Live Trane: Never Before, Never After

David Liebman By

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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...



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