The John Coltrane Home in Philadelphia: The Fight to Preserve an Historic Landmark

Victor L. Schermer By

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John Coltrane (1926-1967) was in the upper echelon of the greatest jazz musicians of all time. He, along with Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon, Miles Davis, and other innovators, changed the face of jazz forever. Beyond such encomiums, Coltrane has become a great African American hero, overcoming his heroin addiction, experiencing a spiritual awakening which he brought to realization in his devoted marriages to Naima and Alice Coltrane, their children, and music (the iconic albums A Love Supreme and Meditations), as well as contributing to the Civil Rights Movement with his song, "Alabama," and visiting Hiroshima to mourn the victims of the atomic bomb. In testimony to Coltrane, President Bill Clinton has said, ..." his mind and his heart is so there in a place that everybody ought to reach for.'" The legendary Santana, who has pursued his own spiritual path, was strongly influenced musically by Coltrane and likened him to "an archangel of the highest order."

A man of such greatness and historical significance deserves a fitting memorial in his adopted home town of Philadelphia. There is a street (the 1500 block of N. 33rd Street is John Coltrane Street) and several murals dedicated to him, but his house, though designated as a National Landmark and an ideal place for a museum and gathering place, languishes in disrepair. How sad for the people of this city and the world that this historic site been neglected in this way. As the centennial of his birth approaches, it is time for a change.

The John Coltrane House in the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood is the house he lived and worked in during his period of ascendance in the jazz world, where he kicked his heroin habit, had a spiritual awakening, and composed the music for Giant Steps, the album that propelled jazz into new melodic and harmonic dimensions. He had bought the house for his family in 1952 with the benefit of a G.I. loan, and after moving to New York and an international career, he often returned for inspiration, contact with his friends, and privacy. This house, which is already designated a National Historical Landmark, ought to become a living memorial, a museum and a space for everyone to come and remember him and for scholars and musicians to convene, share, and learn. Located in a neighborhood where many African Americans reside, it can also provide an inspiration for and recognition of the importance of minority peoples and aspiring musicians in the years to come.

So why, over half a century after Coltrane's passing, is the house vacant and in disrepair? It isn't as if it has gone unused or unrecognized before. Coltrane's mother, Alice Blair Coltrane, lived there for a number of years. Later, his beloved "Cousin Mary," after whom Trane named the often-played song, lived there. During that time, the house was named a National Historic Landmark, and she founded the John Coltrane Cultural Society, where various activities were held for musicians and others. In 2012, a photograph of Philadelphia jazz musicians was taken on the steps of the Coltrane House, called "A Great Day in Philadelphia," a reference to "A Great Day in Harlem," where jazz greats of the 1950s gathered for Art Kane's famous photograph for Life Magazine. At that time, there was much talk of making the house a fitting memorial to Coltrane. A non-profit organization called "The John Coltrane House 501c3" was founded and still exists, at least as a web presence. A jazz lover named Norman Gadson had purchased the house in 2004 and fully intended to restore the property and preserve John Coltrane's legacy. Unfortunately, he died before he could realize his goal. Now the house just sits there, awaiting further decisions about its fate.

For many years, musicians and jazz fans in the area have wanted to revitalize the Coltrane House in dedication to his legacy. Legendary guitarist Pat Martino was deeply affected as a youth by a meeting he had with Coltrane, and has included Trane's music in his repertoire ever since. In support of the project, Martino writes:

"Each of the cities here in 'the states' (U.S.) holds something of defining value in their history. When it comes to jazz in Philadelphia, I remember enthusiastically attending shows at two significant establishments that were a home for jazz as an art in Philadelphia. They were known as "Pep's," and "The Showboat." They've been gone for quite some time now, but what has remained as a fitting memorial is just as valuable, if not even more. It's the house of John Coltrane. It is something that's truly significant when it comes to the history of one of America's great artists. Let's do all that we can to keep it restored, as well as honored."

How You Can Help

Recently, there has been some significant movement to overcome the legal and financial hurdles and to transform the John Coltrane House into a fitting site honoring him. If you care about preserving Coltrane's legacy for current and future generations, you have a stake in the fight no matter where you live. Currently, there is some effort occurring to address the issue with Philadelphia Mayor James Kenney. One thing you can do now is to advocate for the House by contacting Mayor Kenney by phone at (215) 686-2181 or email at [email protected] and telling him of your strong desire to see the dream of the John Coltrane House as a memorial to him brought to fruition. You can also contact the author of this article with any ideas, suggestions, or ways you can assist, and he will pass it along to the appropriate persons and organizations. All About Jazz will keep you informed of major developments and what you can do further as things evolve.

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