Model Trane

When John Coltrane regularly gigged at the New York City jazz mecca Birdland in the early '60s, a young comedian who hung out at the club learned to mimic the sax player--his stage mannerisms, his facial tics, even the sound of his horn.

One night, the comic and Coltrane's band had an idea. The emcee was game--why not? "Birdland proudly presents . . . the Bill Cosby Quartet!" Cosby took the stage and went into his Coltrane act, moving his body and face just like the musician and scatting a recorded solo from memory. The audience was in stitches.

Four minutes into the gag, a tenor sax sounded offstage, playing along with Cosby. The comic stopped in surprise, but quickly caught on and started up again. Note for note, he and the horn were in perfect synch. Coltrane slowly came onstage, still impersonating the impersonator. The crowd went crazy as the two Tranes played to the end of the tune.

Twenty-eight years after he died of liver cancer at 40, Coltrane remains the most imitated sax player in the history of jazz. Familiar to even casual followers of American music for his hits "My Favorite Things" and "A Love Supreme," Coltrane is regarded by jazz purists as one of the form's true masters.

A technical virtuoso with the soul of a poet, Coltrane revolutionized jazz with his "sheets of sound" technique--intense, intricate, rapid-fire runs up and down a scale that could sound like blasts of cacophony to the untrained ear.

In truth, Coltrane's uncanny signature technique, developed late in his career, exhibited a precision and intuitive mastery of improvisation that has yet to be topped.

Since Coltrane's death in 1967, dozens of anthologies, discographies and analyses have attempted to bring his impact on modern jazz into clear focus. This fall marks the most ambitious of such retrospectives. Rhino Records' boxed set John Coltrane: Heavyweight Champion (The Atlantic Years) boasts seven CDs, extensive and admirably balanced liner notes, previously unreleased takes, and rare interviews and photographs.

Covering a two-year span (1959-60) at a time when Coltrane had finally secured his individual style, Heavyweight Champion presents a valuable slice from the prodigious amount of recordings Trane made in the last decade of his life.

Smartly, the Rhino set's seven discs are arranged chronologically--jazz standards give way to more of Coltrane's own compositions as the time line unfolds. In addition to the more than 70 full-length cuts on the compilation, disc seven is devoted solely to alternate takes and false starts of a few beautiful Coltrane classics, including five separate takes of "Naima."

In 1976, nearly every unissued Atlantic Records studio master recorded before 1969 was destroyed in a fire. Tapes of Ray Charles, Ornette Coleman, Bobby Darin and hundreds of others--up in smoke. Somehow, six long-forgotten boxes of Coltrane sessions survived the flames. It's a measure of Trane's artistry that, 35 years after they were laid down, even his outtakes are celebrated as a priceless recovered treasure.

Born in Hamlet, North Carolina, in 1926 and raised in the nearby town of High Point, Coltrane started playing clarinet when he was 13. He showed enough promise that a neighborhood restaurant owner who dabbled in alto sax lent the kid his horn to practice on.

Discovering the saxophone was a revelation for Coltrane, and from then on he practiced like a man possessed. He would open the door to a knock, nod hello, and keep at it. Later in life, while on the road, Trane would excuse himself from dinners between shows and go upstairs to his hotel room to play. If the hotel manager received complaints, he would lie on his bed and silently finger phrases for hours.

Coltrane studied music theory with the same dedication, and worked to understand diverse forms of music--classical, East Indian, African and Latin included. After high school, he moved to Philadelphia to rejoin his mother, who had moved north to find work when Coltrane's father died in 1938.

In Philly, Trane got together with fellow upstarts Benny Golson and the late Bill Barron to jam and scrutinize the complex harmonies and rhythms of bop--laboring to comprehend this new, demanding style of jazz. Charlie Parker had put all jazz musicians, and especially sax players, on notice. The level of musicianship needed to understand bop (much less play it) was daunting.

Drafted during World War II, Coltrane wound up in Hawaii, where he played in a Navy band. After the war, he moved back to Philadelphia and switched from alto to tenor saxophone. He listened intently to style-setters like Johnny Hodges and Coleman Hawkins, and gigged with Earl Bostic. A master of saxophone technique, Bostic was willing to indulge Coltrane's incessant questioning and taught the young sax player to broaden his tone, increase his power and attenuate his ear. In short, Trane was getting ready to roll.

Unfortunately, the heyday of big bands was waning--the postwar economy didn't support the huge dance orchestras anymore, and the job market for jazz musicians went into a slump. Also in the late '40s, crime syndicates began pouring drugs into Harlem and other black urban centers, and smack was suddenly more plentiful than gigs.

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