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John Coltrane and the Meaning of Life

Douglas Groothuis By

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"Pursuance," the title of the second movement his signature recording, A Love Supreme (1965), gathers the elements of Coltrane's life and constitutes his humble charisma. His career did not begin with fireworks. Those would come later. Unlike his friend, Sonny Rollins, Coltrane did not ravish the jazz world at a young age. He played with several groups, the most prestigious of which was Dizzy Gillespie's big band. He was not a stand out, but simply a man in the horn section. The biggest break came when Miles Davis hired him for his quintet. Throughout his career as a leader, Miles had an uncanny ear for potential. He offered his chosen musicians an open sky in which to fly.

Coltrane's intense and tense solos were a sharp counterpoint to Miles's mellifluous and minimalist offerings. In the documentary, "The World According to John Coltrane," drummer Jimmy Cobb reported that Miles was sometimes nonplussed by the length of Coltrane's solos and confronted him about this. Coltrane responded that he had so many ideas that he did not know how to stop. Miles replied, "Take the horn out of your mouth." But Coltrane's passionate pursuit of perfection allowed for no such editing. He told Miles that he had trouble "getting it all in," and in the right order.

To this point, Coltrane invested all in his craft and was finding some success. He not only played and practiced music; he analyzed its formal nature by mastering musical theory. He pursued a sound, his sound—but the journey was uneven and often unheralded. Hentoff, at least initially, did not care for his approach to the saxophone. (He would later laud Coltrane lavishly and repeatedly. He is still doing so.) He writes: Having grown up on Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Buddy Tateand Don Byas, it took me some time to be drawn into John Coltrane's universe. In Down Beat, at first, I wrote of his unappealing sound on records, and in clubs I tended to lose my way in his long dense solos. However, Hentoff and most other critics found their way to understanding the musical language of the "fiery tenor." When asked if he was angry when he performed, Coltrane said that the only person he might be angry with was himself, since he was not playing at the level he was pursuing.

Just as Coltrane was finding his voice, language, and sensibility as a jazz musician, his life was hampered by heroin addiction—as was true for so many jazzmen at that time. Since the habit was making him unreliable, Miles Davis fired him after a life performance in 1957. Shortly after this, Coltrane, without medical help, went cold turkey, leaving his drug addiction behind. In the notes to "A Love Supreme," Coltrane wrote, "In the year of 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening, which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life." However, his positive addiction to music persisted until the end of his all-too-short life. After this, Coltrane played for six months with pianist Thelonious Monk at The Five Spot in New York City. Like Miles, Monk gave Coltrane the space to develop his unorthodox, but tradition-grounded, style. Coltrane related that Monk's complex music demanded a discipline that shaped him profoundly. Monk's solos worked within the melody of a tune. This differed from Coltrane's more harmonic approach. After his brief, but consequential, tenure with Monk, Coltrane complimented his mentor as "a musical architect of the highest order." This collaboration was scantily recorded, but in 2005, Blue Note released "The Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane," which documents this felicitous, if short-lived, partnership. In 2013, Oxford University press released Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall by Gabriel Solis, which carefully explores this event in depth. Coltrane continued to drive himself toward musical growth, and he was succeeding.

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