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[NYTimes]Coltrane at 75 (Francis Davis)

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發表發表於: 2001/09/23 22:26:38    文章主題: [NYTimes]Coltrane at 75 (Francis Davis)  收進你的MyShare個人書籤 引言回覆

Coltrane at 75: the Man and the Myths

September 23, 2001


Music is a "pure" art; a note or chord or rhythmic pattern
has no literal meaning in the way that a poem, a passage of
prose, a song lyric, a representational or even an abstract
painting can. Yet what we hear in music ?what we think we
hear, influenced by the composer's title or some other
piece of information we accept as a clue to his intentions
?gradually assumes its own reality. It is often said, for
example, that "Alabama," a prayerlike dirge written by the
saxophonist John Coltrane and recorded by him on Nov. 18,
1963, was his saddened and outraged response to a church
bombing in Birmingham, Ala., two months earlier. The
bombing, which took the lives of four young girls, was a
turning point in the civil rights movement. Yet if this was
what Coltrane meant for the piece to be "about," he kept it
to himself in the recording studio, not saying a word about
the deaths of those children to the pianist McCoy Tyner or
the drummer Elvin Jones, both of whom were sidemen at the
session. As far as they remember, the piece didn't even
have a name yet. They remember being moved by the piece,
but they don't recall Coltrane saying anything at all about
the killings after handing out the sheet music.

In my research for a Coltrane biography, the only person I
have talked to who claims to have been in the studio that
day and overheard Coltrane talk about the bombing in
reference to "Alabama" is Jarvis Tyner, the pianist's
brother, a longtime Communist who may have his own
political agenda. The liner notes for "Coltrane at
Birdland," the album on which "Alabama" was originally
released, were written by Amiri Baraka, a political
firebrand as well as a poet and playwright, and not even he
had anything to say about Birmingham in impressionistically
describing the piece.

Yet in listening to "Alabama" now, especially given its use
over footage of the bombed church and the children's
funerals in Spike Lee's 1997 film "Four Little Girls," and
the documentary television series "Eyes on the Prize," we
might think the piece lets us hear the exact moment in the
struggle for civil rights when black forbearance gave in to

Today is the 75th anniversary of Coltrane's birth, and his
influence on jazz and other forms of music shows no sign of
waning. Beginning with "Naima" and "Giant Steps," several
of his compositions have entered the standard repertory,
and no jazz musician today would be playing "My Favorite
Things," from Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Sound of Music,"
had Coltrane not established its surprising potential for
modal improvisation on a 1960 recording, transforming it
from a sugary waltz into a hypnotic raga.

Probably the number most closely associated with him during
his lifetime (a New Orleans concert promoter once billed
him as "John `My Favorite Things' Coltrane"), this unlikely
vehicle is the reason that so many alto and tenor
saxophonists since the 1960's have doubled on soprano, and
the Eastern influence that briefly dominated Coltrane's
music in its aftermath has inspired countless musicians to
look to other cultures. The most emulated of Coltrane's
methods on tenor saxophone remains his "sheets of sound" ?
critical shorthand for the rush and simultaneity of the
notes that regularly erupted from his horn in the late
1950's, when he seemed bent on exploring the chords of
whatever tune he happened to be confronting from every
possible angle at once.

But Coltrane's influence involves more than riffing on his
tunes and employing certain of his techniques. It has never
been limited to jazz ?he is frequently sampled on rap
recordings; his echo has been discernible in pop since the
Byrds' "Eight Miles High" hit the charts in 1966; the early
minimalist composers admitted to being fascinated by his
use of rhythmic cycles and harmonic drones; the mystical
aura that surrounds his music was what Stevie Wonder and
the band Earth, Wind and Fire, among other soul acts, were
going for in the 1970's, when they began gazing at the
heavens or at their own navels.

Lately, however, Coltrane's significance has begun to seem
as much symbolic as musical. Musicians far removed from him
stylistically and likely to define their own music in the
most secular terms have embraced him as a role model, or at
least have recognized the high seriousness they can claim
for themselves by dropping his name. He has come to stand
for a disciplined mind-set, a desire for spiritual ecstasy,
a vision of music as ritual and of performance as a holy
rite. Depending on what a listener wants from it,
Coltrane's music is a cry for black liberation, the
soundtrack of a spiritual quest, a backdrop for tripping,
or merely (merely!) the next evolutionary step for jazz
after bebop.

After a period as an obscure journeyman with a heroin
habit, during which he toiled anonymously in Dizzy
Gillespie's big band, Earl Bostic's small group and several
Palookaville rhythm-and-blues outfits, Coltrane began to
attract notice when he joined Miles Davis toward the end of
1955. He was a prominent figure in jazz until his death
from liver cancer in 1967, at the age of 40. In those 12
years his music changed so regularly and so quickly that he
became synonymous with the will to change. He passed
through at least four overlapping stages: his
apprenticeship with Davis and Thelonious Monk, his
sheets-of- sound period, modalism, and an ambiguous role as
both high priest and acolyte in the jazz avant-garde of the

In an overview of Coltrane's career published soon after
his death, the critic Martin Williams described him as "a
man in the middle," a soloist suspended between hard bop
and free form. But Coltrane was a man in the middle in
another way: though he was essentially apolitical (or
perhaps reluctant to voice his political convictions) and
was a practicing member of no specific religion at his
death (despite the many Christian and Islamic references in
his composition titles and a hallucination of God that
sounds very much like a typical born-again experience while
going cold turkey in 1957), he was nevertheless perceived
to be in the thick of things in the 1960's, when politics
and religion began to merge ?the beginning of a continuing
chapter in American life.

At St. John's in San Francisco ?a church named for
Coltrane, where his music is part of the liturgy and where
he was once worshiped as a deity, before being demoted to
saint after the congregation's affiliation with a branch of
the African Orthodox Church ?services are conducted with a
haloed Coltrane gazing down from two Byzantine-style
paintings, a scroll of some sort in his left hand and
tongues of fire pyramiding in the bell of the horn he holds
like a staff in his right. Although clearly meant to
signify the Pentecost (and perhaps the living hell of drug
addiction), those flames also inevitably suggest a tendency
to set Coltrane's music of the 1960's against a backdrop of
that era's wars and rumors of war ?against remembered
images of napalm dropped from helicopters and inner cities
put to the torch by their own residents. (July 17, 1967,
the night he died, was the worst night of the Newark

Jazz is often spoken of as if it were a religion, and the
founders of St. John's took literally what the pianist Red
Garland intended figuratively in 1955, when he described
Coltrane to a record producer as "the new Messiah." Garland
meant that Coltrane was the next Charlie Parker. There were
hipsters who went on a midnight picnic with Parker in Los
Angeles in the late 1940's and swore they saw him walk on
water. But this may have been the reefer talking, and not
even Parker ever had a church named for him.

"All of the monotheistic religions developed a mystical
tradition," the religious scholar Karen Armstrong points
out in "A History of God," referring to Judaism,
Christianity and Islam. "Only a few people are capable of
true mysticism, but in all three faiths (with the exception
of Western Christianity) it was the God experienced by the
mystics which eventually became normative among the
faithful." In Coltrane's case, there are listeners and
musicians for whom his journey comes to a stop after the
album "A Love Supreme," which he recorded in 1964. They
reject as ill-advised and virtually unlistenable the music
from his three final years, when he gave his blessing to
the supposed heretics of that era's avant-garde by allowing
them to share the bandstand with him. But it was during
those years that those who stuck with him began to speak of
him in mystical terms, and this is now the language applied
retroactively to even his earliest, more temporal work.

All religions have their apocrypha, and jazz is no
exception, especially when it comes to Coltrane. Even some
people who knew him personally still buy his own story that
he began toying with soprano saxophone after finding one
that had been left in the trunk of his car by an unnamed
musician to whom he gave a ride. In fact, Coltrane
purchased the soprano he used on "My Favorite Things" from
a factory in Elkhart, Ind., making a special trip there
from Chicago with the saxophonist James Moody, after
seeking advice from Steve Lacy, one of the very few
modernists to play soprano before Coltrane. The more
colorful account was Coltrane's way of taking the pressure
off until he gained adequate facility on his new horn.

He is often said to have made his 1962 album of nothing but
three- to four-minute ballads because he was suffering from
dental and embouchure problems at the time and unable to
sustain fast tempos or long improvisations. But he
continued to play fast and long in clubs, and any
saxophonist will tell you that ballads are the last thing
you want to try if your teeth are hurting and you can't
find a comfortable mouthpiece. The truth is that these
ballads were intended as jukebox singles, and that Coltrane
occasionally thought commercially.

Another popular story goes that he found out that "A Love
Supreme" had been certified gold, signifying sales of a
half-million copies, when he visited the offices of Impulse
Records a few days before his death and saw the gold record
on his producer's wall. But "A Love Supreme" was not
certified gold until late last year, and there is no
evidence to prove that Impulse ever cheated Coltrane out of

In the end, the greatest miracle performed by Coltrane
might be his success in gaining a large audience despite
representing everything that people supposedly dislike
about modern jazz, beginning with the complexity of his
solos and their sheer length. A friend of mine claims to
have once gone to hear Coltrane at a club in Boston, left
to go record shopping for an hour or so during his solo on
"My Favorite Things," and then returned to the club just in
time to hear him end with the theme. I might be inclined to
dismiss this story as apocryphal, too, except that I have
heard too many others like it.

Elvin Jones once likened Coltrane's epic performances to
black church services, which also tend to go on long; you
leave them spiritually renewed, Mr. Jones said, not
physically tired. But the analogy doesn't work, because
black congregations play active roles in their services,
whereas Coltrane put audiences in the position of playing
flies on the wall while he worked at splitting the atom.

Earlier this year, a ballad anthology was released called
"Coltrane for Lovers." The concept wasn't exactly new;
Coltrane's 1963 album with the crooner Johnny Hartman has
for decades served as high-end make- out music, something
tasteful to bring to an intimate dinner, along with a good

Coltrane certainly had a seductive way with ballads, but it
wasn't the ballads that kept the faithful coming back night
after night when he would play their local clubs in the
1960's, and it isn't the ballads that draw so many of us to
him now. At its highest level, music is a form of
mathematics, and in the work of some experimentalists you
can practically hear the click of an abacus. Coltrane draws
attention away from it by somehow making us believe that
whatever was at stake for him in his solos is also at stake
for us. More than any other performer of his time or ours,
he is a god we create, if not in our own image, then
according to our desires and beliefs.? `New' Coltrane on

The most provocative of the CD's being released in time for
John Coltrane's 75th anniversary is "The Olatunji Concert"
(Impulse 314 589 120-2). It captures his last band,
featuring the tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders and the
drummer Rashied Ali, performing a benefit for a Harlem
cultural center created by the Nigerian percussionist
Babatundi Olatunji. The concert, in April 1967, was three
months before Coltrane's death.

"Late" Coltrane, as the music is frequently referred to,
qualifies as such strictly by default; there is no way of
knowing whether he would have continued on the winding path
we hear him taking here. The free jazz movement, which he
drew as much inspiration from as it drew from him, ground
to a virtual standstill in response to his death. Poor
sound quality makes it almost impossible to judge the
merits of the two long performances on "The Olatunji
Concert," beyond noting its lacerating intensity. But that
intensity is its own reward: this is music from the only
period of Coltrane's career that remains controversial, and
the CD allows us the privilege of dropping in on disputed
history in the making.

Also recommended is "Live Trane" (Pablo 7PACD-4433), a
seven-CD box, which more than doubles the amount of
commercially released material from the European tours
Coltrane made from 1961 to 1963, and which finds him
routinely topping his greatest studio work from the same

The most wide-ranging of the various anthologies is
"Legacy" (Impulse 314 589 295-2), scheduled for release
early next year. It's a four-CD set of performances wisely
chosen by the tenor saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, John
Coltrane's son.

Still, probably the best introduction to Coltrane remains
the intact albums on which his reputation was initially
based: "Giant Steps," "My Favorite Things," "Live at the
Village Vanguard" and "A Love Supreme."


Francis Davis, a contributing editor of The Atlantic
Monthly, is the author of ``Like Young,'' a collection of
essays on music, to be published this fall.
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