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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.

Sonny Rollins has always been a thoughtful seeker, concerned, compassionate and committed to doing something through his music. Rollins classic 1957 recording, Freedom Suite, addressed the issue of racism, and looking forward, I'm certain he'll be writing and performing music, and talking to his listeners, about issues that now carry life and death urgency. One only need to hear Sonny Rollins to realize just how deeply he feels.

As for Coltrane's more spiritual music, that's something else I find missing from most of the new music today, spirituality. One notable exception, Gathering of Spirits, the debut recording by the Saxophone Summit, which features David Liebman, Michael Brecker and Joe Lovano. There's enough spiritual energy on that CD to warm a 10 room house during a frigid Northeastern winter.

Check out a video of Dave Liebman discussing how the music of Saxophone Summit is an extension of Coltrane's later music on Joe Lovano's website .

So when I reach a point of uncertainty, when I find myself in a quandary over someone or some thing, I ask myself, what would Trane have done? Further, what would the Dalai Lama do (he's another of my mentors, one of the only ones who's still alive).

It should come as no surprise to anyone reading this that these are not the best of times for many people. I certainly can't blame George Bush for all the trouble in this world, but from my perspective, he's hardly a force for good.

Several weeks ago, I wrote about the effect of another Bush administration on this music, speculating on how another four years of GW will impact those of us who involved in this remarkable art form.

The response to my outlook was rather surprising. (You can read the comments to my blog entry by scrolling down the page to the Bush entry, and the responses that follow.)

Obviously, we are a divided nation, perhaps now, more than ever. Half of America supports George Bush and his policies, including the War in Iraq and its horrific implications. The rest of us can't figure why anyone in their right mind would favor Bush and his obviously insane policies. Go figure.

Differences of opinion are not unusual in a democracy. But what's happening now, that I find so troubling, is the anger associated with these differences.

You don't have to read between the lines to feel the anger of the Bush people who responded to my entry.

And on the other side, I know a number of people who actually HATE Republicans, stopping dangerously short of "doing something about it."

As the former "Pariah," I have grown accustomed to writing things that upset people and then having them attack me. Thankfully no "enforcers" have knocked on my door, although one record company executive once threatened to sue me. Yet my antagonists on this blog seem like they're ready to wipe me off the face of the earth.

So I ask, how would Coltrane have dealt with this situation?

Most certainly with a lot of compassion.

Hating Republicans isn't going to change the situation. The re-election of Bush seems to be a pretty sure thing at this point, for John Kerry has failed to articulate why he should be President. So, unless there's a dramatic event, which is always possible, those of us in the Blue States are going to have to live with Bush and his policies for another four years.

How will we do this?

As considerate creators, it's our mission to reach out to those with whom we disagree, and try to offer an alternative. I have to assume that they don't have the right information, and that they just don't know any better.

Most Americans get their news from television and the leading source of news on cable is now the Fox News Channel, which even though they claim otherwise, is hardly a bastion of fairness in reporting.

Watch video clips from the documentary Outfoxed .

On the radio, it's even worse. Most of the commercial radio stations in America are owned by Clear Channel, and their mission seems rather obvious. Since the early 90s, men like Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage and Sean Hannity have used their huge Clear Channel networks to pump a revolting amalgam of fear and loathing in the American consciousness.

For an alternative to Clear Channel spew, check out Air America .

So we cannot not hate them, these prophets of doom and their confused flock. We must show them sympathy and create things that will inspire them, and bring about change.

That's what Coltrane would have done, and that's what I'm going to do.

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