CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Of George Floyd and John Coltrane

Listening to “Alabama” in the days following a nation-shaking killing

John Coltrane
John Coltrane (photo: Roger Kasparian/Yasuhiro Fujioka Collection)

There is a motivic whirr to the blade of a helicopter that makes me think of the rhythmic pulses in the music of John Coltrane. This is perhaps because a chopper over a city is analogous in my mind to something having gone wrong, that needs putting right.

On the first day of June, 2020, I was at my desk in Boston at 6 a.m. working, when I heard helicopters in the sky, news crews, no doubt, focusing cameras on the city below to relay footage—bird’s-eye style—of damage caused by rioters and looters following the previous day’s protests of the killing of George Floyd.

I posted something on Twitter, having read that a Walgreens had been looted, which seemed another kick in the collective gut when one thinks about people requiring medicine, and someone piped in to say that protesters were not looters. I don’t think much in this world is as unequivocal as all that. Some protesters doubtlessly are looters, and some looters are surely cads who roll in when there are windows to be smashed and no repercussions with which to deal. But I don’t get into Twitter wars unless doing so is paramount to something: the advancement of an idea, legitimate assistance, defense against a charge that has been leveled. What I could have remarked, were there purpose in doing so within that context, is that I see many people like this one individual—who is a poetry professor with a Ph.D.—advising others, before gatherings like the one in Boston, to “f— them up.”

That does not mean ideologically. The reference was to the cops, to property, a call to destruction, arson, what we all know a person means by that directive, the barbaric yelp of individuals who come from families that sent them to the expensive prep school, the Ivy League college, the graduate program after. I’ll look through the profile of a person like this. I won’t see an African-American friend, I won’t see a Charles Mingus ever mentioned in the category of musical likes. I’ll see chest-beating, virtue-signaling, from someone who purports to be an artist, and again I’ll think of John Coltrane and wish more people listened to what he can still teach us. But it’s never too late to start a worthy effort, is it?

What the would-be artist often does in today’s America is take to social media. They serve up a digital stew of invective, they repeat the same bromides as so many like them, which will solve nothing, but solution is not the point. Often it’s validation, which is anything but selfless. I ask myself, why does this person not, say, compose some 200-page book in verse that examines where we have gone wrong in ways that help us see those errors from vantage points we’ve yet to discover, and lead us to where we might get a lot better at doing right?

I can’t imagine that John Coltrane would spend any of his energy sandblasting the world with social media posts. There is a continental divide between our frequently failing wellness, our insecurity, our sense of purpose (or lack thereof) as people on the inside, and the extolling that we do on the outside for reasons often having more to do with us, what we want, what we think we need, than with our fellow human. We could quit our job, find one that allows us to spend thousands of hours fighting for change, but it’s so much easier to bang a drum like a weekend warrior with little skin in an ethical game. A lot of people call themselves good people as a result of these practices, but John Coltrane would not have been one of them. He balanced the inside at the exact same level as the outside—and that was his art.

Live at Birdland was the first John Coltrane album I owned. It was released in January 1964, having been cut in part at the titular club in October 1963, and also at the Van Gelder Studios in November of that same year. Neither full-on field recording nor full-on studio creation, the album made me think of a mind/body split. Inner world, outer world, ruled by a dichotomy, almost divided upon itself. Coltrane didn’t often do this—his albums, once he found his footing from Blue Train (1957) forward, were thematically intense. You wouldn’t call their vision myopic, but they were going to move from point A to point B and would smash through the middle of a mountain range if they had to get there.

The reason I sought out Live at Birdland was because I had heard the song “Alabama” on this history-of-jazz Smithsonian box and I needed to hear additional work from this man, though I didn’t think of him as a man, more a paragon of voice. A light beam, if light could produce sound. A reckoning guide—like that voice within that holds forth on matters of right and wrong. We jazz fans talk of tone—a unique one is cherished—but there is no more singular tone than that of conscience and conviction, which is akin to a sonic expression of the greater good, for the right reasons. Such a tone syncs up the inside world and the outside voice, a lost art that many of us could do with some instruction in.

“Alabama” was from the studio portion of the album. A couple months prior, the Ku Klux Klan had bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Four African-American girls were killed. Anger is a multifaceted emotion, though we often only see one facet, especially now, as we hammer away at our keyboards. Anger is an emotion of a moment, a dying star of feeling—we see the blinding blaze, but that blaze consumes itself, like some isotope too strong for its own good, which is what anger may indeed be if we do not advance to its other layers.

Coltrane was a master of splitting notes, but he was also a master of splitting anger—which he no doubt felt after the tragedy—into its component parts so that we all might be better served. There is, for instance, pathos in anger, a sadness worthy of a threnody; there can be a mirror tucked away too, with two sides—one for the world at large, one reflecting back at us, revealing what we might do, perhaps what we fail to do.

Anger is prismatic, which was perfect for Coltrane’s musical approach. It is as useful a driving force as an artist might harness. Mastering anger via art, via what art can impel and rouse in us, is the opposite of “f— them up.” It is the equivalent of “Help us help us all.”

A couple weeks before Christmas 1963, prior to the release of Live at Birdland, Coltrane and his famed Quartet taped an appearance in San Francisco on Ralph Gleason’s Jazz Casual program. I’ve been watching that television performance repeatedly today, as those helicopters whirr overhead. Coltrane begins “Alabama” alone on his horn, with a sorrow that cannot solely be the sorrow of loss—it’s the pain of the life cut short, removed from the bounds of a natural order. Pianist McCoy Tyner enters with notes suggestive of small hammers on large church bells. A single fill by drummer Elvin Jones—a wash of percussive waves—induces the piece’s canticle-like segment, a worldly communion of a church beyond denomination. A church of being out and about on this often cruel, iniquitous planet.

Coltrane would title the first portion of his transcendent A Love Supreme “Acknowledgement,” as if to say that the act of saying what something is, no matter how massive, is integral to ever moving beyond—or through—that particular thing. The precise statement, not the wild, lunging statement of anger; a statement in which self-mastery is evident because without that self-mastery, all that will be built is an echo chamber. Coltrane’s mental discipline takes musical form, and I think what he was doing here, with “Alabama,” is what put him on his way to A Love Supreme, conceivably our greatest record of healing. Certainly that is its subject, what it seeks to give to listeners.

But then a very strange thing happens during this TV performance of “Alabama”—Coltrane and his bandmates begin to swing. You’ll find a funneling groove at the center of many Trane works, disparate though they may be. “Chasin’ the Trane” at the Village Vanguard in 1961 has one; so does Ascension (1965), sprawling as it is. But there may be no funneling groove in the Coltrane output as centered as this one. The song remains in a minor key; this is not exactly verve. But it drives—a form of New Orleans funeral music filtered through a mode of rhythm & blues that belonged entirely to Coltrane.

It will wreck you. It will wreck you to build you up, and, more importantly, to help you build yourself up by seeing this clarity of purpose. It’s not for “likes,” or followers, or plaudits great or small—it’s the sound of actual justice, a reminder to get to the other aspects of anger, to work one’s way to the parts that can lead to reform. A reminder of who we have it in us to be, and whom we might help. Which may well be the fundamental point of everything.

Colin Fleming

Colin Fleming writes fiction and nonfiction on myriad topics—art, film, music, sports, literature—for a wide range of publications. He also talks regularly on the radio for the likes of NPR and Downtown with Rich Kimball. His most recent book, Buried on the Beaches: Cape Stories for Hooked Hearts and Driftwood Souls (Tailwinds), was published in 2019, with an entry in Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series on Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square Club to follow in 2020. Find him on the web at colinfleminglit.com (where you’ll also find his unique online journal, the Many Moments More blog) and on Twitter @colinfleminglit. He lives in Boston and has contributed to JazzTimes since 2006.