What would John Coltrane be up to now if he were living today? I realize that that 's one of those questions - what if Mozart had lived longer? Or Malcolm X? Or Billie Holiday or Sam Cooke or Jimi Hendrix? What if Africa and South America had never drifted apart? For all the innate futility or plain absurdity of such questions some people can't help hut wonder. And our original question is one that recurs regularly to many of those people who are familiar with the Coltrane legacy. Hey, where do you go if you're not totally committed to, or satisfied by, jazz-rock? It like there are only a handful of artists left still interested in spontaneous group improvisation - The Art Ensemble of Chicago, Sam Rivers, McCoy Tyner, Sun Ra and his Arkestra. Cecil Taylor (you should have been at the Blues and Jazz Festival!). Would Trane have attached a wah-wah pedal to his horn?
September 23 he would have been 48 years old, and Impulse Records in this the eighth year after his abrupt death has declared September "John Coltrane Month". This means two new Coltrane releases - a third "Best Of" collection and one disc of music previously unreleased, recorded with drummer Rashied Ali. In addition, Impulse is discounting their entire extensive Coltrane catalog a full 15% to retailers thus hopefully encouraging a rush of celebratory sales. We at the SUN are seizing this opportunity to reprint sections of an interview conducted with Trane by critic Frank Kofsky during the summer of 1966.
"What's all this brouhaha," you ask? Why John Coltrane? Well, John Coltrane was simply more than a fabulous musician. His whole lifestyle was an expression of something larger than music, or rather, he redefined for many what it was that a musician was all about. As young tenor saxophonist Frank Lowe has explained, "In the beginning, I wanted to be a 'hip jazz musician.' But Coltrane changed all that. Of course, the musicians have always been a part of the community, from Buddy Bolden on down. But Coltrane re-emphasized this. He took it out of being a 'hip' musician and into being a musician of value or worth to the community. A musician to inform, a musician to relate to, a musician to raise kids by." [Down Beat; Oct. 10, 1974.] Specifically, it is the staggering life-affirming beauty and power of his recorded work and his self critical, absolutely honest stance in regards to his search for spiritual truth that we feel make John Coltrane a human worth remembering and emulating.
Coltrane started playing at a very young age and settled on the alto sax by high school. He studied at the Granoff Studios and at the Ornstein School of Music, both in Philadelphia, and continued to play alto during one year with a Navy band in Hawaii. By the time bluesman Eddie Vinson hired him (as a tenor player) in 1947, Coltrane had come under the influence of Charlie Parker. In 1948, just before joining Dizzy Gillespie, John played with the Jimmy Heath group. While Parker and Gillespie had first excited him with the idea of musical exploration, it was with Heath that the experimentation began to take shape.
In 1955 Trane joined Miles Davis for two years, leaving to work with Thelonius Monk. His association with Monk was most fruitful - "I learned from him in every way. Monk was one of the first to show me how to make two or three notes at one time on tenor." That was the beginning of the approach writer Ira Gitler was to call the "sheets of sound" and the point at which Coltrane first began to be misunderstood and abused by the critical establishment, which misunderstanding would, for the most part, continue until his death and even now persists.
In 1961 Trane formed what was to be one of the most astonishingly able quartets in jazz history with McCoy Tyner, piano. Jimmy Garrison, bass; and Elvin Jones, drums. This unit remained intact for about five years (recording the whole time for Impulse). Beginning with the firm establishment of the group, Coltrane's music began to develop far faster than a speeding bullet. He was more and more opening up the expressive possibilities of the horn and the whole group was breaking down the strict rhythmic forms of be-bop.
In the final stage's of his evolution Coltrane was ironically, characteristically learning from the men he'd originally inspired, in effect given birth to. A whole "new wave" of players, Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, Marion Brown, Joseph Jarman, and others washed onto the scene and Coltrane, always open. was moved to add more and different percussion and another horn player, a young man from Little Rock Arkansas named Pharoah Sanders.
This history is deliberately brief. The main thing is to get you to the man 's music.
Towards the very end of his life Coltrane was getting away from words, liner notes, etc. He wanted to "let the music speak for itself " However, as I read the following interview it seemed apparent that the man, at that point anyway, welcomed the opportunity to personally explain his idea after years of being misunderstood by the press, other musicians, and the public alike.
The following, presented in the interests of elucidation and illumination, is an edited version of "John Coltrane - An Interview" from "Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music " by Frank Kofsky.
Kofsky: The first thing I want to ask you about is a story that somebody told me. The first night I came here, the people I was staying with have a friend, a young lady, and she was downtown at one of Malcolm X's speeches- and lo and behold, who should pop in on the seat next to her, but John Coltrane. Right away, that whetted my curiosity, and I wanted to know how many times you have seen him, what you thought of him, and so forth.
Coltrane: That was the only time.
Kofsky : Were you impressed by him?
Coltrane: Definitely. That was the only time. I thought I had to see the man, you know. I was living downtown [in NYC], I was in the hotel, I saw the posters, and I realized that he was going to be over there so I said well, I'm going over there and see this cat because I had never seen him. I was quite impressed.
Kofsky: Some musicians have said that there's a relationship between some of Malcolm's ideas and the music, especially the new music. Do you think there's anything in that?
Coltrane: Well, I think that music, being an expression of the human heart, or of the human being itself, does express just what is happening. I feel it expresses the whole thing - the whole of human experience at the particular time that it is being expressed.
Kofsky: Another reason I asked you about Malcolm was because I've interviewed a number of musicians and the consensus seems to be that the younger musicians talk about the political issues and social issues that Malcolm talked about, when they're with each other. And some of them say that they try to express this in the music. Do you make a conscious attempt to express these issues in music?
Coltrane: Well, I tell you for myself, I make a conscious attempt. I think I can truthfully say that in music I make or I have tried to make a conscious attempt to change what I've found, in music. In other words I've tried to say "Well this I feel, could be better in my opinion, so I will try to do this to make it better." This is what I feel in any situation that we find in our lives, when there's something we think could be better, we must make an effort to try and make it better. So it's the same socially, musically, politically, and in any department of our lives.
Kofsky: Most of the musicians I have talked to are very concerned about changing society and they do see their music as an instrument by which society can be changed.
Coltrane: Well, I think so. I think music is an instrument. It can create the initial thought patterns that can change the thinking of the people.
Kofsky: In particular, some of the people have said that jazz is opposed to poverty, to suffering, and to oppression; and therefore, that jazz is opposed to what the United States is doing in Vietnam. Do you have any comments on that subject?
Coltrane: In my opinion I would say that's true, because jazz - if you want to call it that, we'll talk about that later - to me, it is an expression of music; and this music is an expression of higher ideals, to me. So therefore, brotherhood [Editor's Note: and sisterhood] is there; and I believe with brotherhood there would be no poverty. And also. with brotherhood there would be no war.
Kofsky: Do you like an audience that's perfectly still and unresponsive or do you like an audience that reacts more visibly to the music?
Coltrane: Well I guess I like an audience that does show what they feel; to respond; because it seems to me that the audience, in listening, is in an act of participation, you know. And when you know that somebody is maybe moved the same way you are, to such a degree of approaching the degree, it's just like having another member in the group.
Kofsky : What is it about [night] clubs that you don't like?
Coltrane: Well, actually, we don't play the set forty-minute kind of thing anymore, and it's difficult to always do this kind of thing now. The music, changing as it is, there are a lot of times when it doesn't make sense, man, to have somebody drop a glass, or somebody ask for some money right in the middle of Jimmy Garrison's solo. Do you know what I mean?
Kofsky: I know exactly.
Coltrane: And these kind of things are calling for some kind of presentation.
Kofsky : In other words, these really are artists who are playing, yet they're really not being treated as artists but as part of the cash register.
Coltrane: Yes, I think the music is rising. In my estimation. it's rising into something else and so we'll have to find this kind of place to be played in.
Kofsky: Why do you think conditions have been so bad for producing art by the musicians? What do you think causes these poor conditions that you 've spoken of?
Coltrane: Well. I don't know. I don't really know how it came about. Because I do know there was one time when the musicians played more dances, and they used to play theatres and all, and this took away one element, you know, but still it was hard work. l remember some of those one-nighters, it was pretty difficult.
But it just seems that the music has been directed by businessmen, I would suppose, who know how to arrange the making of a dollar, and so forth. And maybe often the artist hasn't really taken the time himself to figure out just what he wants. Or if he does feel it should be in some other way. l think these are the things which are being thought about more now. There has to be a lot of self-help, I believe. Musicians have to work out their own problems in this area.
Kofsky: You mean, for example, what the Jazz Composers Guild [an artist-controlled company] was trying to do?
Coltrane: Yes. I do think that was a good idea, l really do; and I don't think it's dead. It was just something that couldn't be born at that time. but I still think it's a good idea.
Kofsky: This is true in the history of all kinds of organizations in this country- they're not always successful the first time. But I think it's inevitable that musicians are going to try and organize to protect themselves.
Kofsky: How do you feel about having another horn in the group, another saxophone? Do you feel that in any way competes with you or that it enhances what you're doing?
Coltrane: Well, it helps me. It helps me stay alive sometimes, because physically, man, the pace I've been leading has been so hard and I've gained so much weight, that sometimes it's been a little hard physically. I feel that I like to have somebody there in case I can't get that strength. And Pharoah is very strong in spirit and will, see, and these are the things that I like to have up there.
Kofsky: Do you feel that spurs you on, the presence especially of a man as powerful as Pharoah?
Coltrane: Yes, all the time, there's always got to be somebody with a lot of power. In the old band, Elvin had this power. I always have to have somebody there, with it, you know? Rashied has it, but it hasn't quite unfolded completely; all he needs to do is play.
Kofsky: That was my impression. too, that he really was feeling his way ahead in the music and didn't have the confidence Elvin had. But then of course, look how long Elvin was with you before-
Coltrane: He was there, Elvin was there for a couple of years- although Elvin was ready from the first time I heard him, you know. I could hear the genius there but he had to start playing steadily, every night.... With Miles [Davis] it took me around two and a half years, l think, before it started developing, taking the shape that it was going to take.
Kofsky: That's what's so tragic about the situation of the younger musicians now: they don't have that opportunity to play together.
Coltrane: Yes, it certainly needs to be done. It should be happening all the time and the men would develop sooner.
Kofsky : Have you listened to many of the other younger saxophonists besides Pharoah?
Coltrane: Yes, Albert Ayler first. I've listened very closely to him. He's something else.
Kofsky: Could you see any relationship between what you were doing and what he was doing; In other words, do you think he has developed out of some of your ideas?
Coltrane: Not necessarily: I think what he's doing, it seems to be moving music into even higher frequencies. Maybe where I left off, where he's started, or some thing.
Kofsky: Well, in a sense, that's what I meant.
Coltrane: Yes. Not to say that he would copy bits and that, but just that he filled an area that it seems I hadn't gotten to.
Kofsky: Because I don't see any saxophonist now who isn't playing something that you haven't at least sketched out before. But maybe you would rather not think about that.
Coltrane: No, because like it's a big reservoir that we all dip out of. And a lot of times, you'll find that a lot of those things.... I listened to John Gilmore kind of closely before 1 made "Chasin' the Trane," too. So some of those things on there are really direct influences of listening to this cat, you see. But then I don't know who he'd been listening to, so...
Kofsky: Why do you think there's been all this hostility to the new music, especially in your case?
Coltrane: Oh, man, I never could figure it out! I couldn't even venture to answer it now. Because as I told them then, I just feel that they didn't understand.
Kofsky: Do you think they were making as conscientious and thorough an attempt to understand as they could have?
Coltrane: At the time I didn't feel they were, because I did offer them, in an article in Down Beat, that if any of you men were interested in trying to understand, let's get together and talk about it, you know; instead of just condemning what you don't know about. But no one ever came forth, so I don't think they wanted to know what I had to say about it.
Kofsky: I think it frightened them. [Composer/trumpeter] Bill Dixon and I talked about this at great length, and he said: "Well these guys. it's taken them years to pick out 'I Got Rhythm' on the piano and now the new music comes along and undermines their entire career."
Coltrane: Yes. I dug it like that too. I said, "Well this could be a real drag to a cat if he figures this is something that he won't be able to cope with and he won't be able to write about." If he can't write about it he can't make a living at this; and then I realized that, so I quieted down. I wouldn't allow myself to become too hostile in return. Although there was a time I kind of froze up on those people at Down Beat. I felt that there was something there that wasn't - I felt that they were letting their weakness direct their actions, which l didn't feel they should have. The test was for me. They could do what they wanted to. The thing for me was to remain firm in what I was doing. That was a funny period in my life, because I went through quite a few changes, you know, like home life - everything, man, I just went through so many... everything I was doing.
Kofsky: The perfect time to hit you!
Coltrane: Everything I was doing was like that, it was a hell of a test for me, and it was coming out of it, it was just like I always said, man: when you go through these crises and you come out of them, you're definitely stronger, in a great sense.
Kofsky: I looked at the Down Beat Jazz Critics Polls two years in a row, and both years, this and last year, l noticed that European critics are much more in favor of the new music than the Americans. Almost 50 percent to 60 percent of them would vote for new musicians, whereas, say only about a quarter of the Americans. Is this what you found in Europe? -or in general, have you found outside the United States that your music is more favorably received by the critics, the power structure, shall we say, than in the U.S.?
Coltrane: I'd say in the new music - and when I say new music, I mean most of the younger musicians that are starling out - I know that they definitely have found a quicker acceptance in Europe than they have here. When I started. It was a little different because I started through Miles Davis, who was an accepted musician and they got used to me here in the States. Now when they first heard me with Miles here, they did not like it. So it's just one of those things: everything that they haven't heard yet and that's a little different, they are going to reject it at first. But the time will come around, the time when they will like it. When we went to Europe the first time, it was a shock to them there. They booed me and everything in Paris, because they just weren't with it. But now I find, the last time I was in Europe, it seems that the new music-they've really opened up. They can hear it there better than they do here.
Kofsky: Do you make any attempt or do you feel that you should make any attempt, to educate your audience in ways that aren't strictly musical? That is, it's obvious that you want your audience to understand what you're doing musically. But do you feel that you want them to understand other things, too, and that you have some kind of responsibility for it?
Coltrane: Sure, I feel this, and this is one of the things I am concerned about now. I just don't know how to go about this. I want to find out just how I should do it. I think it's going to be very subtle. you can't ram philosophies down anybody's throat, and the music is enough! That's philosophy. I think the best thing I can do at this time is to try to get myself in shape and know myself. If I can do that, then I'll just play, you see, and leave it at that. I believe that will do it, if I really can get to myself and be just as I feel I should be and play it. And I think they'll get it, because music goes a long way - it can influence.
Kofsky: That's how I got interested in those things l was talking about earlier, Malcolm X. I might not have come to it, or come to it as fast, if it hadn't been for the music. That was my first introduction to something beyond my own horizons, that would make me think about the world I was living in.
Coltrane: Yes. That's what I'm sure of, I'm really sure of this thing. As l say, there are things which as far as spirituality is concerned, which is very important to me at this time, I've got to grow through certain phases of this to other understanding and more consciousness and awareness of just what it is that I'm supposed to understand about it; and I'm sure others will be part of the music. To me, you know, I feel I want to be a force for good.
Kofsky: And the music too?
Coltrane: Everywhere. You know, I want to be a force for real good. In other words, I know that there are bad forces, forces put here that bring suffering to others and misery to the world, but I want to be the force which is truly for good.
Edited by Bill Adler
COLTRANE BRIEF DISCOGRAPHY :
Art of John Coltrane, Atlantic 2-313
Coltrane, Impulse S-21
Coltrane Time (w Cecil Tavlor), U.A. 5638
Expression, Impulse 9120
Impressions, Impulse 42
Live at Birdland, Impulse 50
Live at the Village Vanguard Again, Impulse 9124
A Love Supreme, Impulse 77
More Lasting Than Bronze, Prestige 24014
Sunship, Impulse 9211
Africa/Brass, Impulse S-6
Blue Train, Blue Note 81577
"Once you become aware of this force for unity in life, you can't ever forget it. My goal in meditating on this through music is to uplift people, to inspire them to realize more of their capacities for living meaningful lives. Because there certainly is meaning to life."
- John Coltrane