Friday, September 23, 2016

John Coltrane: An Appreciation

(This 2006 post is the first of many I've written on jazz musicians
over the years. It has been edited only to update Trane's birthday.) 
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 50 years later, I vaguely recall getting off a Trailways bus at the Port Authority and walking out into the teeming throngs on 42nd Street.  I lunched on a freshly sliced roast beef sandwich at an Irish pup near Madison Square Garden and washed it down with my inaugural English ale.  I dropped some pocket change into the open guitar case of the first street musician I'd ever encountered before taking the subway uptown to Columbia University, where I (futiley) 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 from that day is gazing into the window of a hole-in-the-wall record store a few doors from the West End tavern of Beat Generation fame and seeing John Coltrane's My Favorite Things album beckoning me inside. 
This rookie didn't know Coltrane from Colbert (as in Claudette, not Steve), but I was taken by the image of the 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 and adored, 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 took the album out of its bag several times on the return trip, I'm sure as much as to try to impress my seatmates as to contemplate the man on the cover.  I was cool!

We celebrate today what would have been John Coltrane's 90th birthday with the usual outpouring of tributes and remembrances.  This is mine. 
I had listened to classic music that moved me in emotional and intellectual ways I hardly understood, stuff like Beethoven's Pastoral and Dvoak's From the New World, both part of a boxed set purchased at an A&P supermarket a couple of years earlier with the meager profits from my newspaper route. 
While I had a budding affinity for jazz, it ran toward the Great American Songbook singers, notably Ella Fitzgerald, whom my father adored, and bandleaders like Dave Brubeck and Benny Goodman. I enjoyed their music, but it didn't move me.  When I got home from New York and put My Favorite Things on the turntable of my dinky RCA hi-fi, I was moved. 
But I didn't have a clue about why 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 on the dust jacket photo, a then all but obsolete instrument that he had taken up in lieu of his meal ticket, the tenor saxophone, because it was less painful to play through his diseased gums. 
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 and Motown, both musical staples for my friends and I, and the last wave of Southern 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 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 saxophone.  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 that band broke up he switched to tenor sax, which he played in bands led by Earl Bostic, Eddie "Cleanhead" Vincent and Johnny Hodges, among others. 
In 1955, Coltrane got a call from trumpeter Miles Davis, whose career was on the rebound after years of being addicted to heroin.  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 the help of pianist Thelonious Monk.  He also experience a spiritual epiphany, embracing Sufism and later other religions.  He began studying the violin and harp and Indian music, which in turn led him to what today is loosely called world music.  He also recorded his first solo albums and rejoined Davis in 1958, bringing to Miles' sextet that "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.  They recorded the seminal Giant Steps, the title track of which includes perhaps the most complex chord progressions he ever laid down, and then went back into the studio and recorded My Favorite Things. 
Once of the most incredible aspects of Coltrane is that he never stopped exploring stylistically, and in the early 1960s, he expanded his improvisations but left behind some of his fans and critics.  In fact, Coltrane was a prime victim of Hostile Critic Syndrome. 
In 1964, the Classic Quartet produced its most famous album, the deeply spiritual A Love Supreme.  The following year Coltrane moved into the final 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 say that Coltrane began using LSD about this time, and there indeed is an acid-like transcendence to the music of this period, much of it with new wife Alice Coltrane on piano and Pharoah Sanders on tenor sax.
I never saw John 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 in 1967 of liver cancer at the relatively young age of 41. 
It is no exaggeration to say that Coltrane and Miles Davis literally reshaped modern jazz.  The ultimate testament to their greatness is that they continue to deeply influence jazz musicians of all ages. 
Although Coltrane is best known for his tenor work, I still defer to his superb soprano renditions on what remains my favorite jazz album -- My Favorite Things.


Anonymous said...
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Mr. Driscoll said...

I started with Ramsey Lewis and Stan Getz (In Crowd and Girl from Ipanema) and slowly got to Coltrane and Miles Davis and so many others. What a grand journey.