John Coltrane, an abiding spirit

You don't need an anniversary or birthday to celebrate the saxophonist -- his music is reason enough.

November 14, 1999|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,Sun Staff

They're celebrating the legend of jazz saxophonist John Coltrane at Towson University this week, not because it's his birthday or the anniversary of his death, but because of what he brought into the world and what he left for the rest of us.

Coltrane is synonymous with a daring style of jazz, drawn from twin wells of genius and spirituality. In life he was praised and reviled. In death he has become, literally, a saint, his writings celebrated as sacred text by a handful of faithful followers on the West Coast.

By the time of his death from liver cancer at age 40 in 1967, he had pushed avant-garde jazz into worlds where even the hardiest musical souls got left behind.

"There are people today who say he ruined the music, he took it too far," says Chris Bacas, who will be playing tenor and soprano saxophone at Towson. "But it's all good to me."

That's how it is with Coltrane devotees. A certain reverence takes hold. His work is to be admired, studied, kept pure. You don't mess with Coltrane. You don't turn him into a piece of pop culture. His melodies aren't heard on Muzak at the supermarket. His is the high, pristine art of jazz.

Here's his story: Brilliant musician works his way up as a sideman in the 1950s, frees himself from heroin addiction, pushes himself and jazz into new worlds of sound in the 1960s, is ridiculed, then reaches a state of transcendent spirituality and individual expression that leaves people in awe -- or has them storming out of nightclubs.

In the words of pianist Tim Murphy, "He was the dominant force in late 20th-century jazz."

Murphy is going to be leading the band Tuesday night at Towson. They're not going to play Coltrane note-for-note. This is not classical music, or one of trumpeter Wynton Marsalis' expeditions to re-create Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines duets. This is improvisational jazz. It's about the spirit of the man.

You can talk about Coltrane's notes. You can resort to the language of music: Coltrane's inspired chord progressions, his use of modes, Indian and African rhythms. You can do that, but you risk losing the layman. And, as musicians and listeners alike know, there's a level beyond theory and harmony.

"His spirit comes right through the music. There's a spirituality and depth that hits a listener who's prepared for it on a really deep level," says Murphy. He was a teen-age organist when he first heard Coltrane. A friend put on a recording of his monumental work, "A Love Supreme." The music set him on a different path.

Introduction to Coltrane

Bacas' father introduced him to Coltrane, made sure he knew Coltrane. Bacas had brought home a tenor saxophone from elementary school band. His father sat him down and put on the the saxophonist's "Soultrane" album.

No friend brought me a holy platter. No one sat me down and said, "Listen, Dion, here is Coltrane." Instead, someone who'd stayed in my mother's busy house left behind a copy of the "Africa/Brass" session for me to discover my senior year of high school.

This was in the early 1970s, when the names of the saints and martyrs of the 1960s were in the air. The Kennedys and King, dead rock stars, dead civil rights volunteers, Panthers and soldiers. And now, here was Coltrane.

So I took a break from Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton and put on John Coltrane. It was the newest thing I'd ever heard, exhilarating, daring. He actually named an album "Africa." And I was coming to it 10 years after its release.

This was the pre-"Roots" world. Nobody knew about kente cloth, or poured libation. You could probably count the number of Kwanzaa ceremonies on one hand. People were still working through being colored or Negro. "Black" still sat uncomfortably on many tongues. Not Coltrane's.

The album begins with sounds of the jungle. Then Coltrane's soaring, powerful horn states the melody. Lord knows what a generation raised on big band standards must have thought. I was raised on distortion and feedback, tape loops running backward. The rich orchestrated horns of "Africa" were a fascinating new soundscape. The flip side of "Africa/ Brass" opened with a bass line introducing "Greensleeves." Here, amid the cul-de-sacs and tract homes of the San Fernando Valley, was new music.

Coltrane became a way of musical muscle-flexing, of one-upmanship on the battlefield of 33 rpm turntables. Still listening to Led Zeppelin, the Isley Brothers, or, heaven forbid, the Average White Band? Got no time for you.

Jazz was true soul food. The funk grooves of Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock were fine, but not what the elite favored. Gil Scott-Heron didn't sing about those guys, he sang about Billie Holiday and John Coltrane washing your troubles away.

I was young enough to be cool with Coltrane, though I knew nothing about him, about the crucible he went through to make his music. Coltrane was long dead, but his legend was still being built.

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