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Celebrating John Coltrane, Personally

Photo: Charles Stewart (Impulse/GRP publicity photo)

Spurred on by a couple of anniversaries, a new podcast "Traneumentary", and plenty of memory, Layman reflects on the music and meaning of John Coltrane.

John Coltrane was born 80 years ago and died 40 years ago, but any time is the right time to remember and celebrate him. I suspect I'm like most jazz fans, and maybe like you: at a moment's notice I can conjure the sound of his art in my ear, letting it come up in the surges and waves that were so natural to it. Coltrane -- more than any other musician -- seems to have existed forever inside me, so that when I first heard him it was like coming home again.

A Personal History

Of course, what did I know about coming home? I was 14-years-old. I'd started listening to jazz because there was an eccentric DJ on a New York radio station who played great jazz records that seemed to relate to the way my world moved. I'd heard a few things from this guy, and I got to thinking I knew a thing or two about jazz. I bought a record by Dave Brubeck and another by a group called the Jazz Crusaders. I was pretty cool.

My friend Bobby and I were playing ping-pong in the most suburban of New Jersey basements one afternoon when his older brother, David, came down with a weird blue LP and a strange smile. "So, you guys are into jazz now, huh?"

G-nip, g-nop -- Bobby slipped a smash past me and the ball rolled into the corner. "Yeah," Bobby said. "Miles Davis. Sonny Rollins. The Jazz Messengers." This amounted to almost every jazz name we could come up with off the top of our heads.

David held up the cardboard sleeve and walked toward the old turntable that was to the side of the ping-pong table. "Gentlemen," he said, "this is what you need."

"Is that old stuff or new stuff," Bobby asked, this being a distinction that we understood, with new stuff having guitars and electric pianos and old stuff more crackling with trumpets. "Is it good?"

"Well, boys, it was recorded the year that you were born. And it is very good." And he put it on.

The album sleeve rested against the wall -- and the guy on the cover was playing some straight horn we'd never seen before. He looked, in his dark suit and steady gaze, like a snake charmer on the stage of a Greenwich Village club. His shirt was buttoned all the way up, and the garish red-orange type announced his name, one we'd heard a few times on that radio station: "John Coltrane". And then: "My Favorite Things".

About a minute later the ping-pong game was over as we stood stock-still listening to the title track -- a rocking incantation of personal intensity and group groove, an utterly alive neural pathway twisting and turning and knotting progressively into our heads. As soon as the track ended, we picked up the needle and moved it back to hear the song again. No Julie Andrews here -- nope and uh-uh. What we heard was the sound of our own voices changing at puberty or the sound of our own taste in music suddenly hurtling forward.

A Bit of Textbook History

Coltrane's own story, I suppose, was also one of revelation and investigation. One of the few jazz musicians to develop his own sound slowly and at a more advanced age, Coltrane was known for his preparation. He was a jazz musician who very much knew what he was doing and who embarked on musical and spiritual journeys.

Trane was born in North Carolina, and he played some clarinet and some alto sax in high school. He would practice obsessively for a while, then he'd give up music altogether for stretches. He moved to Philadelphia, then he joined the army and played in an army band. He was, of course, influenced by Charlie Parker, and he learned to play bebop, joining Dizzy Gillespie's big band in 1949. Still, in his mid-20s, Trane was nothing special as a jazz player. He picked up a heroin habit and he gigged with Earl Bostic and Johnny Hodges. He wasn't about to change anyone's life, much less make them stop playing ping-pong.

By 1955, Coltrane had a distinctive sound -- nasal and "hard", with the beginnings of a style in the way he would run his (now) tenor saxophone over whole scales in fast, syncopated rhythmic patterns. Miles Davis -- now off drugs and forming the first of his great acoustic quintets -- took notice and used Trane as a foil for his own fragile, lyrical sound. But -- as great as the early recordings of this quintet were -- Coltrane was constantly showing up late or missing gigs because of his addiction. Davis fired him; he couldn't be bothered with an unreliable junkie.

In 1957, Coltrane turned a corner. He left drugs behind and had a religious awakening. He started practicing obsessively. He returned to Davis, but not before a revelatory stint with Thelonious Monk. He recorded his first great record (and his only for Blue Note), Blue Train. By the time Bobby and I were on the way, he had formed his first band, a quartet featuring McCoy Tyner on piano and Elvin Jones on drums. They recorded "My Favorite Things" in October of 1960, two weeks before the nation elected John Kennedy.

The Astonishment That Is "My Favorite Things"

The opening strains of "My Favorite Things" sound precisely like an announcement. McCoy Tyner rings a series of octaves in 6/8 time, and then Steve Davis drops low tones like he is James Jamerson in a Motown studio. Elvin Jones punches through on drums -- heavy on his kick but dancing on the cymbals like a whole series of African drummers in polyrhythmic glory. The groove -- and it is, as much as anything else, a groove -- is hypnotic, insistent, irresistible.

Atop the groove, Coltrane enters. If you'd been following his career, you wouldn't expect the sound, however -- an octave higher than the tenor, a nasal, Eastern sound, a snake charmer's twisting rise and fall. The groove is a drone, and Coltrane is a raga master, even though the melody is familiar. He doesn't abstract the melody or hide it, but he adds trills and rhythmic syncopation on this soprano saxophone, stringing together statements of the main melody with swooping interludes. If you are playing ping-pong in a basement, you stop. You've never heard anything like it.

By the time he recorded the tunes for My Favorite Things, Trane had already been present for a least one genre-shirting jazz session, Miles Davis's free-modal beauty, Kind of Blue. There, Trane's gentle side blended beautifully with pianist Bill Evans and a set of medium tempo sketches that allowed every player to blow freely. Live, Coltrane had begun to play longer and longer solos, which he explained in interviews were simply attempts to "get out" all the ideas that he was working through at the time. And so the lead song on this album -- an album that Atlantic hoped would be a "hit" -- is almost 14 minutes long, with Coltrane soloing obsessively for the much of the time. Did anyone really think that a 14-minute soprano saxophone solo was going to be a hit?

But as you listen to Trane's solo (really two solos: a short one, then a chordal statement by Tyner, then a long, colossal statement that takes over the track) you can hear him thinking through his ideas. In fact, it is odd to be so captivated by something that seems so utterly introspective and private, maybe akin to reading someone's diary. The rhythm section, rocking over just a very few chords, rises and falls like the ocean under the soprano sax, and you find yourself floating in the foam with Trane's ideas -- his curving rises and swooping falls, and then his complex intervallic patterns alternating a single high note with a series of different lower notes. All this is done so quickly, with such command of embouchure and air that it sounds absolutely as if Coltrane is playing two separate lines from a single horn. It seems, standing there in your best friend's basement, that the man is Houdini with a saxophone, performing the impossible on vinyl.

You know, at that moment, that you'll be listening to him forever.

Remembering Trane Through Other Musicians and Critics

Reasons to be thinking of Coltrane have come fast and furious in the past two years. The discovery of the recording of Trane and Monk at Carnegie Hall had the jolt of a jazz missing link. And last fall, Prestige started reissuing early Trane in a series of box sets (the first is Fearless Leader, featuring often overlooked material from 1957-58) that impress you with the man's energy and industry around the time that he got off drugs.

But the real kicker for me has been a series of documentary podcasts that are now being released under the title "Traneumentary". Produced and implemented by Joe Vella, the Traneumentary is presenting a series of podcasts -- to be released one-per-week between early February and mid-July -- each of which features an interview with a musician, historian, or critic with something interesting to say or remember about Coltrane. The fun of the project is twofold. First, the podcasts frequently give the "witnesses" the chance to comment on Trane's music as you are listening to it. This is a riveting technique, breathing insight into the notes and soul into the commentary. When historian Lewis Porter reads a poem along with a portion of "A Love Supreme" to illustrate how Coltrane was -- note for syllable -- speaking through his horn, you come to a whole new appreciation for the art.

Second, the diversity of the "witnesses" -- ranging from McCoy Tyner and Sonny Rollins to Anton Fig (Letterman's drummer) and Lenny Pickett (tenor player for SNL and Tower of Power) -- makes clear that Coltrane's influence and meaning goes well beyond jazz. The episodes available to date are a fair mix. The first, appropriately, is made of the words of the master himself, drawn from old interviews in which he discusses his long-form approach to soloing.

More interesting, in some ways, is the perspective a modern musician who first heard Trane much like the rest of us, as a fan and a school-kid -- trumpeter Terrence Blanchard. Blanchard was riveted by "the rhythmic propulsion that that band could manufacture." Blanchard focuses on musical concerns but not technical matters. "People consider [his music] very spiritual, and I think the chant-like quality adds to that greatly. It was brilliant of Coltrane to bring that into the music as it was something we had never before experienced." He also raises his appreciation to another level, discussing Coltrane as the perfect combination of technical mastery and spiritual awareness. "He used to say that you have to learn how to 'play in tune', but he didn't mean pitch; he meant that you had to play in tune with what is happening in the universe." The very next episode, however, brings you back in time as drummer Jimmy Cobb talks about recording with Trane in Rudy Van Gelder's New Jersey living room for Prestige in the '50s. "My own approach was to be strong enough to stay with him, keeping it swinging. All drummers had to do it -- Elvin had to do it. Elvin used to be so wet when he came off the stand that he could wring sweat out of his pants." That is the kind of documentary memory that keeps you listening.

Remember Trane, Down on Earth

Among my less rarefied friends, memories of Trane are also vivid and powerful. Bobby Atkins, whose brother initiated us and whose ping-pong serve I never quite solved, remembers Coltrane through the prism of our friendship -- discussing "My Favorite Things" while we played driveway basketball, then listening together to records he did with Miles -- the crack of Philly Jo Jones's snare behind Trane seeming like rock 'n' roll of its own special kind. Bobby remembers that we yearned to (and did) go to the Village Vanguard in New York "primarily because Trane did a live album from that sacred venue" (Live from the Village Vanguard Again!), the cover of which showed the man standing before the club's tattered awning and neon sign in a beige cap and skinny black tie. More timelessly, Bobby remembers "learning from someone -- maybe David, maybe Ralph J, Gleason, maybe you -- that what mattered to Coltrane was finding the notes between the notes, which has become a guiding principle ever since, metaphorically speaking."

My friend Joe Chappelle remembers how forbidding Coltrane could seem to a kid who was trying to figure out his world. "In high school, I bought a copy of Interstellar Space, the 1966 album of drum and saxophone duets between Coltrane and Rashid Ali. I was overwhelmed by it, and it was another ten years before I even dared to give it a second listen." Actually, I remember listening to that record with Joe. Even though we both hear it as beautiful and logical now, our young ears heard the music as a brilliant kind of noise -- aggressive, severe, and abstract.

"The first time I heard him play with Miles Davis on 'Round Midnight'," explains my friend and poet Mike Tucker. "I had dived head-first into jazz at fifteen, and Coltrane helped me to realize what it means to move people as an artist, and that was a huge, life-changing moment for me. The feeling was so real, so raw, poignant and rich, and I remembered my late grandfather telling me and my brother and sister in 1963 in Arizona, 'Love is real.' Listening to Coltrane, I could hear my grandfather say, 'Love is real.'"

A terrific musician that I work with, Tim Lyons, first heard Coltrane in college, where he was presented as a literally towering figure. "I walked into the Music Library one day and saw the maintenance guys putting up a HUGE black & white charcoal/pencil drawing of Trane playing a soprano. The piece was seven feet tall and four feet wide -- BIGGER than life size. The only parts of the canvas that weren't colored in were the reflective parts of his horn, his forehead, eyes, fingernails, the buttons on his suit jacket -- a haunting and memorable thing, to say the least. I immediately checked out A Love Supreme. I don't remember if I liked it or not, but I remember thinking that it was weird, complicated, different, quiet and loud, annoying, interesting, big, and weird (again). Years later I was killing time in San Francisco and found a copy of A Love Supreme on sale for $6 at Amoeba Music. I picked it up, took the bus back downtown, put it on the stereo in my hotel room, and drank all the whiskey out of the mini-bar. Then, out of my tree, I went down to PacBell Stadium, bought what ended up being a 6th-row-behind-home-plate ticket from a scalper for $60 cash, ate three hot dogs and watched Bonds hit one into the bay."

The Coltrane Legacy, Decades On

In many ways, I'm still in that basement listening to Trane's soprano snake in and out of time, through the notes that exist between the notes, then fly over the wall as certainly as any Bonds homer. More than any other jazz musician, Coltrane is the promise of tomorrow.

Trane did not start early, so his greatness reminds you of what yet may be. And Trane wasn't just great once -- he played magic with Miles, then he recorded Giant Steps; he arrested you with "Favorite Things" but also battled Elvin beat-for-beat on "Chasin' the Trane"; he recorded make-out gold in his album with vocalist Johnny Hartman, but then he seemed to summon a glorious cataclysm with Ascension -- so he embodies forward motion.

Maybe that's why Coltrane's sad, early death (in 1967 of liver cancer when he was only 40) was so shocking to the jazz community. It left a void at the vanguard of the music and the vacuum persists to this day. There is no jazz musician who has truly taken the mantle from Trane -- musical, personal, and spiritual. (In fact, he's the only jazz musician who has inspired his own church, the Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church in San Francisco, which has recognized Trane as a saint since 1971.) Coltrane -- who kicked heroin, who practiced his craft with a focus and purpose few ever touch, and who opened himself to every branch of religious, scientific, and philosophical influence -- wanted only to inspire people "to realize more and more of their capacities for living meaningful lives. Because there certainly is meaning to life." (Quoted from the 1965 accompanying his Meditations album). This he did and this he proved.

Traneumentary producer Vella sees Coltrane's legacy as a challenge to us all. "What Coltrane demanded of himself, and his musicians, he demanded of us all as listeners. He challenged everyone to absorb his music and to push our own limits and boundaries in the abstract. He made us react and feel the music in all styles and in his unique way.

"When you interview over 30 diverse people about an artist who has been gone for nearly 40 years, you realize that this isn't just some artist who plays the saxophone well. This is an artist who on a mission that was deeper and greater than we could have ever imagined. He was not just playing jazz, he was not just improvising -- he was pushing the limits of himself, his instrument, his music, and his spirit. John Coltrane's music touches people of all walks of life and represents the true human soul. He was a person who worked on his craft everyday and was able to bridge his creative and spiritual energies into music that will last forever. But most profoundly, he continues to inspire people to be better and to be open and to trust in the internal spirit of themselves and the universe as a whole."

No matter how much I love that first recording of "My Favorite Things", my favorite Coltrane work is his mournful and uplifting composition "Naima". Written for his first wife Juanita Naima Grubb, the woman who introduced him to the spirituality that allowed him to free himself from drugs and to commence his greatest journey, "Naima" is a stately melody that floats over a pedal-point harmony stated in a compelling ballad pulse. When it first appeared on Giant Steps, it was gentle and delicate. As transformed on Live at the Village Vaguard Again!, it is still beautiful but also rapturously free -- a blueprint for a fully explored human experience. It's the kind of music that exists beyond style, genre, and era. It's forever music.

My poet friend Mike Tucker deserves the last word. "As a Spanish poet said in the 16th century, 'Love is the reason for our survival.' And listening to John Coltrane gives us reasons to survive and live and love and grow. Perhaps because that is what he is about. The spirit of love and the journey of the spirit and a quest for peace that pulses in his work cannot help but touch those with ears to hear and hearts open to his heart."

And at that point in his conversation with me, Mike becomes aware of his grammar and of the way we both feel about this music.

And he says, "Coltrane is always present tense."

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