About John Coltrane Essay, Research Paper
James C. Hall
COLTRANE, JOHN (1926-1967), saxophonist, composer, and iconic
figure. John Coltrane’s immersion in modern jazz took place in bands led by Eddie Vinson,
Dizzy Gillespie, and Johnny Hodges. In 1955 he joined the Miles Davis quintet and was soon
identified as one of the most talented tenor saxophonists of the era. The story of
Coltrane becoming a major African American cultural icon really began, however, in 1957.
In that year he underwent a spiritual "conversion" concomitant with his
overcoming a drug addiction. A brief but salient collaboration with Thelonius Monk
followed and Coltrane was on his way to becoming one of the major innovators in jazz.
Associated with the radical improvisatory style called "Free Jazz" (or
pejoratively "anti-jazz"), Coltrane’s own contribution was sometimes referred to
as "sheets of sound," a lightning fast style of improvisation, with great
attention given to melodic freedom. His mid-1960s recordings were increasingly complex and
dense, often reflecting an interest in Eastern and African music, and were marked by
radical experimentation in instrumentation. Coltrane died at age forty of a liver ailment.
Coltrane had a major impact on literary artists who came of age in the 1960s. Kimberly
Benston has suggested that the "Coltrane poem" exists as a distinct genre within
contemporary African American literature. Coltrane’s premature death has generated a most
compelling body of elegies. There is no question that at some level many artists were
affected by his creativity and genius, but the evidence suggests that Coltrane’s
spirituality as much as his musicianship created disciples. Coltrane’s monumental 1964
work A Love Supreme became a kind of musical scripture to many poets, novelists,
and playwrights. His commitment to experimentation, his crosscultural interests, in
addition to his search for a life contrary to the sterility of the mainstream, made
Coltrane a hero to a generation whose hopes were nurtured by the energy of the Black Arts
See also: Art Lange and Nathaniel Mackey, Moment’s Notice:
Jazz in Poetry and Prose, 1993. Eric Nisenson, Ascension: John Coltrane and His
From The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Ed. William L.
Andrews, Frances Foster Smith and Trudier Harris. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Copyright ? 1997 by Oxford University Press.
Kimberly W. Benston
The power of music … to unfix and as it were clap wings to
solid nature, interprets the riddle of Orpheus—Emerson, "History"
Late Coltrane. Those ecstatic ebullitions, attacks on expectation and consciousness,
furied emotiveness: all this we yet hear, possess as records of a fierce and visionary askesis,
of a quest for cosmic knowledge and salvation. Through a passion of innovation, John
Coltrane perfected his own calculus of musical impossibility–for him, the world became
regenerated inwardly by the musical afflatus.
The power of Trane was apparent from his first sessions with Miles Davis in 1955 (vide
"Ah-Leu-Cha"). But those awesome manifestations of the Coltrane genius–the
late (post-1962) compositions–come after many often tortuous dissolutions, reformations,
and recrystallizations of approach as the "heaviest spirit" (Imamu Baraka’s
encomium) traveled the road from apprentice to rebel to creative master.
Ultimately, passages in Trane’s music became so bright and so piercing that the sounds
seemed to be words, or cries deeper than words. He discerned or discovered for
Afro-American music what Rilke called "the language where languages end." Music
became the externalization of the telos within; it reflected Trane’s attempt to
respond with fidelity to the incognito name and nature of our universe. In turn, as he
carried his horn in search of what he termed "Selflessness," Trane himself
became the sun and the node, the zero point of the universe, and all things (incarnated by
a variety of rhythmic/percussional accompaniments) swirled in dynamic flux around him. He
knew the sense in which music could conceive the very possibility of the future and then
furnished that future in joyous and terrified anticipation, thus preparing all of us
(technically as musicians, spiritually as kinsmen) to inhabit it. For in the last works of
Coltrane, as in the late quartets of Beethoven, we witness genius challenging hitherto
unglimpsed realms of imagination and expression and, in the same effort, somehow
conquering them. We witness, in short, the mystery of the Orphic dismemberment and
restitution: the destructive-creative threat to and recovery of Expression itself.
The effort of this essay is to touch upon the salient and haunting aspects of
Coltrane’s last phase. Only one dimension of Trane’s final achievement is strictly
musical: the stylistic, structural development which is carried by the actual notes.
Equally important, however, are the cultural, aesthetic, and spiritual ideas which the
music evokes: the links to contemporary Afro-American revolts, to the modern "black
aesthetic," to the blues root of jazz impulses.
At every stage of this exploration we will discern a lineament of Orpheus who, above
all for us, represents mastery of life through the power to create harmony amid the
stillness of primordial silence or the ferocity of discord. For Orpheus, the savage beasts
and Furies stand mute and listen. Yet a dark future awaits the vates, a violent destiny
concealed (though perhaps also provoked) by the lyre’s sound. The frenzied Maenads tear
him to pieces, severing head from body. The voice of Orpheus seems to offend life in some
hidden and primal way. Whatever that sin may be, expression, as signal of an emergent
consciousness, is complicit in it. The mad jealousy of nature (the uncontrollable women)
spends itself against a competing voice of fury, the Orphic hunger to order existence.
Trane partook of this Orphic fury, a metaphysical revolt without metaphysical
surrender, a dialectic of violence in which the very being of man is put on trial. For if
the Orphic voice is a response to Nature’s chaos, it is also an appeal to man’s own inner
being, to the "perfection" and "deep peace" Trane sought for us all.
It invokes a reordering of life by an alteration of consciousness; it summons apocalypse
in its original sense of revelation by penetrating the moment’s perplexities to the heart
of awareness. Fury and Apocalypse: these are the obsessions of the Afro-American’s Orphic
imagination, the vital and dangerous necessities of its existence.
For the modern black art of which Trane was a prime mover, fury envisions apocalypse as
the artist engages Euro-American culture in an agonistic relationship. This apocalypse is
something more than the destruction conceived by the oppressed as retribution against
their enemies. Implied in it is a nearly total rejection of Western history and
civilization. The revolt of the Afro-American artist against specific literary or social
conventions is, at bottom, a rebellion against authority and the memory of imposed
systems. As trumpeter Clifford Thornton (alumnus of the fabulous Sun Ra cabal) declared,
true revolution of consciousness begins by a radical "un-learning" of existent
modes. It is not an improvement or modification of available techniques that the black
artist requests; rather, his call is for an entirely new grammar, a "post-Western
form" (Baraka et al.). Divorced from the enveloping society, he sets out on a fresh
journey into the uncharted spaces of the self. He courts the dismembering anger of the
herd by undertaking the liberating psychic descent.
Modern black culture wants to remake, to reconceive, that fundamental activity of mind
we call art. It has come to realize, however, that all real transformations in the form of
expression, all fruitful adventures in that domain, can only take place within a
transformation of the idea of expression itself. Thus, while the new "black
aesthetic" turns inside-out all the pieties of life and art, speaking outlandishly in
no language we ordinarily hear, it still speaks for the life and increase presumably
afforded by a new syntax of desire. That it has dared to do so in such assertive tones is
certainly attributable to the startling discoveries of contemporary jazz musicians.
The sounds of John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor,
Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, Pharaoh Sanders, and their fellow travelers unfolded before
the black poet a new kingdom, a world which has little in common with the systematized
reality around him, and in which he leaves behind all concrete feelings in order to
discover within himself an ineffable longing. The "new wave" jazz–having
extended and mastered the contribution of bebop–opened the floodgates of passion, anger,
pain, and love, and aroused that fury for liberty which is the essence of the new black
art. It joined itself to earlier, major epochs of black music by reaffirming the creative
union between the improvising soloist and the total musical collective. But it also forged
a new role for music in the hierarchy of black expressions–that of guide rather than mere
analogue to other communicative modes.
The root of the black writers’ elevation of music to a position of supremacy among the
arts lies in the music’s aversion for fixed thoughts and forms. By the very fact of its
"otherworldliness," of its independence of values derived from empirical and
alien experiences, it enters the Afro-American’s consciousness on its own, necessarily
general, terms. And because of their independence from familiar, "Western"
idioms, these terms represent for the new artists the ethos of black nature with an
absoluteness and an intensity denied to other creative media.
The thought of giving to words and prosody values equivalent to music is an ancient
one, in African and Afro-American as well as Western culture. But with modern black
literature, it assumes the force of a specific idea: the notion that black language leads toward
music, that it passes into music when it attains the maximal pitch of its being. This
belief contains the powerful suggestion that music is the ultimate lexicon, that language,
when truly apprehended, aspires to the condition of music and is brought, by the poet’s
articulation of black vocality, to the threshold of that condition. Thus, in the verse of
Baraka, Larry Neal, Alice Walker, Etheridge Knight, Michael Harper, and countless others,
the poem, by a gradual transcendence of its own forms, strives to escape from the linear,
logically determined bonds of denotative speech into what the poet imagines as the
spontaneities and freedoms of musical form. Black poetry now unabashedly seeks the
unfettered lyricism of "actual music" (Haki Madhubuti) for it is in music that
the poet hopes to achieve both the individual creation–the call bearing the shape of his
own spirit–and communal solidarity–the response of infinite renewal.
From Henry Dumas’s Probe ("Will the Circle Be Unbroken?") to Ishmael
Reed’s Loop Garoo Kid (Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down), the artist in modern black
fiction is, archetypically, a musician (especially a horn player); for it is only in music
that aesthetic conventions can touch upon both the pure energy and improvisational wit
necessary for survival in the black diaspora. This faith in the dominion of music leads
the black poet to experiment in the use of words for their musical effect, inducing a mood
proper to the experience, not of the static text, but of the jam session performance. The
fullest statements of this hope, of this merging of the word with the musical ideal, can
be found in the myriad poems directly inspired by Coltrane. The "Coltrane poem"
has, in fact, become an unmistakable genre of black poetry and it is in such works–by
Ebon, Madhubuti, Sonia Sanchez, Carolyn Rodgers, A. B. Spellman, and Harper, to list but a
few–that the notion of music as the quintessential idiom, and of the word as its prelude
and annunciator, is carried to an apex of technical and philosophic implication. Harper’s
"Dear John, Dear Coltrane," for example, in the brooding intensity of its
incantatory lyricism, turns upon a metaphor of cosmic, and searing, musicality. It images
the black man’s spirit, Trane’s essence, as a resolve to play the elemental notes despite
the Orphic rending:
there is no substitute for pain:
genitals gone or going …
pick up the horn
with some will and blow
into the freezing night:
a love supreme, a love supreme.
All the poets, like Harper, felt in Trane’s music the self-commitment to an exalted
state, the "will" to pass beyond apparent limits of material (including
political) existence or of mere method. Listening to Trane, they sensed that formal
entities no longer derived from the dicta of an inherited tradition but from the spiritual
unity of the artist’s vision. Since this vision was inimical to existing structures, the
traditional artistic forms would be incapable of containing them, and new forms,
expressing the new attitudes and offering new stimuli, would necessarily arise. They did
arise. And Trane’s was the most magical of formal revolutions.
The poet’s limbs lay scattered
Where they were flung in cruelty or madness,
But Hebrus River took the head and lyre
And as they floated down the gentle current
The lyre made mournful sounds, and the tongue murmured
In mournful harmony.
–Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book Eleven
Whether the Maenads dismembered Orpheus at the behest of Dionysus or; as Ovid
suggested, in a fit of sexual pique, one thing is clear: this supreme creator was the
victim of an inexorable clash between the Dionysian principle, represented by the Maenad’s
ungovernable zeal, and the Apollonian ideal which he, as maker of songs, venerated. The
power of Dionysus–which civilization inevitably tends to suppress–erupts with a
vengeance. In the process, energy may overwhelm order, expression may burst into scream or
dissolve into silence. The deformation of Orpheus is thus an attack on form itself. Yet,
as Orphic bearer of new black culture, the Afro-American rebel-artist needs and celebrates
his ancestrally privileged energy, and so must always risk the annihilation. On the other
hand, should he fall too far back into the Dionysian sources of fervor, should he avoid
all abstraction and structure, he will have expunged the motive for his being: the healing
of the fractured communal will.
This complex tension is strongly felt behind the technical ingenuities of Coltrane’s
music. Its assault on form has, in all probability, no exact parallel in the history of
Afro-American music. It is at once more various, destructive, and self-conscious than its
precedents; it challenges the idea of form itself and resolves that challenge by forcing
new demands on every aspect of the medium. No category of space or time, order or chaos,
arrangement or improvisation, solo or ensemble, tone or mode remains quite intact after
this upheaval of the imagination. Yet it is worth remarking, particularly in view of the
misleading impression left by Trane’s critics and admirers alike, that the supersession of
established formal principles did not lead to formlessness, to an irreparable splintering
of the Orphic lyre. The dynamic power that Trane and his "new wave" brethren
unleashed seemed to shatter the very possibility of clarity and form–such was the force
of the new content that was being freshly conceived. But there is a rigorous inner logic
at the root of those works which, upon scrutiny, makes it hard to believe they were
"amorphous," "random," or simply "shucking," as critics
[. . . .]
If, in his capacity for surprise, Trane knew the scope and holiness of sound, he also
divined the plenum of silence. Pauses and silences are often the climaxes of his late
works, the still centers of the prophetic storm, the nuclei of tension around which the
whole movement is structured. The more one listens the more those silences seem to be
among the first causes of the overall effect. This is, again, partly a technical
consideration. From pieces as early as the Miles Davis/hard-bop works, Trane was leaving
large rests within lines, delicately spacing bursts of triplets, in the effort to achieve
rhythmic variation within given harmonic limits. When his playing became liberated from
the centripetal force of tonality, time became his prisoner and silence a
consequent choice against time–a choice that facilitated expansion within the
ultimately temporal musical order. The authority of the silences is a direct consequence
of the late pieces’ density of texture: each note and each rest is part of an integrated
design of utmost economy and vigor. The mystical effect, to paraphrase Nathalie
Sarraut’s account of the new, "nontonal" novel, is that of a time that is
no longer the time of our intended life, but of a hugely amplified present.
But this dialectic of sound and silence betokens more than just a technical imperial
expansion over wide, new territories. Trane’s is the silence of Orphic utterance
momentarily stilled, of the voice that temporarily ceases singing in the face of mystery,
only to embrace a new strain that will henceforward echo this silence, but in song.
This silence presupposes the possibility of song and the relevance of expression to the
life of the individual soul and the community. Trane, like his African forebears, was
delving for the primal Sound that lends music its magical quality. The very possibility of
such discovery, he intuited, begins in the silence of the quest, what Kenneth Burke termed
the hunter’s "silence of purposiveness."
[. . . .]
Baraka, Coltrane’s most sublime critic, was trying to express what anyone of artistic
awareness sensed in the presence of a music more powerful, more anguished and celebratory
than any in recent memory. But there is a source to this power, despite the blinding
sparks of Trane’s titanic assault on tradition (which I have, admittedly, stressed
somewhat tendentiously). What he actually did was to obey an obscure but profound impulse
to revolt against established conventions in order to rediscover convention on a deeper
level. Specifically, Trane recalled, for himself and for his generation, the old cry and
shout of the blues. This impulse can be felt throughout his career; in his
construction of melody, he always maintained a hint of the blues’ folk scales. When, in
the later works, the tonal centers were mixed and shifted in rapid succession, the blues
did not disappear. On the contrary, they were asserted more energetically, more primally
in the sheer outpouring of shout, screech, wail and cry, in the uninhibited pitch and
movement within the register. Listen to "Manifestation" (1966), to "The
Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost" (1965), to "Transition" (1965).
There are long patches there which are virtual encyclopedias of oral tradition, with
grunt, scream, joke, and soothing speech all intended as confessions and calls to the
One feels the blues as naked vocality especially in recordings of Trane’s live
performances. Trane always sought to pull his audience into the force-field of his long,
explosive solos. His ideal, like that of the earliest jazz masters, was one of collective
improvisation. "When you know that somebody is maybe moved the same way you
are," he once said, "it’s just like having another member in the group."
Again, the contrast with the white avant-garde is revealing. To the latter, demands for
communication and participation are not only irrelevant but disruptive of the fundamental
rage for disorder. It seeks the dismemberment and abhors any interruption of its own
destruction. For Trane, as for all black artists, the community’s involvement in a ritual
of restitution is paramount. It is they who must ultimately–and
continuously–re-member his total Orphic being.
Excerpted from "Late Coltrane: A Re-Membering of Orpheus." In A Chant of
Saints: A Gathering of Afro-American Literature, Art, and Scholarship. Ed. Michael S.
Harper and Robert B. Stepto. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1979. Copyright ?
1979 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.