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Genius Guide to Jazz

The Gospel of St. John

By Published: August 16, 2005

'Trane was interested in bringing in more like-minded players to suit his evolving musical vision. Avant garde tenor sax heavyweights Archie Shepp and Pharaoh Sanders, drummer Rashied Ali, and pianist / wife / suspected Yoko Ono sympathizer Alice Coltrane were gradually introduced into the line-up.

As stated last month, kids, I'm going to spend a portion of this year on in-depth profiles of some of the greatest forces in jazz history. I had originally intended to go in chronological order, beginning with some great pioneer like Jelly Roll Morton or the ubiquitous Louis Armstrong, but a recent experience convinced me to do whatever in the hell I want because it's my column.

Which is to say.

I was talking with a hard-working college student lately and we were discussing her Music Appreciation class. She had wanted to do her report on John Coltrane, my absolute favorite (and a blatant attempt to curry favor with your Own Personal Genius), and found that her "professor" had never heard of him. Hence, the quotation marks around the word "professor."

Now, I understand that not everyone has my limitless encyclopedic knowledge of jazz, but there are certain names in American history that transcend the narrow confines of cultural elitism. You don't have to be a connoisseur of art, for instance, to know who Picasso was. Even an illiterate has heard of Shakespeare. Someone who has never seen a baseball game in their life knows Babe Ruth. And yet, here we have someone who professes to be a professor (that was either damned clever wordplay, or I was just too lazy to press Shift+F7 for my thesaurus. You decide) and yet, doesn't know one of the most uniquely brilliant musicians of all time.

While Coltrane may lack the cross-culture appeal of an Armstrong or a Miles Davis, his impact was no less staggering. Coltrane combined an unrivaled technical faculty with an almost mystic spirituality and an intensity unmatched by all the brooding rock star types in leather pants, from Jim Morrison to that dude in Creed, combined.

Such as that is.

John William Coltrane was born in Hamlet, North Carolina, in 1926, but left shortly thereafter upon being cast as Polonius in the town's running production of its namesake play, because just thinking about the name Fortinbras made him giggle. Moving to Philadelphia, young 'Trane took up the saxophone and studied at several schools of music before being inducted into the Navy in 1945. Once out of the Navy (he was given an honorable discharge for being too hip to wear bell bottoms), he went through a variety of small, regional bands before joining Dizzy Gillespie's ill-fated big band, and staying until 1951 with the smaller combo that came from the wreckage of the larger group.

Though 'Trane was playing actively, and even recording, from the mid-forties on, it wasn't until a fateful day in 1955 that he began the series of events that would change both the history of jazz and the course of this article. 'Trane received a call from Miles Davis, who was about to form a quintet and had called the cerebral saxophonist to find out exactly how many people constituted a quintet. Informed that it was five, Davis counted heads and, several hours later, called 'Trane back to ask him to join the group so they wouldn't have to reprint the business cards. Scientists have calculated the odds of there ever again being two individuals of such immense personal coolness in the same group as 1.45 billion to 1, or roughly the same odds that Nicole Kidman will model all of her costumes from Moulin Rouge for me in the privacy of the Geniusdome.

But a man can dream.

It was during this time that Davis and 'Trane produced several significant recordings for the Prestige label, made all the more impressive by the fact that Prestige wasn't even a record company at that time, but produced ready-to-wear ladies apparel. 'Trane left Davis briefly to play an extended engagement at New York's famed Five Spot with Thelonious Monk, returning to feature on such Miles Davis classics as Milestones and Kind of Blue. 'Trane also produced his own influential recordings during this time, such as Giant Steps.

With his prolific recording and electric performances during this period, 'Trane was establishing himself as arguably the greatest tenor saxophonist in jazz. His mantle would be challenged only by Sonny Rollins, whose masterful improvisations and almost surgical technique placed him in the rarefied air occupied by few saxophonists before or since. But this article isn't about Sonny Rollins, so forget I mentioned him.

Anyway.



It was also at the end of the fifties that 'Trane's problems with heroin and alcohol addiction began to interfere with his music. 'Trane was tossed out of Davis' group for heroin use rather than serving the customary penalty at the time, adapted from hockey, of five minutes in a makeshift penalty box. It was around this time that he had a religious epiphany, which was to change both his life and his music indelibly.

Giving up drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, and cheesy B-movie Westerns where you just know Randolph Scott is going to defeat the evil cattle baron's henchmen and end up with the saloon girl who has a heart of gold, 'Trane devoted himself to both his music and the pursuit of spiritual enlightenment that would last until his untimely death in 1967.

Normally, the mention of someone's death indicates pretty much the end of a piece like this. But if you'll recall from the first paragraph, this is my column and I can do whatever in the hell I want. So, let's pick right up where we left off, at the beginning of the sixties where 'Trane is now a solo bandleader on a spiritual quest, putting together one of the most remarkable groups in jazz history. Meanwhile, on the other side of town, Aunt Minnie has been drugged by the inscrutable Dr. Portnoy who is scheming to defraud Rita out of her rightful inheritance.

These are the days of our lives.

It was in April of 1960 (on a Tuesday, around 7, 7:30) that 'Trane formed his great quartet. With Elvin Jones on drums, McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, 'Trane had assembled a group which now shared his single-minded belief in the mystical importance of his musical vision quest. Though this group was responsible for 'Trane's greatest commercial success, with the accessible My Favorite Things, they were also the conduit for his transition into the outer realms of what remains to be some of his most challenging work. To this day, only the Army's elite Delta Force can listen to Ascension all the way through.



In November of 1961, Coltrane and company played the legendary Village Vanguard in New York City. For four historic nights, with the help of multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy, they ushered in a new era in jazz. Beyond the breakneck instrumental acrobatics of Be-Bop, still rooted firmly in established rhythms and chordal structures unlike Free Jazz, yet as relentlessly intense and passionately intimate as any music that had ever come before. Those four nights at the Vanguard established not only what jazz could be, but also established that a guy who played bass clarinet (Dolphy) could still score with a cocktail waitress if given half a chance.

The early sixties were a turbulent time in jazz history. Now accepted as a legitimate form of music, not just heathen noise or big band pap, and suffering perhaps the greatest critical scrutiny of its existence. The audience for jazz had been largely consumed by the emerging sounds of rock-and-roll, and it was now largely considered the music of beatniks and intellectuals. The music itself was straining at the bonds of the conventional, seeking new territories and different sounds. Jazz musicians were now considered icons by the cultural elite, irreproachable demi-gods from whom issued only truth and beauty.

And the growing awareness of racial disharmony in America manifested itself in the music with albums such as Songs to Pacify Whitey for the Time Being and Some of My Favorite Record Albums are Also Black.

While battling difficulties in his personal life, such as the end of his marriage to Naima (though he moved out of their home in 1963, they would not officially divorce until 1966) and his burgeoning romance with pianist Alice McLeod, he produced a prolific amount of recordings and established himself as one of the preeminent forces in jazz. If Miles Davis was the bridge from Bop to Cool jazz, it was 'Trane who served as the link between Bop and Free jazz. Branching from tenor sax to the little-used soprano, employing exotic eastern modalities (at a rate of $1.72 an hour, plus tips, which was good money back then), bringing his spirituality more directly into his music with pieces like A Love Supreme and Dear Lord, 'Trane seemed unafraid to make his music a complete expression of himself at the risk of alienating his commercial audience or even his most stalwart bandmates.



If Eric Dolphy was more a semi-permanent guest with the Coltrane quartet, offering only embellishment to the existing mix, it was soon obvious that 'Trane was interested in bringing in more like-minded players to suit his evolving musical vision. Avant-garde tenor sax heavyweights Archie Shepp and Pharaoh Sanders, drummer Rashied Ali, and pianist/wife/suspected Yoko Ono sympathizer Alice Coltrane were gradually introduced into the line-up. Shortly thereafter, McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones left the band, formulating a daring escape by placing carefully crafted dummies of themselves under the covers of their bunks and sneaking out through the heating ducts after lights-out.

By 1966, with the new line-up firmly in place and his music some of the most experimental of his career, 'Trane's health began to fail him. Years of alcohol and drug abuse had taken their toll, and he now suffered from end-stage liver cancer. He passed away on July 17, 1967, leaving a void in jazz that has not yet been filled.

'Trane also left behind a legacy that reaches around the world (although, apparently skipping over Patrick Henry Community College. Think back to the beginning of the piece, kids). From St. John Coltrane African Orthodox Church in San Francisco, where the Gospel is presented through his music; to this very article, which proves his influence so indelible that after almost 35 years, even my foolishness can't detract from it.

Till next month, kids, exit to your right and enjoy the rest of AAJ.



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