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Sons of Miles
REMEMBERING JOHN COLTRANE - "I Can't Do Any More Than What I'm Doing."
by Mike Zwerin
11 June 1998


John Coltrane died exactly 31 years ago, on July 17th 1967. This is not an important big round number but you do not need a pretext to look at a calendar to remember Coltrane.

I first heard him exactly 40 years ago, in the summer of 1958. He was working with Thelonious Monk in the Five Spot on The Bowery. It was a painters' bar, I lived in a loft around the corner, the beer was cheap. After going there five straight evenings, I realized neither price nor convenience had anything to do with it. I just couldn't stay away. I wanted more and more of that wonderful sound.

His sound seemed funny to me the first night. I read somewhere that important new ideas go through three phases - the joke, the threat, and the obvious. At that time in general, I realized later, he was somewhere between phase one and two. It was "funny" but his ideas and articulation threatened me. Threatened just about everybody.

I did not understand where he was coming from or trying to go to. I had temporarily stopped playing my horn and was working a day job I hated for the money. He made me feel really shaky about my life without music. Time was already passing me by.

It reminds me of the French audience that booed him in the Olympia in Paris a few years later. The producer Frank Tenot apologized for them to Coltrane after the concert. Tenot said that the public did not understand what he was doing. He had gone too far for them.

"No." Trane replied. "I didn't go far enough."

That may have been my problem. In fact it was witnessing his fierce internal struggle that had turned me around. A year later, I had quit the day job and was playing trombone with Maynard Ferguson's big band in Birdland opposite Coltrane with the Miles Davis Quintet. Trane was trying to learn how to split notes. Tri-tones would come out of the kitchen behind the bandstand all night long, whenever he wasn't on-mike.

Jump cut. The summer of 1967. Full of contradictions for me. I was living in a house in Saint-Tropez rented with the fee for a Playboy story about poverty-stricken "free jazz" musicians. I heard what came to be called jazz-rock fusion for the first time when the Soft Machine performed in a play by Pablo Picasso, "Desire Caught By The Tail." It was the summer of Sergeant Pepper, and the Beatles were turned on loud everywhere, you'd hear the album all night long blasting out through just about every door and window in the village. It was the first time I listened seriously to rock and roll. Obviously, I had been missing something. Sergeant Pepper could do that to a bebop snob.

Then I received a cable from my employer the Village Voice in New York saying that John Coltrane had died of liver cancer on July 17. Would I write something?

I wrote about my experience in Saint Tropez, including the Soft Machine and the Beatles. Greenwich Village jazz purists not unlike my old self objected to my dealing with both Coltrane and the Beatles and an English rock band in the same obituary. To make things worse, I dealt with Jimi Hendrix too. He had broken through that same summer, and I heard spirituality not unlike Trane's in his music.

In 1970, at Hendrix's funeral, Miles Davis told a journalist: "I wish I'd had a chance to play with Jimi. But that's okay - he's playing with Coltrane now." My point of view was vindicated. By Miles, no less. But nobody remembered my obituary by then and who cared anyway. There is nothing more frustrating than being right after the fact. You want to tell people: "You see? I was right." "About what?" they ask. Boring.

John Coltrane

Coltrane, who understood much more than me, told Leonard Feather: "I never thought about whether or not people understand what I'm doing. The emotional reaction is all that matters. As long as there's some feeling of communication, it isn't necessary that it be understood."

By the time he died, his influence was pervasive. Other saxophonists figured that if Coltrane was playing tritones, they'd better learn too (the threat). After "My Favorite Things," with Trane on soprano sax, the Down Beat poll no longer classified that instrument in the "miscellaneous" category. It was obviously an instrument on its own.

And by a generation later, his "funny" sound and striving articulation had become the standard stuff of the tenor saxophone. His harmonic innovations began to be analyzed in "Coltrane 101" courses.

John Coltrane was born of a musically trained mother and a preacher father in 1926 in Hamlet, North Carolina, and he grew up in a segregated but relatively comfortable small town environment. He roller-skated to school with his friends. They listened to Ella Fitzgerald sing "A tisket A Tasket." His high school teacher told Coltrane's biographer, C. O. Simpkins: "He was a strong-willed, determined and creative young man who always expressed the desire to do something in music."

After a time in the navy, he switched from alto to tenor sax to work with bluesman Eddie (Cleanhead) Vinson. (He said that he'd dreamt that Charlie Parker told him to play tenor.) He played with Dizzy Gillespie's big band, with Earl Bostic and with a band led by his chidhood hero, Johnny Hodges, about which he said: "We played honest music and nothing was superficial."

Raisins and butter-rum lifesavers had replaced more insidious chemicals by the time he came into his own with Miles; and you could still hear his debt to Dexter Gordon between what came to be called his "sheets of sound." In 1960, an interviewer for Swedish radio asked what he thought about critics calling his music "agressive." The answer came in his gentle voice: "Maybe it sounds angry because I'm trying to play so many things at one time. You see, I have a whole bag of things I'm trying to acclimate my ear to hear. I'm not familiar enough with them to play one single line so I try them all. I'm trying to work through to the essential."

Whitney Balliet wrote in The New Yorker: "People said they heard the dark nights of the Negro in Coltrane's wildest music, but what they really heard was a heroic and unique lyrical voice at the mercy of its own power."

His explosive combination of spiritual energy and intellectual prowess went beyond succes and even beyond music into the metaphysical. He studied Eastern religions, Islam, the Torah. He read books about mathematics, personal improvement, van Gogh, African history and yoga.

His record collection included African, early English, Greek and Indian music. Adding seven bars in E minor and 23 in E major to "My Favorite Things" and playing it for 45 minutes made it sound more like a raga than a Rodgers and Hammerstein waltz. (This was several years before the Beatles went Indian on "Norwegian Wood.") He named one of his children Ravi.

Improvisation was his vehicle for a search for self-knowledge, unity and the holy spirit. It led him to the Hindu concept of Om, which he defined as "the first vibration - that sound, that spirit which sets everything else into being."

The longer he played, the more you wanted to hear. Once after a 30-minute solo accompanied by the surging time of Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner's insistent chords and Jimme Garrison's muscular bass, Coltrane was driven to fall on his knees by the intensity of it all. A large baldheaded man wearing only a loin cloth ran up to the stage, raised his arms and shouted: "Col-trane!" The audience rose and shouted with him "Col-trane! Col-trane!" People kissed his hand as he walked out.

He disliked being restricted by any sort of rules whatsoever. He told Wayne Shorter that he was trying to learn how to start in the middle of a sentence and move in both directions at the same time. About Schoenberg's 12-note system, he said: "Damn the rules. It's the feeling that counts. You play all 12 notes anyway."

He had not worn underwear since he was 18, and he once wore a pair of stylish but uncomfortable new shoes only long enough to show to his mother. ("Damn the rules.") Musicians called him "an angel" and "a saint." Freddie Hubbard said he felt "kind" when he was around him. The New York Daily News said he had "the future coming out of his horn."

He enjoyed puttering around the 12-room house he bought in Huntington, New York in 1965. (The "constant vibration" in the ground in Manhattan had bothered him.) "In music it's the little things that count," he said. "Like the way you build a house. You get all the little important things together and the whole thing will stand up."

When not working he went to bed before 11 and awoke early to take care of his garden. He heard music in his dreams. Shopping with his wife, Alice, he would practice his flute in the supermarket. By this time, he was grossing $200,000 a year, a lot of money in the sixties. His houses in Philadelphia and New York were owned by Coltrane Realty. He drove a Jaguar.

But he was not content with obvious rewards, he moved into a new "joke" phase with free-form musicians like Pharoah Sanders, Rashid Ali, Eric Dolphy and his wife Alice, a pianist. The audience requested "Summertime" and "But Not For Me," old friends begged him to bring his music back inside. In 1966, toward the end of a three-hour "tune," Jimmy Garrison, the only member of the original quartet left, picked up his bass and walked off the stage.

"You know, that's going to cost you a hundred dollars," Coltrane told him later. Garrison said it didn't matter because he could not figure out what was going on and wanted to leave anyway.

"James, I understand," Coltrane said. "It's difficult for me too. But I can't do any more than what I'm doing."


Photo: John Coltrane
Courtesy: Impulse

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