Celebrating John Coltrane
“ The impact that Coltrane had on musicians who played with him decades ago, however briefly, remains strong. ”
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.
"I found out about the recording because the gentleman that discovered it, Larry Applebaum, basically called me as soon as he discovered it, but it actually took him several weeks to get a hold of me because I sort of run around, Monk said. "My reaction was relatively blasé, to tell you the truth. But when Applebaum tracked me down and told me what it was I said 'Send it to me, let me see what it is'. Because you never know what anything really, really is or what anything really, really sounds like.
Lewis Porter, jazz educator and author of John Coltrane: His Life and Music, also played a role in the discovery of the Carnegie Hall concert tape.
"I knew about this about ten years ago, and it's mentioned in my Coltrane book. You always hear about the legendary tape of this, that and those, [and] sometime you go looking for tape, and sometimes you say, 'Well, that would be nice'. But this sounded so hot that I didn't give up on it. As soon as I first became aware of it I contacted the Library of Congress, and basically what I said to them was, I know you have this huge collection of Voice of America tapes, have you gone through them yet, have you catalogued them? And they said 'Well, a lot of them we have, maybe not all of them'. And I said 'Could you take a look because somewhere in there you may have this tape of Monk and Trane together from Carnegie Hall'. And they went and looked and they called me back in a couple of days and said 'No, we don't see any sign of it but we're not done going through the tapes, so you might want to check back with us'. I kept checking back with them and finally [this past] February they did come up with it.
Other than the music itself, another stunning aspect of the CD is the clear sound quality. Due to the skill of T.S. Monk and his sound restoration team, it sounds like Monk and Trane are playing at Sweet Rhythm a month ago instead of a large concert hall almost a half-century ago. "We spent close to two weeks in restoring that tape in what he likes to refer to as 'forensic restoration'. It's way beyond what anybody's ever done with a piece of tape like that. And I have to say, without a doubt, that we did a sparkling job!
But Monk also hears something else beneath the surface of the music. He hears the source of its power. "I remember John Coltrane coming to the house, every day it seemed for months. And my father was very, very intense with this cat. He wasn't yelling and screaming at him but he was being very, very emphatic. In retrospect, he was clearly mentoring [him] and pushing him, and directing him and teaching him. So what I hear in this recording is the result of that mentoring.
"Everyone who has been associated with this find, we all feel like [we've opened] Tutankahmun's tomb or something, Monk said. "This is a once in a lifetime thing to be associated with. This is a rare opportunity where all the generations right now who are avid jazz people who are somewhat divided, will have an opportunity to all agree that this is the shit!
Ashley Kahn, author of the acclaimed book A Love Supreme, wrote the liner notes for the forthcoming 2-CD set One Down, One Up: John Coltrane at the Half Note, another recently discovered recording of a radio broadcast of Coltrane playing with his classic quartet of Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner and Jimmy Garrison in 1965.
"John Coltrane treated the Half Note as a sort of personal greenhouse for his musical compositions, Kahn said. "He had the liberty to do stuff there that he could not do in other joints like Birdland, where the set lengths were very established, and the idea of entertaining the patrons was paramount. At the Half Note he could play his legendary half-hour solos. If you wanted to know what was going on with Coltrane and his sound you could go down to the Half Note and check out one of those shows and hear him working out stuff. What he was doing at the Half Note, some people recorded, in particular one very important performance from March of that year where he did a tune called "One Down, One Up. It's loosely based on the same sort of harmonic experimentation that created Giant Steps. That famous bootleg recording of "One Down, One Up became something that was being passed around [among] different players. There's a whole school of players who have responded to this one solo. That's the legendary status that this piece of music has; it is a sort of primer for modern saxophonists, and they look upon it as the sort of idea of where to go and what to do.
Kahn had interesting insights into how Coltrane might have participated in the music scene today. "I don't think he'd look at the jazz scene, I think he'd look at the music scene, Kahn said. "I think he was already thinking about music in ways that were not categorical, or genre specific. If you notice what he was doing with stuff like Kulu Sé Mama, integrating poetry and spoken word into his music; he would look at stuff like hip-hop and go 'Oh, that makes sense'. [H]e certainly was someone who was willing to do overdubs and the more modern studio techniques. [If] you look at the way the way that he was taking certain phrases and then repeating them, motifs and repeating them again and again, it's not that far off from what samples do. There's a lot of stuff in today's music that, at least the motivation behind it, would have been familiar to Coltrane.
Drummer Rashied Ali joined Coltrane's band in 1965, replacing the legendary Elvin Jones. He, too, has a firsthand perspective on the great saxophonist. Especially in the way he wound up joining the band.
"I'd been wanting to get with John Coltrane's band for a long time, Ali reflected. " So I played around in New York for about a year before I started going to Coltrane's gigs, because I was pretty busy working for different people: Don Cherry, Paul Bley, Bill Dixon, Albert Ayler.... A couple of times I noticed that Coltrane would be in the audience watching us. He would come down, he was listening to all of us younger cats in those days because he was really interested in the music that we were doing because it was all coming from him, anyway. So he had a bunch of little disciples and he was interested in what they were doing.
"Coltrane used to play at the Half Note. One day I got lucky because Elvin [Jones] didn't show up for [a set], and John said 'Hey, Rashied, you wanna play, and I'll pay?' Of course! So I jumped up there and I got to play with John and it was history then after that. My first gig was at the Village Gate, and ironically it was [the day of] that first big blackout that New York had (in November, 1965). I was going 'Wow, man, what kind of luck you got? The first gig you get with Coltrane and there's a blackout!' I went to the club anyway, [and] they had candles and everything there, but that was a little too dangerous so they cancelled the gig until the next day.
"I was a real Coltrane fan at the time, so I learned a lot from [him]. I learned a lot about how to deal with music, how to actually carry myself and be honest with myself, and how to stay focused on what I'm doing. He was the most focused person I've ever seen. I mean he never stopped playing. When he wasn't playing he was practicing . He would come on the bandstand already sweating because he had played his gig in the dressing room. After awhile I found myself practicing before I played, just trying to keep up with the stuff he was doing. He was a real father figure to me. He gave me a lot of advice, a lot of things that worked out for me today. I'm still reaping the benefits that I got from Coltrane.
Ali corroborates Workman's description of the energy level on the bandstand. "Oh man, it was incredible. We'd play a tune for an hour. Coltrane would play a 35 minute solo. The music was so different that it turned off a lot of the old Coltrane fans. At the same time, we played in clubs where they loved the music, embraced the music. And Trane was actually working toward a different audience. The audience was getting younger, possibly because his band was a younger band, and he started writing stuff for that kind of thing.
"I just learned a great deal about an inner sense philosophy of life, and being very humble and appreciative of whatever gifts you have, [and] trying to do the best with what you have, Kuhn said. "I was very much influenced by ideas he had and the way he approached music. Mainly it was the fact that he was so dedicated to his art. That impressed me the most. There was no bullshit at all with him. He was very quiet, and he told me later on he respected me as a musician, that's why he hired me. He was a sweetheart of a man, and I loved him as a person and certainly as a musician. What he contributed to the music carries on.
"What they can learn from him was endurance, and the love of what they're doing, Ali said. "Coltrane had so much love in the music, and he built his endurance up in order to play that music. He wrote a tune called "Pursuance and that's what he did, man. He pursued the music. When you're pursuing something, and you're going after it, you're gonna run into a lot of change, especially if you're trying to make something happen out of it. That's what I think all musicians [should do]. I don't care what they're playing, they should always be looking forward.
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