John Coltrane at 90

coltrane

For those whose definition of genius is either too encompassing or excessively narrow, John Coltrane poses no problems: there isn’t anyone who knows anything about music (in general) and jazz (in particular) who would contest that he’s among the most prominent, impressive and influential artists to ever master an instrument. Furthermore, to put Coltrane and the skills he developed in their simplest perspective, it might be suggested that no one has ever done anything as well as Coltrane played the saxophone. Plus, he was an exceptionally gifted composer and bandleader and, by all accounts, he was a generous and gentle human being, as well. All of which is to say, if there is anyone worthy of celebration in our contemporary American Idol Apocalypse, Coltrane should serve as both antidote and inspiration.

Coltrane’s prime years, the decade between 1957 and 1967, seem concise enough by typical human and even artistic standards. However, he recorded so much and went through so many profound changes, it’s near impossible to convey the scope of his achievements—and impact. Early on, it was apparent that Coltrane pursued his dream with an intensity bordering on obsession. “He attacked his (musical) problems,” Jimmy Heath once recalled. “He zoomed in until he solved it.”  Coltrane quickly but methodically cultivated an unsurpassed proficiency, and then he kept pushing. Like Charles Mingus and Dizzy Gillespie (and many others), Coltrane initially emulated the bebop progenitor Charlie Parker and listened to western classical music, especially the work of Stravinsky. Even in his formative years, though, Coltrane was already resisting the accepted (and acceptable) limitations and straining to explore the possibilities of his instrument.

In his compositions, the quest was salvation through music: initially celebrated for his famous “sheets of sound”, Coltrane continued to expand and grow, incorporating Eastern elements and extended improvisations. His live performances became legendary endurance tests, for the audience more than the performer. Coltrane was restless, but not because he was otherwise preoccupied or tortured; indeed he was the rarest of artistic breeds: focused and serene, uncomfortable only when he was unable to practice. By all accounts, his dedication to his craft remains unrivaled.

It’s worth quoting, in full, these observations by drummer Rashied Ali, (from an interview with Howard Mandel), who played with Coltrane in the last years of his life.

He never stopped playing. When I used to go to hear ‘Trane, he would always be playing. He would be playing in his dressing room. He would be playing before he got to me. Just like a fighter would warm up in the dressing room, he’d come out in the ring and he’d be sweating from warming up, he would do the same thing in the dressing room. He would just play and play and play. He would break a sweat in the dressing room and then when he would come out on the bandstand, he had all that — I don’t know where he got that energy from. He was relentless.

He always had an instrument in his hand.  He was always playing something. He was always trying to be better than he was and it seemed like, you know, how could he get better? How could he do anything better than that, than what he’s done already? And after playing all these years with all these different people…the man still had a vision that he could be better than he was and he was still practicing.

jc

Of course, Coltrane’s music was not universally embraced during the final years he was able to record and play. His solos became longer and (much) more intense, yet no matter how many listeners he alienated, it was apparent that in order to push the audience, he first had to push himself. Roscoe Mitchell, commenting on this spiritual searching, has likened Coltrane’s later music to what he witnessed in churches growing up, with people transporting into religious trances. This—the music and the explanation—is where more than a few draw the line; it’s just too out there; too much for the human ear. Coltrane contained multitudes, but his music, after 1964, was often uncontainable.

Coltrane knew where he was going, however, even if he couldn’t quite define what he was looking for. His wife Alice remarked that Coltrane was following a “progression toward higher spiritual realization…and development.” That type of sentiment can, and perhaps should, make people wary, but with Coltrane it was no pose, and this was no joke.

It was all over far too quickly. As is too often the case with our greatest artists, Coltrane fell ill and passed away long before his time should have come. It scarcely computes, even now, that the man making the music he recorded in early 1967 (particularly the shattering if cathartic Interstellar Space) was months from losing a battle with cancer. Where he would have headed had he lived is truly difficult to imagine. It remains more than a little startling, to consider the growth and refinement he demonstrated every few years, commencing in the mid-to-late ‘50s. Where he might have gone next is anyone’s guess, but it’s also safe to surmise that he took his instrument, and music, as far as anyone possibly could.

To understand the trajectory that took Coltrane from sheets of sound to A Love Supreme, it’s instructive to consider his composition “Alabama”, recorded in 1963. Inspired by the disgraceful 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, Coltrane said of his elegy: “It represents, musically, something that I saw down there translated into music from inside me.” It is one of his enduring and devastating performances wherein Coltrane, already considered amongst jazz music’s most emotional and sensitive players, manages to articulate the grief and the rage the occasion called for. A deeply spiritual man, Coltrane conveys the immutable senselessness of violence instigated by ignorance, but also hints at the redemption of peaceful power through unified awareness. As only he could, Coltrane crafts a solo that is angry, somber, and somehow hopeful; a subdued epitaph for the innocent dead, but also a rallying cry for the not-so-innocent bystanders who needed to join the cause. The Alabama bombing was a tipping point in the civil rights movement, and Coltrane captured that moment where confusion and rage inspired an outpouring of solidarity.

A quote from Flannery O’Connor: “Dear God please help me to be an artist, please let it lead to you.” It’s clear that, for O’Connor, the journey was as important as the destination: being a good Catholic, she not only accepted that she’d have to suffer, she expected it. Coltrane’s suffering, for some time, involved the self-imposed heroin addiction he finally kicked in 1957 (years of alcohol abuse undoubtedly contributed to his eventual liver cancer). The liner notes to A Love Supreme, written by Coltrane and addressed to the audience (Dear Listener, they begin) leave little doubt what the album was “about” and exactly what inspired its creation—and its creator:

ALL PRAISE BE TO GOD TO WHOM ALL PRAISE IS DUE. Let us pursue Him in the righteous path. Yes it is true; “seek and ye shall find.” Only through Him can we know the most wondrous bequeathal. During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead 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.

It might be suggested we’ve never seen, in modern art, more abundant or eloquent evidence of Art leading to God than A Love Supreme. (And, if we can collectively embrace the notion that “God is Love”, no ecclesiastical concerns need sully the discussion.) It serves as a consecration of sorts, a personal yet intensely spiritual expression: finally, Coltrane was able to filter all that intensity into a perfect chalice, never before, or after, was his vision so focused yet peaceful. The music—and message—is a force of nature the listener must let wash over them, while repeated listens will refresh and renew.

Coltrane reached a point where he attempted to achieve some type of artistic if not spiritual consecration. He then went even further and sought to transcend the insanity altogether, altering consciousness through a profoundly moving colloquy. That he attempted this is remarkable; that he was able to achieve it remains miraculous.

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O’Connor and Coltrane: Saints of American Art

saint-coltrane-2-368x400

i.

I never, until this year, made the explicit connection between John Coltrane and Flannery O’Connor.

Why should I have?

One was an introverted white woman, a southern writer who tackled the Big Questions with a mordant élan and irony that’s seldom been surpassed. In her short stories, the themes of identity, religion and salvation get interrogated by and through a series of characters that are, by turns, innocent, evil and grotesque. Above all, they are fallible: whatever their station in life, the issue that obsessed O’Connor was Grace and whether or not we could get good with God, regardless of where He placed us or what He put in our pathway.

The other was a quiet but prolific black saxophonist, a man born in North Carolina who migrated to the cultural center of the musical universe, New York City, where he then participated in some of the most beloved recordings of the ’50s and ’60s. In his songs, the quest was salvation through music: initially celebrated for his famous “sheets of sound”, Coltrane continued to expand and grow, incorporating Eastern elements and extended improvisations. His live performances became legendary endurance tests, for the audience more than the performer. Coltrane was restless, but not because he was otherwise preoccupied or tortured; indeed he was the rarest of artistic breeds: focused and serene, uncomfortable only when he was unable to practice. By all accounts, his dedication to his craft remains unrivaled.

As Coltrane’s masterwork, A Love Supreme, celebrates its fiftieth anniversary in 2015 (and has just been reissued, again, with never-before heard material), and I finally found the time to read O’Connor’s journal entries, collected as A Prayer Journal (first released in late 2013), the question became: how could I not have made the connection between these two icons?

While reading (and then re-reading) A Prayer Journal, which obliged me to revisit (again) O’Connor’s selected prose, best or most easily found in Mystery and Manners, I could not stop thinking about Coltrane in general, A Love Supreme in particular. Considering them side by side, I was struck by one thing above all: these were artists who, due to circumstances as well as compulsion(s), cultivated an almost monastic approach to their art. Perhaps because illness claimed both of them entirely too soon (Coltrane died of cancer in ’67, aged 41; O’Connor of lupus in ’64, aged 39) theirs is a kinship forged in tragedy. Perhaps because they are both undisputed masters of their respective crafts who lived during roughly the same era it’s easier to associate them. But it’s their aesthetic sensibility that links them in ways few other artists of any genre can claim.

 

ii.

One need not be intimately familiar with O’Connor’s oeuvre to appreciate the exceedingly brief but extraordinary—and revealing—meditations contained in A Prayer Journal. Of course, anyone who has read, and savored her work will find the material, written in 1946 and 1947 while she was studying at the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop, at once affirming and revelatory.

O’Connor’s unwavering allegiance to her craft leaves little to the imagination: she wrote, she talked about writing, she thought about writing and she wrote about writing. Allegedly, she ate and slept on occasion. “In my stories is where I live,” she said, a statement applicable on a variety of levels. And so, the people who stand to be fascinated by this distinctly uneventful life are the very people who might be enlightened by reading about it: writers. O’Connor’s monk-like commitment to her vocation could and should be a study guide for all aspiring scribblers. Never mind that dedication like hers is probably impossible to imitate today because of all the noise—electronic and digital—distracting us. There’s also the fact that her work is inimitable: the style; the substance; the entire package is pretty much unparalleled in American letters.

I tend to feel uncomfortable throwing the G word around, but if any American writer of the last century could be called a genius, O’Connor is near the top of the short list. She didn’t manage to write the great American novel (though she may well have, had she been given even a few more years), but her best collected stories go toe-to-toe with any of the great white males (and females for that matter). She also happened to approach perfection on at least three occasions, with “Revelation”, “Everything That Rises Must Converge” and “A Good Man Is Hard To Find”. It’s the last of these three that most people know; like Beethoven’s Fifth and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, its ubiquity tends to diminish its actual import. As a remarkable point of fact, it’s even better than most people realize (and most people, if for no other reason than that they are told, recognize these things as immortal).

What O’Connor manages to do, in less than twenty pages, with “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” is lay bare the essence of what Dostoyevsky and, to a lesser extent, Tolstoy grappled with in their biggest (and sometimes bloated) novels: the nature of man, the existence of God, the possibility of Grace and the symbiotic tension between violence and love. When The Misfit declares (ironically, truthfully) “It’s no real pleasure in life”, he is (O’Connor is) succinctly expressing our fundamental philosophical and literary dilemma, post-Descartes. Beyond whether God exists (Tolstoy) or why God torments us (Dostoyevsky), and right to the darkened heart of the matter: we may betray God, but God betrayed us first.

As a reader and especially a writer, one can learn a great deal by studying her stories. Has any other writer so consistently applied mechanical precision with such emotional heft? Has any other author wrestled with the so-called big issues without using stick figures or preachy didactics? Take “Revelation”, for instance: O’Connor fits notions of class, the dilemmas of southern identity, religious fervor, old-school bigotry and redemption into one story. In fact, she pretty much pulls it off on a single page (and that last page not only invokes, but obliges the use of such otherwise unforgivable words as “haunting”, “chilling” and “moving”). More, the concluding image of “a vast horde of souls rumbling toward heaven” that includes the disenfranchised leading a troop of so-called respectable citizens—who of course have assumed their station by luck of the biological draw—whose “virtues were being burned away”, might achieve the impossible, serving as an allegory to satisfy both the devoted and the faithless. Consider that. This type of writing, needless to say, is inspiring but is also intimidating. My initial (and in many cases, ongoing) reaction to reading an O’Connor story is to ask, in awe, How did she do that?

georgia-flannery-oconnor-portable

Yet aside from the singular example she sets, what should (can) one, living today, take from her hermetic life style in terms of practical application? Probably the same thing one might take from any worthwhile practitioner: whatever one can. It’s that simple, and it’s that unfathomable. For starters, one should be heartened (or, more likely, devastated) by the fact that even our greatest artists often struggle, and realize that the life they embark upon is likely to be painful and unprofitable. “What first stuns the young writer emerging from college,” she wrote in 1948, “is that there is no clear-cut road for him to travel on. He must chop a path in the wilderness of his own soul; a disheartening process, lifelong and lonesome.”

In her journal, she implored God to “give me the courage to stand the pain to get to the grace.” O’Connor was not granted nearly the time she needed—or deserved—to continue perfecting her craft. But we are all fortunate she had the years, not to mention the fortitude and faith, to leave behind her unique, inexhaustible bounty. Her work is like her life: full of beauty, full of pain.

iii.

For those whose definition of genius is either too encompassing or excessively narrow, John Coltrane poses no problems: there isn’t anyone who knows anything about music (in general) and jazz (in particular) who would contest that he’s among the most prominent, impressive and influential artists to ever master an instrument. Furthermore, to put Coltrane and the skills he developed in their simplest perspective, it might be suggested that no one has ever done anything as well as Coltrane played the saxophone. Plus, he was an exceptionally gifted composer and bandleader and, by all accounts, he was a generous and gentle human being, as well. All of which is to say, if there is anyone worthy of celebration in our contemporary American Idol Apocalypse, Coltrane should serve as both antidote and inspiration.

Coltrane’s prime years, the decade between 1957 and 1967, seem concise enough by typical human and even artistic standards. However, he recorded so much and went through so many profound changes, it’s near impossible to convey the scope of his achievements—and impact. Early on, it was apparent that Coltrane pursued his dream with an intensity bordering on obsession. “He attacked his (musical) problems,” Jimmy Heath once recalled. “He zoomed in until he solved it.”  Coltrane quickly but methodically cultivated an unsurpassed proficiency, and then he kept pushing. Like Charles Mingus and Dizzy Gillespie (and many others), Coltrane initially emulated the bebop progenitor Charlie Parker and listened to western classical music, especially the work of Stravinsky. Even in his formative years, though, Coltrane was already resisting the accepted (and acceptable) limitations and straining to explore the possibilities of his instrument.

It’s worth quoting, in full, these observations by drummer Rashied Ali, (from an interview with Howard Mandel), who played with Coltrane in the last years of his life.

He never stopped playing. When I used to go to hear ‘Trane, he would always be playing. He would be playing in his dressing room. He would be playing before he got to me. Just like a fighter would warm up in the dressing room, he’d come out in the ring and he’d be sweating from warming up, he would do the same thing in the dressing room. He would just play and play and play. He would break a sweat in the dressing room and then when he would come out on the bandstand, he had all that — I don’t know where he got that energy from. He was relentless.

He always had an instrument in his hand.  He was always playing something. He was always trying to be better than he was and it seemed like, you know, how could he get better? How could he do anything better than that, than what he’s done already? And after playing all these years with all these different people…the man still had a vision that he could be better than he was and he was still practicing.

Of course, Coltrane’s music was not universally embraced during the final years he was able to record and play. His solos became longer and (much) more intense, yet no matter how many listeners he alienated, it was apparent that in order to push the audience, he first had to push himself. Roscoe Mitchell, commenting on this spiritual searching, has likened Coltrane’s later music to what he witnessed in churches growing up, with people transporting into religious trances. This—the music and the explanation—is where more than a few draw the line; it’s just too out there; too much for the human ear. Coltrane contained multitudes, but his music, after 1964, was often uncontainable.

Coltrane knew where he was going, however, even if he couldn’t quite define what he was looking for. His wife Alice remarked that Coltrane was following a “progression toward higher spiritual realization…and development.” That type of sentiment can, and perhaps should, make people wary, but with Coltrane it was no pose, and this was no joke.

It was all over far too quickly. As is too often the case with our greatest artists, Coltrane fell ill and passed away long before his time should have come. It scarcely computes, even now, that the man making the music he recorded in early 1967 (particularly the shattering if cathartic Interstellar Space) was months from losing a battle with cancer. Where he would have headed had he lived is truly difficult to imagine. It remains more than a little startling, to consider the growth and refinement he demonstrated every few years, commencing in the mid-to-late ‘50s. Where he might have gone next is anyone’s guess, but it’s also safe to surmise that he took his instrument, and music, as far as anyone possibly could.

To understand the trajectory that took Coltrane from sheets of sound to A Love Supreme, it’s instructive to consider his composition “Alabama”, recorded in 1963. Inspired by the disgraceful 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, Coltrane said of his elegy: “It represents, musically, something that I saw down there translated into music from inside me.” It is one of his enduring and devastating performances wherein Coltrane, already considered amongst jazz music’s most emotional and sensitive players, manages to articulate the grief and the rage the occasion called for. A deeply spiritual man, Coltrane conveys the immutable senselessness of violence instigated by ignorance, but also hints at the redemption of peaceful power through unified awareness. As only he could, Coltrane crafts a solo that is angry, somber, and somehow hopeful; a subdued epitaph for the innocent dead, but also a rallying cry for the not-so-innocent bystanders who needed to join the cause. The Alabama bombing was a tipping point in the civil rights movement, and Coltrane captured that moment where confusion and rage inspired an outpouring of solidarity.

Another quote from O’Connor: “Dear God please help me to be an artist, please let it lead to you.” It’s clear that, for O’Connor, the journey was as important as the destination: being a good Catholic, she not only accepted that she’d have to suffer, she expected it. Coltrane’s suffering, for some time, involved the self-imposed heroin addiction he finally kicked in 1957 (years of alcohol abuse undoubtedly contributed to his eventual liver cancer). The liner notes to A Love Supreme, written by Coltrane and addressed to the audience (Dear Listener, they begin) leave little doubt what the album was “about” and exactly what inspired its creation—and its creator:

ALL PRAISE BE TO GOD TO WHOM ALL PRAISE IS DUE. Let us pursue Him in the righteous path. Yes it is true; “seek and ye shall find.” Only through Him can we know the most wondrous bequeathal. During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead 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.

It might be suggested we’ve never seen, in modern art, more abundant or eloquent evidence of Art leading to God than A Love Supreme. (And, if we can collectively embrace the notion that “God is Love”, no ecclesiastical concerns need sully the discussion.) It serves as a consecration of sorts, a personal yet intensely spiritual expression: finally, Coltrane was able to filter all that intensity into a perfect chalice, never before, or after, was his vision so focused yet peaceful. The music—and message—is a force of nature the listener must let wash over them, while repeated listens will refresh and renew.

O’Connor wanted to jolt you with the violent shock of recognition, and achieve some type of artistic if not spiritual consecration; Coltrane wanted to transcend the insanity altogether, altering consciousness through a profoundly moving colloquy. That he attempted this is remarkable; that he was able to achieve it remains miraculous.

This essay originally appeared in The Weeklings on 12/9/15.

 

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No One Has Ever Done Anything as Well as John Coltrane Played the Saxophone

trane1

9/23/14: Today would have been the great one’s 88th birthday. Respect.

***

5/1/2010:

The question isn’t, really, about who might be interested in this documentary; it is about who might not be. For fans who already know everything, or those indifferent to jazz music altogether, this would not qualify as essential viewing. For everyone and anyone else, how on Earth could you pass up the opportunity to better understand one of the top-tier jazz geniuses of the last century—or any century?

For those whose definition of genius is either too encompassing or excessively narrow, John Coltrane poses no problems: there isn’t anyone who knows anything about music (in general) and jazz (in particular) who would contest that he is among the most prominent, impressive and influential artists to ever master an instrument. Furthermore, to put Coltrane and his unsurpassed proficiency in its simplest perspective, it might be suggested that no one has ever done anything as well as Coltrane played the saxophone.

Plus, he was an exceptionally gifted composer and bandleader and, by all accounts, he was a generous and gentle human being, as well. All of which is to say, if there is anyone worthy of celebration in our contemporary American Idol Apocalypse, Coltrane should serve as both antidote and inspiration.

Coltrane’s prime years, the decade between 1957 and 1967, seem concise enough by typical human and even artistic standards. However, he recorded so much and went through so many profound changes, it’s near impossible to convey the scope of his achievements—and impact—in a single documentary. It is, therefore, a severe limitation attempting to present any type of overview in 60-minutes, which is precisely what The World According to John Coltrane does.

One wishes the original material (this reissue was initially released in 1990) could have been expanded, or at least embellished with additional concert footage. On the other hand, even an hour of Coltrane is, in a sense, overwhelming. Considering that consequential projects could be undertaken to address Coltrane’s years on the Prestige label (late ‘50s), his momentous collaborations with Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, his years on the Atlantic label (early ‘60s) and especially his years on the Impulse! label up to, and after, A Love Supreme (in ’65), a 60-minute effort is at once ludicrous and, to be fair, probably necessary.


The World According to John Coltrane follows the obligatory chronological timeline, briefly passing through his youth (the influence of his deeply faithful mother and the church music that filled his childhood were significant sources of inspiration throughout his career), then his post-military dues paying on the live circuit. Several of his contemporaries, such as Jimmy Heath, Wayne Shorter, Roscoe Mitchell and Rashied Ali are interviewed, all lending insight and echoing the unanimous awe with which so many musicians regard Coltrane.

Early on, it was apparent that Coltrane pursued his dream with an intensity bordering on obsession. “He attacked his (musical) problems,” Heath recalls. “He zoomed in until he solved it.” Coltrane quickly but methodically cultivated an unparalleled proficiency, and then he kept pushing. Like Charles Mingus and Dizzy Gillespie (and many others), Coltrane initially emulated the bebop progenitor Charlie Parker and listened to western classical music, especially the work of Stravinsky. Even in his formative years, though, Coltrane was already resisting the accepted (and acceptable) limitations and straining to explore the possibilities of his instrument. According to Wayne Shorter, “he played the saxophone more like a piano or even a violin.”

Working in the first classic Miles Davis quintet while also recording his first sessions (for Prestige) as a leader, Coltrane steadily developed his fluid, exuberant style which famously came to be known as “sheets of sound”. The apotheosis of this evolution occurred in the miraculous year of 1959, which, among several other classic recordings, witnessed the releases of both Kind of Blue and Giant Steps. The footage, albeit awfully brief, of Miles’ solo casually sliding into Trane’s on “So What” is a bit more than simply historic: we didn’t get to see Notre Dame being built or The Statue of David being sculpted, but we do have the opportunity to witness some of the most brilliant musicians on the planet performing one of our best-loved albums. In the context of that seminal year, and this documentary, these are not simply all-time masterpieces so much as material that functioned as an obvious culmination of sorts as well as a point of departure (for both Davis and Coltrane).

After Giant Steps Coltrane would expand upon the modal concept perfected on Kind of Blue and, along with a budding interest in Eastern cultures and the avant-garde, fully embrace what was coming to be called free jazz. After 1960, one can hear the imprint of Ornette Coleman alongside the harmonic algebra of Monk and Miles, all bubbling under the surface of an increasingly intense and emotional approach to songwriting (and soloing). Rashied Ali, who worked closely with Coltrane in the final years of his life, compares him to a competitive athlete: “He was like a fighter who warms up in the dressing room; he’d break a sweat (backstage)…he was always playing.” This combination of restless energy and relentless exploration led to concert experiences that were as exhausting for audiences as they were for the musicians.

The sessions that produced My Favorite Things (1961)—a composition Trane would return to and reconfigure repeatedly in the ensuing years—are a touchstone for Coltrane’s next leap forward. Described in the documentary as a “hypnotic Eastern dervish dance”, this innocuous Rodgers/Hammerstein song became a springboard for an extensive, irresistible solo, showcasing Coltrane’s lucid yet multisyllabic way of conversing with his instrument. The footage of the “classic quartet” (McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass and Elvin Jones on drums) tearing into this piece is more than worth the paltry price of admission. It is exhilarating to watch Coltrane—at his peak— in action, while the band steams in support. Literally. This particular clip was recorded in black-and-white at an outdoor festival, and throughout the performance it appears a smoke machine has been set up on stage until, after a while, it becomes apparent that actual waves of steam are pouring off Garrison and especially Jones.

There is more footage, including the quartet augmented by the amazing Eric Dolphy—who collaborated and performed with Coltrane throughout 1960 and 1961—which is priceless and, considering how prematurely both these men left the world, more than a little heartbreaking. The highlight, however, has to be the full performance of Coltrane’s epic protest piece “Alabama”: what Coltrane accomplishes here could cause even the most cynical hater of humanity to feel humbled by the uniquely moving and profoundly positive force of musical expression.

Of course, Coltrane’s music was not universally embraced during the final years he was able to record and play. His solos became longer and (much) more intense, yet no matter how many listeners he alienated, it was apparent that in order to push the audience, he first had to push himself. Roscoe Mitchell, commenting on this spiritual searching, likens Coltrane’s later music to what he witnessed in churches growing up, with people transporting into religious trances. This—the music and the explanation—is where more than a few draw the line; it’s just too out there.

Coltrane knew where he was going, however, even if he could not quite define what he was looking for. His wife Alice remarks that Coltrane was following a “progression toward higher spiritual realization…and development.” That type of sentiment can, and perhaps should, make people wary (this being the ‘60s, etc.) but with Coltrane it was no pose, and this was no joke. Not for nothing is A Love Supreme considered one of the most important, and affecting, albums in all of jazz. And later, even amidst the sonic uproar, came majestic and tranquil offerings like “Dear Lord” and “To Be”.

It was all over far too quickly. As is too often the case with our greatest artists, Coltrane fell ill and passed away long before his time should have come. It scarcely computes, even now, that the man making the music he recorded in early 1967 (particularly the shattering if cathartic Interstellar Space was months from losing a battle with cancer. Where he would have headed had he lived is truly difficult to imagine. It remains instructive, and more than a little startling, to consider the growth and refinement he demonstrated every few years, commencing in the mid-to-late ‘50s. Where he might have gone next is anyone’s guess, but it’s also safe to surmise that he took his instrument, and music, as far as anyone possibly could.

The World According to John Coltrane is an anti-documentary of sorts in the sense that we don’t have scholars or critics opining on who the man was and what he meant. Rather, we have the crucial and illuminating insight of contemporaries reminiscing about what it was like to be there, and what it’s like now, having lived through it all. That, along with the invaluable footage of the music being performed, speaks more eloquently and appropriately than even the most well-meaning expert (or DVD review, for that matter) is capable of doing.

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O’Connor and Coltrane: Two Saints of American Art

I never, until this week, made the explicit connection between John Coltrane and Flannery O’Connor.

And why should I have?

One was an introverted white woman, a southern writer who tackled the Big Questions with a mordant elan and irony that has never been surpassed. In her short stories, the themes of identity, religion and salvation are interrogated by and through a series of characters who are, by turns, innocent, evil and grotesque. Above all, they are fallible: whatever their station in life, the issue that obsessed O’Connor was Grace and whether or not we could get good with God, regardless of where He placed us or what He put in our pathway.

The other was a quiet but prolific black saxophonist, a man born in North Carolina who migrated to the cultural center of the musical universe, New York City, where he participated in some of the most beloved recordings of the ’50s and ’60s. In his songs, the quest was salvation through music: initially celebrated for his famous “sheets of sound”, Coltrane continued to expand and grow, incorporating Eastern elements and extended improvisations. His live performances became legendary endurance tests, for the audience more than the performer. Coltrane was restless, but not because he was otherwise preoccupied or tortured; indeed he was the rarest of artistic breeds: focused and serene, uncomfortable only when he was unable to practice. By all accounts, his dedication to his craft remains unrivaled.

How could I not have made the connection?

Fortuitously, I came upon two pieces this week, one a new review (of O’Connor and her work), the other an old interview (with Rashied Ali, who played with Coltrane in the last years of his life). Reading them side by side, I was struck by one thing above all: these were artists who, due to circumstances as well as compulsion(s), cultivated an almost monastic approach to their art. Perhaps because illness claimed both of them entirely too soon (Coltrane died of cancer in ’67, aged 41; O’Connor of lupus in ’64, aged 39) there is a kinship forged in tragedy. Perhaps because they are both undisputed masters of their respective crafts who lived during roughly the same era it’s easier to associate them. But it is their aesthetic approach that links them in ways few other artists of any genre can claim.

James Parker’s excellent piece in The Atlantic discusses A Prayer Journal, “the contents of a devotional notebook that O’Connor—a turbocharged Catholic—kept from January 1946 to September 1947, while she was a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Money quote: On the surface, as O’Connor’s biographer, Brad Gooch, tells it in Flannery, she was a quiet but significant classroom presence: “She scared the boys to death with her irony,” remembered one visiting lecturer, Andrew Lytle. Beneath the surface, as recorded on the 47 and a half handwritten pages to which we now have access (A Prayer Journal includes a facsimile), she was refining her vocation with the muscularity and spiritual ferocity of a young saint-in-waiting. The first page or pages of the notebook have been lost, and it begins—how poetic is this?—mid-sentence, with “effort at artistry.”

O’connor’s unwavering allegiance to her craft leaves little to the imagination: she wrote, she talked about writing, she thought about writing and she wrote about writing. Allegedly, she ate and slept on occasion. “In my stories is where I live,” she said, a statement applicable on a variety of levels. And so, the people who stand to be fascinated by this distinctly uneventful life are the very people who might be enlightened by reading about it: writers. O’Connor’s life, and her monk-like approach to her vocation could and should be a study guide for all aspiring scribblers. Never mind that dedication like hers is probably impossible to imitate today because of all the noise, electronic and digital, distracting us. There is also the inconsiderable reality that her work is inimitable. The style, the substance, the entire package is pretty much unparalleled in American letters.

I tend to feel uncomfortable throwing the G word around, unless I’m speaking about jazz musicians. But if any writer in the last 100 years could be called a genius, O’Connor is near the top of the short list. She did not manage to write the great American novel (though she may well have, had she been given even a few more years), but her best collected stories go toe-to-toe with any of the great white males (and females for that matter). She also happened to approach perfection on at least three occasions, with “Revelation”, “Everything That Rises Must Converge” and “A Good Man Is Hard To Find”. It is the last of these three that most people know; like Beethoven’s Fifth and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, its ubiquity tends to diminish its actual import: it’s even better than most people realize (and most people, if for no other reason than that they are told, recognize these things as immortal).

What O’Connor manages to do, in less than twenty pages, is nail the essence of what Dostoyevsky and, to a lesser extent, Tolstoy grappled with in their biggest (and sometimes bloated) novels: the nature of man, the existence of God, the possibility of Grace and the symbiotic tension between violence and love. When The Misfit declares (ironically, truthfully) “It’s no real pleasure in life”, he is (O’Connor is) expressing, in remarkably succinct fashion, the fundamental philosophical and literary dilemma, post-Descartes. Beyond whether God exists (Tolstoy) or why God torments us (Dostoyevsky), and right to the heart of the matter: we may betray God, but God betrayed us first.

Anyway, O’Connor remains somewhat of a conundrum: one can learn a great deal by studying her stories. Has any other writer so consistently applied mechanical precision with such emotional heft? Has any other writer wrestled with the so-called big issues without using stick figures or preachy didactics? Take “Revelation”, for instance: O’Connor fits class issues, southern identity dilemmas, religious fervor, old-school bigotry and redemption into one story. In fact, she pretty much pulls it off on a single page (and that last page not only invokes, but obliges the use of such otherwise unforgivable words as “haunting”, “chilling” and “moving”). This type of writing, needless to say, is inspiring but is also intimidating. My initial (and in many cases, ongoing) reaction to reading an O’Connor story is to ask, in awe, “How did she do that?”

Yet aside from the singular example she sets, what is one, living today, to take from her hermetic life style in terms of practical application? Probably the same thing one might take from any worthwhile practitioner: whatever one can. It’s that simple, and it’s that unfathomable. For starters, one should be heartened (or, more likely, devastated) by the fact that even our greatest artists often struggle, and realize that the life they embark upon is likely to be painful and unprofitable. “What first stuns the young writer emerging from college,” she wrote in 1948, “is that there is no clear-cut road for him to travel on. He must chop a path in the wilderness of his own soul; a disheartening process, lifelong and lonesome.” What she said.

For those whose definition of genius is either too encompassing or excessively narrow, John Coltrane poses no problems: there isn’t anyone who knows anything about music (in general) and jazz (in particular) who would contest that he is among the most prominent, impressive and influential artists to ever master an instrument. Furthermore, to put Coltrane and his unsurpassed proficiency in its simplest perspective, it might be suggested that no one has ever done anything as well as Coltrane played the saxophone. Plus, he was an exceptionally gifted composer and bandleader and, by all accounts, he was a generous and gentle human being, as well. All of which is to say, if there is anyone worthy of celebration in our contemporary American Idol Apocalypse, Coltrane should serve as both antidote and inspiration.

Here is the interview with Rashied Ali, conducted by Howard Mandel. It is well-worth reading in full, but here are some key quotes:

He never stopped playing. When I used to go to hear ‘Trane, he would always be playing. He would be playing in his dressing room. He would be playing before he got to me. Just like a fighter would warm up in the dressing room, he’d come out in the ring and he’d be sweating from warming up, he would do the same thing in the dressing room. He would just play and play and play. He would break a sweat in the dressing room and then when he would come out on the bandstand, he had all that — I don’t know where he got that energy from. He was relentless.

He always had an instrument in his hand.  He was always playing something. He was always trying to be better than he was and it seemed like, you know, how could he get better? How could he do anything better than that, than what he’s done already? And after playing all these years with all these different people…the man still had a vision that he could be better than he was and he was still practicing. You know, after awhile you stop practicing. This man was in his 40s, right? And he had played with everybody and he was still playing everyday. So that was a profound statement as far as I was concerned.

Of course, Coltrane’s music was not universally embraced during the final years he was able to record and play. His solos became longer and (much) more intense, yet no matter how many listeners he alienated, it was apparent that in order to push the audience, he first had to push himself. Roscoe Mitchell, commenting on this spiritual searching, likens Coltrane’s later music to what he witnessed in churches growing up, with people transporting into religious trances. This—the music and the explanation—is where more than a few draw the line; it’s just too out there.

Coltrane knew where he was going, however, even if he could not quite define what he was looking for. His wife Alice remarks that Coltrane was following a “progression toward higher spiritual realization…and development.” That type of sentiment can, and perhaps should, make people wary (this being the ‘60s, etc.) but with Coltrane it was no pose, and this was no joke. Not for nothing is A Love Supreme considered one of the most important, and affecting, albums in all of jazz. And later, even amidst the sonic uproar, came majestic and tranquil offerings like “Dear Lord” and “To Be”.

It was all over far too quickly. As is too often the case with our greatest artists, Coltrane fell ill and passed away long before his time should have come. It scarcely computes, even now, that the man making the music he recorded in early 1967 (particularly the shattering if cathartic Interstellar Space) was months from losing a battle with cancer. Where he would have headed had he lived is truly difficult to imagine. It remains instructive, and more than a little startling, to consider the growth and refinement he demonstrated every few years, commencing in the mid-to-late ‘50s. Where he might have gone next is anyone’s guess, but it’s also safe to surmise that he took his instrument, and music, as far as anyone possibly could.

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No One Has Ever Done Anything as Well as John Coltrane Played the Saxophone (Revisited)

The question isn’t, really, about who might be interested in this documentary; it is about who might not be. For fans who already know everything, or those indifferent to jazz music altogether, this would not qualify as essential viewing. For everyone and anyone else, how on Earth could you pass up the opportunity to better understand one of the top-tier jazz geniuses of the last century—or any century?

For those whose definition of genius is either too encompassing or excessively narrow, John Coltrane poses no problems: there isn’t anyone who knows anything about music (in general) and jazz (in particular) who would contest that he is among the most prominent, impressive and influential artists to ever master an instrument. Furthermore, to put Coltrane and his unsurpassed proficiency in its simplest perspective, it might be suggested that no one has ever done anything as well as Coltrane played the saxophone.

Plus, he was an exceptionally gifted composer and bandleader and, by all accounts, he was a generous and gentle human being, as well. All of which is to say, if there is anyone worthy of celebration in our contemporary American Idol Apocalypse, Coltrane should serve as both antidote and inspiration.

Coltrane’s prime years, the decade between 1957 and 1967, seem concise enough by typical human and even artistic standards. However, he recorded so much and went through so many profound changes, it’s near impossible to convey the scope of his achievements—and impact—in a single documentary. It is, therefore, a severe limitation attempting to present any type of overview in 60-minutes, which is precisely what The World According to John Coltrane does.

One wishes the original material (this reissue was initially released in 1990) could have been expanded, or at least embellished with additional concert footage. On the other hand, even an hour of Coltrane is, in a sense, overwhelming. Considering that consequential projects could be undertaken to address Coltrane’s years on the Prestige label (late ‘50s), his momentous collaborations with Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, his years on the Atlantic label (early ‘60s) and especially his years on the Impulse! label up to, and after, A Love Supreme (in ’65), a 60-minute effort is at once ludicrous and, to be fair, probably necessary.


The World According to John Coltrane follows the obligatory chronological timeline, briefly passing through his youth (the influence of his deeply faithful mother and the church music that filled his childhood were significant sources of inspiration throughout his career), then his post-military dues paying on the live circuit. Several of his contemporaries, such as Jimmy Heath, Wayne Shorter, Roscoe Mitchell and Rashied Ali are interviewed, all lending insight and echoing the unanimous awe with which so many musicians regard Coltrane.

Early on, it was apparent that Coltrane pursued his dream with an intensity bordering on obsession. “He attacked his (musical) problems,” Heath recalls. “He zoomed in until he solved it.” Coltrane quickly but methodically cultivated an unparalleled proficiency, and then he kept pushing. Like Charles Mingus and Dizzy Gillespie (and many others), Coltrane initially emulated the bebop progenitor Charlie Parker and listened to western classical music, especially the work of Stravinsky. Even in his formative years, though, Coltrane was already resisting the accepted (and acceptable) limitations and straining to explore the possibilities of his instrument. According to Wayne Shorter, “he played the saxophone more like a piano or even a violin.”

Working in the first classic Miles Davis quintet while also recording his first sessions (for Prestige) as a leader, Coltrane steadily developed his fluid, exuberant style which famously came to be known as “sheets of sound”. The apotheosis of this evolution occurred in the miraculous year of 1959, which, among several other classic recordings, witnessed the releases of both Kind of Blue and Giant Steps. The footage, albeit awfully brief, of Miles’ solo casually sliding into Trane’s on “So What” is a bit more than simply historic: we didn’t get to see Notre Dame being built or The Statue of David being sculpted, but we do have the opportunity to witness some of the most brilliant musicians on the planet performing one of our best-loved albums. In the context of that seminal year, and this documentary, these are not simply all-time masterpieces so much as material that functioned as an obvious culmination of sorts as well as a point of departure (for both Davis and Coltrane).

After Giant Steps Coltrane would expand upon the modal concept perfected on Kind of Blue and, along with a budding interest in Eastern cultures and the avant-garde, fully embrace what was coming to be called free jazz. After 1960, one can hear the imprint of Ornette Coleman alongside the harmonic algebra of Monk and Miles, all bubbling under the surface of an increasingly intense and emotional approach to songwriting (and soloing). Rashied Ali, who worked closely with Coltrane in the final years of his life, compares him to a competitive athlete: “He was like a fighter who warms up in the dressing room; he’d break a sweat (backstage)…he was always playing.” This combination of restless energy and relentless exploration led to concert experiences that were as exhausting for audiences as they were for the musicians.

The sessions that produced My Favorite Things (1961)—a composition Trane would return to and reconfigure repeatedly in the ensuing years—are a touchstone for Coltrane’s next leap forward. Described in the documentary as a “hypnotic Eastern dervish dance”, this innocuous Rodgers/Hammerstein song became a springboard for an extensive, irresistible solo, showcasing Coltrane’s lucid yet multisyllabic way of conversing with his instrument. The footage of the “classic quartet” (McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass and Elvin Jones on drums) tearing into this piece is more than worth the paltry price of admission. It is exhilarating to watch Coltrane—at his peak— in action, while the band steams in support. Literally. This particular clip was recorded in black-and-white at an outdoor festival, and throughout the performance it appears a smoke machine has been set up on stage until, after a while, it becomes apparent that actual waves of steam are pouring off Garrison and especially Jones.

There is more footage, including the quartet augmented by the amazing Eric Dolphy—who collaborated and performed with Coltrane throughout 1960 and 1961—which is priceless and, considering how prematurely both these men left the world, more than a little heartbreaking. The highlight, however, has to be the full performance of Coltrane’s epic protest piece “Alabama”: what Coltrane accomplishes here could cause even the most cynical hater of humanity to feel humbled by the uniquely moving and profoundly positive force of musical expression.

Of course, Coltrane’s music was not universally embraced during the final years he was able to record and play. His solos became longer and (much) more intense, yet no matter how many listeners he alienated, it was apparent that in order to push the audience, he first had to push himself. Roscoe Mitchell, commenting on this spiritual searching, likens Coltrane’s later music to what he witnessed in churches growing up, with people transporting into religious trances. This—the music and the explanation—is where more than a few draw the line; it’s just too out there.

Coltrane knew where he was going, however, even if he could not quite define what he was looking for. His wife Alice remarks that Coltrane was following a “progression toward higher spiritual realization…and development.” That type of sentiment can, and perhaps should, make people wary (this being the ‘60s, etc.) but with Coltrane it was no pose, and this was no joke. Not for nothing is A Love Supreme considered one of the most important, and affecting, albums in all of jazz. And later, even amidst the sonic uproar, came majestic and tranquil offerings like “Dear Lord” and “To Be”.

It was all over far too quickly. As is too often the case with our greatest artists, Coltrane fell ill and passed away long before his time should have come. It scarcely computes, even now, that the man making the music he recorded in early 1967 (particularly the shattering if cathartic Interstellar Space was months from losing a battle with cancer. Where he would have headed had he lived is truly difficult to imagine. It remains instructive, and more than a little startling, to consider the growth and refinement he demonstrated every few years, commencing in the mid-to-late ‘50s. Where he might have gone next is anyone’s guess, but it’s also safe to surmise that he took his instrument, and music, as far as anyone possibly could.

The World According to John Coltrane is an anti-documentary of sorts in the sense that we don’t have scholars or critics opining on who the man was and what he meant. Rather, we have the crucial and illuminating insight of contemporaries reminiscing about what it was like to be there, and what it’s like now, having lived through it all. That, along with the invaluable footage of the music being performed, speaks more eloquently and appropriately than even the most well-meaning expert (or DVD review, for that matter) is capable of doing.

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Interpolating A Poem: As Opposed To Prayer*

I.

Nervous and unnerved this evening, alone:
Searching for solace, something not unlike prayer,
A hope that the past will not repeat itself,
Progress: a preemptive strike, this procedure
(They call it a procedure when
They expect nothing unexpected).
Precedence and percentages: our family has a history,
Meaning that some part of someone who has died
Might be alive and unwelcome and somewhere inside.

Remembering: immeasurable moments, IVs and all
The unpleasant things you can’t force yourself to forget.
Bad days, worse days, glimpses of serenity then grief,
A flash focus of forced perspective—this too shall pass.
Then, inevitably, earlier times: I recall
When doctors and dentists handled us with bare hands.
Still living, then, in a past the future had not
Crept up on, a time when the truth was believable,
Because the only lies that children can tell
Get told to escape tiny troubles they’ve created.

(I’m scared, I said.

But you know I’ll never leave you, right? I would never leave this place without you.

And I did know it. I believed her. It wasn’t the fear of being left alone (even an eight year old knows that is irrational, even if he could not explain it); it was the fear itself. It’s the fear itself, I did not say, because how can an eight year old articulate a concept he can’t understand? How do you convey the dread, bubbling up like blood from a scraped knee, brought on without warning or reason—the inexplicable consequence of chemistry? Only once it becomes established, a pattern, do you remember to expect it, even if you don’t understand it. Anticipation of a word you do not know and a sensation you cannot (yet) communicate: anxiety.

I’ll never leave you, she said. And I always believed her. It was never enough, but it was all she could do, other than never leaving my sight. Even I could understand that. Years and too many close calls to count later, I finally figured out that you had to go through that moment, alone, and then it would never be the same. The fear disappeared and everything would be okay. It was the dread of not knowing, yet knowing it was always inside, that made those moments so difficult to deal with. You had to experience it, and get through it, and then that awful, ineradicable fear subsided.)

II.

And so I am uneasy and it’s not even myself
I am thinking about: frightened all over again
For my mother, and I can do nothing for her
Now, just as I could do nothing for her, then.
A cycle: she had seen her own mother suffer
While each of them made their anxious inquiries,
Appeals entreating the darkening clouds, out of time.

Like her son, she eventually became acquainted
With the white-walled world of procedures
And all that happens—before, during, after and beyond:
Hope and fear, faith then despair—the nagging need
To believe in men and the magic of machines.
Or the things we say when no one is speaking.

(Fourth time’s the charm, I did not say, but I knew.

We all did. 1997, 2000, 2001 and now, 2002. Each previous time we’d avoided the verdict, dodged the bullet, lived to fight another day, embraced whatever cliché we could beg, borrow or steal.

This time, we knew. The surgeons would slice her open and see it. It’s in there; it’s everywhere, they would say. And then they would stitch her back together and deliver the news, all grim business. And we would bow our heads and pray for God’s blessing, as we’d been instructed in those weekly services that transport ritual and inculcate compliance. Tradition, that resilient escutcheon handed down through so many generations. They would see, she would show, and we could tell. Which is exactly the way it happened.)

III.

I’m so scared, she said, to anyone who was listening.
I know I was, and we hoped that God was,
The God who may have done this and a million other things
In His austere, always unaccountable way.
In the end: she feared the truth but not the reasons why
Awful things always happen to almost everyone.
Me, I envied the armor of her fear, I understood
I could not even rely on those lovely lies
About a God I can’t bring myself to believe in.

We were there: a child and the man
Who brought me into this calculus.
(We are made in God’s image, they say,
But it’s your parents’ faces you see when
You look at pictures and see the future.)

He said what needed to be said: nothing,
And I said what he said. After all,
What were we supposed to say, the truth?
The truth was this: we too were scared.

(How do you get over the loss?

That was the question I asked an old girlfriend who lost her father when she was a teenager. To cancer, of course. “You don’t,” she said. It’s just as awful as you’d imagine, she did not say. She did not have to; because you can’t imagine and you don’t want to imagine. How could you imagine? And, oddly enough, that succinct, painfully honest answer was more comforting than it sounded. In a way, when you think about it (does everyone think about it? Are some people able to avoid thinking about it?) there is an unexpected salve in that sentiment: you don’t get over it. Or, by not getting over it, that is how you survive it. It becomes part of you, and it is henceforth an inviolable aspect of your existence, like a chronic condition you inherit or develop along the way and manage as best you can (sometimes medications work).

This is important, because as Americans, we tend to think in terms of explanations and equations: how do I solve this riddle? We tend to inquire: how long until it’s okay again? I can handle the pain (I think) if I know how to endure it. Once you get your mind around the notion that the pain never goes away, it is, strangely enough, easier to incorporate into your life. You keep reading, you keep eating, you keep sleeping, you keep loving, you keep mourning and you never stop remembering. And, above all, you keep living.)

IV.

I’m so scared, she said, and we told her
It was going to be okay, we told her
We had reason to believe and we told her
Other things when the things we’d already told her
Turned out to be untrue. We never told her
The truth, which was that we were lying.

Fear and faith are useful if you can afford either/
Or, fear is free and lingers always, longer.
After it has served its purposeless point,
Like a stain on the street, days later.
Dying is nothing to be daunted by, it’s living
That takes the toll: living with death,
Living with life, being unprepared or unwilling
To be unafraid when it’s finally time to die.

(I’m so scared, she said, more of a whisper than spoken words.

But more than that: she was breathless with fear. It was the dread of anticipation; the fear of expectation, and the certainty of seeing what she’d already seen. The next day we would know, but we already knew.

My old man, balanced on the farthest edge of where he could allow himself to go, went into comfort mode, the autopilot of assurance spiked with insistence. “Relax,” he said (not unsoothingly). “It will be fine.”

It was his call, his place to have the final say. I deferred, and we left the room, the lie following us into the elevator like a solemn cloud. We drove away from the hospital separately and I have no idea what I listened to on the way home but I’m certain it helped.

I’m so scared, I thought, knowing we’d likely played our last hand and that we were in a rigged game the house always won. You were free to deal yourself as much hope as you could afford, but that currency can only carry you as far as the trump card the dealer is holding—the one He’s always held.

I’m so scared, she said, but I knew she’d fall asleep. She will be out as soon as the lights go off, I thought. She is too tired and too spent to worry herself into a restless night. Alone, in a strange place familiar only because of its function. The only solace an awareness that in the end, all of us go through it alone.

I’m so scared, she said, and I’ll never forget the fear in her face or the apprehension in her voice. And I’ll never forgive myself for not staying in her room to keep her company that night.)

V.

I’m so scared, I say, to anyone
Who may be listening in the silence,
Wondering if they can do more for me
Than we could manage to do for her.
There is no one left to lie to—yet
The truth, as always, is immutable.
And so, if you are out there, please help me
To absolve this dread that no one can hear.

* From a non-fiction work-in-progress entitled Please Talk About Me When I’m Gone.

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No One Has Ever Done Anything as Well as John Coltrane Played the Saxophone

The question isn’t, really, about who might be interested in this documentary; it is about who might not be. For fans who already know everything, or those indifferent to jazz music altogether, this would not qualify as essential viewing. For everyone and anyone else, how on Earth could you pass up the opportunity to better understand one of the top-tier jazz geniuses of the last century—or any century?

For those whose definition of genius is either too encompassing or excessively narrow, John Coltrane poses no problems: there isn’t anyone who knows anything about music (in general) and jazz (in particular) who would contest that he is among the most prominent, impressive and influential artists to ever master an instrument. Furthermore, to put Coltrane and his unsurpassed proficiency in its simplest perspective, it might be suggested that no one has ever done anything as well as Coltrane played the saxophone.

Plus, he was an exceptionally gifted composer and bandleader and, by all accounts, he was a generous and gentle human being, as well. All of which is to say, if there is anyone worthy of celebration in our contemporary American Idol Apocalypse, Coltrane should serve as both antidote and inspiration.

Coltrane’s prime years, the decade between 1957 and 1967, seem concise enough by typical human and even artistic standards. However, he recorded so much and went through so many profound changes, it’s near impossible to convey the scope of his achievements—and impact—in a single documentary. It is, therefore, a severe limitation attempting to present any type of overview in 60-minutes, which is precisely what The World According to John Coltrane does.

One wishes the original material (this reissue was initially released in 1990) could have been expanded, or at least embellished with additional concert footage. On the other hand, even an hour of Coltrane is, in a sense, overwhelming. Considering that consequential projects could be undertaken to address Coltrane’s years on the Prestige label (late ‘50s), his momentous collaborations with Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, his years on the Atlantic label (early ‘60s) and especially his years on the Impulse! label up to, and after, A Love Supreme (in ’65), a 60-minute effort is at once ludicrous and, to be fair, probably necessary.


The World According to John Coltrane follows the obligatory chronological timeline, briefly passing through his youth (the influence of his deeply faithful mother and the church music that filled his childhood were significant sources of inspiration throughout his career), then his post-military dues paying on the live circuit. Several of his contemporaries, such as Jimmy Heath, Wayne Shorter, Roscoe Mitchell and Rashied Ali are interviewed, all lending insight and echoing the unanimous awe with which so many musicians regard Coltrane.

Early on, it was apparent that Coltrane pursued his dream with an intensity bordering on obsession. “He attacked his (musical) problems,” Heath recalls. “He zoomed in until he solved it.”  Coltrane quickly but methodically cultivated an unparalleled proficiency, and then he kept pushing. Like Charles Mingus and Dizzy Gillespie (and many others), Coltrane initially emulated the bebop progenitor Charlie Parker and listened to western classical music, especially the work of Stravinsky. Even in his formative years, though, Coltrane was already resisting the accepted (and acceptable) limitations and straining to explore the possibilities of his instrument. According to Wayne Shorter, “he played the saxophone more like a piano or even a violin.”

Working in the first classic Miles Davis quintet while also recording his first sessions (for Prestige) as a leader, Coltrane steadily developed his fluid, exuberant style which famously came to be known as “sheets of sound”. The apotheosis of this evolution occurred in the miraculous year of 1959, which, among several other classic recordings, witnessed the releases of both Kind of Blue and Giant Steps. The footage, albeit awfully brief, of Miles’ solo casually sliding into Trane’s on “So What” is a bit more than simply historic: we didn’t get to see Notre Dame being built or The Statue of David being sculpted, but we do have the opportunity to witness some of the most brilliant musicians on the planet performing one of our best-loved albums. In the context of that seminal year, and this documentary, these are not simply all-time masterpieces so much as material that functioned as an obvious culmination of sorts as well as a point of departure (for both Davis and Coltrane).

After Giant Steps Coltrane would expand upon the modal concept perfected on Kind of Blue and, along with a budding interest in Eastern cultures and the avant-garde, fully embrace what was coming to be called free jazz. After 1960, one can hear the imprint of Ornette Coleman alongside the harmonic algebra of Monk and Miles, all bubbling under the surface of an increasingly intense and emotional approach to songwriting (and soloing). Rashied Ali, who worked closely with Coltrane in the final years of his life, compares him to a competitive athlete: “He was like a fighter who warms up in the dressing room; he’d break a sweat (backstage)…he was always playing.” This combination of restless energy and relentless exploration led to concert experiences that were as exhausting for audiences as they were for the musicians.

The sessions that produced My Favorite Things (1961)—a composition Trane would return to and reconfigure repeatedly in the ensuing years—are a touchstone for Coltrane’s next leap forward. Described in the documentary as a “hypnotic Eastern dervish dance”, this innocuous Rodgers/Hammerstein song became a springboard for an extensive, irresistible solo, showcasing Coltrane’s lucid yet multisyllabic way of conversing with his instrument. The footage of the “classic quartet” (McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass and Elvin Jones on drums) tearing into this piece is more than worth the paltry price of admission. It is exhilarating to watch Coltrane—at his peak— in action, while the band steams in support. Literally. This particular clip was recorded in black-and-white at an outdoor festival, and throughout the performance it appears a smoke machine has been set up on stage until, after a while, it becomes apparent that actual waves of steam are pouring off Garrison and especially Jones.

There is more footage, including the quartet augmented by the amazing Eric Dolphy—who collaborated and performed with Coltrane throughout 1960 and 1961—which is priceless and, considering how prematurely both these men left the world, more than a little heartbreaking. The highlight, however, has to be the full performance of Coltrane’s epic protest piece “Alabama”: what Coltrane accomplishes here could cause even the most cynical hater of humanity to feel humbled by the uniquely moving and profoundly positive force of musical expression.

Of course, Coltrane’s music was not universally embraced during the final years he was able to record and play. His solos became longer and (much) more intense, yet no matter how many listeners he alienated, it was apparent that in order to push the audience, he first had to push himself. Roscoe Mitchell, commenting on this spiritual searching, likens Coltrane’s later music to what he witnessed in churches growing up, with people transporting into religious trances. This—the music and the explanation—is where more than a few draw the line; it’s just too out there.

Coltrane knew where he was going, however, even if he could not quite define what he was looking for. His wife Alice remarks that Coltrane was following a “progression toward higher spiritual realization…and development.” That type of sentiment can, and perhaps should, make people wary (this being the ‘60s, etc.) but with Coltrane it was no pose, and this was no joke. Not for nothing is A Love Supreme considered one of the most important, and affecting, albums in all of jazz. And later, even amidst the sonic uproar, came majestic and tranquil offerings like “Dear Lord” and “To Be”.

It was all over far too quickly. As is too often the case with our greatest artists, Coltrane fell ill and passed away long before his time should have come. It scarcely computes, even now, that the man making the music he recorded in early 1967 (particularly the shattering if cathartic Interstellar Space was months from losing a battle with cancer. Where he would have headed had he lived is truly difficult to imagine. It remains instructive, and more than a little startling, to consider the growth and refinement he demonstrated every few years, commencing in the mid-to-late ‘50s. Where he might have gone next is anyone’s guess, but it’s also safe to surmise that he took his instrument, and music, as far as anyone possibly could.

The World According to John Coltrane is an anti-documentary of sorts in the sense that we don’t have scholars or critics opining on who the man was and what he meant. Rather, we have the crucial and illuminating insight of contemporaries reminiscing about what it was like to be there, and what it’s like now, having lived through it all. That, along with the invaluable footage of the music being performed, speaks more eloquently and appropriately than even the most well-meaning expert (or DVD review, for that matter) is capable of doing.

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Reflections on John Coltrane’s A LOVE SUPREME

Spring ‘06(from the liner notes of the 2003 reissue of A Love Supreme):

“Boosted by a crescendo of piano chords, Coltrane steps in at full throttle. In a relatively small frame–two and a half minutes–he achieves the same raspy-throated transcendence and free-flowing lyricism his legendary twenty-minute live solos reached nightly”.

To me, that is one element of why this is the apex of his composition and playing (his vision): while I respect, and remain in awe of, the longer workouts, which became increasingly intense, frenzied and loud after 1965, I can only absorb them in small doses. it’s not merely that he hit the mark so clean and clear on ALS, but he accomplished what so few artists are able to do, which borders on miraculous: he filtered all that intensity into a perfect chalice–after this recording the cup was forever too full, and but for the most faithful or forgiving listeners, the famous sheets of sound became a tsunami: uncontainable, too much for the human ear; his canvas, after all, was the entire world that he saw, but I don’t know if ever before, or after, his vision was so focused and peaceful. Or put another way, the earlier work was drizzle, then steady and certain rain; after 1965 it was hurricanes and tornadoes; on ALS it’s a thunderstorm: there is lightning, thunder, lots of loud, torrential rain; but it is a summer day, the ground is warm, and you know you are safe. So you sit back and let this force of nature wash over you and refresh and renew you. Eventually, the rain has stopped and you open your eyes and wonder how you’ll ever live without it.

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