Tuesday, November 29, 2016
Virtuoso with Virtue.
Jazz is a territory that a lot of young people are hesitant to venture. You mention jazz and people have two ideas. One being the mind numbing drone that comes out of elevator speakers and telephones when you are on hold or, two, some spastic, jangly, pretentious, nonsensical noise, meant to go right of the heads of average people, but the truth is jazz is none of this. Jazz is music at its most base and advanced form. It uses the highest levels of musical and tonal theory in order to convey the most basic of human emotions. Instead of lyrics to spoon feed you the meaning, jazz uses tonal information that resides naturally in your mind to elicit emotion inside of you. What I want to tell you about in this blog post is one of my favorite records and the incredible spiritual significance of this album. John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, is one of the most legendary records in music history, not only because of the incredible level of musical mastery in the album but also the sheer spiritual and philosophical weight that the work carries. In the first installment I will give a brief biography of Coltrane and his work leading up to the recording of A Love Supreme, and in the second installment I will analyze the album and explain its spiritual and philosophical significance and how it relates to John Coltrane’s life as a whole.
You can ask anyone with any basic jazz knowledge, and they will at least have heard of John Coltrane. Few have ever reached the echelon of jazz mastery that Coltrane belongs to. There is a certain amount of raw passion in his playing that is so enthralling and interesting about his playing.
John Coltrane was born on September 23rd of 1926 in Hamlet, Carolina. His father was fairly musical and played multiple instruments. This is where Coltrane’s musical journey began. Coltrane began by playing clarinet and E-Flat Horn but switched to alto saxophone when he started listening to players like Lester Young. In 1939, Coltrane’s father passed away and the family fell into some serious financial trouble. In order to secure a more stable way of life, Coltrane’s mother, Alice, moved the family to New Jersey but John decided to stay in North Carolina and finish high school there. After high school he decided to move to Philadelphia to try his hand at becoming a professional musician. While he was there he briefly studied at the Ornstein school of music but was quickly drafted into the war in 1943. While he was enlisted he played in the Navy band in Hawaii and he made his first recording with a few of his fellow sailors.
In 1946, Coltrane returned to Philadelphia where he began to play with a few different big bands, the first of which was a band led by a man named Eddie Vinson, who went by the nickname “Cleanhead”; Vinson was the person who got Coltrane to switch to tenor saxophone which is the sax he would play primarily until the later years. After his time with Eddie Vinson, Coltrane played with a band belonging to Jimmy Heath, who really allowed for him to really explore the more experimental side of his playing that he became so known for. Once he left Heath’s band, Coltrane moved on to his biggest gig so far, playing in Dizzy Gillespie’s big band. Coltrane stayed with the Gillespie big band for about a year and a half. After he left he followed a trend that so many jazz musicians of the time had. Heroin. Heroin and drug use in general would haunt Coltrane for years to come and arguably lead to his death. In 1954 Coltrane landed another big gig playing in Duke Ellington’s band as a replacement for Johnny Hodges but was kicked out soon for his dependency on heroin.
During the mid to late 50’s, Coltrane made some of the most influential music that he would ever make. Coltrane was picked up to play in the legendary Miles Davis Quintet, where he recorded many classic albums including Relaxin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet, Kind of Blue, and Milestones. To me, these is some of the most intimate and tasteful recordings of both John Coltrane and Miles Davis. During this time Miles did his best to keep Coltrane’s drug use in check even though he himself was a fairly regular user. In 1957, Miles Davis fired Coltrane because Coltrane was shooting up while they were on the bandstand about to perform. In my eyes this marks a huge moment in Coltrane’s growth, without this incident I do not believe that we would have the huge variety of work from him that we have now.
Disgraced and without a job Coltrane moved to New York where he began to work with Thelonious Monk, a real jazz innovator of the time. In addition to working with Monk, Coltrane also began to really find himself as a band leader and solo performer. Not to discredit his work with Miles at all, but it is drastically different from his solo work and it makes you wonder, how true to himself he was being during the Miles Davis Quintet recordings. In the late 50’s Coltrane released two records, Blue Train and Soultrane but neither of these lived up to the record he released in 1960 entitled Giant Steps, whose title track is unbelievably challenging. This record was completely written by Coltrane and contains many compositions that are standard repertoire for any jazz musician. I believe that these three records came out of the drive that Coltrane had to prove himself after Miles kicked him out of the First Great Quintet, as well as the less straight ahead influence of Thelonious Monk. The next really significant recording from Coltrane would have to be My Favorite Things which was released in 1961 and contained mostly what we call “standards” which are basically pop songs that are frequently played in jazz. The title track is a thirteen minute long rendition of the song “My Favorite Things” from the sound of music and an edited version of this became a hit single. One of this most interesting things about this record is the fact that Coltrane plays Soprano sax on the whole first side of the record. This is because in 1960, Miles Davis bought Coltrane a soprano as a gift and Coltrane began playing at live shows that summer. The soprano saxophone was used very rarely before Coltrane used it on this record and it really paved the way for soprano sax in jazz music. After the release of My Favorite Things the next monumental release would be A Love Supreme in 1964.