Essay, Research Paper: John Coltrane


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Jazz, taking its roots in African American folk music, has evolved,
metamorphosed, and transposed itself over the last century to become a truly
American art form. More than any other type of music, it places special emphasis
on innovative individual interpretation. Instead of relying on a written score,
the musician improvises. For each specific period or style through which jazz
has gone through over the past seventy years, there is almost always a single
person who can be credited with the evolution of that sound. From Thelonius
Monk, and his bebop, to Miles Davis’ cool jazz, from Dizzy Gillespie’s big
band to John Coltrane’s free jazz; America’s music has been developed, and
refined countless times through individual experimentation and innovation. One
of the most influential musicians in the development of modern jazz is John
Coltrane. In this paper, I examine the way in which Coltrane’s musical
innovations were related to the music of the jazz greats of his era and to the
tribulations and tragedies of his life. John William Coltrane was born in
Hamlet, North Carolina, on September 23, 1926. Two months later, his family
moved to High Point, North Carolina, where he lived in a fairly well-to-do part
of town. He grew up in a typical southern black family, deeply religious, and
steeped in tradition. Both of his parents were musicians, his father played the
violin and ukulele, and his mother was a member of the church choir. For several
years, young Coltrane played the clarinet, however with mild interest. It was
only after he heard the great alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges playing with the
Duke Ellington band on the radio, that he became passionate about music. He
dropped the clarinet and took up the alto saxophone, soon becoming very
accomplished. When Coltrane was thirteen, he experienced several tragedies that
would leave a lasting impression on him and would have a great impact on the
music of his later years. Within a year, his father, his uncle, and his minister
all died. He lost every important male influence in his life. After graduating
from high school in High Point, he moved to Philadelphia in 1943, where he lived
in a small one-room apartment and worked as a laborer in a sugar-refinery. For a
year, Coltrane attended Ornstein School of Music. Then in 1945, he was drafted
into the Navy and sent to Hawaii where he was assigned to play clarinet in a
band called the Melody Makers. Upon his return from Hawaii a year later,
Coltrane launched his music career. “With all those years of constant practice
in High Point behind him, possessing a powerful inner strength from being raised
in a deeply religious family, and with a foundation in musical theory and an
innate curiosity about life, Coltrane was well prepared to seriously enter a
battle.” In the late nineteen forties, Coltrane began playing with several
different R&B groups in small bars and clubs around Philadelphia. It became
a tradition in many of the clubs at this time for musicians to “walk the
bar” (i.e. to walk on top of the bar while playing one’s instrument).
Coltrane was ashamed of having to go through this “display” every night.
“To any serious musician, it was an incredibly humiliating experience - to
someone like Coltrane, who was developing a type of religious fervor for his
music, it was devastating.” In addition to the negative self-image this
experience engendered, critics criticized his music as being too bizarre.
Coltrane became very depressed, and searching for a way out, he turned to
heroin. Heroin was a very popular drug among black musicians in the forties. It
was a uniting force that, initially, brought them together, but in the end
caused lives and careers to disintegrate. In 1949, Dizzy Gillespie invited
Coltrane to play in his big band. Gillespie had been a very influential and
important figure in the bebop movement. Bebop was a style of jazz, popular
during the late thirties and forties. It incorporated faster tempos, and more
complex phrases than the jazz of earlier years. For the first time in many
years, Coltrane felt some sense of stability in his life. However, after a
two-year stint with Gillespie, Coltrane was asked to leave because of his
unreliability due to his heroin addiction. Again, Coltrane was reduced to
“walking the bar”, and playing in seedy clubs. Depressed and dejected, his
addiction grew. It was during this time that Coltrane became very interested in
eastern philosophies. “When he was not studying or playing he spent most of
his time reading and attempting to satisfy his growing philosophical curiosity
about life. It was an inborn curiosity to a certain extent, but one that had
also developed from events from his early life such as his religious upbringing,
and the early deaths of the most important men in his life.” Life was getting
back on track for him, as he finally felt the influence of positive forces. At
this time, he met Naima, a Moslem woman, and an able musician. More than anyone,
she was able to help Coltrane pick up the broken pieces of his life. They were
soon married. In the mid-fifties, he was invited to play with Miles Davis and
his quintet. The collaboration that developed would change his life. Miles Davis
had received acclaim at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1955. Davis was dubbed the
rising star of the new avant-garde movement, cool jazz. Cool jazz was a striking
contrast to the more traditional jazz popular during the forties. It emphasized
experimentation with chords, keys, and modes, improvising on scales rather than
on sequences of chords, producing music that at times was very bizarre. This new
movement was the beginning of an experimental stage of jazz that was very
popular during the sixties. The partnership between Davis and Coltrane proved to
be an incredible learning experience for Coltrane. He began to develop a style
distinctly his own. “Coltrane poured out streams of notes with velocity and
passion, exploring every melodic idea, no matter how exotic.” This became
known as Coltrane’s “sheets of sound period”, in which he would explore
the scales of the saxophone at a speed that no one had ever achieved, creating
very dense musical textures . The Davis band did very well for a time, and made
several recordings; however, in late 1956, Coltrane was fired from the band
because of his debilitating heroin addiction. At this point, Coltrane almost
gave up music. He actually went to the New York Post Office, and filled out an
application to be a postman. He and Naima moved from New York to Philadelphia in
November of that year and lived in his mother’s house there. Again, his life
reached a low. Drugs and alcohol controlled him. Coltrane realized at this point
that he needed to choose between drugs or music. He chose music. For two-weeks,
he locked himself in his room and went through a very painful withdrawal. When
he left that room, he was a cured man, and never touched heroin or alcohol
again. During those two weeks, Coltrane had undergone a spiritual rebirth that
would send him on his quest to find “the mysterious sound” . This
transformation was documented on his album A Love Supreme (1964), considered by
many to be the best recording of his solo career. On the album cover, Coltrane
wrote- “During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual
awakening which has guided 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. I feel this has been granted through His grace. ALL
PRAISE TO GOD.” The album is divided into four parts: Acknowledgment,
Resolution, Pursuance, and Psalm. Each part details a different element of his
spiritual journey. Coltrane’s God was not Christian, Muslim, or Jewish; his
God was simply a force that provided unity and harmony. “He believed that his
humanity, his music, the material world, and God were all one, and that feeling
of unity governed his life.” In 1957, Coltrane embarked on the most important
learning experience of his life - an apprenticeship with the “High Priest of
Bebop”, Thelonius Monk. Coltrane’s style had been developed with Miles
Davis, but it was still somewhat reserved. With Monk, he was transformed into a
legend. “Monk would provide Coltrane with the key to unlock all sorts of
musical doors and free the dark and the beautiful visions Coltrane had seen
throughout his life.” With the Thelonius Monk quartet, Coltrane learned many
techniques that he incorporated into his distinctive style. Instead of
concentrating on the melodies, the group focused on the harmonic structure of a
song. At this time, Coltrane was stronger than ever. With his mature style, and
new sobriety, he was ready to set out on his own. At the end of 1958, Thelonius
Monk disbanded the group; Coltrane was about to set out on one of the most
highly regarded solo careers in the history of jazz. In the same year, he
recorded over twenty different albums with various artists, and though not
famous yet, was widely respected by his fellow musicians. His most important
work from this period was Blue Trane (1957), one of the first of his albums that
would be widely acclaimed. Critics began to laud him, and regularly gave him
good reviews. In 1957, Dom Ceruli wrote in Down Beat magazine “His playing is
constantly tense and searching; always a thrilling experience.” After the
dissolution of Monk’s group, Coltrane returned to work with Miles Davis, but
in 1960, he left to form his own band. The jazz world of the sixties belonged to
Coltrane. He pushed the limits of music, while attracting ever-bigger audiences.
It was during this time that Coltrane searched for the ‘mysterious sound’.
He once said that the sound for which he was searching was like holding a
seashell to his ear. “However one describes the strange sound, it contained
some essential truth for him, existing as an omnipresent background hum behind
the façade of everyday life.” With the John Coltrane quartet (pianist McCoy
Tyner, drummer Elvin Jones, and Reggie Workman on bass), he incorporated tribal
music from Africa, India, and the Middle East with that of the new avant-garde
movement, ‘free jazz’. Free jazz or ‘the New Thing’, like the
counter-culture of the sixties, was a nonconformist movement. It purposely
avoided the structured sounds of the cool jazz and bebop movements. Instead, it
was devoid of any structure, direction, or tonality, and was characterized by
random improvisation. As the sixties progressed, Coltrane experimented more and
more with different combinations of sounds and instruments. He became obsessed
with trying to communicate his musical vision. In 1968, Alice Coltrane (his wife
at the time) stated “I think what he was trying to do in music was the same
thing he was trying to do in his life. That was to universalize his music, his
life, his religion. It was all based on a universal concept, all-sectarian or
non-sectarian.” In the mid-sixties, Coltrane began to take LSD fairly
regularly, in an effort to help him explore in greater depth both himself and
his music. “For Coltrane and his quest, LSD was a remarkable tool to dig
deeper into his own being so he could discover the essential and absolute truth
at the center of his being.” Long time fans, however, viewed his music in this
period as being too radical, and too far-out. Coltrane felt he was losing
control over his music; his experimentation was so far-ranging on that he did
not know in what direction he wanted to go. Through it all, he never abandoned
the search for ‘the mysterious sound’. In late 1966, Coltrane knew that
there was something wrong with him. He didn’t feel right, and by early 1967,
he stopped performing in public. He knew that his death was imminent. In May of
1967, Coltrane was taken to the hospital, suffering from extreme stomach pain.
He was ordered to stay at the hospital, but left anyway. On Monday, July 17, he
passed away. The cause was liver cancer. John Coltrane’s music both led the
way and reflected the enormous varieties of experimentation and development of
American Jazz of the 1950’s and 60’s. Today, his influence is heard in the
recordings of almost every young jazz musician. A man of mysticism, whose life
was dedicated to sharing his vision of music with others, Coltrane was clearly a
creative genius.
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