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WHAT IF JOHN COLTRANE HAD LIVED
Ted Gioia is an American jazz critic and music historian
and author of The Birth (and Death) of the Cool, The History
of Jazz and Delta Blues, the latter two selected
as notable books of the year by The New York Times.This
articled originally appeared in The
Daily Beast and is reprinted with permission.
John Coltrane succumbed to liver cancer in 1967, he was at the
forefront of the jazz world. No saxophonist was more admired by
his peers or beloved by his fans. Coltrane was only 40 years old,
but he was a genuine jazz hero who had somehow crammed a whole
career of innovation and experimentation into the previous decade.
death cut short his music-making, but hardly put a dent into his
popularity or influence. You couldn’t escape it, no matter
where you went. In the late ’70s, I lived in Tuscany for
a half-year, and every month picked up a copy of Musica Jazz,
the Milan magazine that covered the Italian jazz scene. Each issue
included a listing of the best-selling jazz records in Italy,
and every month without fail John Coltrane’s A Love
Supreme was at the top of the chart — even though the
album was more than a decade old and from half a world away!
another telling incident, this time from the late ’80s,
when I spent a day auditioning saxophone students for a music
scholarship, and noted with interest that every one of these youngsters
seemed to have chosen John Coltrane as a major influence. Yet
not one of them was old enough to have heard him perform in person.
At that juncture, it was hard to find any aspiring saxophonist,
especially on tenor or soprano, who wasn’t a Coltrane acolyte.
blame them. Most of us immersed in jazz, myself included, were
still focused on trying to understand and assimilate what Coltrane
had left behind. In fact, we were so focused on his legacy that
we spent little time wondering what he might have achieved if
he had lived longer. At times, it even seemed as if this remarkable
improviser had said everything he could possibly say on the horn.
Even if he had survived into old age, how could an artist with
so much music at his command have done anything more than repeat
newly-released live album made during the final months of Coltrane’s
life forces me to revisit the question of what this path-breaking
artist might have achieved if he had hadn’t fallen victim
to cancer. This surprising music, recorded in concert at Philadelphia’s
Temple University in November 1966, has long been known to Coltrane
devotees — mostly through word-of-mouth, although poor-quality
bootlegs have occasionally circulated. Now Resonance Records,
in partnership with Coltrane’s label Impulse, has released
the complete concert on a double CD under the title Offering:
Live at Temple University. Finally jazz fans can judge this unusual
music for themselves.
The Temple University concert represented something of a homecoming
for Coltrane. In his mid-teens he had moved to Philadelphia, and
had gigged extensively in that city before getting the call to
join Miles Davis’s band in 1955. Now more than a decade
later, Coltrane was returning to Philadelphia as a world-beating
sax star and the most famous exponent of the avant-garde movement
audience at Temple University wasn’t going to give Coltrane
a home town hero’s welcome. Even before the first number
was finished, audience members started walking out. Others “looked
as though they wanted to leave but sat rigid with disbelief,”
according to jazz critic Francis Davis, who was in attendance
recording leaves us in no doubt as to the reason for this response.
Even by Coltrane’s standards, this music was transgressive
and disturbing. At a now famous moment during the concert, Coltrane
even put aside his saxophone to sing and pound on his chest—almost
as if he had exhausted everything the horn could do, and needed
to return to that most primal musical instrument of them all,
the human body.
to this performance almost a half-century after it took place,
I still lack coordinates from the jazz world with which to map
it. Instead I am reminded of my studies of shamans and trance-inducing
music, a subject that has been a key focus of my interest and
research in recent years. At Temple, Coltrane no longer operated
as a jazz artist improvising melodies, but more like a mystic
on a vision quest.
such as Andrew Neher and Barry Bittman, among others, have confirmed
what non-industrial societies knew long ago — namely that
musical rituals have a tangible impact on the people who participate
in them. Brainwaves change, body chemistry is transformed, even
white blood cell count improves. The scientific and anthropological
studies agree on two key ingredients: the music must include drumming
for its full effect to be felt, and the “song” should
continue for at least ten minutes.
not surprised that both these elements figure prominently in Coltrane’s
late career music. Songs got longer and longer. A typical number
would last 20 minutes or more during this culminating phase of
his musical evolution. And much of his most inspired playing,
in his final years, came in the context of sax-drum duets. Coltrane
now sometimes performed with multiple percussionists, as at the
Temple University concert, even though many listeners found this
rhythmic layering overly busy and distracting. But, like a traditional
shaman, Coltrane clearly believed that the drums served as a springboard
to a higher order of engagement.
perspective helps me understand so many other peculiar aspects
of Coltrane’s late career work. Many fans have wondered
why Coltrane, at this stage, was so willing to invite guest performers,
of varying levels of talent, to join him on stage. Or why he seemed
to select accompanists based on his personal relationship with
them, rather than for their musical skills. And why did he spend
so much time in interviews talking about spirituality instead
of his famous substitute chord changes and other musical matters?
In fact, why did he seem so ready to abandon these same harmonic
advancements, the very stepping-stones that had taken him to the
forefront of the jazz world?
view Coltrane as the “great man of jazz,” these decisions
make little sense. But if you view him simply as a “man
of greatness” perhaps we can understand both his path and
what he might have achieved if he had lived. Yes, we are rightly
skeptical with heroes of any sort in the current day, and any
reasonable person ought to hesitate before looking for gurus on
the concert stage. But John Coltrane may be the exception to this
the entire art form, but anyone who spoke to Coltrane for more
than a few moments could tell that his real goal was personal
transcendence. With Coltrane, the line between individual transformation
and musical advancement had always been a blurry one, but increasingly
so in the final years of his life. You simply can’t understand
his decisions on the bandstand or in the recording studio if you
view them merely as aesthetic responses to musical challenges.
Other, larger considerations inevitably intervened — spiritual,
interpersonal, socio-political. And I can only see those aspects
of his legacy deepening if he had lived into middle age and beyond.
have a hard time envisioning Coltrane jumping on the rock fusion
bandwagon that swept through the jazz world in the months following
his death. But I can easily imagine him performing at the 1971
Concert for Bangladesh or at other philanthropic music events.
No, I can’t picture him participating in the retro jazz
movement of the ’80s, which celebrated a return to the ’50s
vocabulary that Coltrane himself had played a key role in subverting.
But I can imagine him mentoring younger players, or helping to
spur positive change in Africa, Asia, and other places where his
musical, spiritual, and political instincts would have found fertile
ground for growth and transformation.
I conjure up a mental image of John Coltrane at age 50 or 60 —
or even 88, as he would be if he were still alive and able to
celebrate his birthday this month — I still see him with
a saxophone in hand. But only some of the time. I suspect that
he would have found ways to make a difference in the world even
without a horn. And, most of all, I’d like to think that
some of followers — and in the jazz world their numbers
still are legion — would have followed him down that promising
also by Ted Gioia:
The Backlash Against Jazz