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What Would Coltrane Do?

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For most listeners, Trane's final music is a total musical deconstruction, for others, a fervent outpouring of emotion that offers art of such intensity, it scares most listeners.
"I want to be a force for real good. I know that there are bad forces here that bring suffering to others and misery to the world, but I want to be the force which is truly for good." ~John Coltrane

Jazz musicians and their creations has always been a source of tremendous inspiration. Listening to this music has helped me through some really difficult moments, and, made good times even better. It's something I've always been able to call upon, no matter what obstacles I have encountered. For me, the day is not complete without this music. It's as necessary as the food I eat and the air I breathe.

It began when I was eleven with a recording of the Nutcracker Suite by Duke Ellington. I knew the work but this interpretation was different, it really jumped out of the speakers and grabbed me.

Listen to excerpts from Duke's Nutcracker Suite.

Amazingly, a few years later, Duke Ellington came to my high school. That was over forty years ago (yes I'm that old), but three things come to mind. First, I was an aspiring trumpeter, so Cat Anderson really blew my mind. Then Johnny Hodges playing really moved me. When he soloed, even my teenager ears picked up on his inimitable tone. And then there was Duke.

I knew something about "cool" characters, having met musicians through my dad, who was a part-time pianist, and from watching the only beatnik on television in the early 60s, Maynard G. Krebs. But Duke was in another category of cool. His clothes, his life force, his connection with the audience, it was something I could really relate to, something I wanted to emulate and be a part of.

That's why I couldn't wait to move to New York, the Jazz Mecca. Once I arrived, I started hanging out and got to know these people. Some were cool, some not so cool. Hey, they're just people.

As the years have ticked on, my friendship with some of the remarkable creators, and the lives of others who have passed, has been a great influence. Jazz musicians are my mentors, my role models.

In the pantheon of these Jazz heros, one man's life and music truly shines, John Coltrane. Coltrane used his music to communicate the wonderful things that the universe meant to him. Playing Jazz was a spiritual experience to Coltrane, and he always felt the need to share those feelings with his listeners. That was, and will always be, our great blessing.

"Trane's death made me real sad because not only was he a great and beautiful musician, he was a kind and beautiful and spiritual person that I loved. I miss him, his spirit, and his creative imagination and his searching, innovative approach. He was a genius..." ~Miles Davis in his autobiography, Miles.

I once interviewed Archie Shepp, when he was still teaching the University of Massachusetts, in Amherst. This was back in the late 70s, a decade after Coltrane passed. When he spoke of Trane, the first thing he mentioned was his humanity, how he truly cared about people and repeatedly demonstrated his compassion with deeds, not words. Trane would give musicians money, even though he knew they could never repay him. And no matter where he played, he invited musicians to play with him.

I called upon Coltrane after September 11th. I had just moved to Tucson and found myself driving around the desert and listening to Trane loud, very loud. At that moment, it was the only thing that made sense. I spent weeks trying to contemplate the horrific events but found no answers. Instead, I listened to Ascension, Transition, Expression, Live at the Village Vanguard Again, and Live in Seattle. Trane's search became my search, a search for a meaning to all that had happened.

For most listeners, Trane's final music is a total musical deconstruction, for others, a fervent outpouring of emotion that offers art of such intensity, it scares most listeners. As the years pass, I find myself needing that intensity more and more.

Trane's music was a reflection of the 60s, an era when there were a number of artists who wrote music, sometimes with words, and sometimes without, that was informed by the times. That music spoke to the issues that were at the forefront of our culture. A lot of what happened in the 60s, came together because of the music. Artists were at the forefront of change.

When was the last time you heard a performance, or a recording, that spoke to any issue at all?

Only one recent Jazz recording comes to mind, Sonny Rollins' Global Warming. Mr. Rollins is deeply concerned about the environment, and in addition to this 1998 Milestone recording, he always mentions the necessity for individuals to be activists, in his performances worldwide. Actually, it's more than a mention; he makes a heartfelt plea about the responsibility of the individual to do something besides watch television and spend money.

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