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The Stacks: John Coltrane's Mighty Musical Quest

The tenor saxophonist was one of the most imaginatively restless artists to ever work a bandstand. Nat Hentoff explains why we're still playing catch up with this musical genius.

If you want to understand and appreciate jazz there is no better place to start—apart from listening to the music, of course—than with the critical writing of Nat Hentoff. Beginning in the 1950s when he was on the scene covering Monk and Miles, Clifford Brown, Charles Mingus, and any number of other giants, Hentoff has always written about the music and the culture in a way that makes it approachable for the outsider. Pick up records from that time and chances are Hentoff wrote the liner notes.

Take for instance this chapter on John Coltrane from Hentoff's wonderful book, Jazz Is. I think you'll dig it. (Also, while you're at it, I urge you to read Hentoff's memoir, Boston Boy, as well as the amazing book of oral histories, co-edited with Nat Shapiro, Hear Me Talkin' to Ya: The Story of Jazz by the Men Who Made It.)

—Alex Belth

Coltrane, a man of almost unbelievable gentleness made human to us lesser mortals by his very occasional rages. Coltrane, an authentically spiritual man, but not innocent of carnal imperatives. Or perhaps more accurately, a man, in his last years, especially but not exclusively consumed by affairs of the spirit. That is, having constructed a personal world view (or view of the cosmos) on a residue of Christianity and an infusion of Eastern meditative practices and concerns, Coltrane became a theosophist of jazz. The music was a way of self-purgation so that he could learn more about himself to the end of making himself and his music part of the unity of all being. He truly believed this, and in this respect, as well as musically, he has been a powerful influence on many musicians since. He considered music to be a healing art, an “uplifting” art.

Yet through most of his most relatively short career (he died at forty), Coltrane divided jazz listeners, creating furiously negative reactions to his work among some. (“Antijazz” was one of the epithets frequently cast at him in print.) He was hurt and somewhat bewildered by this reaction, but with monumental stubbornness went on exploring and creating what to many seemed at first to be chaos--self-indulgent, long-winded noise. Some still think that's what it was.

Others believed Coltrane to be a prophet, a musical prophet, heralding an enormous expansion of what it might now be possible to say on an instrument. Consider Art Davis. He is a startlingly brilliant bassist, as accomplished in classical music as in jazz. (Because Davis is black, he has been denied employment by those symphony orchestras to which he has applied, and so he has challenged them to pit him against any classical bassist of their choice. The challenge has gone unanswered.) Anyway, Davis, whom I've known for years, is a rationalist, a keen analyzer of music and of life. He is not given, so far as I have ever known, to giant or even small leaps into faith. Davis requires a sound scaffolding of fact and proof for his enthusiasms.

But here is Art Davis, who played for a time with Coltrane, as quoted in the Fall 1972 issue of the periodical Black Creation [Institute of Afro-American Affairs at New York University]: “John Coltrane would play for hours a set. One tune would be like an hour or two hours, and he would not repeat himself, and it would not be boring…. People would just be shouting, like you go to church, a holy roller church or something like that. This would get into their brains, would penetrate. John had that spirit--he was after the spiritual thing…. You could hear people screaming … despite the critics who tried to put him down. Black people made him because they stuck together and they saw--look what's going down--let's get some of this. You know all the hard times that John had at the beginning, even when he was with Miles. And when he left Miles, starting out, everybody tried to discourage him. But I'd be there and the brothers and sisters would be there and they supported him…. John had this power of communication, that power so rare it was like genius--I'll call him a prophet because he did this.”

Coltrane had another power, a power of self-regeneration that also has to do with that power of communication. One evening in the early '50's, I saw Coltrane in Sheridan Square, in Greenwich Village. He looked awful. Raggedy, vacant. “Junk,” said a musician with me. “He's been hooked a while.” But, I noted, he had a bottle of wine in his hand. “That, too,” said the musician.

And Coltrane stopped using both. By himself. During his huge musical ascent, which was soon to start. Coltrane was clean and stayed clean. That's power. Like Miles.

Coltrane changed jazz in as fundamental a way as Charlie Parker had before him and Louis Armstrong before Parker. One thing he did was to radically reshape--by the overwhelming persuasiveness of his playing--all previous jazz definitions of “acceptable” sounds and forms.

Obviously, through the decades, jazz had encompassed an extraordinary range of sounds--growls, slurs, cries, guffaws, keening wails. And certainly it had been accepted from the beginning that each player had his own “sound.” There was never any one criterion for how every trombone or tenor saxophone or singer should sound. Still, at each stage of jazz history certain kinds of sounds were beyond the pale. Or at least they were considerably downgraded. For years, to cite a pre-modern-jazz example, Pee Wee Russell's rasping tone (which, to its denigrators, veered between a squeak and an access of laryngitis) was mocked by a good many musicians as well as listeners. Yet Pee Wee proved to be among the most inventive and seizingly original of all clarinetists.

Lester Young was in disfavor among some of his peers for quite a while because his sound was too “light” compared to Coleman Hawkins's robust fullness. Nor was Lee Wiley the only appraiser to think of Billie Holiday that she sounded “as if her shoes were too tight.” At the advent of Charlie Parker one of the many criticisms of his playing by older musicians and by traditionalist listeners was that his tone was “bad,” too acrid by contrast, say, with that of Johnny Hodges.

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In the case of John Coltrane, a majority of the initial reviews of his recordings in the early and mid-'50's also cited his “strident,” “unpleasant” sound. Mine were among them. Later, however, when Coltrane was really underway and pushing his instrument beyond any previous limits of sound possibilities, the intermittent rawness of his tone, the high-pitched squeals, the braying yawps, the screams, generated even more intense hostility along with the denunciation that his extensive solos were structureless, directionless. “Musical nonsense” wrote one critic.

In retrospect, however, it is clear that Coltrane was one of the most persistent, relentless expanders of possibility--all kinds of possibility: textural, emotional, harmonic, and spiritual--in jazz history. And also one of the most totally exposed improvisers in the history of the music.

I was converted, or educated, from listening first to Coltrane with Miles Davis for many nights. This was the Coltrane “sheets of sound” period (a phrase originated by critic Ira Gitler). The term came about, Gitler later explained, “because of the density of textures he was using. His multinote improvisations were so thick and complex they were almost flowing out of the horn by themselves. That really hit me, the continuous flow of ideas without stopping. It was almost superhuman, and the amount of energy he was using could have powered a spaceship.”

Miles would sometimes grumble about the constant hailstorms of notes in a Coltrane solo, since Miles himself preferred to work with space, to let his notes breathe. And the length of the solos also occasionally annoyed him. “Why did you go on so long?” he once asked Coltrane after a particularly lengthy flight by the latter.

“It took that long to get it all in,” said Coltrane, and Miles accepted the logic of the answer.

Actually, Miles Davis was much intrigued by the sheer will to creativity of Coltrane on his better nights. “Coltrane's really something,” Miles told me one afternoon in 1958. “He's been working on those arpeggios and playing them fifty different ways and playing them all at once. However,” there was a glint of triumph in Miles, “he is beginning to leave more space--except when he gets nervous.”

It was important for Coltrane to work with Miles. For one thing, of course, he received attention, with the Davis imprimatur legitimatizing Coltrane for some of those who up to that point had considered Trane either incompetent or a charlatan or both. Miles, it was agreed by nearly all, could not and would not be conned musically. If he hired the man, the man must have something to say. That imprimatur also gave Coltrane confidence. Feeling set upon by the critics, he had passed a far more severe test by being considered worthy of a place in the Miles Davis band.


Even more valuable to Coltrane, however, was his stay with Thelonious Monk--in between stints with Miles Davis in the late '50's. That collaboration at the Five Spot Café in New York's East Village was a key historic event--of the musical order of Louis Armstrong playing second cornet to King Oliver at the Royal Garden Cafe in Chicago in the 1920's. I was there nearly every night all the weeks Monk and Trane played the Five Spot, and it was there I finally understood how nonpareil a musician, how dauntless an explorer Coltrane was. The excitement was so heady that soon musicians were standing two and three deep at the bar of the Five Spot nearly every night.

Monk creates a total musical microcosm, and for musicians who play with him the challenge is to keep your balance, to stay with Monk, no matter where his unpredictably intricate imagination leads--and at the same time, play yourself, be yourself.


“I learned new levels of alertness with Monk,” Coltrane said, “because if you didn't keep aware all the time of what was going on, you'd suddenly feel as if you'd stepped into a hole without a bottom to it.” He learned other things as well. “Monk was one of the first to show me how to make two or three notes at one time on tenor. It's done by false fingering and adjusting your lips and if it's done right you get triads. He also got me into the habit of playing long solos [longer than with Miles] on his pieces, playing the same piece for a long time to find new conceptions for solos. It got so I would go as far as possible on one phrase until I ran out of ideas. The harmonies got to be an obsession for me. Sometimes I was making music through the wrong end of a magnifying glass.”

As a teacher, one of the most liberating teachers in jazz, Monk had another kind of impact on Coltrane, as on practically all the musicians who have played with him. Monk kept insisting that musicians must keep working at stretching themselves, at going beyond their limitations, which really were artificial limitations that came from their having absorbed conventional--and thereby gratuitously constricting--standards of what can and what cannot be done on an instrument.

Before Coltrane came with the band, Gigi Gryce had learned this lesson: “I had a part Monk wrote for me that was impossible. I had to play melody while simultaneously playing harmony with him. In addition, the intervals were very wide besides; and I just told him I couldn't do it. 'You have an instrument, don't you?' he said. 'Either play it or throw it away.' And he walked away. Finally, I was able to play it. Another time I was orchestrating a number for him, and I didn't write everything down for the horns exactly as he'd outlined it because I felt the musicians would look at the score and figure it was impossible to play. He was very angry, and he finally got exactly what he wanted. I remember the trumpet player on the date had some runs going up on his horn and Monk said they were only impractical if they didn't give him a chance to breathe. The range was not a factor 'because a man should be flexible on all ranges of his horn.'”

Then came Coltrane. The story, told by Art Blakey, is in J.C. Thomas' Chasin' The Trane: “I played drums on the Monk's Music album for Riverside, where Monk expanded his group to a septet with both Coleman Hawkins and John Coltrane on tenor. Naturally, Monk wrote all the music, but Hawk was having trouble reading it, so he asked Monk to explain it to both Trane and himself. Monk said to Hawk, 'You're the great Coleman Hawkins, right? You're the guy who invented the tenor saxophone, right?' Hawk agreed. Then Monk turned to Trane, 'You're the great John Coltrane, right?' Trane blushed, and mumbled, 'Aw… I'm not so great.' Then Monk said to both of them, 'You play saxophone, right?' They nodded. 'Well, the music is on the horn. Between the two of you, you should be able to find it.'”

Coltrane kept looking and finding, and, never satisfied, looked some more. His audience was growing, especially among musicians, but more nonmusicians were finding that if they actively listened to his music, their whole way of hearing jazz might well be changed. This did not mean, however, that they had to listen analytically. In the liner notes for Coltrane's album, Om, for example, I suggested that those who were finding Coltrane “difficult” start again, but this time without “worrying about how it is all structured, where it's leading. Let the music come in without any pre-set definitions of what jazz has to be, of what music has to be.

“If you find yourself responding--and I don't mean necessarily with conventional 'pleasure,' but rather with any strong feeling--listen on. In this music, just as textures are themselves shapes and motion is by colors as well as by time”; so, in the listening, I should have gone on, ingress is by routes that will unexpectedly come upon you in guises other than the usual ways to get into a piece of music. A link of pitches perhaps, an a-rhythmic phrase that will lead to a strong subterranean pulsation.

For the last seven years of his life Coltrane continued to make more demands on himself musically than any jazz musician, except perhaps Cecil Taylor, ever has. None of this, so far as I could tell, was done as an act of competition. It was himself, and only himself, Coltrane kept pressuring to hear more, feel more, understand more, communicate more. At home he would practice for hours, sometimes silently--just running his fingers over the keys--and pick up new instruments and meditate and listen to recordings of Indian music and the music of South African Pygmies. Possibilities. Always more possibilities. He decided he wanted two drummers working with him. Then, on an album, he fixed on two bass players. I asked him why. “Because I want more of the sense of the expansion of time. I want the time to be more plastic.”

Time. Vast, fierce stretches of time. The music sometimes sounding like the exorcism of a multitude of demons, each one of whom was mightily resisting his expulsion. Yet at other times Coltrane could sound his probes with such gentle luminescence as to fool the voracious spirits, but soon the shaking, smashing, endless battle would begin again.

At night clubs there were scores, hundreds of exhilarating, exhausting nights during which the listeners, along with the musicians, had no resting space but had to keep emotional pace as best they could with the ferociously wheeling, diving, climbing Coltrane.

For better or worse, and that depended on the inventiveness of the musicians who followed him, Coltrane more than any other player legitimated the extended jazz solo. As Archie Shepp, a tenor saxophonist befriended and influenced by Coltrane, said, “That was his breakthrough--the concept that the imperatives of conception might make it necessary to improvise at great length. I don't mean he proved that a thirty- or forty-minute solo is necessarily better than a three-minute one. He did prove, however, that it was possible to create thirty or forty minutes of uninterrupted, continually building, continually original and imaginative music. And in the process, Coltrane also showed the rest of us we had to have the stamina--in terms of imagination and physical preparedness--to sustain those long flights.”

I once tried out on Coltrane my theory that one reason he developed such long solos was in an attempt to create and sustain a kind of hypnotic, dervishlike mood so that the listener would in time become oblivious to distractions and end up wholly immersed in the music with all his customary intellectual and emotional defenses removed.

“That may be a secondary effect,” Coltrane said, “but I'm not consciously trying to do that. I'm still primarily looking into certain sounds, certain scales. Not that I'm sure of what I'm looking for, except that it'll be something that hasn't been played before. I don't know what it is. I know I'll have that feeling when I get it. And in the process of looking, continual looking, the result in any given performance can be long or short. I never know. It's always one thing leading into another. It keeps evolving, and sometimes it's longer than I actually thought it was while I was playing. When things are constantly happening the piece just doesn't feel that long.”

Always looking, Coltrane always tried to be ready for the unexpected revelation, “that feeling.” Alice Coltrane told me that “when John left for work he'd often take five instruments with him. He wanted to be ready for whatever came. That was characteristic of John. His music was never resigned, never complacent. How could it be? He never stopped surprising himself.”

He was a man who spoke of universal, transcendent peace--becoming one with Om, “the first vibration--that sound, that spirit which set everything else into being.” And yet his music, to the end, although sometimes almost eerily serene, remained most often volcanic. Ravi Shankar, who had come to know Coltrane, said: “I was much disturbed by his music. Here was a creative person who had become a vegetarian, who was studying yoga and reading the Bhagavad-Gita, yet in whose music I still heard much turmoil. I could not understand it.”

Marion Brown, the alto saxophonist and composer, was one of the musicians assembled by Coltrane for his almost unbearably intense set of “free jazz,” Ascension, and Brown recalls: “We did two takes, and they both had that kind of thing in them that makes people scream. The people in the studios were screaming.”

Perhaps Om, the first vibration, is a scream. Perhaps Coltrane wished so hard to transcend all of what he regarded as his baser, antispiritual elements, that he was doomed, from the time his ambition became so otherworldly, to always feel desperately imprisoned. Hence the scream. But part of the scream may also have been the pain, the difficulty, of self-purgation, a process that had become the normative conundrum of thorns in his life.

Whatever the explanation--if there is a discernible matrix of explanations for the phenomenon of Coltrane--by the time he died of cancer of the liver in 1967, he had helped shape a new generation of jazz musicians. He didn't like the term “jazz,” by the way, since he felt all music to be one, without labels.

In musical terms Trane's contributions have perhaps been most succinctly described by David Baker, who has long taught black music, and other music, at the University of Indiana. Now that Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians has at last decided to admit articles on jazz musicians, Baker is writing an entry on, among others, John Coltrane. And the achievements of Coltrane he will cite are “using multiphonics, playing several notes or tones simultaneously; creating asymmetrical groupings not dependent on the basic pulse; developing an incredibly sophisticated system of chord substitutions; and initiating a pan-modal style of playing, using several modes simultaneously. I've transcribed some of his solos for teaching my students at the University of Indiana. I think all musicians should study Coltrane solos the way we now study the etudes of Bach and Brahms.”

Coltrane, who read theory as well as biographies of the creative (Van Gogh, for instance), might have been pleased to hear that. But at night, on the stand, there would be no abiding satisfaction for him in what he had done in the past. “You just keep going,” he told me once. “You keep trying to get right down to the crux.”

He even frustrated himself--in addition to knowing the crux would always be beyond him or anyone else--by yearning for yet another impossibility. “Sometimes,” Coltrane said to me one afternoon, “I wish I could walk up to my music as if for the first time, as if I had never heard it before. Being so inescapably a part of it, I'll never know what the listener gets, what the listener feels, and that's too bad.”

Looking at Coltrane's early background--born in Hamlet, North Carolina; schooling in Philadelphia; rhythm-and-blues work with Eddie “Mr. Cleanhead” Vinson; gathering experience with Dizzy Gillespie, Earl Bostic, Johnny Hodges, Miles Davis, and Thelonious Monk--there would have been no way to predict (before Miles and Monk, anyway) the singular, unyieldingly questioning force that was to revolutionize much of jazz. There never is any way to predict the coming of the next jazz prophet. And that's why nearly all speculation, learned or otherwise, about the future directions of jazz is always futile. The future of jazz has always depended on unexpected individuals with radical (though at first seemingly opaque) questions to ask--questions they eventually proceed to answer: Louis Armstrong on the nature of the jazz solo; Duke Ellington on the nature of the jazz orchestra; Charlie Parker on the obsolescence of the rhythmic and harmonic language that preceded him; and John Coltrane on all manner of jazz constrictions that antedated him.

In spending himself on trying to answer the questions that consumed him, Coltrane eventually developed what in jazz terms could be called a large audience. As Martin Williams has pointed out, “It was almost impossible for a man to be as much of a technician, artist, and explorer as Coltrane and still have the kind of popular following he had. What did he tell that audience? In what new and meaningful things did his music instruct them?

“I don't know, of course,” Williams continued. “And perhaps as a white man I can't know. But I would venture a suggestion. I don't think Coltrane spoke of society or political theory. I think that like all real artists he spoke of matters of the spirit, of those things by which the soul of man survives. I think he spoke of the ways of the demons and the gods that were always there, yet are always contemporary. And I think that he knew that he did.”

Some months after Coltrane died, I was visiting a black college in Delaware. It had been a year during which I had lectured at many colleges--mostly on education and civil liberties. When music had come into the discussion, the emphasis invariably was on rock sounds and players. Only at this black college did the students talk of Bird and Ornette Coleman, and especially of Coltrane.

“You know,” one of the black students said, “when Trane died, it was like a great big hole had been left. And it's still there.”

In one sense that hole is indeed still there and will continue to be. Obviously, certain artists do leave great big holes when they die, for they are irreplaceable in the size and scope of their originality. Louis Armstrong. Duke. Lester Young. Coleman Hawkins. Billie Holiday. And on and on. As this book is being written, there has as yet been no successor to Coltrane in terms of having dominant, pervasive influence on the jazz of the '70's.

On the other hand, as pianist Keith Jarrett said of Trane's death, “Everyone felt a big gap all of a sudden. But he didn't intend to leave a gap. He intended that there be more space for everybody to do what they should do.”

And there is more space for further generations of seekers. In one way or another they are all children of Coltrane. And, of course, of all those who shaped him. The legacy is long and rich and demanding.