John Coltrane: The Spoken Essence

Having grown up on Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Buddy Tate and Don Byas, it took me some time to be drawn into John Coltrane’s universe. In Down Beat, at first, I wrote of his unappealing sound on records, and in clubs I tended to lose my way in his long dense solos. But Don Ayler, Albert’s trumpet-playing brother, gave me some useful advice. He was talking about how to get inside what his brother was doing; but it also opened me up to other path breakers. “Don’t always focus on the notes,” Don Ayler said, “on what sequence they’d be in if you were to write them down. Instead try to move your imagination toward the sound. Follow the sound; the pitches, the colors. You have to almost watch them move. You have to try to listen to everything together.”

It worked all the more so, as I came to listen to Coltrane talk about what he was endlessly searching for. At first, he resisted speaking about his music. I’d call and say that I’d been asked to write the liner notes for one of his new recordings. And Coltrane would say, “I wish you wouldn’t. If the music can’t stand on its own, what’s the use?” As the next step in the ritual, I would say, “But John, it’s a gig.” And he, being a kind man, would sigh, “All right, what do you want to ask?”

About those long, dervishlike solos, I suggested one afternoon that maybe he was trying to so envelop the listener that all other distractions would disappear and, in the total immersion, the listener would no longer analyze but become the music. “That may be a secondary effect,” John said, “but I’m not consciously trying to do that. I’m still primarily looking into certain sounds, certain scales. Not that I’m sure of what I’m looking for, except that it’ll be something that hasn’t been played before. I don’t know what it is. I know I’ll have that feeling when I get it. When things are constantly happening, the pieces just don’t feel that long.”

But what he was searching for, continually, was something more elusive, as mysterious as the meaning, the mission, of his later years. Back then, Dizzy Gillespie told me, “All music has been out there, from the beginning of time, and you’re lucky if you can get a small piece of it.” To Coltrane, however, music—his reason for being in music—was to become part of the source of consciousness from the beginning of time. This was hard for me—a facts-on-the-ground atheist—to follow at first. But as Coltrane and I had more conversations, I began to understand, within my limits.

He spoke of Om or Aum. In the Hindu and Buddhist systems of belief, it means (according to the unabridged American Heritage Dictionary), “the supreme and most sacred syllable, consisting in Sanskrit of the three sounds (a), (u), and (m), representing various fundamental triads and believed to be the spoken essence of the universe.” To John, Om was “the first vibration—that sound, that spirit which set everything else into being,” and he wanted to connect, to enter into, that universal, transcendent peace. To keep trying to get there, he, through his music, had to continue to search deeper and deeper into himself and exorcise his own dissonances, his own demons—as you can hear in “Ascension,” among others of his later recordings. Marion Brown, who was on the “Ascension” date, said both takes “had that kind of thing in them that makes people scream. The people in the studio were screaming.”

And so John, who studied yoga and read the Bhagavad-Gita, kept learning new instruments with their overtones of being; listened to recordings of South African pygmies and, of course, the multiple dimensions of time (including distinct times of the day and night) in Indian music. When I asked him why he wanted two drummers, and sometimes two bassists, with him, he said patiently, “Because I want more of the sense of the expansion of time. I want the time to be more plastic.” Or, as T.S. Eliot wrote: “Time present and time past/Are both perhaps present in time future/And time future contained in time past.”

I expect that by now, the millions of listeners to Coltrane around the world don’t know, and don’t have to know, the ultimate light he was pursuing. But since he did tell me, I thought I would pass it on for anyone who wants to know. At the end of one conversation, John—talking more to himself than to me—said: “I wish I could walk up to my music as if the first time, as if I had never heard it before. Being so inescapably a part of it, I’ll never know what the listener gets, what the listener feels, and that’s too bad.”

That was knowledge he could never get; but he did know—from their total, shouting involvement in his music during live performances—that he was reaching deep into listeners, whether Om was present or not.

Originally published in September 2002

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