It is an old recording from the early ’60s. The record is textured with a gentle crack. Pianist Wynton Kelly, drummer Jimmy Cobb, and bassist Paul Chambers lay down an almost latin-sounding 3/4 swing feel. Miles Davis plays the head of the tune “Teo” and begins to blow. As he is wont to do, Miles plays and understated, melodic solo. Then boom, out comes Trane. His tone is robust and muscular, his dynamic range is broad, and his melodic lines are filled with dissonance and tension. The solos juxtapose one and other perfectly. It’s almost as if Miles uses Trane’s innate instensity as a compositional tool. He helps create an emotional and climactic arc to the tune. This recording is of course off the jazz classic Someday My Prince Will Come.

John Coltrane and Miles Davis

Photo by Don Hunstein (1959)

It is nearing the 23rd of September, the birthday of John Coltrane. What is the relevancy of this man? Set aside the context of jazz; what does Trane represent in 2013? He is without question one of the most discussed artists in American music. He is a deified figure, a man who shattered the mold, and a man who was unapologetic about his sound and his musical approach. For decades artists have continued to listen, transcribe, and emulate what they hear in Trane’s playing. A jazz classic like Lester Young’s “Tea For Two” is a record that beautifully takes ownership of the sound of the 1950s. Lester Young stylistically resembles other artists of his time like Coleman Hawkins or Ben Webster. John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme however sounds quite unlike anything of its time. It is a record that was dedicated to God and was made to represent Coltrane’s struggle with his heroin addiction. Far from the sound of Wayne Shorter or Sonny Rollins, Trane has a distinct and original voice. His playing continually elicits a powerful response from decades of listeners. Part of what makes John Coltrane worth listening to again in 2013 is the timelessness of his music. His work has an emotional depth, something that is tied to no time period, and for that reason continues to speak to a larger audience.

Aside from his music, Coltrane’s legacy is looked at in a completely different light than that of other iconic American musician. He is far from the always smiling Satchmo, the cool Miles Davis, or the soulful Ray Charles. The images that can be seen of Trane often times portray a solemn, pensive person. In one image, John Coltrane sits in the studio, his hand stroking his chin, and his saxophone gently tucked beneath his arm. Miles can be seen playing his trumpet in the background, recording for the album Kind of Blue. There is something about the absence of color in a photograph like this that adds to the image we have of Coltrane. He at times appears almost not of this world. The image of Trane is perhaps a result of a combination of his storied past and the antiquity of the black and white photograph. Whatever it may be, John Coltrane is a character that continues to mystify and inspire his listeners.

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Words by Zeb Stern


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