The spiritual path of John Coltrane

Coltrane 3

Having written about various jazz greats—Billie Holiday, Chet Baker (here and here), Fats Navarro, Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan, and so on (see also jazz tag)—my recent post on Charles Mingus reminded me to explore further the genius of

John Coltrane (1926–67)

Coltrane 2

Like many jazzers, he was dedicated to practice, studying technique and harmony, disciplined and constantly exploring. And while he too went through a heroin phase (managing to get clean in 1957), he seems pure, gentle, mature, without anger—unlike other greats such as Bird, Miles, and Mingus.

On film, Chasing Trane (John Scheinfeld, 2016) makes a good introduction—here’s a trailer:

as well as Ken Burns’s film Jazz (with the book). Also worth watching is the BBC documentary Saint John Coltrane (Alan Yentob, 2004). And among a wealth of biographies, I’ve been re-reading J.C. Thomas, Chasing the trane: the music and mystique of John Coltrane (1975). More importantly, I’ve been listening attentively.

Like so many others, Trane was inspired by Charlie Parker: hearing him for the first time in 1945, “it hit me right between the eyes”. Other major early influences were Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young; and he had much in common with Sonny Rollins.

Coltrane 1

Trane with Dizzy.

Before going on to lead his own bands, Trane worked with Dizzy from 1949, and with Miles from 1955. That year he married Juanita Naima Grubbs, who was the inspiration for his intimate ballad Naima, that he often played—such as on Giant steps (1959):

Naima may have become reified for us, but by contrast, here’s an extended, wild version from Live at the Village Vanguard again! (1966—with his second wife Alice on piano):

Miles Davis’s autobiography—one of the great works in the genre—has many insights on his protégé (indeed, on the whole scene). From 1955 Miles brought out Trane’s creativity, but

after he moved to New York his habit got worse, and real quick, too. I didn’t have no moral thing about Trane and all of them shooting heroin, because I had gone through that, and I knew that it was a sickness that was hard to get rid of. So I didn’t give them no grief about doing it. What I did start to get on them about was coming late and nodding up on the bandstand; I told them I couldn’t tolerate that. […]

If it had been some other player I would have fired him again after the first couple of times. But I loved Trane, I really did, although we never did hang out too much like Philly Joe and I did. Trane was a beautiful person, a really sweet kind of guy, spiritual, all of that. So you really couldn’t help loving him and caring about him, too.

Getting sacked by Miles spurred Trane to get clean after four years of addiction. As he said in the notes to A love supreme:

During the year 1957 I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music. I feel this has been granted through His grace. ALL PRAISE TO GOD.

From 1957 he also worked with Monk, another seminal influence.

Working with Monk brought me close to a musical architect of the highest order. I felt I learned from him in every way—sensually, theoretically, technically. I would talk to Monk about musical problems, and he would show me the answers by playing them on the piano. He gave me complete freedom in my playing, and no-one ever did that before.

And McCoy Tyner noted:

I once saw John with Monk, and I think he learned an incredible amount of harmonic background from him. Monk opened him up to the point where he was able to compose complex tunes like Giant Steps. I learned a lot myself just by listening to Monk play. His concept of space alone was one of the most important things he taught Coltrane; when to lay out and let someone else fill up that space, or just leave the space open. I think John was already going in that direction, but working with Monk helped him reach his goal that much faster.

Trane was ever studious. Among the books of exercises that he consulted daily was the Thesaurus of scales and melodic patterns by Nicolas Slonimsky—whose A lexicon of musical invective is a hilarious reminder of the constant shock of the new (see here, including a documentary on his life). Meanwhile, like many jazzers, Trane listened to Debussy, Ravel, Bartók, Stravinsky. And he constantly sought out saxes and mouthpieces that would better suit his sound ideal.

In 1958 Trane led his own band for Blue train, with Lee Morgan on trumpet, Curtis Fuller on trombone, Kenny Drew on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums—the bland opening chorus soon blown away:

Coltrane Miles Kind of Blue

After Miles took him back, he took part in the immortal Kind of blue (1959, virtually unrehearsed!!!)—along with Bill Evans (for the exquisite Ravelian Blue in green, see here), Cannonball Adderley, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb on drums:

Meanwhile Trane was recording Giant steps (1959). On the album My favorite things (1960) they transform the title song “into a hypnotic eastern dervish dance” (for the live 1965 version, see here). And then came Live at the Village Vanguard (1962):

including Chasin’ the trane and Softly as in a morning sunrise (Paul Berliner analyses a version of the latter in his brilliant Thinking in jazz, pp.689–708).

Like Miles, Trane went on to explore in radical directions. But their paths were very different: while Miles was shrewd alongside his own thirst for innovation, Trane was hardly concerned about commercial potential. The last time they worked together was on a tour of England in March 1960—just as I was learning violin and Chinese villagers were starving… In 1961 Trane led his own quintet on a tour of Europe.

In 1963 he played Alabama in response to the KKK church bombing—reminiscent of an Indian alap:

This playlist has many other fabulous tracks:

Apart from the great horn and bass and piano players that Trane worked with, the drive of drummers—notably Philly Joe Jones, and later Elvin Jones—was crucially important to him.

Alice
After parting with Naima, in 1963 he married Alice McLeod, who played piano in his later bands, and herself went on to develop her own style of spiritual jazz. They had three sons together—including Ravi (named after Ravi Shankar), who himself became a fine sax player.


A love supreme
and the late albums
Trane had been drawn to Eastern mysticism (whatever that is) ever since working with tenor player Yusef Lateef in Dizzy’s band in 1949. It was Lateef who directed him to Krishnamurti, and Hazrat Inayat Khan‘s Sufi treatise on the mysticism of sound.

Gradually, by way of the Cool and his 1957 epiphany, he felt able to move away from the frantic vibe of bebop in search of a deeper spirituality.

The towering result of his epiphany was A love supreme (1964), with McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums:

In Psalm, the whole of the final section (from 25.59) again reminds me of an alap.

That may well be as far as many people want to follow him. Rather like late Beethoven (just a reminder: I’m not supporting the admission of jazz to the elite club—such genres take their place alongside all human musicking!), as Trane’s quest became more mystical, his style became more extreme; with its squawks, honks and howls, it’s far from the fabled Oriental Tranquillity.

Like many others at the time, Trane was drawn to Indian philosophy and (through the influence of Yusuf Lateef) music (under the Indian tag, note this post); in 1961 he began corresponding with Ravi Shankar. As Shankar recalled after their first meeting in 1965:

Meeting John was a great surprise. Most jazz musicians I have met were not interested in anything outside of their own musical world, but here was a humble and self-effacing man with an interest in other people and their cultures like few I have ever met.

But much as he admired Trane, Shankar found his music perplexing, too full of turmoil.

As he worked with Pharaoh Sanders, Trane’s style began to resemble the free jazz of Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler. While developing new melodic styles along with Eric Dolphy and Sun Ra’s saxman John Gilmore, he became more immersed in Sufism, the Kabbala, and the polyrhythms of African drumming, influenced by Nigerian percussionist Olatunji; from 1965 he added Rashied Ali to his line-up on drums. (Again, Miles is worth reading on free jazz, and everything…)

As the early miniaturist bebop style receded, Trane gravitated to longer and longer improvisations. Even in his earlier days with Miles, as the latter questioned the increasing length of his solos, when Trane responded, “I don’t know how to stop”, Miles came back with “Try taking the fucking horn out of your mouth.” He wasn’t into Trane’s late style, finding it monotonous. Indeed, maybe it doesn’t always work: as Bill Russo commented,

Coltrane lacks the spirit of the idiom he attempts. He gets stuck, repeating figurations again and again, as if such repetition could somehow improve what little the first two or three times they occur. It doesn’t, obviously.

Anyway, Trane’s late work rewards attention. Here are some examples—Om (recorded 1965):

Ascension (1966) is exhilarating, even if I find the sheet of big-band sound more engaging than the solos that emerge from them:

Meditations (1966) (as a playlist):

On a gruelling tour of Japan in 1966, when he was already terminally ill, he played Peace on earth:

Expression (1967):

Trane’s early death may make such albums seem like a postscript, but tempting as it is to bask in the “classic” albums like Blue train, Kind of blue, and A love supreme, just imagine where he would have gone had he lived longer. If only I had been able to share all these creations with Natasha.

As ever, Miles has perceptive comments (p.384):

One of the reasons I like playing with a lot of young musicians today is because I find that a lot of old jazz musicians are lazy motherfuckers, resisting change and holding on to the old ways because they are too lazy to try something different. They listen to the critics, who tell them to stay where they are because that’s what they like. The critics are lazy, too. They don’t want to try to understand music that’s different. The old musicians stay where they are and become like museum pieces under glass, safe, easy to understand, playing that tired old shit again and again. Then they run around talking about electronic instruments and electronic musical voicing fucking up the music and the tradition. Well, I’m not like that and neither was Bird or Trane or Sonny Rollins or Duke or anybody who wanted to keep on creating. Bebop was about change, about evolution. It wasn’t about standing still and becoming safe. If anybody wants to keep creating they have to be about change. Living is an adventure and a challenge.

I needn’t burden you here with yet another lament about how limited our outlets for creativity are in WAM. But awed as I am by the creativity of jazzers generally, I’m all the more astounded by Coltrane—and the horn players, pianists, bass players, and drummers who worked with him. It takes me back to Berliner’s Thinking in jazz to try and understand in more depth what they’re all doing.

John Coltrane died at 40, yet another shooting star in the jazz world of the time, with its high rate of early deaths—such as Bird (34), Billie (44), Fats Navarro (26), Clifford Brown (25), Lee Morgan (33), Eric Dolphy (36). Chinese shawm players (comparable in some ways to jazzers: see also Deviating from behavioural norms) also often died early. Elsewhere, Mozart died at 36, Schubert at 31, and Mahler was only 50; Amy Winehouse only 27.

9 thoughts on “The spiritual path of John Coltrane

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