Getting Closer to the Dream
In some ways, John Coltrane's house is like any other in Strawberry Mansion. The three-story, Dutch-gabled row home where he lived from 1952 to 1958 was seen as desirable by North Philadelphia's ascendent black middle class, literally across the street from verdant Fairmount Park and tied in closely to the city's burgeoning jazz scene.
After decades of decline, there are signs of renewed investment in Strawberry Mansion, a neighborhood still beset by poverty and crime. Many classic houses are crumbling; vacant lots abound. Still, the former Coltrane residence at 1511 North 33rd Street, while vulnerable to the risks of age and abandonment, endures as a symbol of the city of Philadelphia's rich music culture. The housea National Historic Landmarkis the focus of preservation efforts to commemorate the jazz icon's legacy and serve as an asset to the community.
The house was the site of Coltrane's "spiritual awakening," according to collector and biographer Yasuhiro Fujioka, which triggered Coltrane's quest for God and informed his most path-breaking compositions. "Fuji," as he calls himself, discovered Coltrane 7,000 miles from Philadelphia, while growing up in Osaka in the 1960s. Initially a Beatles fan like most Japanese kids, he found himself transformed by Coltrane's wildly iconoclastic and technically demanding playing style.
"The music hit my mind," Fuji recalled. "I thought: 'This I have to chase.'"
Forty years of "Chasin' the Trane" have made Fuji the world's foremost collector of Coltrane memorabilia: over 2,000 items make up his private collection in Osaka. He is currently on the board of directors of the Coltrane Home in Dix Hills, Long Island, where the musician lived until his death, and where many of his archives remained. While in the US to compile research for his next Coltrane book (he's written or co-authored four others), he was in Philadelphia to participate in a planning charrette that could offer a new direction for Coltrane's Strawberry Mansion homeand even see a sizable portion of that collection return to live in the house where Coltrane learned music and later transformed his life.
Two events in Marcha community workshop for residents and music lovers in North Philly, and the charrette that joined the forces of experts from disparate fields of music and museum interpretation marked the conclusion of an eight-month process, conducted by the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, of sowing the seeds to a successful institution in the form of the Coltrane house.
The community workshop revealed the equal yet opposing truths in remembering John Coltrane: as a singular voice that spoke the universal language of music (one that a kid from Osaka could understand), but also as one that arose from a specific musical tradition bound up in the experience of African Americans who like Coltrane had come to the urban north as part of what historians call the second great migration.
"Music helped our people through trying times," said one participant. "For us, music is a means of survival, a way of escape, away from oppression."
The workshop was held at the Martin Luther King Recreation Center on Cecil B. Moore Avenue, the former Columbia Avenue, which once boasted dozens of jazz haunts in the 1940s and 1950s, some of them witnesses to Coltrane's presence. Neighbors at the workshop acknowledged jazz as an acquired taste whose history was in danger of being forgotten, due in part to cuts to music programs in neighborhood schools.
"When you teach young people music, it changes them," said Veronica Underwood, a professional singer who runs a music school at her home a half-mile up 33rd Street. "Music has its own etiquette for how to interact with others. That's something that young musicians today don't understand, the camaraderie; it's up to the older generations to introduce that to them."
In addition to stories and testimonials and an impromptu performance by Underwood herself, attendees were invited to vote on how they wished to see the house preserved: "Museum," "community center," "performance hall" and "music school" were some of the most popular choices. Near the end of the workshop, the house's owner, Lenora Early, stopped by to review the community input.
"I was pleased to see the pieces put in place for the neighbors to be able to give their feedback," said Early, a retired schoolteacher and the founder of the nonprofit John Coltrane House, which also owns the house next door and is considering how to incorporate it for community purposes. Early is an organizer of the annual Odunde Festival on South Street.