Sunday, September 23, 2007

John Coltrane: An Appreciation

As a very grown-up 18 year old (or so I thought), I traveled to New York City alone for the first time during my senior year in high school. Some 40 years later, I vaguely recall getting off a Trailways bus at the Port Authority Terminal and walking out into the teaming throngs on 42nd Street. I lunched on a freshly sliced roast beef sandwich at an Irish pub near Madison Square Garden and washed it down with my inaugural English ale. I dropped some pocket change in the open guitar case of the first street musician I'd ever encountered. I took the subway uptown to Columbia University, where I (futilely) hoped to attend college, walked across the campus green to Low Memorial Library and later window shopped along Broadway.

But what I most clearly remember was gazing in the window of a hole-in-the-wall record store a few doors from the West End restaurant and seeing John Coltrane's "My Favorite Things" album staring back at me. I went inside and asked to see a copy.

This rookie didn't know Coltrane from Colbert (as in Claudette, not Steve), but I was taken by the image of an intense looking black man blowing a horn on the dust jacket. I figured that if the title track was a cover of the Rodgers and Hammerstein waltz from "The Sound of Music" and the flip side included George Gershwin's "Summertime," which I knew from "Porgy and Bess," then these were good enough reasons to pay four or five bucks (I don't remember exactly how much) to plunge into the great musical unknown.

Besides which, buying my first modern jazz album seemed like a very sophisticated thing to do for a young man on his own for the first time in the big city. I was cool.

* * * * *
We celebrate what would have been John Coltrane's 81st birthday today with the annual outpouring of tributes and remembrances. This is mine:
I had listened to classical music that moved me in emotional and intellectual ways I hardly understood, stuff like Beethoven's "Pastoral" and Dvorak's "From the New World," both part of a boxed set purchased at an old A&P supermarket with money from my newspaper route.

While I had a budding affinity for jazz, it ran toward the Great American Songbook singers, notably Ella Fitzgerald, and bandleaders like Dave Brubeck and Benny Goodman. I enjoyed their music, but these comparatively square bears didn't move me. When I returned home from New York and put "My Favorite Things" on the turntable of my dinky RCA hi fi, I was moved.

I didn't know that Coltrane was playing in a style called "sheets of sound," let alone that he was grasping something called a soprano saxophone in his massive hands in the dust jacket photo, an all but obsolete instrument that he had taken up because it was less painful for his diseased gums to play than his old standby and meal ticket, the tenor sax.

All I knew was that I was moved.

This white boy from suburbia had arrived at a lush musical oasis amidst a mid-1960s landscape dominated by the Beatles, Motown and the last gasps of California surfer music. There would be no turning back.
* * * * *
John Coltrane was born and raised in rural North Carolina when Jim Crow laws were still on the books. He is said to have begun playing the clarinet after the deaths of his father and two other members of his close-knit family.

He moved to Philadelphia in 1943 and was drafted into the Navy two years later, where he became interested in jazz and switched to alto sax. Charlie Parker was an early idol and he styled his playing after the bebop legend.

Coltrane’s first big break was with Dizzy Gillespie's big band in 1949, and after the band broke up he switched to tenor sax, which he played with bands led by Earl Bostic, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vincent and Johnny Hodges, among others.

In 1955, he got a call from trumpeter Miles Davis, whose career was on the rebound after years of being addicted to heroin. Despite the growth of his musical abilities, Coltrane soon became strung out himself, but received widespread notice in Miles’ so-called First Great Quintet for his harsh but free flowing playing.

Coltrane succeeded in kicking heroin in 1957 with help from pianist Thelonious Monk. He also experienced a spiritual epiphany, embracing Sufism and later other religions. He also began studying the violin and harp and Indian music, which in turn led him to what today is loosely called world music. He recorded his first solo albums and rejoined Miles in 1958, bringing to the now sextet that compressed “sheets of sound” style that characterized the middle phase of his too short career.

The year 1960 marked the beginning of Coltrane’s most prolific period and the formation of his so-called Classic Quartet with pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Steve Davis (later replaced by Jimmy Garrison) and drummer Elvin Jones. He recorded the seminal “Giant Steps,” the title track of which includes perhaps the most complex cord progressions he ever laid down, and then “My Favorite Things.”

Coltrane moved on stylistically, expanding his improvisations but leaving behind some of his fans and critics. In 1964, the Classic Quartet produced its most famous album, the deeply spiritual “A Love Supreme.”

In 1965, Coltrane moved into the final and phase of his career, embracing the avant-garde jazz influenced by Ornette Coleman and Sun Ra, and formed a second quartet that featured young and up and coming artists like Archie Shepp.

Some people claim that Coltrane began using LSD about this time, and there is indeed an acid-like transcendence to his music he played, much of it with new wife Alice (who died in January) on piano and Pharoah Sanders on tenor sax.

Coltrane succumbed to liver cancer at age 40 in 1967.

* * * * *
I never saw Coltrane play. Probably the closest I ever got to him was when I took my draft board physical a few blocks from the three-story brick row house on North 33rd Street in the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood of Philadelphia that he bought for $5,400 in 1952 and practiced and lived in until his death.

I have seen McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones, two of his three collaborators on "My Favorite Things," many times, and one of the highlights of the 35 or so years of live jazz that I've absorbed was hearing Tyner channel Coltrane in an all-Trane show which happened to fall on my birthday a few years back.
Then there's that ebony soprano sax in the dust jacket photo.

Although Coltrane is best remembered for his extraordinary tenor work, if you put an Indonesian gamelan to my head and threatened to beat it until you broke my eardrums if I didn't name my favorite artist and instrument, I would shout "Uncle! John Coltrane! Uncle! Soprano sax!"

And my favorite album?

"My Favorite Things."

Of course.
* * * * *
This is another in a series of musician appreciations. Previous appreciations include those on Jerry Garcia and Bob Marley.

3 comments:

LaPopessa said...

I learned to appreciate Coltrane (a little, I never knew enough to really appreciate jazz the way it should be appreciated) as a kid in my dad's house. His unbelievable record collection was the envy of the neighborhood, and he knew the ins/outs of just about anybody who played jazz.

Sadly for him, his daughter grew up to appreciate rock & roll and opera, but still doesn't quite get jazz.

Shaun Mullen said...

You don't have to get it. Only dig it.

Kvatch said...

And my favorite album?

"My Favorite Things."


Mine? "Giant Steps" I think.

Obviously, I never saw Coltrane (too young), but did have the fortune of seeing Miles Davis a couple of years before he passed away. Though at the time he was mostly doing fusion, so it wasn't at all like a performance one would have caught in the 50s.

On the other hand, I once lucked into a set by Terrance Blanchard and his quintet at a club in D.C., and since this was fairly early in his career, it was a very intimate setting--very much like I imagine it might have to see one of the greats play in their heyday.