|John Coltrane and Elvin Jones (drums) at the Half Note in 1965.|
For twenty years, between 1947 and 1967, John Coltrane (whose birthday was yesterday) played saxophone while engrossed with the desire to reach a place unheard, never before felt, and spiritually solvent. Beginning his career with an equal longing to be "consumed" by the spirit of Charlie Parker, in actuality, he was consumed (like Parker had been himself) with drugs and alcohol. One day, though, Coltrane had a spiritual awakening through vegetarianism and eastern religion which lead him on a quest "to make others happy through music." Who knew then that this sojourn would take him to the furthest edges of what many would call listenable music? And it would leave some people less than pleased let alone happy.
His career had begun with Dizzy Gillespie's band in the late Forties, but when Coltrane hooked up with Miles Davis in the mid-Fifties, he began to hone a virtuosity in improvisation.They were an audacious contrast in styles. Where Davis was a master of spareness, Coltrane could never seem to cram enough notes into a bar of music. His heroin problems got him kicked out of Davis's group, but then he began a short term with pianist Thelonious Monk before kicking his habit permanently. Coltrane had found a mentor in Monk. Monk taught him methods of creating complex harmonic structures within his sax solos, which in time would be long, difficult excursions into abstract blues. Coltrane could take a pop standard such as Rodgers and Hammerstein's "My Favourite Things" in 1960 and enlarge the melody on the soprano saxophone by building an extended solo overtop the basic chords of the theme. Within a year, though, in a series of concerts at the Village Vanguard, Coltrane used melody as merely a starting place for epic solos that built in intensity like a chainsaw cutting through a tornado. Sometimes they would last for close to an hour. "Chasin' the Trane," for instance, featured over eighty choruses that were built upon a twelve-bar blues. That intensity would reach a spiritual epiphany in 1964 with the luxuriant devotional suite A Love Supreme.
Blind Willie Johnson years earlier, Coltrane was possessed by a higher power and a purpose that was expressed through a fervent desire to remake himself through his art. "My music is the spiritual expression of what I am – my faith, my knowledge, my being," Coltrane remarked. But where many would take the path of sanctimony, Coltrane sought out dissonance rather than harmony. It reached its zenith in Seattle in 1965. That year, he was recording a phenomenal amount of music, each piece becoming more abstract than the last. One night, he had a dream in which he and the band had played a show without reference to chords or chordal sequences. In his dream, he discovered that he was seeking, in the words of jazz critic Keith Raether in Earshot Jazz, "dialogues of tonal and atonal sections similar to parallel octave passages found in African vocal music." The sessions Coltrane recorded after his nocturnal vision were the kind that would give other people nightmares. "We did two takes and both had that kind of thing in them that makes people scream," saxophonist Marion Brown explained. During the concert in Seattle, Coltrane decided to take his group, which also included Pharoah Sanders on sax, Elvin Jones on drums, and Jimmy Garrison on bass, through the most atonal abstractions he'd ever played. The purpose? "I don't think I'll know what's missing from my playing until I find it," Coltrane told a journalist from Melody Maker before the show.
One of the tracks, "Evolution," was a thirty-six minute excursion into an extravagant sheet of combative chords that filled close to two sides of an LP. The Harold Arlen standard "Out of This World" became literally just that. It was so dense in its atonality that the recording engineer, Jan Kurtis, who knew Coltrane's original recording of the song, didn't recognize it until well into the piece. In what became an understatement of perception, Kurtis told Keith Raether: "Coltrane seemed to be thinking about a lot of things. There must have been an enormous amount of music going on inside him." The enormity of that music was overwhelming for most listeners to consume. By Seattle, Coltrane had dispensed of conventional melodies in his own search for what Blind Willie Johnson had been looking for in the gospel blues: the soul of a man. For both artists, the soul of a man was not a harmonious place. So the octane that Coltrane provided was pure turbulence, a streaming of notes too primal to contain, what you might call a speaking in tongues from a spiritual hermitage. For many listeners to the double-LP John Coltrane in Seattle, however, it became much less than that. What they heard were tongues that were garbled – pure noise – and no more than listenable than pure cacophony. Music from the other side of the fence.
|McCoy Tyner, Archie Shepp, John Coltrane and producer Bob Thiele in 1964. (Photo: Chuck Stewart)|
As for American jazz music, many of its practitioners already considered it free, since it was built on improvisation, soloing, and liberated voices calling out to one another. By the end of the Fifties, though, there were some who claimed it wasn't free enough. "Free jazz" became a radical deviation from the form that challenged the conventional chord progressions and time signatures at its foundation. It erupted out of the untimely death of Charlie Parker, who opened the door to innovators to rethink the legacy they inherited. Classically trained pianist Cecil Taylor, for instance, decided to bring the ideas of Schoenberg and Webern into the land of Bud Powell and Horace Silver. In 1957, he appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival with an improvisational style that, as he put it at the time, "imitate[d] on the piano the leaps in space a dancer makes." Those leaps began in a lonely loft where by night, after returning from his dull day job of delivering sandwiches, he would hold "imaginary concerts" of his music, and envisioning an audience that could one day hear and appreciate it.
Since classical music and jazz have a comparable smaller audience than pop, Coltrane raised the bar on minority music. "Pop music provides immediate emotional gratifications than the subtler and deeper and more lasting pleasures of jazz," film critic Pauline Kael wrote in her ambivalent praise of Lady Sings the Blues (1972), the movie biography of singer Billie Holiday. "Pop drives jazz back underground." Yet it's in that underground where a laboratory of experimentation can flourish (as it did for Coltrane and his group). Since the huge dollars and the mass audience never drive that world, lone dreamers (such as Cecil Taylor) can endlessly perform their own imaginary concerts. But these distinct kinds of propulsive forces are only possible in that underground where jazz once resided despite Miles Davis doing his part in building significant bridges between both pop and abstract jazz in his work following In a Silent Way. The stage that Elvis Presley and The Beatles built though, as big and bold as it was, could never break totally free from the huge business interests that ultimately needed to make money from their art. John Coltrane in Seattle went beyond considerations of ever making money since the audience for that record could barely find a road map through its many detours – and those detours haven't been taken by anyone since. Whatever secrets John Coltrane discovered in that spiritual quest of playing those dramatic extended solos, he took them to the grave with him. And there ain't nobody who is ever going to bring them back.
– Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, Randy Newman's American Dreams, 33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica, Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.