|THE MASTERS OF JAZZ: THE GLORIOUS JOHN COLTRANE (PART 1) |
Of all the members of the Jazz Pantheon, none has had so profound an overall than John Coltrane. While Duke, Louis and Miles achieved worldwide popularity and acknowledgment as powerful influences on music and art, Coltrane has not only achieved similar recognition, but has also inspired a fervor that can only be described as religious - in its deepest and most meaningful sense.
A man of deep religious conviction and unsurpassed artistic commitment and vision, Trane brought an unprecedented spirituality and humanism to the realm of personal expression. His work has forced artists, philosophers and humanity as a whole to re-examine the power and importance of Art in the endless quest for understanding of the great mysteries of Creation. At least one church has been established in his name and even people who don’t consider themselves religious view him as a Man above men, a special spirit who was here to show us a path to enlightenment and understanding. Viewed as an Angel to some, a Saint to others, and sometimes even a Deity, John Coltrane was truly a man who has shed a powerful beacon of light on the mysteries that have confounded people for eons.
Our purpose here, however, is to look at the incredible MUSICAL output of this true Master who departed in 1967 at the seemingly young age of 40, but left behind a musical legacy of unequaled power and majesty containing an infinite depth of information and spirit.
Born in tiny Hamlet, North Carolina on September 23, 1926 and raised in nearby High Point, Trane moved to Philadelphia in 1943, where he would soon add to that city’s amazing legacy of great Jazz artists. Among his first friends were two other of future tenor masters, Benny Golson and Bill Barron. Together they traded musical ideas and hung out on the local scene, especially around local sax great Jimmy Oliver. A superb player with lightning-fast technique, Oliver was one of the first direct influences on the young Coltrane, who had previously been most affected by recordings, especially Lester Young’s.
In 1947, Trane, who’d played alto in a Navy band and later on the Philly scene, joined the band of Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, along with another Philly cohort, pianist Red Garland. Here John switched to tenor, and even though he played both horns for awhile, it would become his central focus until he picked up the soprano more than a decade later.
After Vinson there were stints with the Heath Brothers, Howard McGhee, Dizzy Gillespie’s Big Band and Sextet and the orchestras of Johnny Hodges and Earl Bostic. (Some of these recordings are available on a 2 CD-set on Rhino called “The Last Giant.”) During and after these gigs he stayed in Philly, backing touring R&B artists and playing with similar local combos. It was a low point of his life musically and spiritually. Victim of “Charlie Parker Syndrome” – an epidemic among musicians who had difficulty separating Bird’s good influences from the bad – Coltrane’s alcohol and narcotic addictions were destroying him. In 1954, John met Naima, the woman who would become his wife and help him regain the focus he needed to control and eventually overcome his demons.
In 1955, Trane joined the Miles Davis Quintet to less than stellar reviews and indifferent public reaction, with some complaints of “too far out” mixed in. It wouldn’t be the last time he’d hear that. Listening to that music in retrospect you can certainly hear the early stages of that spectacular sound and boundless creativity that would sear itself into our collective consciousness shortly thereafter. Over the next year, three recording sessions produced six albums, including “Cookin,” “Relaxin’,” “Steamin’,” and “Workin’” – with a rhythm section of Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones, all included on Prestige’s wonderful 8-CD box set: “Miles Davis - Chronicle: The Complete Prestige Recordings.”
In late 1956, Miles left Prestige and soon Trane would enter the magical world of Thelonious Monk and a legendary six month gig at New York’s famed Five Spot. Trane had freed himself from his destructive dependencies and his playing took a quantum leap from distinctively promising to overwhelmingly powerful. No formal recordings were done during this engagement, but fortunately Naima brought her tape recorder one night. The incredible results are available on Blue Note’s “Discovery! Live at the Five Spot.” Trane’s formidable new powers are more visceral and arresting here than on the two studio recordings he did with Monk, “Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane” on Jazzland and “Monk’s Music” on Riverside, both nonetheless extraordinary recordings. The latter is especially notable for Trane’s only pairing with the great Coleman Hawkins.
During this same time, Coltrane, who had become a regular participant in a variety of Prestige jam sessions and with established leaders like Tadd Dameron (“Mating Call”), Mal Waldron (“Mal 2”), Elmo Hope (“Informal Jazz”) and Sonny Rollins (“Tenor Madness”), finally began to record under his own name. His first recording simply titled “Coltrane,” showed a player of tremendous conviction and emerging musical vision.
Ironically, his first truly impacting date as a leader was done for Blue Note, the wonderful “Blue Train” (available as an enhanced CD/ CD-ROM with live performance and interview segments). Deep in the label’s hard bop territory with Lee Morgan, Curtis Fuller, Kenny Drew and fellow Miles sidemen Chambers and Jones, this remarkable session marks the first real view of the mature leader and visionary that Trane had become. His future Prestige recordings would display the same focus and intensity. “Soultrane,” “Settin’ the Pace,” “The Believer” and the fantastic “Black Pearls,” his final recording for the label, are all classics.
All of these excellent 1956-58 recordings done for Prestige (except for those with Miles) are available in the wonderful 16-CD box set “John Coltrane: The Prestige Recordings,” a beautifully produced collection of 125 tracks without a single alternate or out-take included.
Overlapping his last year with Prestige Trane recorded as a sideman for a variety of labels with outstanding artists like Ray Draper, Sonny Clark, Art Blakey, Wilbur Harden, Cecil Taylor and most notably, the great theorist/composer/educator George Russell, who opened Trane up to the modalities of world music and expansive theory that would help launch his music into uncharted realms.
During this period Trane would rejoin Miles’ group, along with alto sax great Cannonball Adderley. With the same rhythm section as the earlier Quintet, they recorded the classic “Milestones.” Shortly thereafter pianist Bill Evans and drummer Jimmy Cobb would replace Garland and Philly Joe, and a new era of jazz expression would begin. The ultimate jazz classic, “Kind of Blue” would be the culmination of this incredible Sextet.
Although Trane would remain with Miles until 1960, his 1959 signing with Atlantic Records would signal a new era for Trane, for Jazz and for the world. The Sixties were on their way and Planet Earth was in for a rocking. John Coltrane would play a major role.
Next time we’ll take a look at the astounding years with Atlantic and Impulse, the classic Quartet, the controversial experiments and the final group.
Recommended CDs: John Coltrane - The Last Giant (2 CD Set) Thelonious Monk - Discovery! Live at the Five Spot Thelonious Monk -Monk’s Music John Coltrane - Blue Train John Coltrane - Black Pearls Miles Davis - Kind of Blue Miles Davis - Cookin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet
Miles Davis - Chronicle: The Complete Prestige Recordings (8 CD Set) Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane Tadd Dameron - Mating Call Mal Waldron - Mal 2 Elmo Hope - Informal Jazz Sonny Rollins - Tenor Madness John Coltrane - Coltrane John Coltrane - Soultrane John Coltrane - Settin’ the Pace John Coltrane - The Believer John Coltrane: The Prestige Recordings (16 CD Set) Miles Davis - Milestones