Chasin' the Trane

On the fortieth anniversary of John Coltrane’s death, and in the context of recent commemorative events in Dublin, Kevin Stevens looks at the life and work of one of the greatest of jazz innovators

Forty years ago last July, John Coltrane succumbed to liver cancer at Huntingdon Hospital in New York. Two months shy of his forty-first birthday, he died in the prime of a remarkable career as jazz instrumentalist, composer and innovator. This year, as the anniversary of his death is marked worldwide, musicians and fans are still grappling with the depth and complexity of his legacy – and still working around the huge absence created by his sudden loss at a critical point in jazz history.

Ireland was particularly fortunate this year to have its most significant Coltrane commemoration led by saxophonist and musical educator Dave Liebman, who as composer, performer and teacher has been visiting here for twenty years. On 23 August, Liebman held a tribute concert at Meeting House Square in Dublin’s Temple Bar, where he led five young European musicians in a performance of six Coltrane compositions. The following night he conducted an illustrated lecture, ‘Coltrane Remembered,’ at the Goethe-Institut. It’s hard to imagine a better summation of Coltrane’s achievement than the blend of music and exposition presented at these complementary events.

In the arts, there are those who devote their talent and energy to mastering existing forms and creating within standards defined by the prevailing culture. And then there are those who, unhappy with simply refining the acceptable, push the boundaries through imaginative trial and error. Liebman’s lecture showed clearly that Coltrane, like Picasso and Joyce, was an artist of the highest order who was committed to innovation. Like all innovators, his search for the new alienated many – not just mouldy figs or critics, who could be expected to carp, but also members of his core audience who had been following him for years. And his aesthetic journey was further complicated by a religious dimension, sparked by a spiritual awakening at age thirty, which, as with Tolstoy, was to extend his cultural influence far beyond his artistry.

Typical of his time and race, Coltrane grew up in impoverished and segregated circumstances in North Carolina, where he was born in 1926. After high school, he settled in Philadelphia, where he played alto saxophone in jazz and R&B bands, studied music formally, and developed addictions to alcohol and heroin. As he progressed musically, he switched to tenor sax and found work with first-rank groups led by Dizzy Gillespie and Johnny Hodges – though he was fired from Hodges’s band within six months for drug-induced nodding off during gigs.

As Liebman pointed out, Coltrane was not a prodigy. Unlike Mozart or Charlie Parker, in his formative years his talent was evident but unremarkable. His first recordings, made in his early twenties, bear little resemblance to his work five years later. For that matter, if we move forward five years from any point in Coltrane’s career we hear amazing qualitative differences. Deeply focused, highly self-critical, he was constantly learning. From the beginning, he was well known for his obsessive practicing. As one of his first teachers said, ‘He had that horn in his hands all day. I think he slept with his horn.’

His dedication and musical curiosity began to bear significant fruit in 1955, when he joined the Miles Davis Quintet, at the time the most formidable and progressive small band in jazz. His association with Davis would last, on and off, for five years, resulting in some of the most wonderful recordings in the jazz canon: Milestones, ‘Round about Midnight, Kind of Blue. During this period Coltrane also made his first albums as a leader and worked with Thelonious Monk. He completed his development of a signature sound and a highly compressed, harmonically complex mode of improvising, characterised by cascading runs of hundreds of notes per minute – a style coined ‘sheets of sound’ by critic Ira Gitler. Working with Monk and Miles stimulated this musical quest. These jazz masters created musical architectures and open forms that gave Coltrane a sympathetic context for his harmonic ideas and a platform for his inventive soloing.

Listening to a Coltrane performance is one of the most intense experiences in jazz. Seeking to articulate a complex vision of music and life, he went to technical extremes in his solos: not just the high-speed arpeggios, but multiphonics, stacked chords, split tones, and swift runs from the lowest to highest registers. Notes often came out purposefully harsh and misshapen. Yet technique was never an end in itself; every sound, no matter how lyrical or strange, had its precise place in the full expression of emotion. Also, there were powerful creative tensions at work: between the tradition he had mastered and the new forms he pursued; between accepted musical order and the urge to shatter that order; between the earthiness of the blues and the transcendence he increasingly felt was the ultimate purpose of music.

Giant Steps
From 1957 on, music assumed a different meaning for Coltrane. Never a man to do things by halves, over a week-long period he went cold turkey on drugs, alcohol and cigarettes, locking himself in his room when necessary to avoid temptation. He would never use heroin again. Around the same time he also had a personal epiphany. Here is how he described it: ‘I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music.’

This turnaround accelerated his musical search, and by the close of the decade, as amazing as it is to say, Coltrane had outgrown Miles Davis. Keen to progress on his own terms, Coltrane left the quintet, only to allow Davis to convince him to join a European tour in the spring of 1960. On recordings from that tour, we can hear Coltrane’s restlessness. He lets loose an avalanche of notes, trying to break through the ‘cool’ veneer of the Miles aesthetic of the time, reaching for something very different from what the band was exploring. Audiences heard it too, and the reaction was mixed. At the Olympia Theatre in Paris, his solos were followed by both tumultuous ovation and loud booing (one reviewer compared the experience to the 1913 premiere of The Rite of Spring). Critics were usually respectful but often sceptical. His need for a new context was clear. It was time to move on.

Over the seven years of life that remained to him, Coltrane was increasingly experimental and prolific. And during this anniversary year, most of the tributes have been focused on this phase of his career, conventionally divided between his ‘classic quartet’ period, from 1960 to 1965, and his final two years, when he pushed jazz far beyond the traditional limits of chord changes and modal playing, and into a daring realm of highly spiritual free jazz.

In his Dublin concert and presentation, Dave Liebman analysed this part of the achievement with great assurance. As a high school student in Brooklyn, Liebman first heard Coltrane at Birdland in 1962, the beginning of an intense interest that paralleled his own development as a musician. Later, he played for extended periods with two of Coltrane’s most significant collaborators, Miles Davis and Elvin Jones. His many recordings of Coltrane material include a definitive live version of the free-jazz masterpiece Meditations. As a leading exponent of the soprano sax, an instrument Coltrane took up late in his career, and as someone who has never been afraid to explore new musical terrain, Liebman is uniquely equipped to explain the legacy.

For all its formal complexity, post-bop jazz rests on a tradition of oral transmission and on-the-job learning much closer to the creative patterns of folk music than classical music. Even today, when schools and universities worldwide offer a variety of jazz programmes, the true testing ground for success is the bandstand. In jazz, the elements of improvisation, collaboration and rhythmic fluidity mean that mastery can come only with consistent public performance, preferably before an informed audience.

Liebman illustrated how the classic quartet – Coltrane, McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass and Elvin Jones on drums – created a hurricane of passionate, hypnotic live music unlike anything heard before. Though driven by the leader’s vision, this new music could not have been achieved without the support of the rhythm section, whose members understood what he wanted to say and had the ability to give voice, collaboratively, to its expression. The quartet’s live performances had the intensity of a revivalist meeting. Coltrane’s horns sang with the force and cadence of a divinely inspired preacher, and tunes could literally last for hours, with members of the audience standing on chairs, shouting and waving their arms, as if touched by a supernatural force.

Technically, Coltrane’s aesthetic during this period moved away from the arpeggios of major chords, which are a critical part of most jazz, including his own earlier work, and towards fourth-based motives, as in the famous opening chant from A Love Supreme, the culminating recording of the classic-quartet period and one of the defining pieces of music of the twentieth century. As Coltrane’s biographer, Lewis Porter, has pointed out, this use of fourths ‘gives his music a serious, abstract sound and … contributes to the spiritual element.’ Of course, fourths are also critical to the blues, which anchored the spiritual fervour of the quartet’s performances to create music of great power.

Liebman conveyed this power expertly, mixing anecdote and technical detail with audio and video samples of the quartet at work. The many young musicians in attendance were utterly engaged, literally sitting at the edge of their chairs, raptly absorbing Liebman’s knowledge and passion. The lecture was like a good jazz performance, full of energy, variation and shared feeling contributing to the enrichment of a tradition. Coltrane’s work was alive in the room and, spurred by Liebman’s talent as musician and teacher, poised to influence the next generation of Irish jazz performers.

Time Beyond Time
Coltrane’s global reach and influence since his death would have gratified him. In his final years he was deeply interested in world music, which was connected to his spiritual search for a universal musical structure. He closely studied chants and ragas from Northern India, field recordings of West African drumming, English and Spanish folk songs. These studies were not random; he consciously integrated specific techniques and sonorities from these sources into his own music with single-minded purpose. As he said himself, ‘I’ve already been looking into those approaches to music – as in India – in which particular sounds and scales are intended to produce specific emotional meanings.’ He believed that his music could bring listeners happiness.

Ecstatic audiences at the Half Note and Village Vanguard would have agreed. So too would the millions who have bought A Love Supreme, enthralled by its magnificent outpouring of sound and its paradoxical genius – simple yet complex, violent yet peaceful. But there were many others who found little or no meaning in Coltrane’s later direction, especially when, over the last two years of his life, his playing became more and more abstract, with long excursions in the altissimo register, constant modulation, and shrill solos that Nat Hentoff described as ‘speaking in tongues’. Significantly, he also moved away from the steady pulse so well articulated by Garrison, Tyner and Jones. As the compilers of the Penguin Guide to Jazz put it, in his final period Coltrane was devoted to ‘the search for the time beyond time, an uncountable pulse which would represent a pure musical experience not chopped into bars and choruses.’

Audience confusion was understandable. In less than twenty-five years, jazz had moved from popular dance music to some of the most complex art music of the era. Along with Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and others, Coltrane was at the center of this shift. And the last lap of this furiously paced progression was the toughest to take. At many Coltrane concerts in 1966 and ’67, patrons began deserting him ten or fifteen minutes into the evening’s first tune, mystified by the strange sounds onstage. And these were fans who worshipped him. Many felt betrayed. Even Tyner and Jones, who left their leader during this time, said that the music being produced was ‘a lot of noise’ (though at other times they expressed more positive sentiments, and they always showed respect for Coltrane’s search).

With the benefit of hindsight and careful study, serious listeners, regardless of their taste, recognise the brave risk-taking and enduring value of this final work, particularly Meditations and Ascension, a forty-minute piece of free jazz that alternates between hollering group play and intense soloing. As Porter explains, having abandoned the use of prearranged chord changes and key centers, Coltrane ‘changed the meaning of his dissonance’. Moving from one key to another at will and exercising incredible control of dynamics, he created seamless improvisations of great emotion and freedom. This is music that strives for utter transcendence; it was as if Coltrane, whose liver disease went undiagnosed until he was close to death, knew the end was near. It is challenging listening, but awesome and influential – much of Liebman’s own impressive body of work is an example of how Coltrane’s last period has helped contemporary musicians create atonal music of huge force and invention.

What was the end for John Coltrane was, and continues to be, the beginning for many others – musicians, historians, listeners. Seeing the impact of Liebman’s lecture on the young in his audience reminded me of the first time I heard the distinctive sound of Coltrane’s horn, in 1972, when Willis Conover featured him for a solid week on the Voice of America Jazz Hour. I didn’t know what to make of it, but I knew I wanted to hear more.

Thirty-five years later, I still want to hear more. And personally, I get most satisfaction from his tenor work on studio-recorded ballads and minor blues from the classic quartet period – pieces like ‘Crescent,’ ‘The Last Blues’ or ‘Dear Lord’ – which combine his searing lyricism with improvisations, breathtaking in their technical brilliance, that sound both entirely spontaneous and as if carefully composed over time. Yet even as I express this opinion, other pieces from other periods crowd my consciousness, begging to be included: the early standards, the work with Miles and Monk, the live recordings. It is all so good and all so different – and never fails to give me that sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being, which Nabokov defines as the characteristic of all great art.

Published on 1 November 2007

Kevin Stevens is is a Dublin-based novelist and writer on history, literature, and jazz.

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