Friday, September 08, 2006

Riding the 'Trane

A very long time ago, 80 years, an African American was born in Hamlet North Carolina, but he was raised and learned the joy of music in High Point N.C., my home town. That town, sadly has never done enough to honor him and his remarkable legacy, but I want to pay tribute to him today as we approach the anniversary of his birth. His name is John Coltrane, the great jazz saxaphone player of all time, hands down. If you ask the great players of today like Michael Brecker or Branford Marsalis or James Carter who has influenced them the most, there is no question who they will mention. Most modern saxaphonists regularly do hommages to Coltrane by playing one or more of his famous numbers in their concerts. I remember well the time Michael Brecker came to town and played Coltrane's love song for his first wife--- Naima. It was magical. Though High Point will probably not be celebrating Coltrane's legacy this year, this week begins a substantial tribute to this musical giant courtesy of Jazz at Lincoln Center. Here is a somewhat whimiscal primer on what is coming up in the next few days. I wish I could be there.

Coltrane grew up in High Point and learned to play the clarinet first, playing in the William Penn Marching Band in high school. He was raised by devout Baptist relatives (one a minister), and this was to affect his writing and playing for years to come. He has always been seen as the most spiritual of all the players. In many of his songs, especially the album length classic A Love Supreme, he explores the character of God and his relationship with God. It is not a surprise to me that there is a church in San Francisco which has a hymn book full of tunes written by Coltrane! Jazz Gospel anyone??

John grew up in turbulent times in the South and came to musical prominence in the late 50s and early 60s when be bop was king. He moved from High Point to Philadelphia to have more freedom to play and develop his art, and eventually came to the attention of people like Dizzy Gillespie. He was fortunate enough to be picked by Miles Davis to be in his band for the recording "Kind of Blue" which is the all time best selling jazz album, and still is a classic. The synergy between the young Coltrane, Miles Davis just reaching the top of his form, and the incredibly brilliant pianist Bill Evans is very hard to match. Indeed some would say there has never been a better jazz album. It is a great shame these three did not make much more music together.

Coltrane was a perfectionist, always working on his craft, and besides being a master of every type of saxaphone there is (soprano, tenor, alto etc.) he was always striving for new sounds-- for example we hear him playing two notes at once on several pieces, or a note and its harmonic. No one else could do this, and it wasn't because he had a forked tongue! Trane was a master of every musical form he played-- blues, be bop, ballads, show tunes, and spirituals. He would frequently mix and match them on one album. He was famous for his unmatchable speed, which caused one critic who heard him to call Coltrane's sound--- 'sheets of sound' cascading over the audience. Oddly enough, his most popular tunes were not his own creations but his improvs of show tunes or old ballads like My Favorite Things, or Greensleeves.

Jazz, of course, at it essence involves musical improvisation and Coltrane stretched the limits of its potential again and again. Jazz of course, like Gospel and blues, became the vehicle for African Americans and others to protest, plead, pray, and play about their troubles. It is to this day, the only indigenous form of American music. Yes, even country music goes back to folk music in other lands. But jazz is an American original, and it is an odd irony that it is far more popular in Europe and the Orient than it is here in the U.S. where jazz records provide less than 5% of all record sales in an average year. Yet it is a measure of its creative life that it has been able to spawn a more popular spin off in our own era--- so-called smooth jazz, which is basically melodic pop of various sorts with some jazz chops and riffs.

Coltrane was in fact born and raised in an epicenter of good blues, jazz, Gospel, namely in North Carolina. Apart from New Orleans, there is no other place in the South that has produced so many giants. For example, Theolonius Monk, John Coltrane, Nina Simone and we could go on, all come from North Carolina and learned their music there. And of course they came forth from the experience of black culture in those places. Listen sometime to Coltrane's classic tune "Alabama" which he wrote in protest of the burning down of a black Baptist church in that state during the civil rights turmoil of the 60s.

Coltrane unfortunately was to leave us much too soon, dying in 1967 of liver cancer when he was bearly in his 40s. But he left us an enormous legacy. In my study in my house I have a jazz tree-- its a little spinning carousel which has about 40 Coltrane CDs on it. I am so very grateful he was so often recorded between the early 50s and 1967.

For those wanting to break into the spiritual and moving music of Coltrane I would recommend starting with 'Kind of Blue" and then trying the best selling of Coltrane's solo albums "Ballads" now wonderfully remixed and digitized. There are a series of important albums which show his range, from his only Blue Note record Blue Train, to Coltrane's Sound, to Giant Steps, to A Love Supreme, and many more. The Greatest Hits collections of which there are many are useful points of entry as well-- try The Best of John Coltrane (Universal, a two CD set). Jazz is not fast food throw music. It requires concentrated listening, and like a stew slowly cooking it needs to be given time to marinate in order to become edible, and then tasty, and then finally something you are addicted to-- one of your 'Favorite Things'. I personally love a lot of the CDs Trane recorded on Prestige (his earlier stuff) and also on Impulse (his later stuff), but I myself have not been able to really get into his very late stuff from Stellar Regions on. It is simply too free form a jazz for me. So my advice is stick to the earlier and middle period stuff, at least for a while.

Here's to you John Coltrane. Thank you for nourishing my soul for a long time, and for many years to come. "Johnny we hardly knew ye" and you left us too soon. But we still see your footprints, and continue to follow in your path.


C. Stirling Bartholomew said...

An old friend of mine who also listened to Brubeck in the early 60s, told me one day he didn't care much for Coltrane. I had never listened to him so i just walked into the record store a bought a double LP, brought it home and found I had a difficult time connecting with it. Perhaps is was his later music. It reminded me of one of the more bizarre tracks from the Love-In LP of Charles Lloyd at the Philmore, pretty wild improvisation.

I also had a Bill Evans LP which had a photo of him on the cover which bothered me when I looked at it. He was emaciated and had a haunted look in his eyes. Miles Davis had the same look. Bill Evans was a junkie. OK, they were all doing it, or almost all of them. Martin Torgoff* argues that narcotics was more or less essential to the art form. That is rubbish. Miles Davis didn't produce his best work when he was strung out. I guess Coltrane kicked the habit but it probably took decades off his life.

Perhaps I should check the library and see what they have of Coltranes early and middle music.

*Can't find my way home : America in the great stoned age, 1945-2000 / Martin Torgoff.New York : Simon & Schuster, c2004.

Ben Witherington said...

Coltrane had a very distinctive sound-- clean and clear and crisp, and very soulful. I would suggest you try the Ballads CD to start with.. the later stuff is sometimes cacaophanous. You are of course sadly right about the drugs....


Todd said...

Can't thank you enough Ben for introducing me to Coltrane and Bill Evans and (to a lesser extent being that he wasn't from N.C.) Miles Davis. I owe my entire collection to you. I am usually taken back to making "Circuit Riders" whilst humming "A Love Supreme" at The Porch everytime I hear Coltrane on my iPod. Good times. Good times.

Thanks Ben....

Todd said...
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Ben Witherington said...

Stu: As a Christian I believe that a person should be judged at their best, not at their worst or weakest, especially if their weakeness is something that only harmed themselves.

It is of course true that Coltrane, like most jazz and rock musicians of that whole era took some drugs. He got off drugs through the help of his wife Alice Coltrane. Coltrane was a very sensitive soul, and as a southerner he badly wanted to fit into the jazz scene first in Phillie and then in NY. He was young and impressionable and very talented. This does not excuse the drug use, but at the same time it does not negate or erase his enormous contributions to an important spiritual musical art form.

Listen sometime to his spirituals--- there is a whole CD of them. Try for example the song "Spiritual" or "Offering". There is much to learn--- this is the true soul music, which is yearning for God, unlike so much of 'soul' music which is mostly about yearning for sex.

Thanks so much Vapor for this important and helpful link. I have spent some time watching John Pattatuci and his witness, and it is a strong one. I will definitely check this out.



Steven Manskar said...

Thanks very much for this post. Coltrane has been an important influence in my life since I was introduced to him by my theology professor, Josiah Young.

I listen to Coltrane when I pray and write. His music helps me to connect with God.

Lately I've been listening to a recently discovered and released recording, Theolonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall. It is wonderful!

Stephen said...

Ben, I had no idea both you and Coltrane were born about an hour away from my hometown (Danville, VA). I did see that High Point is putting a statue of Coltrane downtown and listed that on the first page of their site - - but I'm sure you're right that this fact hasn't been prominently celebrated there. Thanks for the info.