John Coltrane The Experimental Musician Essay Research

John Coltrane The Experimental Musician Essay, Research Paper

Jazz, taking its roots in African American folk music, has

evolved, metamorphosed, and transposed itself over the last century to

become a truly American art form. More than any other type of music,

it places special emphasis on innovative individual interpretation.

Instead of relying on a written score, the musician improvises. For

each specific period or style through which jazz has gone through over

the past seventy years, there is almost always a single person who can

be credited with the evolution of that sound. From Thelonius Monk,

and his bebop, to Miles Davis? cool jazz, from Dizzy Gillespie?s big

band to John Coltrane?s free jazz; America?s music has been developed,

and refined countless times through individual experimentation and

innovation. One of the most influential musicians in the development

of modern jazz is John Coltrane. In this paper, I examine the way in

which Coltrane?s musical innovations were related to the music of the

jazz greats of his era and to the tribulations and tragedies of his


John William Coltrane was born in Hamlet, North Carolina, on

September 23, 1926. Two months later, his family moved to High Point,

North Carolina, where he lived in a fairly well-to-do part of town.

He grew up in a typical southern black family, deeply religious, and

steeped in tradition. Both of his parents were musicians, his father

played the violin and ukulele, and his mother was a member of the

church choir. For several years, young Coltrane played the clarinet,

however with mild interest. It was only after he heard the great alto

saxophonist Johnny Hodges playing with the Duke Ellington band on the

radio, that he became passionate about music. He dropped the clarinet

and took up the alto saxophone, soon becoming very accomplished.

When Coltrane was thirteen, he experienced several tragedies that

would leave a lasting impression on him and would have a great impact

on the music of his later years. Within a year, his father, his

uncle, and his minister all died. He lost every important male

influence in his life. After graduating from high school in High

Point, he moved to Philadelphia in 1943, where he lived in a small

one-room apartment and worked as a laborer in a sugar-refinery. For a

year, Coltrane attended Ornstein School of Music. Then in 1945, he

was drafted into the Navy and sent to Hawaii where he was assigned to

play clarinet in a band called the Melody Makers.

Upon his return from Hawaii a year later, Coltrane launched his

music career. ?With all those years of constant practice in High

Point behind him, possessing a powerful inner strength from being

raised in a deeply religious family, and with a foundation in musical

theory and an innate curiosity about life, Coltrane was well prepared

to seriously enter a battle.?

In the late nineteen forties, Coltrane began playing with several

different R&B groups in small bars and clubs around Philadelphia. It

became a tradition in many of the clubs at this time for musicians to

?walk the bar? (i.e. to walk on top of the bar while playing one?s

instrument). Coltrane was ashamed of having to go through this

?display? every night. ?To any serious musician, it was an incredibly

humiliating experience – to someone like Coltrane, who was developing

a type of religious fervor for his music, it was devastating.? In

addition to the negative self-image this experience engendered,

critics criticized his music as being too bizarre. Coltrane became

very depressed, and searching for a way out, he turned to heroin.

Heroin was a very popular drug among black musicians in the forties.

It was a uniting force that, initially, brought them together, but in

the end caused lives and careers to disintegrate.

In 1949, Dizzy Gillespie invited Coltrane to play in his big

band. Gillespie had been a very influential and important figure in

the bebop movement. Bebop was a style of jazz, popular during the

late thirties and forties. It incorporated faster tempos, and more

complex phrases than the jazz of earlier years. For the first time in

many years, Coltrane felt some sense of stability in his life.

However, after a two-year stint with Gillespie, Coltrane was asked to

leave because of his unreliability due to his heroin addiction.

Again, Coltrane was reduced to ?walking the bar?, and playing in seedy

clubs. Depressed and dejected, his addiction grew.

It was during this time that Coltrane became very interested in

eastern philosophies. ?When he was not studying or playing he spent

most of his time reading and attempting to satisfy his growing

philosophical curiosity about life. It was an inborn curiosity to a

certain extent, but one that had also developed from events from his

early life such as his religious upbringing, and the early deaths of

the most important men in his life.? Life was getting back on track

for him, as he finally felt the influence of positive forces. At this

time, he met Naima, a Moslem woman, and an able musician. More than

anyone, she was able to help Coltrane pick up the broken pieces of his

life. They were soon married.

In the mid-fifties, he was invited to play with Miles Davis and his

quintet. The collaboration that developed would change his life.

Miles Davis had received acclaim at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1955.

Davis was dubbed the rising star of the new avant-garde movement,

cool jazz. Cool jazz was a striking contrast to the more traditional

jazz popular during the forties. It emphasized experimentation with

chords, keys, and modes, improvising on scales rather than on

sequences of chords, producing music that at times was very bizarre.

This new movement was the beginning of an experimental stage of jazz

that was very popular during the sixties. The partnership between

Davis and Coltrane proved to be an incredible learning experience for

Coltrane. He began to develop a style distinctly his own. ?Coltrane

poured out streams of notes with velocity and passion, exploring every

melodic idea, no matter how exotic.? This became known as Coltrane?s

?sheets of sound period?, in which he would explore the scales of the

saxophone at a speed that no one had ever achieved, creating very

dense musical textures .

The Davis band did very well for a time, and made several recordings;

however, in late 1956, Coltrane was fired from the band because of his

debilitating heroin addiction. At this point, Coltrane almost gave up

music. He actually went to the New York Post Office, and filled out an

application to be a postman. He and Naima moved from New York to

Philadelphia in November of that year and lived in his mother?s house

there. Again, his life reached a low. Drugs and alcohol controlled

him. Coltrane realized at this point that he needed to choose between

drugs or music. He chose music. For two-weeks, he locked himself in

his room and went through a very painful withdrawal. When he left

that room, he was a cured man, and never touched heroin or alcohol

again. During those two weeks, Coltrane had undergone a spiritual

rebirth that would send him on his quest to find ?the mysterious

sound? . This transformation was documented on his album A Love

Supreme (1964), considered by many to be the best recording of his

solo career. On the album cover, Coltrane wrote-

?During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual

awakening which has guided me to a richer, fuller, more productive

life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the

means and privilege to make others happy through music. I feel this

has been granted through His grace. ALL PRAISE TO GOD.?

The album is divided into four parts: Acknowledgment, Resolution,

Pursuance, and Psalm. Each part details a different element of his

spiritual journey. Coltrane?s God was not Christian, Muslim, or

Jewish; his God was simply a force that provided unity and harmony.

?He believed that his humanity, his music, the material world, and God

were all one, and that feeling of unity governed his life.?

In 1957, Coltrane embarked on the most important learning

experience of his life – an apprenticeship with the ?High Priest of

Bebop?, Thelonius Monk. Coltrane?s style had been developed with

Miles Davis, but it was still somewhat reserved. With Monk, he was

transformed into a legend. ?Monk would provide Coltrane with the key

to unlock all sorts of musical doors and free the dark and the

beautiful visions Coltrane had seen throughout his life.? With the

Thelonius Monk quartet, Coltrane learned many techniques that he

incorporated into his distinctive style. Instead of concentrating on

the melodies, the group focused on the harmonic structure of a song.

At this time, Coltrane was stronger than ever. With his mature

style, and new sobriety, he was ready to set out on his own.

At the end of 1958, Thelonius Monk disbanded the group; Coltrane was

about to set out on one of the most highly regarded solo careers in

the history of jazz. In the same year, he recorded over twenty

different albums with various artists, and though not famous yet, was

widely respected by his fellow musicians. His most important work

from this period was Blue Trane (1957), one of the first of his albums

that would be widely acclaimed. Critics began to laud him, and

regularly gave him good reviews. In 1957, Dom Ceruli wrote in Down

Beat magazine ?His playing is constantly tense and searching; always a

thrilling experience.? After the dissolution of Monk?s group,

Coltrane returned to work with Miles Davis, but in 1960, he left to

form his own band.

The jazz world of the sixties belonged to Coltrane. He pushed

the limits of music, while attracting ever-bigger audiences. It was

during this time that Coltrane searched for the ?mysterious sound?.

He once said that the sound for which he was searching was like

holding a seashell to his ear. ?However one describes the strange

sound, it contained some essential truth for him, existing as an

omnipresent background hum behind the fa?ade of everyday life.? With

the John Coltrane quartet (pianist McCoy Tyner, drummer Elvin Jones,

and Reggie Workman on bass), he incorporated tribal music from Africa,

India, and the Middle East with that of the new avant-garde movement,

?free jazz?. Free jazz or ?the New Thing?, like the counter-culture

of the sixties, was a nonconformist movement. It purposely avoided

the structured sounds of the cool jazz and bebop movements. Instead,

it was devoid of any structure, direction, or tonality, and was

characterized by random improvisation.

As the sixties progressed, Coltrane experimented more and more

with different combinations of sounds and instruments. He became

obsessed with trying to communicate his musical vision. In 1968,

Alice Coltrane (his wife at the time) stated ?I think what he was

trying to do in music was the same thing he was trying to do in his

life. That was to universalize his music, his life, his religion. It

was all based on a universal concept, all-sectarian or non-sectarian.?

In the mid-sixties, Coltrane began to take LSD fairly regularly, in an

effort to help him explore in greater depth both himself and his

music. ?For Coltrane and his quest, LSD was a remarkable tool to dig

deeper into his own being so he could discover the essential and

absolute truth at the center of his being.? Long time fans, however,

viewed his music in this period as being too radical, and too far-out.

Coltrane felt he was losing control over his music; his

experimentation was so far-ranging on that he did not know in what

direction he wanted to go. Through it all, he never abandoned the

search for ?the mysterious sound?.

In late 1966, Coltrane knew that there was something wrong with

him. He didn?t feel right, and by early 1967, he stopped performing

in public. He knew that his death was imminent. In May of 1967,

Coltrane was taken to the hospital, suffering from extreme stomach

pain. He was ordered to stay at the hospital, but left anyway. On

Monday, July 17, he passed away. The cause was liver cancer.

John Coltrane?s music both led the way and reflected the enormous

varieties of experimentation and development of American Jazz of the

1950?s and 60?s. Today, his influence is heard in the recordings of

almost every young jazz musician. A man of mysticism, whose life was

dedicated to sharing his vision of music with others, Coltrane was

clearly a creative genius.


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