After listening often to his recordings, I first heard John Coltrane live at Birdland in June 1962. My interest had developed earlier in my young life in my home country of Sweden, considering that broadcast jazz there at the time was restricted to a half-hour broadcast on the national radio each week. It was also possible to tune in on the fading Voice of America radio-transmitter in Tangiers, Africa on the short wave band Sunday nights at ten o'clock (always opening with the Ellington band playing "Take the A-Train"). Those of us in Europe who have passed 50 will remember "Jazz-Glimpses from the USA" (with "Early Autumn" as a theme song). Malmo, Sweden-born Claes Dahlgren was a true missionary, and at the end of 1959 he interviewed Coltrane who then, while surrounded by countless negative judgements, had started on a journey to the stars, a tour-de-force
which tragically lasted only seven or eight years until his untimely death. He had achieved some notoriety earlier with Monk and Miles, but the real ascension towards the stratosphere began around 1959-1960 with the creation of his classic quartet with McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones, and eventually bassist Jimmy Garrison.
By then, the jazz situation in Sweden was improving, but mainly in Stockholm. In the provinces, development was many years behind, except for reviews of recordings and concerts. Like Claes Dahlgren, I was born in Malmo, where the critics in the daily papers had ears only for mainstream music. They covered jazz in general pretty well but there was an almost fascist aversion against that which stood out, which was different, progressive. It works this way today too: you are not often impressed when reading music reviews (could it come from bad education? Are those who select the critics influenced by their own shortcomings? Is there still fascism of mind to be traced?). Claes Dahlgren's interview was my first encounter with the music of John Coltrane. It was a short part of the show, maybe ten minutes, made by the time during or shortly before the recording of My Favorite Things. Claes, then in good company, probably didn't grasp fully what Trane was into, but he still had the greatness to include him. Credit goes to such men. To me it spoke directly to the spinal core, I was hooked, a 13-14-year-old Trane-aholic.
The beginning of Coltrane's greatness coincided remarkably with the solving of his tooth-problems. [Coltrane had had dental problems that sometimes interfered with his playing.- eds.] During the Miles/Monk years, he suffered from tooth-pain so severe that for some periods he couldn't perform at all and that was one of the reasons for Miles to sack him the first time, drug problems another. Generally, in those days, he was a confused man and it was not until he married Naima, got his teeth and drug problems sorted out and converted to Islam (unclear to me in what order) that the pieces fell into place. The pieces of his "jig-saw-puzzle" also included sorting out the members of the quartet. Elvin Jones happened to be handy when one drummer didn't show at a recording date. Coltrane signed up bassist Reggie Workman after Paul Chambers turned him down twice. Only the young McCoy Tyner was fronted as Trane's first choice. But he framework was assembled; the road lay open. The transition emanating from this random course of events was wondrous, left was a forlorn bop-era, not yet in wrecks but soon enough.
Many have tried to describe Coltrane's music.It has been turned inside-out, intellectualised, spiritualised, heckled (initially), mystified (later), dissimulated into its minute note, sequence, or composional structure. Interestingly, you can see a difference in describing Coltrane between those who experienced him performing live and those who have had to settle with the recordings. Lately, when reading about Coltrane, a basic difference in how he is perceived, his goals or his intentions, can be felt between those who saw him live and those who only heard him on recording. This is probably due to the fact that to those who saw him in live performance, it came easier to dig him, to take him in, by feeling. And I strongly believe that the music of Coltrane basically builds on feeling. It is interesting to see how the theorists of music can describe his songs and solos like something as neatly built up as a work by Beethoven or Stravinsky. It can be shown theoretically that his tunes -and solos- were perfect all through, and this is somehow the whole point by those belonging to the latter group. The others, who saw him play live, have another bottom view: a superior mastery in his instruments plus a musical genius, together with his thorough education in the "class of jazz" (the long way via anonymous ball-room gigs in big bands and over to the bop in the fifties) enabled him to perfect his talent and 'in statu nascendu' create a truly masterful music. Mysticism unneeded, theories let be, listening and feeling does it all. The suite A Love Supreme has been dissected to pieces. It is a great piece of music, and it is wonderful that it is being increasingly appreciated. Trane wrote it as an experiment, so he could examine step by step how far he could take his music within the boundaries of his talents. A Love Supreme was itself one a step on this very road. Almost every new Trane album was part of the path towards the summit: My Favorite Things, Plays The Blues, Coltrane, Africa/Brass, and so on. Every new record was like a rocket stage boosting. More and more (into Interstellar Space...) The music of a master becomes surprisingly less intellectual as time as he develops. Those with Trane's creativity often work intuitively. And their works are best appreciated if one tries to perceive them in the same way.
I arrived in New York early 1962, passing through to the Swedish immigrant areas of Minnesota. The jazz-clubs were my obvious target at a two-day stopover in N.Y.C., which was then even more "New York-ish" than today. The theatre district around Times Square and Broadway didn't at all resemble the EU-parliament in Brussels, the Empire State was still the tallest building in the world, and Harlem was still felt as a menace to the whites. And Birdland was "The Jazz-Corner Of The World," a temple erected to Charlie Parker some ten years before. Now, however, other gods reigned. My first night coincided with the comeback of Dexter Gordon after extended sickness (drug-related). Dexter was then soon to leave New York and settle, via Paris, in Copenhagen, which you all probably know. His gig was split with the Monday night jam session. Musicians were going and coming. Had I been more attentive, perhaps I could by now have become even better at dropping names. Sonny Stitt was there, for one. The second night presented the progressive music of the Charlie Mingus Workshop, mixed with the mainstream-jazz of Kai Winding. At 'The Half-Note,' Billy Eckstine could be heard; the Village Vanguard presented Basie, the Five Spot had Jimmy Smith, who was so big in The Big Apple then. And The Metropole, a little shack at Times Square featured Woody Herman.
The ruler of darkness sometimes stumbles on his own intentions. How else could you explain that a one-week unplanned stop in New York, on my return trip, coincided with a Coltrane engagement at Birdland? Trane was on his way at the speed of a runaway horse, the after-burner was lit completely, he had learnt how to fly but still not sail like the kite he was about to be. The chords, the "sheets of sound," were sitting as they should, his possessed technique practices were paying off, and he had his Selmer sax under full control. Single, unaccompanied (or Elvin sometimes as the only companion), excursions in the out backs of music, pure saxophone-classes, added to the singing Afro-Indian long notes. In a way he started to go forward reversibly, to basics. In mastery lies a paradox that those through fire reach serenity. It was evident that he was beginning to arrive to this point. But there were still roads to travel, jungles to explore. I must tell you about my childhood experiences sitting playing on the kitchen floor listening to my father, an accordion player, practicing. It is not unusual to me what I heard then, in relation to the kind of playing Coltrane was into at times. There was a similarity between the need for technical skill, and even the rattling sound of the keys was similar in nature. Therefore, to me Coltrane is also an accordionist, at times [! Metaphorically, of course ;-) - eds.]
The New York audience is tough on serious musicians. Maybe it's because they don't take a solemn attitude towards the music but see it as a reflection of the city beat. It is messy, noisy, in the clubs. Laughter; glass clinks. To be a serious artist with something important to say could destroy you. Artistry calls for courage, strength, stubbornness, self-confidence. Or else you are lost. Birdland was no exception. High background hum, from lack of interest by people coming for just to talk, or by those unwilling to give public appreciation or who are unable to recognize good from bad. In the United States all is business, you have to be able to sell your product and most is on the client's conditions. Trane handled this. Forward leaning, rockin', he gave it all on his own terms. And strangely these selling points were taken right on. The merchandise was so strong that it stood up to the hum, the mess, all the irrelevant comments. Not mentioning all those charlatans, all those fools living in the past with their dried-up views and "anti-jazz" judgements, etc. As you might understand I don't have much left for the slanderers of John Coltrane. I am unreasonable, but then again I can afford the luxury of a personal standpoint. But you are not a punk if you dislike him; you're just a puff.
I didn't speak much about Coltrane's last performances. Breaking up his quartet marked a new chapter in his career and development. The same outfit that provided such immense possibilities, which had opened up a window to expand through around 1960, by 1965 had become a kind of prison. Being what he was, a constant investigator of the mysteries of music, in the quartet he had gone through every road on the map and now he needed another dimension to be able to proceed. Elvin and McCoy in particular were not ideal for this mission; he knew he had to look for something different. Harmonically, structurally, sound wise, everything, the quartet was used up. It must have been a tremendous, yet frightening, challenge to throw all overboard. And it was a totally new situation from what he had ever had before. This time he didn't know where to go, what to look for or where it would lead him. He just knew he had to reprogram his mind, to forget much of what he had accomplished with pain and work and merely hope that the land he was entering had the opportunities, was fertile. And he couldn't bring Elvin, McCoy, Garrison with him (Jimmy tried for a short while though).
The John Coltrane career, from the very start and right on up to 1965, had been propelled by his more or less clear image of what he was after. It was all about making yourself ready for it, do everything you can to make it happen, to polish and tune your gear and by the time you get there you'll know for sure, it will be like seeing an old lover after such a long time. And the revelation when you find her will match the emptiness when you realize you have no future together. From 1965 on it was a different ball game. After starting cautiously by blending new members into the group, he soon would cut the ties to the past completely with a whole new band. I can only say, to sum up the 1965-1967 phase, that this project of transition was never finished, barely introduced, there wasn't enough time. It is intriguing to consider what would have become of it, had it been allowed to continue. Beautiful, new, mind twisting, outstanding, no doubt.
Which tune is the best one? Which was his very best recording? Impossible for me to decide, but in this moment it stands between A Love Supreme (live from Juan-le-Pins, France) and "Afro Blue" (live from Birdland). Next week it could be Lonnie's Lament or Bye-Bye Blackbird (live from Paris, or why not from Graz, Austria) or Peace on Earth. Whatever. This man ploughed a field for us to sow and reap, and which furrow we choose is an abstract problem. Perhaps I have a preference for Trane live. On such occasions his inhibitions, or should we say discretions, dropped, and the music became fuller, more flowing, richer. Even today, listening to live takes, we get a feeling that now it is for real, 'come on, let's go for a ride to the really weird and wonderful places!
John Coltrane died in July 1967, almost exactly five years after I came to hear him play in the New York night. Over these years a world would emerge that still expands, like the universe's Big Bang. And we, you and I, are dust in this universe, and on our journey we can sense the music of the spheres.