John Coltrane the Experimental Musician
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
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.Studyworld
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