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.