About John Coltrane Essay Research Paper James

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,

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

Quest. 1993.

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.