Memories of the Blue TraneIn just a decade, John
Coltrane had come to be identified by many as an almost mystical
force in jazz and a great innovator even for those not susceptible
to such impressions
Pictures of John Coltrane, just like mental pictures built up from snippets one might have read or heard about him, suggest that he was an uncommonly gentle person. Like Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, he too was once trapped by hard drugs; like Davis and several others (and unlike Parker), he freed himself of the habit. But he had none of the abrasiveness and brash self-confidence of Parker and Davis. He fought through much of his adult life against both diffidence and the demons inside himself, while being more decent than most musicians or even ordinary people to the world outside him.
Music was to Coltrane part of this struggle, an expression of his tortured mind, part of an attempt to attain peace and spiritual fulfilment rather than to give great performances or make great recordings. In large measure he succeeded, but the life he led had not been kind to his body. He died of liver cancer in 1967 after having gone on extreme diets to cleanse himself and still the fires raging from the abuse his body had suffered.
Last September, Coltrane would have been 75, a common age for jazz musicians to live up to and even perform at, an age at which Dizzy Gillespie was celebrating 60 years as a performer! Trane, on the other hand, had an even shorter career than his four decades of life would suggest. It is only in the '50s that his name starts appearing in discographies (primarily as a sideman to Thelonious Monk at first and then Miles Davis). And although he made the landmark Blue Train in 1957, he continued to work under Davis as leader till the beginning of the '60s.
The '50s were a time when hard bop was the big thing in jazz, and Blue Train has gone down in history as a hard bop classic, with its fast - often relentless - pace, intricate but measured solos, taken in turn by members of a sextet, and clean, simple melodies. But in 1959 Trane was part of the action on the most famous jazz album of all time, Miles Davis's A Kind of Blue, in which Davis and his sextet abandoned Western harmony based on progressions of three-note chords for the calm, relaxing feeling of ``modal'' music, based on seven-note modes or scales.
By the early '60s, as he at last settled permanently into a leadership role, Trane had developed his astonishing ``sheets of sound'' technique. Notes poured out of his tenor saxophone in a continuous non-stop cascade of sound, in contrast to, for instance, Sonny Rollins, whose style had clear boundaries between notes and pauses at the end of phrases. Around this time, he revived the soprano saxophone, an instrument first strongly espoused by the New Orleansman Sidney Bechet as a substitute for his clarinet. This distinctive high-register member of the sax family combined well with his sheets of sound on two numbers that became famous in his repertoire, the Broadway hit My Favourite Things and the Afro-Cuban jazz standard Afro-Blue. Long renditions of both these (shorn of their Broadway musical and Latin jazz styles!), marked by astonishingly extended solos by Trane and (to a lesser extent) his pianist McCoy Tyner, both showed him totally absorbed in the music and capable of absorbing the listener totally.
He was heading into the personal spiritual territory that he was to inhabit, as his 1964 magnum opus album A Love Supreme presaged, and the next musical step in that direction was free jazz. For its originators, this avant-garde movement was about deliberately breaking rules of harmony, sometimes sounding discordant on purpose. But for Trane it was about continuous improvisation of a more inchoate, chaotic kind of music or rather primordial sound whose sincerity and elemental force even followers of conventional jazz could not deny, disturbed and put off by it as they were. The early '60s quartet including Tyner had left him by this time, as had the once-loyal listeners who remembered him by catchy tunes such as Impressions and Chasin' a Trane, but on this very personal journey, about to end soon, being alone didn't really matter.
Trane had been off drugs for almost a decade (since his later Miles years) and he seemed to be finding the peace of mind he had pursued so single-mindedly. To the world he had always been a gentle, peaceful soul anyway, his personal torments notwithstanding. But while he had broken free of drugs, the asceticism and self-abnegation he had adopted got him in the end. In just a decade, he had come to be identified by many as an almost mystical force in jazz and a great innovator even for those not susceptible to such impressions.
Published on 12 March
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