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49 years ago today, July 17... the passing of John Coltrane

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  • 49 years ago today, July 17... the passing of John Coltrane

    49 years ago, July 17, marks the death of one man we lost way too early: John Coltrane. Interesting how life's hard circumstances paved the way for Coltrane's success and notoriety. When Coltrane was 13, his father and grandfather passed away within a month of each other. The family moved from the deep south to Philadelphia to make a fresh start. In Philadelphia, Coltrane studied at the Ornstein School of Music and Granoff Studios, before making his professional debut in 1945 playing in a lounge band. He backed Dinah Washington early in his career (something I did not know), played with Dizzy early on and many others.

    Some interesting notes about the man himself taken from this link:

    Coltrane cited 1957 as the year of his spiritual awakening, when he rid himself of heroin and alcohol addictions, catalyzed by being sacked from Miles Davis’ Quintet. Coltrane had previously been fired by Gillespie for his escalating drug taking, and this time losing such a great gig and experiencing a near overdose was the wake-up call that he needed. He went cold turkey and cleaned up. After some tough times straightening himself out, he soon returned to play the second half of 1957 with Thelonious Monk’s Quartet, before once again joining Davis at the beginning of 1958.

    Ever humble and highly self-critical, Coltrane was perennially searching for a truth in music, an ultimate statement. Between sets, he could be known to walk ten blocks and stare at the night sky through binoculars, in a constant search for inspiration and universal truth. His musical search mechanism worked by rehashing and rephrasing each musical concept in every one of its permutations. This approach initially led to his ‘sheets of sound’, a term coined by jazz critic Ira Gitler in 1958 for Coltrane’s album Soultrane, to describe his innovative improvisational style of repeating rapid-fire arpeggios with minuscule variations. While the evolution of his music was appreciated by many critics and fellow musicians, it was not readily accepted by the public; it all sounded too alien.

    From 21 March through 10 April 1960, the Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb lineup of the Miles Davis Quintet toured Europe, along with the Oscar Peterson and Stan Getz’s groups on a Jazz At The Philharmonic tour. At the Olympia Theatre, Paris, Coltrane’s solo spots were booed and the audience heckled. When Coltrane returned to Paris in 1962, playing even more adventurously, it was to only cheers.

    While with Davis, Coltrane had been beginning to lead his own recording sessions, giving him increasing opportunity to air his own compositions; “Blue Train” established him as a brilliant composer as well as player. His earliest recordings were for the Prestige label; among the highlights was The Cats from 1957, the same year as he cut Blue Train for Blue Note Records. His debut for Creed Taylor’s Impulse! label came in 1961 when he made Africa/Brass; shortly afterwards he recorded the beautiful Ballads. Two years later, he did John Coltrane And Johnny Hartman, the singer being the perfect foil for Trane’s tenor saxophone.

    Then in December 1964 he recorded a piece of music composed in the comparative peace and calm to be found in Dix Hills, Long Island, about thirty miles from Manhattan. A Love Supreme was the sermon that Coltrane had pledged to his God if he made it through cold turkey. It was literal expression of worship; a devotional poem that he had written and had reproduced in the gatefold sleeve of the album is expressed syllable by syllable on the saxophone as a “musical narration” in the final track “Part 4: ‘Psalm’”. The group for the session was what became known as the ‘Classic Quartet’ with McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones and Jimmy Garrison, all of whom had been with Coltrane in various lineups since the early 1960s. Anyone working with Coltrane soon learnt that they would need to be dedicated and have considerable stamina to keep up. Because Coltrane was terrified of flying, the group would always travel by road, spending six weeks on a coast-to-coast tour, then immediately beginning a six-week residency in New York, often at the Half-Note at 289 Hudson Street.

    Purified of drugs, Coltrane did still have one vice – overeating – food became a comfort for him to assuage the rigours of constantly performing. Legend also has it that Coltrane ate so many mint humbugs that his saxophone keys clogged up with sugar. However, Coltrane wasn’t entirely finished with mind-altering substances. The extremism in his music, the alien discordancy and the look to the East for spiritual meaning was part fuelled by his increasing use of LSD. His experimentation with music started taking on many extra layers, so much so that the loyalty of his trusty colleagues was being tested. The beginning of the end for Tyner and Jones was the Ascension session (1965) where they complained that all they could hear was noise.

    In 1966, Alice Coltrane – Coltrane had married the pianist earlier in the year, having recently divorced his first wife – and Rashied Ali replaced the departing duo, performing and recording in various combinations until Coltrane's death from cancer of the liver. When asked how he would like to be remembered, he replied, ‘As a saint’. He passed away on 17 July 1967 at Huntington, New York.

  • #2
    Coltrane's Philly home stands on the northwestern edge of Fairmount Park. I haven't been by it in about 8 years. I use to pass it all the time on bike rides. It was vacant and falling apart. Once in a while an article appears in the local Philly paper and there is some talk of resurrecting it and making it an historic site but it never seems to happen.
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