“I heard a good rhythm section … go to waste behind the nihilistic exercises of the two horns. Coltrane and Dolphy seem intent on deliberately destroying [swing]. They seem bent on pursuing an anarchistic course in their music that can but be termed anti-jazz.” – John Tynan, Down Beat Magazine, Nov. 1961
1958, Newport, RI.
Miles Davis’ classic sextet is throwing down at the Newport Jazz Festival. John Coltrane steps up to the microphone, beginning a solo that rapidly escalates to wild, cascading flurries of notes. The jazz critics in the house – hell, most of the audience for that matter – are perplexed. In a subsequent Down Beat issue, a writer goes on to refer to Coltrane as an “angry young tenor.”
Listeners had ample reason to be confused. The Coltrane they heard at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival was drastically different from the addicted, unhealthy Coltrane that had been fired from Miles’ group just a year earlier. After nearly overdosing on heroin, Coltrane experienced an intense spiritual awakening. Renewed with purpose, his unique sound and approach developed at a breakneck pace; one that simultaneously revolutionized jazz music, and infuriated traditionalist critics. This pace would not let up for the rest of his life. It would come to define Coltrane as a student, innovator, and true artist.
It is often said that great minds are born ahead of their time, and John Coltrane was no exception to the rule. It seemed that as soon as listeners and jazz critics would start to accept his sound, he would already be off on an entirely new tangent. By the time his late 50s “sheets of sound” approach was beginning to be understood by the jazz public, Coltrane was knee deep in his study of Eastern music—namely Indian ragas—and the soprano saxophone.
Coltrane found commercial success with the soprano in 1961 with My Favorite Things, but he already had his sights set on new ventures. He took a 180-degree turn later that year and recorded the ambitious Africa/Brass with a 20-piece big band. This would mark the beginning of critical animosity against Coltrane’s work, as his collaborations with Eric Dolphy and study of saxophonists like Ornette Coleman and John Gilmore led his music in a more avant garde direction.
Upon hearing Live! at the Village Vanguard, Ira Gitler stated: “Coltrane may be searching for new avenues of expression, but if it is going to take this form of yawps, squawks, and countless repetitive runs, then it should be confined to the woodshed.” Leonard Feather went so far as to write numerous essays condemning the new “anti-jazz” that the Coltrane quartet was playing.
Coltrane, however, was a student for life. He continued growing both musically and spiritually. His magnum opus, 1965’s A Love Supreme, was a stunning representation of his beliefs. His improvisations were long and introspective explorations of harmony and melody. Writer Nat Hentoff compared Coltrane’s playing in his final years to glossolalia, or “speaking in tongues.” Up to his untimely death in 1967, Coltrane never ceased to transcend his own boundaries.
Today, of course, John Coltrane is revered as one of jazz’s greatest minds. However, as previously stated, he was grossly misunderstood during his time. In spite of pressure and opposition from music’s most widely read critics, Coltrane fearlessly pressed on and blazed new trails for jazz music. This courage and self-confidence is a testament to Coltrane as an individual and as an artist.
For today’s jazz musicians, there is a lesson to be learned by studying John Coltrane’s life. Trailblazers like Trane are, unfortunately, few and far between in today’s scene. Often, musicians will try and play like Coltrane, rather than think like him. The lesson behind Coltrane’s life story is simple: understanding and appreciating tradition is useful, but it is of utmost importance for an artist to seek new ground, forging their own path regardless of critical response.
Words by Cale Hawkins (@calehawkins)