April 1, 2006


John Coltrane's Finest Hour: Before he jumped into the aesthetic abyss. (Stanley Crouch, March 10, 2006, Slate)

The recent release of One Down, One Up, a 1965 radio performance, features Coltrane's finest group, the classic quartet that included pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and drummer Elvin Jones. It was recorded at the Half Note night club in New York and reminds those who were around then of what it was like to hear the band that was recharging the battery of the jazz aesthetic. New York writer Hattie Gossett remembers that, "Coltrane was an interesting contradiction because he was corny like. Very country. Backwoods. He was driving a Jaguar but he was still a country Negro. Suits didn't fit, white socks, pants too short. Then he would get up there and play all of this incredible music that was so complex you could get a headache from it if you weren't ready."

Part of the Coltrane myth is that he had no interest in entertainment and did not submit to its parameters. He is thought to have been too involved with his art to pay attention to what the club owners or the audiences wanted. This is not exactly true. Yes, he did play very long performances that would go beyond the 45-minute sets that most bands played. But one Friday night, when I asked him if he would play "Impressions," he told me: "Well, little brother, I would like to, but this is money night and I have to play 'My Favorite Things' every set or the club owner and the customers will not be very happy. But if I get a chance, I'll play it for you." There you have it; he was a working professional.

Coltrane was a simply dressed and modestly handsome man who could have passed for a deacon on the way to a prayer meeting. He didn't have the look of special authority one saw in Miles Davis, Philly Joe Jones, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Milt Jackson, Sonny Rollins, or Betty Carter. At best, he seemed like a humorless workman who had all the details of the job on his mind and had little interest in talking about anything outside of what he was about to do. Once he got to the bandstand, however, something unexpected happened.

On a first encounter with Coltrane, one could never believe the enormity of the force with which he and his musicians played. There was no talking. No announcements. I never saw Coltrane count off a tempo. He looked around, maybe smiled at his drummer, then put his mouth to his horn. What the saxophonist and his musicians did next was beyond material and beyond logic. With his band working under him, behind him, or encircling his sound, Coltrane would rock and roll like a rhythm-and-blues player as he pushed his saxophone forward and drew it back to him, sometimes going down on one knee. To the unprepared, the music might have sounded overstated, undisciplined, and hysterical, but it was not to become that until near the end, when the great quartet was broken up by Coltrane's naive submission to actual noise and incompetence.

Such sincere and overwrought mawkishness led to a recording like Om, which contains so much screaming and hollering that playing it was a good way to quickly clear the house after a party had reached its peak and tiresome people were still hanging around. But in its great moments, the John Coltrane Quartet appeared to have multiplied its instrumentation to three or four times its size, which was why its impact became so explosive: The pressure on the air was that of a big band at full blast. Many of its imitators, quite naturally, thought that playing loud and using modal forms would get the sound of that group onto their bandstands. Sorry. It wasn't about that.

The music could not be easily duplicated because it was the result of Coltrane's vast sonic experience.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 1, 2006 6:13 AM

Everyone should treat themselves to the box set called "The Heavyweight Champion", John Coltrane's complete Atlantic recordings. It and Joe Henderson's "The Bluenote Years" are my favorite saxophone collections. You can get lost for months in those CDs.

Posted by: Randall Voth at April 1, 2006 7:20 AM