Coltrane’s Ascent, Youth’s Lament

I spent the summer of my freshman year in Grenoble, in the south of France, studying the lingo. One hot July afternoon, as several of us lingered over grenadine-flavored mineral water at a sidewalk cafe, a friend ran over, waving a newspaper. Catching his breath, he needlessly translated the front-page headline: “Coltrane is no more.” We were stunned, not least by the poetical diction and prominent attention; we knew instinctively that the New York Times wouldn’t play the story that way. Coltrane had accounted for much of our cafe conversation, yet on some cynical, teenage level, we were more puzzled than saddened-we certainly didn’t think of 41 as terribly young. We were more concerned with the mystery left unresolved. A small coven of American, British and French jazz lovers, we had argued about early Coltrane, late Coltrane, future Coltrane. We wondered how far out he’d go, what kind of endgame he was playing, how long he could thrive in Ascensionland. Would he turn back or forge ahead to God-knows-what cosmic plain? Now, not even God would know.

Thirty-five years after his death, Coltrane belongs to history, which is not at all like belonging to one’s contemporaries. He is a monument in the life of American culture and in the 20th century’s musical mythology, his inspiration so endemic to jazz that we can hardly imagine it without him. His achievement, like that of every great artist, is a river that we are free to enter at any outlet to wade in any direction. You may begin at the port of A Love Supreme and push backward to My Favorite Things or zoom forward to Interstellar Space, exploring various isles along the way. You may parse his work into categories-sideman vs. leader, studio vs. concert, Prestiges vs. Atlantics vs. Impulses-and ignore some entirely.

But for those who followed, even briefly, the Coltrane saga as it happened, random discovery was replaced by an adventure in blind trust, and it may be useful to reconsider the suspense he generated as each LP challenged his audience’s patience, assumptions and credulity. Coltrane was one of four 1960s musicians whose work unfolded in jolting but coherent chapters, including the Beatles, Miles Davis and Bob Dylan. The Beatles’ trip ended the quickest, having progressed from cuddly rock ‘n’ roll to hallucinogenic art-rock. Miles took us step by step from the pained introspection of “My Funny Valentine” to the world of fusion and tape loops. Dylan morphed from folkie to protest singer to folk-rocker, before remaking himself every few years (he is evidently far from done). Each of them advanced toward rock, the heart of the mass culture. Only Coltrane raced in the opposite direction, practically taunting the commercial world and his admirers.

Ira Gitler, perhaps the most perceptive of Coltrane’s early critics, coined the descriptive phrase “sheets of sound.” Yet he spoke for many fans when he renounced the expressionistic yawp of “Chasin’ the Trane” (Live at the Village Vanguard), the very performance that indoctrinated me as a lifelong Coltrane lover. When I began paying attention, the new Trane was Ballads; between that and the Vanguard and two others I picked up soon after, Duke Ellington and John Coltrane and Soultrane, I had no idea what, if anything, constituted “typical” Coltrane. With A Love Supreme, in 1964, however, I understood that he was on some kind of journey, a forced march into a heart of darkness or sunlight or something. The subsequent release of The John Coltrane Quartet Plays, Ascension, Meditations, and Expression (released posthumously in the fall of 1967, and pounced on as though it were the final chapter in a thriller, when it was really just another transition) took us further and further away from anything like a comfort zone.

Recalling several undergraduate nights when a handful of us communally listened to Ascension (Dexter Gordon’s A Swingin’ Affair was, for some reason, the frequent chaser), I have no doubt that youth and its carapace, humility, forestalled any tendency toward glib evaluation. We might have loathed Ascension (I love it, both takes, and, in those days, played it so often that now it has a ring of nostalgic familiarity), but we would never have simply dismissed it. This was the latest work by John Coltrane, after all; we tackled it with respect. The advantage of aging is that we become smarter-more knowledgeable, astute, discriminating and sure. Our opinions change, sometimes radically, which is one way we know we’re alive. The disadvantage, though, is that we become stodgier, less receptive to the unknown and, inevitably, less humble. When I think of the Coltrane adventure, it tempers the reality of being a middle-aged critic with an inoculation of the goggle-eyed receptivity that enables us to remain as young, subversive and defiant as jazz itself. I’m almost glad Coltrane left the last chapter unwritten.