John Coltrane and the Meaning of Life

Douglas Groothuis By

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Few jazz musicians inspire more respect or demand more attention than John Coltrane. Elvin Jones, Coltrane's drummer in "The Classic Quartet" (1961-65), said that most people who listen seriously to John Coltrane's music eventually acquire all of his recordings. I find that those who hear Coltrane for who he was want to hear all that he was. I am one of these completists, ever scanning music stores and the Internet to find new releases. The man behind the music fascinates me as well. I have collected a large library of books about John Coltrane, such as Lewis Porter's definitive biography, John Coltrane: His Life and Music, and those highlighting aspects of his music, such as Coltrane: The Story of a Sound by Ben Ratliff. Although he was a quiet man, some of his ruminations are found in Coltrane on Coltrane. The books keep coming, and I keep buying and reading them—as do many other Coltrane aficionados.

The man is simply compelling. Few are tepid or undecided about Coltrane's sound. I have heard many say, "I don't understand it," if they are being polite in the presence of a fan. I once played "Transition," a piece from Coltrane's classic quartet, for a group of philosophy students in my home. I demanded silence and got it. (I was their professor, after all.) When the piece was over, one bright young woman said, "I wasn't sure if they knew how to play their instruments." I assured her that they did. You acquire a taste for this music—what T.S. Eliot called "educated taste"—or you remain far from it. This is either because of you have no interest in it or because of a positive distaste for it. Some critics know Coltrane and jazz well and despise what they hear. In Cultural Amnesia, the British critic, Clive James, wrote of "the full, face-freezing, ¬gut-churning hideosity of all the things Coltrane" when comparing his style to the more restrained and concise Ben Webster. But James is an exception. Most of those who have paid careful attention to Coltrane's music find themselves entranced. They become intrigued by this quiet man's quest for musical perfection and for the depths of reality itself.

These matters pertain to the meaning of life. Some seem to shun such concerns. They avoid the question and instead care for little beyond the present moment, its duties and diversions. Others shout "No!" "The moment a man questions the meaning and value of life, he is sick, since objectively neither has any existence," wrote Sigmund Freud. Freud's disciple—and later prodigal—Carl Jung, questioned Freud's denial. He instead, offered this: "The decisive question for man is: Is he related to something infinite or not? That is the question of life." There is no purpose in seeking what matters most if nothing matters at all.

Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl wrote in Man's Search for Meaning, "What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost, but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him."

Coltrane felt that tension between the striving and the ideal, however dimly perceived. He discerned that there is more than what appears, what can be measured or, what can be manipulated by technologies. With this music as his vehicle, he earnest journeyed toward an unknown, but alluring, end. Jazz critic, Hentoff, who knew Coltrane personally, said this,

"This was a man who was always searching, and therefore always evolving. That is why in his live performances, some of which have been recorded, he could go on for an hour and a half on one song, because he was always looking deep, trying to discover what else could be said."

That one quality that can always be expected from Coltrane is intensity. He asks so much of himself that he can thereby bring a great deal to the listener who is also willing to try relatively unexplored territory with him.

Jazz virtuosos are usually known only for their playing, composing, and arranging of music, and not for their philosophical or spiritual predilections. One can imbibe all things Miles Davis, but find little to nothing on his worldview. (There is much to read about his sorted personal affairs.) Miles was about music, not metaphysics or mysticism. This is not to deny that many jazz musicians have spiritual aspirations; but few of them overtly integrate these ambitions into the fabric of their music. This was not so for John Coltrane. In the liner notes for the 1997 edition of Giant Steps, Hentoff distilled Coltrane's passion: "All musicians worth hearing during, and beyond, their time, keep growing as their music deepens its hold on the listener. But John Coltrane committed his very existence to continually searching for more possibilities in his music—and therefore, in himself. After all, he once told me, 'The music is the whole question of life itself.'"


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