A jazz revolutionary: Celebrating John Coltrane's 80th birthday

October 20, 2006

Nearly 40 years after his death, John Coltrane remains one of the most important figures in jazz history.

Despite a brief recording career that lasted only from the early '50s to his death in 1967, Coltrane revolutionised jazz and continues to influence musicians today. And as perhaps no other artist, Coltrane's music came to articulate the struggle for Black liberation in the US, as his search to push the boundaries of jazz mirrored the increasingly revolutionary conclusions and aspirations of many involved in that struggle.

Born 80 years ago on September 23, 1926, in Hamlet, North Carolina, Coltrane and his family moved to Philadelphia in 1943 — one of millions of Black families who moved to big cities in the North in search of jobs during the Second World War.

At the war's end, however, most found their hopes dashed on the twin pillars of Jim Crow segregation in the South and de facto segregation, poverty and institutionalised racism in the North. This simmering anger exploded in 1955 with the Montgomery bus boycott, which forced the desegregation of busing and sparked a wave of sit-ins and boycotts against segregation across the US.

This resistance was expressed in jazz by the development of hard bop, a movement by Black jazz musicians reacting to the growth of "cool jazz" in the early 1950s.

Cool jazz was a trend largely of white jazz musicians, centred on the West Coast, who increasingly rejected blues as a major source of jazz, instead blending in European influences. They presented jazz as "respectable" concert music to the delight of many established white critics.

As the great trumpet player Miles Davis wrote, "It was the same old story, Black shit was being ripped off all over again".

Hard bop instead emphasized jazz's roots in Black music, particularly the blues and gospel, and gave increased room for individual improvisation. Song and album titles began to reflect a growing sense of Black pride and celebration of urban Black culture.

Coltrane joined the Miles Davis Quintet in 1955, and his tenor saxophone, which white critics derided as too "angry", can be heard on Davis' 1956 hard bop classics Relaxin', Workin', Steamin' and Cookin'.

Fired by Davis because of his heroin addiction in late 1956, Coltrane recorded both with bebop founder Thelonious Monk and as a leader himself, releasing in 1957 the fantastic Blue Train and establishing himself as one of jazz's dominant voices on tenor — "Trane was blowing his ass off", is how Davis put it.

After kicking heroin, in 1959 Coltrane recorded two albums that transformed jazz. With Davis, he recorded Kind of Blue, regarded as one of the great jazz recordings and a landmark for its luxurious modal sound — playing fewer chord changes to allow for more experimentation with scales.

And with his own band, he recorded Giant Steps introducing the revolutionary technique of playing multiple chords simultaneously, dubbed "sheets of sound" by critics. To this day, weaving one's way through the chord changes of Giant Steps is a rite of passage for jazz players.

Beginning in 1960, Coltrane recorded seven albums over a year, including My Favorite Things, his most popular record to date, on which he played both tenor and soprano sax. He then formed his famous quartet — the great Elvin Jones on drums, McCoy Tyner on piano and Jimmy Garrison on bass — and recorded a remarkable series of albums, including Africa/Brass, Live at the Village Vanguard and A Love Supreme.

As Martin Smith, the author of a book on Coltrane, described them, "Each one was more musically adventurous than the (last). The backdrop was hard bop, but more and more Coltrane was pushing back the boundaries of musical improvisation."

While many jazz musicians — notably Max Roach, Sonny Rollins and Charles Mingus — openly supported the civil rights movement, Coltrane never saw himself as a political activist. But when in 1963, Martin Luther King launched a campaign of marches and sit-ins in Birmingham, Alabama, Coltrane, like tens of thousands nationwide, was drawn to the civil rights struggle.

He played eight benefit concerts in support of King, and in 1966 his record Cosmic Music, which contained the track "Reverend King", was dedicated to the civil rights leader.

Birmingham would also move Coltrane to write "Alabama" in 1964, inspired by the murder of four young Black girls by white racists who dynamited their church in late 1963. Coltrane reportedly based the song on the rhythms of the King's eulogy at the girls' funeral.

In the mid-'60s, the struggle shifted north. As cities like Detroit and Los Angeles exploded in a series of urban rebellions, many in the movement were drawn to more radical, militant politics — first Malcolm X and later the Black Panthers.

Meanwhile, Coltrane, particularly with 1965's Ascension, fully broke with hard bop and threw himself headlong into a new music of pure improvisation. He quickly vaulted to the head of the "new jazz" or avant-garde jazz movement — a movement which for many of its young leaders, like Archie Shepp, was an artistic revolution linked to the rebellions sweeping cities across the US.

Their music shared a common rejection of Western ideas of melody, harmony and rhythm, often rejecting form altogether in favour of simultaneous improvisation. As Davis wrote, "Trane was on a search and his course kept taking him further and further out".

He went on to say, "Trane's music ... during the last two or three years of his life represented, for many Blacks, the fire and passion and rage and anger and rebellion and love that they felt, especially among the young Black intellectuals and revolutionaries of that time."

"He was expressing through music what H Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael and the Black Panthers and Huey Newton were saying with their words ... He was their torchbearer in jazz."

Coltrane died of liver cancer in 1967. In a society still rife with racism, oppression and war, we should look not just to celebrate his unquestionable musical genius but to learn from the struggles which informed that genius and to which he leant his considerable voice.

[Reprinted from the US Socialist Worker <http//www.socialistworker.org>]

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