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.
By the early '50s, heroin had infested the jazz community. It killed Charlie Parker at 34, it hooked Miles Davis, it hooked his drummer Philly Joe Jones and it hooked Coltrane, too.
In 1955, Davis hired Trane to play sax for him. Coltrane was still a junkie at the time, and had yet to discover his own style. Unlike his contemporaries Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz and Dexter Gordon, he was still deriving his sound from the work of others, and critics were hard on him when he landed a gig in the hottest band around. Davis' enormous success at the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival had moved him to the forefront of the genre, and he was chastised for choosing Trane over Rollins. Still, the volatile bandleader had a gut feeling about Coltrane.
The first time around, however, dope ruined their collaboration--Davis fired Coltrane when heroin finally crippled the sax player's professionalism. The period that followed was rough. Coltrane played what gigs he could find, shot dope and drank heavily. If he made it to work at all, he would show up in slept-in clothes, fat from too much booze. Sometimes he would nod out in the middle of a concert. Finally, bassist Reggie Workman confronted his friend and implored Coltrane to clean up his act.
Soon thereafter, Trane sequestered himself in the bedroom at home where he practiced and told his wife to bring him water whenever he asked for it. Days went by as he weathered the storm of cold-turkey withdrawal. When it was over, he emerged and never shot up again.
Davis also kicked his habit, and rehired Coltrane in 1958. The Miles Davis Quintet quickly started to set the pace for modern jazz groups.
In a fortuitous experiment, Davis began slowing down chord progressions while moving to more subtle, abstract harmonies. Trane had embarked upon his own harmonic explorations--fascinated by modes from all over the world, his notebooks from the time show pages of exotic scales. He also took an interest in Eastern philosophies and cultures, and the combination of Davis' new sound and Trane's musical and spiritual awakening proved synchronous.
In one of his few interviews, Coltrane described how Davis' "direct and free-flowing lines" let him "stack chords, play three chords on one."
"But on the other hand," Coltrane said in 1960, "if I wanted to, I could play melodically. Miles' music gave me plenty of freedom." By slowing down the harmony--sometimes to one chord for every 16 bars--Davis gave Coltrane the room to create his "sheets of sound."
By the time Trane founded his own group in 1960, he had started to use stiffer reeds to get more power and volume out of his horn. Hard reeds demand tremendous breath control and physical stamina, but audiences and musicians who heard Coltrane during this period described him as surprisingly calm and centered, even after playing long, loud and hard.
Trane began to take longer and longer solos--searching, it seemed, for just the right sound or pattern. He also picked up the soprano saxophone, rescuing the instrument from obscurity in his fever to reach higher sounds and more expressive dynamics.
Coltrane needed new compositions to express his new ideas, but he was a reluctant composer. "I just have to write the tunes myself, and I don't really want to take the time away from my horn."
Eventually, however, he did take the time. And like his playing, many of Coltrane's compositions were ahead of his era. "Giant Steps" even threw master pianist Tommy Flanagan for a loop in one recording session captured on disc two of the Rhino boxed set. Flanagan was provided with the difficult chart for the tune prior to the take--but not the tempo. When the tape started to roll, he quickly retreated to a simple chordal approach as the changes whipped by him. Learning to play "Giant Steps" is now considered a rite of passage for any serious jazz student.
During the mid-'60s, Coltrane's solos got even longer, his dynamics more intense, and the texture of his music more crowded and demanding for the listener. Drummer Jimmy Cobb remembers filling a three-hour matinee with one song--no breaks, no intermission, just three solid hours of blow, man, blow.
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"Bird had discovered the atom for me," saxophonist Charles Lloyd says of that period, "but Trane was smashing it."
The rawness, fiery intensity and sheer volume of Coltrane's late-career cries and squawks cost him many fans, but listeners who stayed with Coltrane through his epic solos often reported entering a trancelike state where they became unaware of the passage of time. The names Trane gave his later compositions reflected his spiritual intent: "Pursuance," "Ascension," "Joy," "Selflessness."
There is a sweet reverence to the tone of people who knew Coltrane well when they speak of him. Like a chorus, they utter variations on a theme: "soothing to be around," "peaceful attitude," "soft-spoken," "earthy." Perhaps veteran saxophonist Jimmy Heath put it best: "There was no hate in him." Coltrane was confused when critics dubbed his horn "an angry tenor," and his composition "Alabama"--written after the 1963 bombing of a black church that killed four young girls--is a tender elegy, not an angry cry.
Many of the musicians who were close to Trane in the last years of his life believe he knew he didn't have much time, and couldn't wait for others to understand what he was going for. Coltrane once told Miles Davis he was having trouble knowing when to stop his solos. "Take your horn out of your mouth," Davis replied. Trane wasn't satisfied. "If I feel I'm just playing notes in the middle of a solo, I'll try to build things up to the point where inspiration is happening again, where things are spontaneous and not contrived."
Like the great jazz innovators before him, Trane grappled with the paradox of structure and freedom inherent to improvisation. He searched relentlessly for a way to manifest the intangible nature of artistic expression, and propelled the structure of jazz into a new domain. "He had found every deity in every hiding place," Lloyd said. "And then some.