The Gospel of St. John
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.