how to play piano. He was just not that kind of person. He picked people he didn't have to do that with. Which I thought was very, very smart."
My Favorite Things, his next release for Atlantic, brought Coltrane his widest recognition. Here he embraced the modality he'd learned with Miles Davis, but turned the stark impressionism of Miles's approach into extroverted intensity; his novel treatment of the title track laid the groundwork for the next five years, until the radically different Ascension. Completely unlike anything Coltrane, Davis, or anybody had done. Things still swings in a loose, open way. Harmonic vistas open, Coltrane sounds relaxed, his soprano sax wafting over the pliant background — the fury and impatience of his playing with Miles has been assuaged by a group whose rhythmic liberties match his own.
Just how empathetic the group became is spelled out by Tyner, who remembers one night in the early sixties when Miles tried to sit in at Birdland. "There wasn't any room. He didn't quite work. We were very special. It was very difficult for anybody to walk up and come into the band."
“People still romanticize that stereotype of a strung-out musician not in control of his life. Coltrane was one of the first to rise above, he studied, he implemented new ideas, his business was together. That's why he represents, to me, somebody in control of his destiny.
I heard him when I was still listening to funk, I guess it was around 1974. I hadn't been playing for more than two years, but I was listening to Coltrane, playing my funk licks on top of "Giant Steps." I didn't know what he was doing or any harmonies, or any of his musical logic, but I could enjoy it; I know it was "bad," and one day I wanted to get with that.
That's what jazz is about; you're supposed to be versatile, derive from other sources, I mean alien sources. I hear some players today who are so conservative they could be on [the late President] Reagan’s staff.”
“He was a train that pulled a lot with him. He tried, in every place, to show people what he really saw. And he wasn't afraid to take young players and lead them. Many players have been unwilling to do that. A lot of people put fashion between them. And of course the spiritual connotation and properties of music; no one talked about those things before he came around. That was a big influence for Albert Ayler and many other people of the day. At home I listen to "Dear Lord" or A Love Supreme, Africa Brass, Om, Ascension: those are the ones I often return to.”
Once, with Miles, when Coltrane explained he didn't know how to stop soloing, Davis suggested that he take the saxophone out of his mouth. Now his tunes were getting longer — between an hour or two in live performance. Nonetheless, My Favorite Things went gold — almost unheard of in jazz — and Newsweek covered Coltrane's weeklong stay in July at the Village Vanguard. Eric Dolphy joined the group that summer and they recorded Africa Brass for Impulse, a gorgeous, agitated big-band album arranged by Dolphy and Tyner.
Coltrane's next record, Live at the Village Vanguard, featured "Chasin' The Trane," a long blues named by engineer Rudy Van Gelder (who had a tough time tracking Coltrane's horn for the recording) that caused outrage among critics and listeners, inciting a double review, pro and con, in Down Beat. "Chain' the Trane" is one of the magnificent recordings of jazz. It begins with a simple opening melody and gradually, maintaining the same level of emotionality, grows more complex. Collrane starts blowing harmonics, raising the ante; McCoy Tyner keeps out of the way, and especially stunning is the way Coltrane and Elvin Jones reinvent straight-ahead 4/4 swing, turning the tune into a tumultuous event.
"He was very much a man of conviction," notes Art Davis, one of Coltrane's favorite bassists, "even though a lot of people said a lot of very bad, hurtful things about him. He'd say, 'That's their opinion,' rather than cursing someone out or saying, 'If I see that motherfucker, I'm going to beat the shit out of him.' "
Coltrane had six years to live from the time he made Africa Brass. He recorded an astounding twenty-five albums in that time (not counting the alternate takes and snippets that began to surface alter his death); their overall quality virtually unparalleled. After Live at the Village Vanguard came a series of albums that look his oceanic modalism to its limits. Impressions (the title track is based on the minimal harmony of Miles Davis's "So What") and Coltrane led into three dates which were suggested by Impulse: Ballads, Duke Ellington and John Coltrane and John Coltrane with Johnny Hartman.
Bob Thiele, Coltrane's producer, pretty much gave him the keys to the studio, to the point of risking his job. "To the best of my recollection, Coltrane had a contract that called for two albums a year. Well, hell, we recorded six albums a year. And I was always brought on the carpet because they couldn't understand why I was spending the money. Most of the critics and the various music magazines were putting Coltrane down. And there's one time I did suggest to him, 'Why don't we just go in and show these guys.' I suggested we do an album of popular songs, which became Ballads, a beautiful album, and he loved it. And that started to turn the critics around."
By 1962 and 1963, the radical edge was beginning to show in records and American society. Civil rights leader Medgar Evers was murdered in his garage; in Birmingham, Alabama, four girls were killed when a black church was bombed. Bob Dylan released "The Times They Are a Changin' " as the folk movement was aligning itself with the political New Left. Coltrane recorded what may be his most overtly political composition, "Alabama," in memory of the children killed in the church bombing, and based on the cadences of Martin Luther King's speech about the tragedy.
Politics were integral to being black and a jazz musician — they were integral to the time. Acquaintances could read various meanings into Coltrane's character because he was shy, or political connotations into his music because he rarely clarified himself. These assumptions often have to do with what part of Coltrane's life people knew him from, though they also underscore how Coltrane was accepted by different generations. "He was not involved in politics," says Milt Jackson, who was with Coltrane in Dizzy Gillespie's group and appeared on Coltrane's first Atlantic album. "I can't draw any parallels between the social times of the Sixties and John's playing," says Sonny Rollins, "though it may be relevant to somebody that grew up in the Sixties and heard Coltrane in the Sixties, and was into whatever movements were going on at the time."
Rashied Ali, who worked with Coltrane from 1965 to the end, sees it differently. "The younger people embraced the music; the older Coltrane fans, the people who dug the Coltrane from Miles Davis and Coltrane from the early Sixties, they sort of stepped back because they couldn't get with the change. But the connection was there. He wrote songs like 'Reverend King' and 'Alabama'; that whole movement affected everybody. It affected his thinking and his thoughts about what was happening, and the music started gelling rougher and tougher. Coltrane wasn't the type of person to speak out about it. Bill he was playing and writing music about it. And he admired people like King and Malcolm X. He kept up with things."
In an interview with writer Frank Kofsky, Coltrane put it like this: "In my opinion, I would say yes [that jazz is opposed to the United States' involvement in Vietnam) because jazz to me ... is an expression of higher ideals. So therefore brotherhood is there; and I believe with brotherhood, there would be no poverty. And also, with brotherhood, there would be no war."
“Besides his incredible popularity and meaning to people who listen to jazz and black culture in general, he also commanded the attention of many people who didn't listen to jazz. It's interesting because he wasn't a commercial artist in the sense of someone reaching across boundaries today; his was a very serious and at times difficult music. A lot of that had to do with the times. His music certainly reflected the energy of the Sixties. I've found an interesting parallel between him and Bela Bartok: people who didn't listen to contemporary music often listened to Bartok. Both were innovative, expanded the language of their idiom, but at the same time used traditional folk materials a lot in their music. Radical conservatives. They grabbed you intellectually and emotionally in a way that not much music achieves. A Love Supreme was a gold record; it's very hard to think of a record of that intensity being a gold record. But people wanted a bit more seriousness in music during that time. In that sense he was an example of what a committed musical artist could be.
I like all his stuff. At the end of his life, like on Expression, you can hear new areas of time along with very beautiful harmonic motion. Consistent, definitely; maybe a little bit obsessive. We hear the long solos and we're used to shorter forms these days.
He could've stopped at any point, like in the late Fifties, and still had a career as one of the top saxophonists. But he didn't. Playing in the same language for many years allows you great conviction, but it's harder when you're trying to find new things, because how do you ever know? You can’t be sure. That made his music so intense. You could feel that musical and personal discovery. His music was really about what you should do in your own music, not just keep playing A Love Supreme.”
The issues that Malcolm X talked about "are definitely important," Erlich went on. "And as I said, the issues are part of what is at the time. So naturally, as musicians, we express whatever is. Well, I tell you for myself, I make a conscious attempt; I think I can truthfully say that I make, or I have tried to make a conscious attempt to change what I've found, in music. In other words, I've tried to say, 'Well, this could be better, in my opinion, so I will try to do this to make it better.' We must make an effort. It's the same socially, musically, politically, and in any department of our lives."
In fact, Coltrane's main extra musical stimulation came not from politics but from religion. Deeply influenced by his family background, he maintained an interest in God all his life, exploring different religions, though never settling down and becoming part of one denomination. He was interested in astrology as well; the titles of some of his compositions—"Psalm," "Song of Praise," "Ascension," "Dear Lord," "Dearly Beloved," "Amen," "Attaining," "Ascent," "Cosmos," "Om," "The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost," "Compassion," "Love Consequences," "Serenity," "Meditations," "Leo," "Mars," "Venus," "Jupiter," "Saturn" — tell the story.
By 1963, Coltrane was becoming involved with younger musicians, who saw him as a father figure of the "New Thing": Archie Shepp (who was to play on a lost version of A Love Supreme a year later), George Braith, Albert and Don Ayler, Bill Dixon and others. He'd separated from Naima and taken up with Alice McLeod, whom he'd later marry. His interest in the spiritual continued unabated; A Love Supreme, released in December of 1964, included liner notes describing his religious awakening. The album won Down Beat’s Record of the Year award, Coltrane was voted jazzman of the year, elected to the Hall of Fame, and won first place on tenor saxophone. The hagiography was well underway.
For many, Coltrane was the mirror reflecting their dreams or virtues. Withdrawn, quiet, he exuded an air of serenity. His personal habits — rigorous practice, vegetarianism, dabbling in odd religions — fit the times, suggesting a sort of monk looking for salvation in art. He was completely honest in his dealings with people. "I liked him because he was a musician and a serious person," says Sonny Rollins, "almost a religious person. He had a nice unassuming quality to him. This to me was about as good as you can get in this life. As far as his personality goes, he had everything that I think was the best. He was looking for dignity. And respect as a human being. He didn't seem to be interested in self-aggrandizement. He was very young and he was just trying to get out all that music." His effect on younger musicians was more direct. "To be honest," remembers Rashied Ali, "Coltrane changed my whole concept of playing music. He made me want to play a freer, more searching type of music. I started broadening my scope of listening; it was like a refreshing breeze.
"He was kinda cool because he would he so shy," says Ali, who got to know the less formidable Coltrane. "Because he was such a great artist, people never really found out how the man was. They would say to me, 'Should I speak to him?' and they'd stand there dumbfounded, not knowing what to say. They'd ask me, 'Will you say something to him?' and I'd say, 'Why don't you go over there yourself?' All they had to do was say 'Hello,' because the guy was ready to talk, he was just a real down-home, country-type guy. Loved to laugh, loved sweet potato pie, collard greens, stuff like that. He was really what you would call a soul brother, he didn't have any weird stuff about him. He was an all right cat, the type of a person you can really call a friend."
DAVID BOWIE (ALTO SAX)
“I think he undoubtedly was an influence on my wanting to play music, not ever considering that I could ever approach that kind of playing. Just for perversity's sake, I particularly used to like Eric Dolphy and Roland Kirk. When you're young, it's like one-upmanship. So many kids really liked John Coltrane, of the guys I knew who liked Jazz, that I had to push myself into "Well, who else is around that I can identify with?" [laughs] I guess Kirk really ran away with it in the end, especially during that period when he was with Mingus. But obviously Coltrane was absolutely superlative. I can't say anything of any weight about him that I'm sure half a dozen other people wouldn't say better.
He would do things for people. So many musicians were damn near living off Trane. Guys would just call him up and say, "I'm not working" or "I'm broke" or "I need this, I need that, "and he'd send them a money order. He paid people's rent for them, anything he could do. He wasn't stupid, but he was definitely there if you needed him. He was just like a regular person who liked to laugh a lot.”
Coltrane broke through to another level with Ascension, a large group date recorded in 1965 that essentially did away with regular pulsed meter and signaled Coltrane's interest in both density and musical simplicity. Unlike Giant Steps, the people on the date knew it was a momentous musical occasion. "When he said that it was very important," remember Art Davis, "I didn't doubt him. I didn't know what direction he was going. When I saw these people — I knew some of them, and others I didn't know— I knew ... something's important here. When I heard it, that was convincing."
A month later, in September, Coltrane added Pharoah Sanders to his group, and along with Donald Garret, he recorded Om under the influence of LSD). Two weeks later came Kulu Se Mama, and on the next date Meditations. With the addition of Rashied All on drums, Coltrane continued the forward motion he'd begun with Ascension. This ever-ballooning ensemble caused problems, however; conflict between Rashied Ali and Elvin Jones pushed the
volume up and up. Then Jones left, as did McCoy Tyner, replaced by pianist/harpist Alice Coltrane.
"At the beginning we were doing the tunes Trane was famous for, 'My Favorite Things,' 'Impressions,' " says Ali. "After a while he started writing new music for the band, and that's when I started playing drums in the band alone. It was a whole different change in the music; very spiritual, and sometimes very harsh on the listeners who had been into Trane previously. Because his whole style changed."
"I really thought it was a bit too much sometimes," remembers Tyner. "I really did. I couldn't hear what I was doing. I'd look around and about five saxes would be onstage. Where did these guys come from? Norman Simmons, who was working opposite us with Carmen McRae, said to me, 'Man, that F sharp's the sharpest note up there, really out of tune, horrible.' And I said 'Really? I can't hear it.' I could not hear my instrument. So I said, 'Well, it's time for me to exit.' "
In February and March 1967, Coltrane went into the studio for the last times. The result was Expression, yet another new direction. Spare, mostly calm and rhythmless, it sounds as if Coltrane had reached a level of contentment. The music displays neither the exploratory fervor of his earlier Sixties works nor the technique of his music of the late Fifties. With Expression and Interstellar Space (a duet with Ali), Coltrane had reached, through enormous self-discipline and dedication, his last plateau. In July 1967 he died of liver cancer.
It's extraordinary for anybody to have attempted this kind of odyssey, from junky bebopper to Sixties experimentalist and cultural icon. It's also extraordinary that he even mattered: A less musical person would have been bogged down by the programmatics of his art. But he did matter, and the question remains: What does he mean lo us now?
One of the unfortunate things that happened to Coltrane's music in the seventies was the assimilation of his style into the mainstream. All pianists played like McCoy Tyner, all saxophonists worked Coltrane's pentatonic flurries, and they all helped reduce his music's potency. The effects he'd used to elicit certain emotional responses were out of place; in the America of Gerald Ford, where complacency was the rule, Coltrane's sounds were out of context. But his time is coming around again; at a time when the New Acquisitiveness is showing its bankruptcy, John Coltrane's music sounds real, functional again. The beautiful fury has walls to crush.”
What we can glean from Coltrane is his steadfast dedication to learning and personal dignity. He absorbed knowledge so he could change, so he could eradicate the cliched and stale. His honesty lets us know it's possible to keep going; his music can be heard as inspiration. In his dedication to ideas we can imagine our own capacities. It's an old jazz virtue, but it applies.
"When there's something you don't understand, you have to go humbly to it," Coltrane once said. "You don't go to school and sit down and say, 'I know what you're getting ready to teach me,' You sit there and you learn. You open your mind. You absorb, but you have to be quiet, you have to be still."