A Love of Music



                        St. John Coltrane
Paul Szabady                                                                          February, 2004

I first discovered John Coltrane in the autumn of 1967. I was 17 years old and, as James Joyce put it, “near the wild heart of life,” starting my fourth different Chicago high school in as many years. It was a time of wild hearts in other ways too. The Summer of Love had just passed, leaving anticipation of coming liberation in the air. This wild hope soared in the face of the general desperation raised by the butchery of the Vietnam War, showing again that dark heart that America had revealed in its resistance to the Civil Rights Movement. If hearts were wild with hope, they were also wild with pain, rage, and anguish.

Coltrane’s music arrived in my life during the tidal wave of great 60’s Rock and Roll that was synonymous with the decade. But even amid the landmark and life-changing albums that were flowing, it seemed, like torrents of water, Coltrane’s music stood out. Seeing those first of my Coltrane Impulse albums - Kulu Se Mama, Live at Birdland, and Meditations – is still clear in my memory. The albums projected significance by their sheer physical presence. More expensive than the rock albums of the time, housed in glossy, shining covers, the heavy, thick LPs exploding with a sonic vividness that even on the cheesy stereos of the day was overwhelming. The liner notes were literate and thought provoking, providing insight as honest as any into the music. The New Wave of Jazz was on Impulse, the album logo proclaimed. Anything “new”, “experimental”, or “free” was welcomed with a rapt enthusiasm that reflected both the deep need for liberation and the sense of potential of the time.

Coltrane’s late work on the Impulse label stirred strong controversy at the time of its release. It eventually led to quartet stalwarts McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones leaving the group, complaining that they couldn’t ‘hear’ themselves in the maelstroms Coltrane was creating. It divides Coltrane listeners today. When hearing someone announce that they love Coltrane, it is almost impossible to resist asking, “Which Coltrane?” The Coltrane of Kind of Blue? The Prestige albums? The Atlantic years? The Duke Ellington or Johnny Hartman collaborations? A Love Supreme? The classic McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones, Jimmy Garrison quartet? Ascension?

In my own case it was the white heat of inspiration that infused Coltrane’s later work that set me on fire: music that was ‘difficult’, sometimes off-putting and oftentimes impenetrable on first listen. It was music that demanded close listening and emotional and spiritual growth, indeed courage, to tap. The difficulty was worth it. Once opened to this music, any initial difficulties seemed insignificant. Those three initiatory albums grew to the two feet of Coltrane albums that rest on my record shelves today. Coltrane was one of the major figures in my aesthetic education.

We in America have had little appreciation for the transformative power of great works of art, an educative affect in the original sense of leading the individual out – out of his own limited experience, out of his own limiting time, out of his own limiting self. The idiot scions of Gilded Age robber barons traipsing The Grand Tour in search of Culchah, or the denizens of 50’s suburban living rooms hoping to achieve enlightenment through osmosis of the unread “Great Books” and un-listened to “Great Music” collections festooning their shelves, are emblematic of great art’s trivialization in American life. One of the significant achievements of the 60’s Rock Revolution was making transformation a central aesthetic goal and experience. Listeners expected to be changed forever by the music. Veterans of the era can still mark their consciousness as pre- or post-Jimi Hendrix, or point to certain live concerts as events that changed them forever. It was the same with John Coltrane.

No, I didn’t grasp Coltrane’s music when I first heard him. I was very much an instinctive listener at that young age, responding spontaneously to any music that moved me, without reflecting too much on why it did. While most of Coltrane eluded me, there was something there that struck my core, demanding further and deeper listening. “Afro Blue” from Live at Birdland yielded rather easily, Coltrane’s soprano sax evoking what I later recognized as Near Eastern and North African modes in the cry of his horn. Parts of the end of his solo are permanently lodged in my memory: recalling them internally still moves me to my depths.

Connecting to Kulu Se Mama had the aspect of epiphany: floating in a canoe on a deserted lake in the autumn before my first year of college, hearing “Kulu Se Mama” erupting from a portable stereo on the end of a pier, making the whole of Nature a giant performance hall. “Kulu Se Mama” is one of the most beautiful and glorious of Coltrane performances, where the endless quest of his experiments bore musical and spiritual fruit. It features two bassists, three drummers (one on African percussion), three horns, and percussionist Juno Lewis’ incantatory Afro-Creole singing. It revealed Coltrane’s efforts to improve musical communication, by an increased attention to form, succeed grandly. I revere it as one of the most beautiful works of the century.

Any sense that this jazz was strictly urban music, speaking only to the physical milieu of gritty, alcohol-ridden, Big City jazz clubs was dispelled forever. It became obvious that Coltrane was creating a cosmic music, as much a force of Nature as thunderstorms, rain, and cool fresh air, and as physical in its power.

It was Meditations, however, that truly demanded an initiation. At first I could not listen to it at all: it sounded like content-less noise and formless shrieking: no melody, no rhythm, nothing to musically grasp. I could stand listening to it only when extremely emotionally wound-up. Repeated listening only gradually began to reveal its power, beauty and meaning.

Listening to John Coltrane is to be exposed to a range of emotions that has been matched by few in the history of Art. From sublime, soaring, almost painfully beautiful lyricism to the chaotic Dionysian outbreaks of the deepest pain, rage, yearning, and sorrow, Coltrane’s range of emotional content was topped only by the intensity of its musical expression. Coltrane would begin pieces of music (Ascension, OM and Meditations are prime examples) and many of his solos at levels of intensity that most other music hoped to hit only at its climax.

Particularly powerful are the pieces using multiple horn players, drummers, or bassists to create the maelstroms of group playing that stirred so much controversy. Coltrane turned to that instrumental line-up after realizing that the long, at times unaccompanied, solos that he was creating with the Quartet, solos that were labeled ‘sheets of sound’ or near-academic practice sessions of ‘wood shedding’ (by those less charitably describing Coltrane’s long run of notes and scales), could be stated in ten minutes rather than the twenty or forty that he was using. His desire to hear other horns adding to his statements and his felt need for, in his words, a “more plastic sense of time’’ resulted in the ensembles that created those maelstroms of sound.

Words fail to describe the moods, emotions and states of consciousness expressed and evoked in these group explosions. Even the most metaphoric of images – Descent into the Unconscious, Pandemonium, Fire Exorcisms, Screams from Hell, The Riots of Pan, Speaking in Tongues, Primal Scream, Existential Dread in the Meaninglessness of the Void, The Collective Rage of Black Experience, The Cleansing of Purgatory, Primal Sounds of the Physical Universe, Deep Catharsis, the Dissolution of the Roots of Karma – fail to convey the music, distorting it by attempting to limit and define it in words. The music was far too kaleidoscopic and all encompassing, slipping through the nets of language and defying simple emotional categorization. The liner notes on the albums commented on the stirring of emotions in the listener of which they were completely unaware. Coltrane had the courage to bring them forth, to explore them, and to transfigure them, in both his self and in his sympathetic listeners.

The wisdom gained was that no matter how ‘negative’ an internal state or emotion might appear, it is affective only if fled from. If looked at honestly and completely, they dissipate in a flood of catharsis. The imprisoning aspects of these internal ‘negative’ states need to be destroyed to allow the deeper new life and self to emerge. The process is as natural as a thunderstorm, a snake shedding its skin, the eruption of spring.

Pharoah Sanders’ role in these catharses was central. Coltrane described him as a “force of Nature.” He mastered the technique of playing in ranges outside the normal highs and lows of the tenor saxophone and, unlike many of his contemporaries attempting similar expansion of the tenor’s limits, successfully used the technique to attain emotional expression of intensely powerful and physical depth, seemingly sourced in the most ancient and fundamental aspects of Nature and music. At times it evoked ancient bull-roarers, the Australian didgeridoo, the Aulos of the Dionysian dithyramb: some ancient, primal and half-forgotten musical utterance. The cry of the Blues became the scream as Sanders’ horn pushed Coltrane higher and higher, launching the music into worlds of expression that the constantly anxious percussion of Elvin Jones alone, for example, could not.

Coltrane pushed these ‘negative’ emotions to their limit, past the point where ‘negative’ had any meaning, creating a Dionysian catharsis. “The Road of Excess leads to the Palace of Wisdom”, proclaimed Blake. As anyone seriously involved in meditation or contemplation can attest, stilling the constant internal chatter of consciousness involves letting it dissipate while watching it. Attempting to will it to stop and denying it only increases its flow.

Coltrane followed these Dionysian outbreaks with his most beautiful and lyrical playing. It was as if the intensity of the purgation was necessary to reveal this higher transcendent plane. What had seemed formlessness and chaos was revealed as an aspect of a larger form and expression.

After the initiation demanded by Meditations, the rest of Coltrane’s music became open to me. Each subsequent album I acquired created its own magic: A Love Supreme transfiguring a rainy Spring day, Coltrane Plays the Blues touching the heart of after-midnight listening sessions, on through each album that came into my life. One would think that Coltrane would have led me to a deep enthusiasm for jazz in general, but after experiencing the power of Coltrane, most other jazz appeared second tier. There was no comparison.

The 20th century has often been described as an enormous nervous breakdown for Western culture and society. When viewing its historical events, particularly the insanity of its World Wars, Hot Wars and Cold Wars, a less euphemistic description would be more accurate: a complete psychotic break. The artist was particularly susceptible. From being creators of Beauty, and from the ideal of expressing the “happiest thoughts of the best minds,” most artists became chroniclers of their own and society’s pathology and disintegration. Am I alone in seeing the dicta that Art has nothing to do with Beauty, that it communicates no message and has no meaning, as both asinine and insane? How many times have we chafed at the muddled artist’s cop-out of “It isn’t my job to answer the questions, it’s my job to ask the questions?” As if the search for truth, meaning and beauty were not core inner drives of the human psyche, known to all of us.

Coltrane was a perpetually restless and questing musician, his quest invoking mythic dimensions (from the Vision Quests of the North American Indians to the Grail Quests of Medieval Europe.) At the back of his restless experimentation was a profoundly spiritual and religious dimension. According to Coltrane, he experienced a religious awakening in 1957 that forever changed his life as a man and as a musician. (Coincidentally, 1957 also marks the year when Coltrane kicked his heroin addiction.) It would not be too misleading to understand Coltrane’s subsequent music as the working out and embodying of his vision into a communicable form. It is worthwhile to recall that among the Plains Indians the individual Vision or Dream gained power and efficacy, that is to say, reality, only when embodied into a communal form.

Coltrane expressed his understanding of his religious experience as “A Love Supreme,” an all-encompassing, universal and divine love leading to an inescapable movement toward unity and the perfectibility of the individual human being. With this divine love came transcendence of fear, and thus the courage to explore any and all human emotions and states of mind.

This was no simple-minded sectarian religious revelation, but the universal embrace of all spiritual and musical traditions. As Coltrane said: “I believe in all religions.” Coltrane’s insight into the essential unity, the common high ground, of all spiritual traditions allowed him to tap African, Arabic/Islamic and Indian traditions without denying his own American and African-American heritage. The flood of albums released after his death revealed just how diverse and vast his musical vision was. I’ve yet to make complete linear sense of the pattern of his last recordings, so creative and diverse in concept and experimentation, so suddenly cut short by his death at age 41 of liver cancer. The cauldron of inspiration defies simple linear development.

Coltrane’s tone on the tenor sax was immediately identifiable. Slightly dry and bracing, it gave strength and power to his lyrical gifts, creating “the sudden ascent into cool dry air” that Nietzsche used to describe the feeling of inspiration. The cry of the blues was inherent in his sound. Particularly in his work on the soprano sax, Coltrane linked that cry with archetypes from the world’s music, echoing the universal cry of the sitar, bottleneck guitar, sarod, tamboura, and Islamic oboe. I now understand his running up and down ladders of notes, the ‘sheets of sound’ that some denigrated as just playing scales, as a search for an opening into a new mode, a new facet of reality to musically explore. I am deeply aware now of the power of the use of Modes to create complex, simultaneous, and contradictory emotions. Coltrane’s use of Modes was one of the first things that grabbed me when I first heard him, although I was unconscious of it at the time.

As my adolescence and college years passed and I entered manhood, my need for Coltrane’s vortexes of purgation became less and less. Not that my inner life became suddenly pacific. But the inner storms became more transparent and thus did not build up enough to require Coltrane’s exorcisms. I listened increasingly to his lyricism and followed closely the music that Coltrane directly inspired: Alice Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders and McCoy Tyner. Coltrane’s influence on the jazz world was incalculable. What came as a pleasant discovery to me was the unseen connection between Coltrane and every serious musician of the 60’s. From the Byrds to The Doors, to Jimi Hendrix, all announced the influence of John Coltrane on them and honored the inspiration, both musical and spiritual.

I left heroes behind with puberty and the “St.” in the article’s title is mock-hagiography. Still, Coltrane as an artist towers over the last century. He showed the way through the collective breakdown by transfiguring its collective hysteria, and pointed to a path of awareness and of meaning: a love supreme. Coltrane died, symbolically, at the peak of The Summer of Love. I can only offer him my deepest thanks.