There are certain people whose lives and accomplishments are so monumental as to be beyond the scope and constraint of time. Saxophonist John Coltrane was such a person, one of the most revered, beloved, and influential musicians in history. Born September 23, 1926 in Hamlet, N.C., Coltrane was a constant sojourner, his relentless harmonic searches and inquiries reflecting a stream of consciousness that neither settled nor rested. Throughout this month, jazz luminaries will gather at venues around the city to play homage to the life and music of this singular man. These celebrations will be augmented by the release of two recently discovered landmark live performances by Coltrane, one with Thelonious Monk, the other with his classic quartet. These dynamic CDs will excite jazz lovers of all persuasions, and perhaps send seasoned players scrambling for the woodshed.
The impact that Coltrane had on musicians who played with him decades ago, however briefly, remains strong. Pianist Steve Kuhn, who preceded McCoy Tyner in Coltrane's band, cherished his time with the great saxman.
"I knew that John had left Miles [Davis], and that he was looking to put a band together, so I got his number and just called him out of the blue. I'm basically not that kind of person but I just really felt very strongly about this, so I called him and introduced myself. A couple of weeks later he called me and we met in a rehearsal studio in midtown Manhattan for several hours, just playing and talking. A week or two later he called me and invited me out to his house in Hollis, Queens. I went out there and essentially we did the same sort of thing: just sat, played, talked. Then about a week [after that] the phone rang. He said 'Hi, this is John. Would $135 a week be okay to start?' I must've flown off the floor! I couldn't believe it. I said 'Absolutely!'
"We only worked in this one place, the Jazz Gallery...and every night was just an extraordinary, exciting experience for me. The electricity in the air, people would be literally jumping out of their seats when he was soloing. It was like [being] in church....It was just a very, very special time in my life that I'll never forget. Just that short period of time was an incredible experience for me musically. Just to be around a real genius. That word is overused, but certainly in his case it applies.
"[Coltrane] was one of the most humble human beings I ever met, and the first person I had met who was so completely dedicated to the music. When he wasn't playing he was practicing or thinking about music. The horn was in his mouth as much as possible. He was completely dedicated to the music, and that was his raison d'etre, if you will.
Reggie Workman, who played bass in Trane's band from 1959 to 1961, reflected on what it was like being on the bandstand during those seminal years. "[There] was such a high energy level that it took me about two weeks to come up to the level that I had to be at in order to communicate with [the band]. [W]hen I got the opportunity to work with John, it was my first time being with a person who was so highly motivated musically, and yet was not dogmatic about what he wanted you to do in the band. The only thing he wanted you to do [was] bring something to the beat besides time.
"His work ethic and his ideals, his tenacity was something that was so high, so far ahead of most people, that it was just phenomenal what he created. He would play on a set for over an hour and then he would feel like [he didn't do it the way he wanted to], so he'd go back and practice all through the intermission. We used to travel on the road, and he would drive halfway from here to California, and unload the bags and go into the room and practice, then be on the bandstand on time the next night. I would be next to him and I could hear him practicing at night. I'd go to his room and he'd be practicing by blowing slowly and quietly into his horn. You could hear his keys moving, and he'd be reading books on the floor as he practiced.
1957 was arguably the most important year in John Coltrane's musical and personal lives. He kicked his debilitating heroin addiction by going cold turkey, and shortly thereafter went on to serve a musical apprenticeship with Thelonious Monk, whose innovative approaches to chords and harmony would have a lasting effect on Coltrane. A recording of a Voice of America broadcast of Coltrane playing a benefit concert with Thelonious Monk at Carnegie Hall in November of that year was recently unearthed from the vaults of the Library of Congress. Monk's son, drummer and producer T.S. Monk, describes the process by which it came to light, as well as what its discovery will mean to the history of jazz.