Coltrane Derailed

With McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones, John Coltrane found new ways to swing, play blues and ballads and use Afro-Latin grooves—the essential elements of jazz. But there are persistent questions buried deep in the John Coltrane mythos, ones that are hidden in the background of the discussion of his music because few professionals want to say publicly what they really think of him and the albums he made in the summer and fall of 1965 with augmented personnel—Kulu Se Mama, Ascension, Sun Ship, Om and Meditations—and the post-Classic Quartet LPs he made up until the end.

Before McCoy Tyner left the band in late 1965—unable to deal with the many squeakers, howlers, shriekers and honkers his boss invited onto the bandstand—he asked Coltrane what he was doing. But the pianist could get no answer in musical terms, something that had not happened before. When Red Garland asked Coltrane if he truly believed in what he was doing—leading “the new thing”—the saxophonist said only that if he stopped he would abandon all of those who had followed him. Many then and now believe Coltrane’s apprentices followed him into an artistic abyss.

Though he filled the It Club in Los Angeles in 1965, when Coltrane returned the following year with Pharaoh Sanders, Alice Coltrane, Jimmy Garrison and Rashied Ali, there were three people in the room the night I heard him. Sanders says that they never talked about music and never rehearsed, but he feels that Coltrane was interested in experimenting with the saxophone because, being such a relatively new instrument, it had not been fully explored. Perhaps. But there are also rumors about hallucinogenic drugs, which intensify narcissism and spiritual fantasies.

Whatever the case, by 1966 Coltrane was not only having troubles in clubs, sometimes being fired on opening night, he could also empty an entire park, which, as Rashied Ali recalls, he did in Chicago. During that performance and others witnessed in New York, Coltrane put down the saxophone and started shouting, yodeling and screaming through the microphone while beating on his chest. The saxophonist told Ali that he couldn’t think of anything else to play on his horn so he tried that.

What could have led one of the intellectual giants of jazz—one of the great bluesmen, one of the most original swingers and a master of the ballad—into an arena so emotionally narrow and so far removed from his roots and his accomplishments? While Interstellar Space, the 1967 duets session with Ali, are models of their kind, and Coltrane’s melody statements are often majestic, the other post-mid-1965 recordings, whether studio or live, are largely one-dimensional and do not vaguely compare to what Coltrane accomplished with his Classic Quartet.

What Coltrane’s late music does prove, however, is that he might well have been caught up in the “hysteria of the times,” as Cecil Taylor once wrote of him. During that period of the ’60s, everything traditional was under fire, from politics to ethnic identity, for both rational and irrational reasons. It is not impossible to believe that Coltrane was attracted to the romantic fantasies about Africa that black nationalists attempted to impose on both Negroes at large and Negro artists. This was when Negroes sought what should now be recognized as a laughable version of “authenticity” that never assessed jazz itself with any actual depth.

In fact, much black nationalism was really about enormous self-hatred and contempt for Negro-American culture. Its vision misled certain black people into denying the depth of the indelibly rich domestic influences black and white people had had on each other, regardless of all that had been wrought by slavery and segregation. The greatest of John Coltrane’s music reflects that confluence of races and influences.

A country Negro from North Carolina, Coltrane was as much an heir to all that Bach and his descendants gave the world as he was to the blues. He was an heir to all that Negroes had done with the saxophone and what he admired in Stan Getz. None of Coltrane’s music, early or late, ever sounded like African music because his bands didn’t play on one and three, which Africans do, and because—until the end—they swung, which Africans do not—nor does anybody else unaffected by that distinctly Negro-American contribution to phrasing. (For those who persist in calling jazz African music I ask but one question: Where in Africa is there anything that resembles Art Tatum or Coleman Hawkins?)

Coltrane may have been on the way back from the abyss, however, before he died in 1967 at age 40. Rashied Ali remembers playing with Coltrane and Jimmy Garrison in a “straightahead” trio session recorded in Japan, interpreting standard songs. Near the end, Coltrane was calling McCoy Tyner and talking of how much he missed the old band. He even said to one saxophonist close to him that he was about to try and put the Classic Quartet back together. Perhaps Coltrane wanted to feel again all that he had turned his back on.

Originally published in September 2002

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