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Live Trane: Never Before, Never After

David Liebman By

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NEA Jazz Master and much celebrated saxophonist, composer, bandleader, educator and author Dave Liebman recounts the life-changing experiences of witnessing live performances by John Coltrane as told to Dave Kaufman.

I always say my epiphany was the first time I saw Coltrane in February of 1962 at Birdland. The fact that I even knew about Birdland at 15 years old was because I was invited to go there a few months earlier by some of the older guys in the high school dance band during the Christmas break. Playing that first time were Count Basie and Gerry Mulligan's group. It was my first time in a jazz club and I quickly learned about the Birdland "peanut gallery" that had maybe three, four or five tables where underage folks could sit for the whole night and have a Coke-we couldn't drink of course. So we sat in the back and it was so impressive to see a big band up so close. After all Birdland was not that big. A funny story: We had to order a coke or something. When she said it cost a dollar I said wait a minute: "It's only 5 cents in Brooklyn! "Son, you're not in Brooklyn anymore..." a little awakening to the real world!! Birdland was separated into a bar area, where who knows what was happening, and then the club itself. I remember a red velvety Las Vegasy kind of thing—'50s, '60s supper club type of decor.

That Basie visit was Christmas of '61. Now I was an experienced jazz patron so I invited my first girlfriend who was a flautist in the school orchestra, where I played clarinet. We ate at a famous Italian joint called Mama Leone's and then went over to Birdland. I didn't know who was playing and was just starting to read Downbeat at that time. When I got to the club, there was a sign outside listing the John Coltrane Quintet. There was a picture of Trane with a soprano. I said to the Julie, this is the guy who is playing soprano saxophone which at that time was still a pretty rare instrument. I had never seen a soprano before in front of me. Also appearing was the Bill Evans Trio. It was quite a double bill. We went in and were met at the door by a gentleman whose name was Pee Wee Marquette. He was the MC at Birdland. You might know his voice from the Art Blakey Meet You at the Jazz Corner of the World recording. It was $5 admission for each of us. Pee Wee said "you know where to go" and I said yes sir, the peanut gallery. It was Saturday night and like Saturday nights anywhere, it was crowded and noisy... dates, people talking, etc. Bill Evans was playing and I don't think I heard or concentrated on a note. All I remember is that he had his head straight down, no talking to the people and really soft. It looked like these guys were in a living room. I didn't really think much about it.

Then comes on the quintet with Eric Dolphy who was with Trane for that particular period. They start playing and I said to Julie: "I don't what's going on, but this guy sounds like he's practicing." Dolphy's style it turns out was a little more rooted in bebop rhythm, though his choice of notes was quite different than what I had heard so far in jazz. With Coltrane I didn't know what he was doing. He was playing trills, tremolos, creeping up into the altissimo range... all heavily technical saxophone type stuff. All I remember saying to Julie was that I can't believe that this is the same instrument I have under my bed in Brooklyn—that I practice. This cannot be a tenor saxophone. Of course, the soprano was completely new to me. Then towards the end of the set they went into a tune and she said to me that it comes from the show Sound of Music which was a big movie/Broadway hit. She said that's "My Favorite Things" that Julie Andrews sings." Me, the great expert replied that these heavyweight jazz guys don't play corny stuff like that! Of course it was "My Favorite Things" which was Coltrane's signature tune and when I saw him on subsequent occasions, he played it every night—sometimes twice a night.

That was the night that I always go back to even now more than 50 years later. That night basically set the course of my life. I didn't know it at the time, but that was the beginning of the curiosity vibe of "how do you do this?" I was taking lessons in a private little family school in Brooklyn near my home. On Saturday morning, I would take piano lessons, play in an ensemble and sax lessons. In between the classes, the guy in charge—the teacher, would play with his assistant. He played piano, drums, saxophone much like I do now. I remember looking at them and asking how do you do this with no music in front of you; you don't talk, there is no conductor. He said it's called jazz and that is improvisation.

So this intro to jazz kind of happened at 12 or 13 years old and the Coltrane event when I was fifteen. From then on until he died, I saw Trane and the group on many occasions, whenever I could which was on the weekend when the group was in town at one of the clubs. Those guys in those days would work two weeks at a time—and maybe be in New York three or four times a year. They didn't travel as much as we do to Europe and so forth in the present day. I got to see Trane quite a lot, but I always go back to that first night in February '62 when I felt that power, that spirit and the intensity of the band. It just felt honest with no pretense, no phony shit... just the real deal. Ultimately, these kinds of experiences made me realize that there is a lot going on behind the proverbial curtain... meaning what you see is NOT necessarily all there is. Pretty heavy stuff for a teenager! And it wasn't just Coltrane... it was the group with Elvin, Jimmy and McCoy... everyone was on the case. It just seemed so deep and meaningful. I think that's what captured me more than anything. If only just the way he played saxophone... I never heard anything like it and again as I said earlier I was astounded that this was the same instrument I had at home (the tenor). It sounded like something from another planet. So that was the epiphany night.

All About Jazz: As I understand Coltrane's live performances were somewhat ahead of his LPs of the day.

Yes, for a variety of reasons. First the LP had time limitations which were about 20 minutes per side. In general, whether it was Coltrane or me or anybody, the studio is a very different situation from the gig and still is. For obvious reasons, you have people in front of you and you feel something, somehow from the audience. Inside the studio there is no public. The lights are bright and the microphone is on. You go back and listen and you check it out. It's more like a laboratory. I love the studio because you can really get things done and can hear really quickly stuff you want to change on the spot. You don't need to wait till the next time you play. On the other hand, it is a little inhibiting to have a microphone capture everything you do and know that it is forever. You don't know how many people will hear it. In those days, records/LPs were a means of communicating to people who were not sitting in front of you.

In Coltrane's case, the live gig was unbelievable. There are some videos now capturing a little of the vibe but they are short. I do remember at least one time a 45 minute to one hour duet between Elvin and Trane which they did quite often. Another time they played one song for an hour and 45 minutes... with everybody soloing of course. The intensity was at a really high level and by the way the volume was very loud with Elvin really hitting hard. You have to remember at that time Jimmy Garrison was not playing with a pickup, just a microphone in front of the bass. The pianos were not the greatest in these clubs and the miking was not like a professional sound system we have now. These were bars really and they weren't made for loud music. When you are so close to the performers the energy is palpable and you could feel it. In a club like the Half Note for example you were really close to the action. You can see the photos on the Trane record One Up One Down-Live at the Half Note. Birdland was a little bigger while the Vanguard was much more compact and so forth. There was an immediacy that you felt in a club.

That group definitely rose to the occasion when they played. I have to think that Trane felt the bandstand was an extension of his practicing because he was a compulsive practicer—even in between sets. When you went to see Trane, you were definitely hypnotized... You would be moving around in your seat, your leg hurt, you had to stretch your back, maybe you took a sip of Coca-Cola or whatever and they were STILL playing a tune. Some time they would leave the stage and Elvin Jones would solo or Jimmy Garrison would take a 15-20 minute solo. It's hard to imagine now. The attention span at the time was sometimes good and sometimes it wasn't. They definitely were a club band; there is no question about it.

AAJ: I guess in '62-'63, jazz fans that were familiar with the early Impulse! albums, which are beginning to get pretty adventurous in themselves were not really well prepared for the live experience. Is that a fair statement?

Well, definitely! When you went to see Coltrane, you were put into another realm because of the intensity and the sheer length and energy of what they played. Elvin was just this incredible powerhouse. You could not help being really knocked out by seeing Trane in a club. In those days, the audience wasn't touristy as it is now—it was a lot of other musicians and people of the night so to speak. Jazz clubs went late, till 2, 3 or 4 in the morning. There weren't many other places to go to at that time. It had a certain kind of crowd, a kind of in-crowd. Not me, I was just a teenager at the time. It seemed people knew each other and what they were doing there, ranging from making some money to worshiping the music, if you get my drift. I always say to students: "It's not your grandmother out at 2 o'clock in the morning!!" There were definitely some characters around for sure. When you saw the Coltrane group live, it could never be forgotten if just for the intensity in which they played.

AAJ: I guess as his popularity grew, his audience expanded and perhaps you had some people who were more casual listeners?

I guess. But around the time of A Love Supreme he didn't have much time left in his life and he started to play less in clubs beginning in 1966. You have to remember jazz then and jazz now as far as the layman goes is quite different. The crowd that loved jazz were dedicated fans and again a lot were other musicians. Jazz didn't leak through to Brooklyn, let's put it that way. You were not likely to see a jazz band in my neighborhood like you would in Manhattan. Jazz was still a small part of the entertainment pie. After the Beatles explosion, by the end of the '60s pop completely consumed the music world... Jimi Hendrix, Cream and all that stuff. The late '60s was a pretty low time for jazz until Miles Davis' Bitches Brew warmed things up again. Now there are schools and there are thousands of students, but on the other hand, very few places to play. I'm not sure how much wider Coltrane's audience got outside of the jazz public that existed at that time. You had Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington—the masters were still alive in the '60s and working until rock and roll kind of cooled things down for a while.

AAJ: As the group transitioned—say '64, '65 and I guess into early '66, the music changed and I guess people's reactions changed.

Absolutely and not necessarily in a positive way. When he started going into the late period, the music in general had no steady pulse or recognizable harmony, though the melodies were gorgeous (another discussion). But the audience got confused. There was Pharoah Sanders and sometimes other horn players all playing, often at the same time. Trane was playing flute and other guys would pick up little percussion instruments that were around at the time... tambourines, bells, shakers and whistles and on more than one occasion, two drummers. It could be Rashied Ali and J.C. Moses or Jack DeJohnette—kind of a moving cast of sideman. Trane was by then in a spiritual state of mind, apparently from the titles of his tunes which had religious connotations during this so-called late period. The music became quite chaotic, very, very energetic, loud and difficult for the audience to understand especially an audience that had been weaned on "My Favorite Things" as a signature tune up through "A Love Supreme." That recording was the pinnacle of the quartet's period, but it's very different from what followed. When Trane went in that direction, I don't know if he lost his audience, but he definitely confused them.

That brings me to this very particular concert in 1966 at Philharmonic Hall in Lincoln Center which was rather new at the time. The concert was billed as "Titans of the Tenor Sax." I think it was Zoot Sims, Coleman Hawkins, Sonny Rollins and Coltrane, maybe a few others. The hall was quite full for what was a pretty formal concert at a premier place in New York City... definitely not a jazz club. As these kinds of gigs go, much like Jazz at the Philharmonic where every horn player gets a tune or two with the same rhythm section and then they play together and so forth. I don't remember anything notable about the first half except the last act was Sonny Rollins. One has to know how Sonny could be in a live situation, ranging from incredible to merely human! This particular night he walked around the big stage at the Philharmonic, playing against the wall, etc. As I said Sonny could be very eccentric at times. The one thing he did say was: "I will be back later with John Coltrane." Well that made everybody go crazy. Fans who were there knew that these were the two great saxophone players of the '60s and there was one recording called Tenor Madness from the '50s where they played together. Everyone was excited!

They came out for the second set. Coltrane walks on holding Alice Coltrane's hand and leading what seemed like about ten guys onstage. I didn't recognize most of them—some with shopping bags, some with their horns. In the shopping bags, there were percussion instruments. It looked like he got guys off the street. You can look this up but I think it was John Tchicai, Marion Brown, maybe Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, Donald Ayler and a few more, with Rashied Ali on drums and I think the other drummer was J.C. Moses. Of course, the regular group which by then consisted of of Pharoah, Alice, Jimmy and Rashied were all there as well. There was a buzz in the audience but on the other hand people were a bit restless if I recall... what's going on here?, who is that?, what's happening?, etc. By this time, some fans had heard the new direction at the Village Vanguard or Village Gate. But I would say that most of the audience of at least 1,500 people was unfamiliar with this new music at that time—and were waiting for "My Favorite Things." They started playing and Alice began with a tremolo, rolling the low notes, and a lot of arpeggios all over the place harmonically. I was with my very good friend and everyone was looking around and wondering "hmm, what's going on here?" Trane got on the microphone and started a pretty deep chant from the Tibetan Book of the Dead... "Om Mani Padme Hum." If you knew what that was... it was a shock. Now, if you didn't know what it was, that's going to be a bit challenging to say the least. People were starting to get a little nervous. Trane seemed pretty happy, just reciting into the mike "Om Mani Padme Hum" joined by the horns kind of droning out. Then Trane picked up the soprano and played the melody to "My Favorite Things." As soon as he played the melody, all of the audience went crazy. After all that was his hit tune. "Yeah... that's John Coltrane, that's what we want. That's great! Okay."

Well, after the melody for the next hour it was complete pandemonium. Trane started soloing and next was maybe Archie Shepp... I don't know who followed who. All I know is that in general everyone played at the same time. I would say in the next hour or so it appeared that half the audience split. The review the next day was pretty scathing. Nobody really understood what was going on. In a sense this event was an announcement that this stage of Coltrane had arrived. And if you couldn't keep up with it... that was the way it went. Nobody knew he was going to die within another year. This was a big unveiling of the final stage of Coltrane to the general jazz public along with the Ascension recording which captured this energy we are talking about.

I was absolutely speechless. My friend and I couldn't talk. I just sat there. It appeared that a lot of the audience had left. There was a tepid applause at the end. The band walked off like they walked on. We went somewhere to eat something, then back to Brooklyn on the subway. I will never forget that night. I couldn't even talk the next day. There was so much energy in Lincoln Center during that Trane set. And of course the actual sound in a hall like that, bouncing all over the place (not a solo violin after all)... was incredible.

As a sidebar, that did set a way of playing for me and many of my contemporaries in the late '60s. We remembered, if not that concert, the record " Ascension. That way of playing became a kind of modus operandi of a good part of my generation that came up in the late '60s centered around the loft scene. Basically the way they played at Lincoln Center and on Ascension, Kulu Se Mama, Cosmic Music, Expression the duo with Rashied Interstellar Space and Stellar Regions... those records that came out in '66 and '67 really set a way of playing for a lot of us. In the end that kind of "free" jazz was short-lived though aspects of it are still played today. By 1970, you had Bitches Brew and that started a new thing.

AAJ: Within that span '65 and '66, there is sometimes a stretch of time known as the mid-late period. Meditations for example...

Meditations is a bit more focused than some of the ones I mentioned. I play the suite a lot and will this year in New York commemorating the 50th anniversary of Trane's passing. There are real melodies, but it's still basically a free recording. That was the first record of the real free stuff to be released and it kind of announced the new way of playing for those who were listening. After Meditations that's pretty much the end of the classic quartet. By November, they are recording Live in Seattle and that's when Elvin and McCoy left the band. Then the new group started and that's the core of the group I saw in Lincoln Center. The recording The John Coltrane Quartet Plays featured some groundbreaking tunes: "Nature Boy" "Chim Chim Chiree" and in particular, the track "Brazilia." The old was gone and a new set of understandings was taking place at this time in '66 to '67. To further complicate matters, there were recordings which were posthumously released, particularly Sun Ship and Transition. They really show the quartet in transition. You can hear musically that it was going in a new direction often featuring two drummers with Alice on piano along with Sanders who could really scream on the tenor. Elvin was not happy about having to share the bandstand with another drummer. Meanwhile, it appeared that McCoy couldn't hear himself with the two drummers bashing away. In summary, obviously, what I am saying may or may not be true, but for those of us fortunate enough to have seen John and the group frequently, it felt like there never was and never will be such a group... truly a happening unmatched before or since.
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