"5 Minutes That Will Make You Love John Coltrane
Coltrane changed the game in American music a few times over. Here’s a guided tour to his career, courtesy of 15 musicians, scholars, poets, writers and other experts.
Born in Hamlet, N.C., and raised in High Point, Coltrane arrived on the New York scene in the 1950s, by way of Philadelphia and the Miles Davis Quintet. In the short years between that arrival and his death, in 1967, the world around Coltrane would change dramatically. He reached the peak of his creative forces as a saxophonist just as American society was bursting apart in the 1960s, and as freedom movements drummed colonialism out of the African continent. Though introspective and soft-spoken, singularly allergic to grandstanding, Coltrane felt powerfully concerned with the fate of the world, and he was sure that music had a role to play in turning the tides.
He closely studied spiritual and musical systems from Africa and India, sensing that ancient, non-Western traditions might light the path toward a new creative approach. For many of his contemporaries, Trane’s saxophone became synonymous with a liberated mind and body. And, however ineffable, it carried a message. As A.B. Spellman wrote in a poem after the saxophonist’s death, “trane’s horn had words in it.”
Coltrane changed the game in American music a few times over: first, with a style that felt like such a force of nature, one critic labeled it “sheets of sound,” as if he were commanding monsoon rains. Then, in 1960, the flipbook-fast harmonies of “Giant Steps” upped the expectations for jazz improvisers by a big margin. Swinging in the other direction, Trane brought his whirling-dervish attack to a more stationary style of music: raga-like, harmonically planted “modal” tunes such as “Impressions,” “Africa” and “India.”
In the mid-60s, compelled by his own spirituality, by the outward-bound “free jazz” being made by artists like Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy, and by the music he’d been playing at home with his second wife, the pianist and composer Alice (McLeod) Coltrane, the saxophonist wrote and recorded his masterpiece, “A Love Supreme.” A paean to God, it also sounds like an attempt to unleash purifying flames on a world gone wrong. And from there, he went even further; his last two years saw Coltrane pushing rhythm and tone beyond their breaking points.
Below you’ll find a guided tour of Coltrane’s career, courtesy of 15 musicians, scholars, poets, writers and other experts whose lives have been cleansed, and made brighter, by the sheets of sound.
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A.B. Spellman, poet and author
When at the end I compile the elements of my life into debits and assets, near the top of the assets list will be my many cathartic evenings spent in clubs listening to John Coltrane live. If you think that the recordings are powerful, imagine sitting 15 feet from that power as it was in the making. I can vividly remember hearing Trane and Thelonious Monk, every set, every night, at the 5 Spot after Monk’s return to club gigs in New York in 1957. Before that summer, nobody in the New York jazz world would have marked Coltrane as the next big thing — he was thought to be a middle-of-the-pack hard-bop saxophonist. But he blossomed under Monk. The wonder of the 5 Spot evenings was in bearing witness to his blooming into this Godzilla expressionist who grew larger every set, every evening.
There was an open logic to his lines. “Blue Train,” the record that he made to satisfy his contract with Blue Note, was a masterpiece exemplification of that period. Of the tunes on that date, the title track was the summary statement. It had a sort of free grammar to it, a long solo comprising three themes all stated and developed with clarity, deep emotional meaning and perfect resolution. I have heard this solo hundreds of times, and it is new each time. “Blue Train” is why we return to art when the terrors of the material world chase us home.
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Dr. Farah Jasmine Griffin, scholar
A love song inspired by and named for John Coltrane’s first wife, “Naima” is a contemplative ballad that exudes a sense of reverence for the beloved. The saxophonist known for long, complex solos does not take one. He chooses instead to open and close with a slow, meditative statement, made all the more so because it glides over the sustained, repeated pedal tone played by Paul Chambers on bass. Following Wynton Kelly’s eloquent piano solo, Trane returns and we accompany him someplace close to heaven, and it’s oh so pretty there. This love song is a prayer. As such, it looks toward his more explicitly spiritual works that follow in the years to come. Is it any wonder that generations of jazz musicians approach “Naima” not only as a standard, but also as scripture? Listen closely and fall in love.
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Dr. Joshua Myers, scholar
I could see the grief fill the eyes of the poet Askia Muhammad Touré: “It was like, oh, they are killing our babies?” Moments after recounting what it was to be Black and alive in the days after the Sept. 15, 1963, killings of four children at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., he was the first person to fully capture for me the meaning of John Coltrane’s “Alabama.” Composed as an offering of solidarity in the wake of Black collective grief, these are melodic lines atop a pulsating rhythm, imploring us — then, and especially now — to never allow the children to be sacrificed again.
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Dave Liebman, saxophonist
“Crescent” is my all-time favorite recording, presenting an amazing opportunity to get into the musical language that Trane was speaking. The power of the music lies in the great feel and skill of the rhythm section. “Crescent” has several outstanding elements. There is a very apparent, deep feeling that John carried with him all the time but especially in the late period, when his sound broadened and took on a darker tone quality. “Crescent” features some melodic passages that are clearly lyrical. Additionally, the harmony of the chord changes makes this track very interesting and moving. It demands attentive listening.
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Yusef Komunyakaa, poet
“My Favorite Things”
John Coltrane had come a long ways from Hamlet, N.C. Trane could wail through brass, and then create a lyrical contrast that catches the listener slightly off guard. He even could take a popular tune and internalize it until it was his, and such is the case with “My Favorite Things.” Yes, one hears a practiced reaching and ascension — a translation of 14-hour rehearsals. His tone was mind and body, honed into a ritual of purification. Coltrane did not believe his fellow musicians were mere sidemen. As a group, they could articulate and blow true feeling — without sentimentality. Because a conversation grows between instruments, the listener participates without being over-conscious of popping fingers, tapping feet or shaking hips. Thus, listening is active, and perhaps this is why Coltrane said, “When you begin to see the possibilities of music, you desire to do something good for people, to help humanity free itself from its hang-ups.”
To lift myself up, I tune into a joyful reminder — yes, I return to Coltrane’s version of “My Favorite Things” often. His spirit journeys to the melody, and we improvise our own personal catalog of delights. He elongates a tune into a precise tonal reckoning — no mishaps or blips on the cosmic screen. In fact, this man was blowing feeling as a way of dealing with the mind and heart at the same time, even holding himself accountable. There’s a taking apart, and then a putting back together tonally. Trane knew how to walk the listener to the edge of extended possibility, to peer down into the existential void, and then sweet-talk the listener to a sanctuary of the hour. And, in this sense, especially in a tune such as “My Favorite Things,” one may enter the John Coltrane Church, where we participants become co-creators of meaning.
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Willard Jenkins, journalist and author
“Out of This World”
Pondering John Coltrane track recommendations, the inevitable faves float by the mind first: “Blue Train,” “My Favorite Things,” “Giant Steps,” “Africa” or the “A Love Supreme” suite. And don’t dare sleep on the hypnotic “Tunji,” used powerfully by Spike Lee in his 1990 film “Mo’ Better Blues.” But the more I contemplated, I kept coming back to Trane’s engagement with “Out of This World,” from the “Coltrane” album (Impulse!), a classic example of his transforming a Great American Songbook selection. The Coltrane quartet takes that piece to regions the songwriters Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer doubtless never imagined, deep to an African realm, particularly courtesy of Elvin Jones’s distinctive, roiling drums, with Jimmy Garrison’s cascading bass lines and McCoy Tyner’s insistent block chords propelling Coltrane’s tenor saxophone theme statement and subsequent essay. Clocking in at over 14 minutes, there’s plenty to dig into for both the Trane-addicted and the newly initiated.
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Giovanni Russonello, Times jazz critic
Coltrane’s landmark suite “A Love Supreme” ends with “Psalm,” a slow, seeking devotional, its melody set to a poem giving thanks to God. It is a remarkably direct conversation between a musician and the divine, channeled through his roaring quartet. But the part of the suite that will stick most firmly in your mind and body comes at the start. Part 1, “Acknowledgment,” features a plodding incantation, first set by Jimmy Garrison’s bass, then played by the saxophone, then intoned in Coltrane’s husky voice: “A love supreme. A love supreme.” It is among the simplest things that this master of midair complexity would ever play. It feels so foundational, so grounding, that it’s almost like a creation myth. But jazz, as a discipline, had already been around for more than 50 years when he wrote it. What, then, was he creating? Once it was recorded, Coltrane knew he had reached some kind of summit: This was the beginning of the end for his legendary quartet. It had made some of the most transcendent music of the 20th century; its mission was accomplished.
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Dr. Lewis Porter, pianist and Coltrane biographer
In my continuing research on Coltrane, I find that listeners new to his work often have difficulty relating it to the jazz tradition. This excerpt from a TV program, taped on March 28, 1960, in Düsseldorf, Germany, is not part of his “official” legacy of recordings, but we are lucky that it was preserved. It is perfect evidence that Coltrane had established deep roots in swing and blues before moving out from there. The tune is “Hackensack,” by Thelonious Monk, and the AABA chord sequence is taken from Gershwin’s swing classic “Oh, Lady Be Good!”
Coltrane begins his improvisation at 1:05 with some down-home riffing, so that when he then brings on some incredibly fast notes, it makes a tremendously effective contrast. He always seemed to get right into “the zone,” and he generates so much power during his three-chorus solo that one almost marvels that the unflappable Stan Getz follows him at all. At 6:55, Coltrane brings in some new riffing, again illustrating how connected he is to the jazz tradition. Speaking of the tradition: At the bridge (7:12), the saxophonists look at each other, trying to decide who will take over, and then wordlessly decide to keep playing together.
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Marcus J. Moore, jazz writer
When jazz purists consider John Coltrane’s discography, they often stop around 1965, when the saxophonist eschewed calm arrangements for harsher ones. The band, which included McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass and Elvin Jones on drums, still sought communion with higher powers, but it seemed they wanted to play the loudest notes possible to foster it. So when people hear “Sun Ship,” they might hear noise. But I hear freedom in the stomping drums, in the volcanic wail of the horn. I hear a band breaking the rules of what jazz was supposed to be, and a bandleader sidestepping a box he never fit. In the song’s opening moments, Jones and Coltrane trade equally riotous commotion: The drum kit sounds like it’s being assaulted; the sax all belchy and heaving. By the time Garrison and Tyner join the fray, the intensity heightens, barreling through like a truck with no brakes. I realize this imagery makes the song seem unpleasant, but the beauty is in the challenge it presents. It’s a rewarding listen, conveying angst and autonomy at every turn.
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Laura Karpman, film composer
I have spent most of my adult musical life thinking about how sound and imagery interact. What makes music dark, what makes it light. How can you create specific identifiable emotions? Music is a powerful tool to create multiple subtexts. John Coltrane would’ve been an absolutely spectacular film composer. The decisions he makes are so often rooted in drama.
In “My Favorite Things” (1961), he takes a simple tune at its most shell-like value, makes some rhythmic changes and enriches the harmonic language, but the piece gets truly radical in its long solo. Here, Coltrane creates an entirely new composition. He sticks fundamentally to one chord — an E major 9 — and stays with it. It is the brightest of lights: The music ascends and ascends, builds and bursts even greater blinding optimism, creating a new, powerful original composition. He builds an entire world out of a single chord.
“Summertime,” from the same album, is another perfect example of Coltrane’s ability to radically recontextualize pre-existing music. I’ve always thought that “Summertime” was highly influenced, even lifted, from the spiritual “Motherless Child.” In Gershwin’s original, as well as countless covers, it has a winsome, beautiful lullaby quality. But Coltrane attacks it in this version — it’s sharp, it’s angular, it has edges. He doesn’t want this “Summertime” to be a remembrance of things past, but a midcentury modernist call to action. Coltrane consistently takes existing tunes and recomposes them to add emotional drama and rich subtext. Pure genius.
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James Brandon Lewis, saxophonist
John Coltrane’s grandfathers were ministers, wow! And so is my dad. My earliest memory of Coltrane was one of connection. Admiring your heroes, you hope the slightest thing in common might signify you being on the right path. Coltrane’s encounter with the creator, and the beautiful recordings that came as a result, inspired me. His composition “Wise One,” from his album “Crescent,” recorded in 1964, was revelatory. As a kid I would always rewind the recording after three minutes because I loved to just sit in that vibe, hoping I could decode Coltrane messages; his saxophone was speaking. The ensemble builds a beautiful arc of tension and release. After a brief piano intro, the saxophone enters with lyrics, a contemplation of call and worship. The church is now in service. The bass and drums enter, and the meditation is now in full bloom. The next chapter the tempo shifts, tonalities of joy, and solos of love are spoken. The epilogue begins, and we are reminded of peaceful beginnings. The last petal falls … the band utters, the doors of the church are now open, and we impatiently await next Sunday.
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Ben Ratliff, music critic and Coltrane biographer
“Vierd Blues” (live)
What’s that thing called, that phenomenon (if it is a phenomenon) when an artist has achieved such control over their practice that right in front of you they can make the knowable and trackable suddenly diffuse into the uncanny, or the material into the spiritual, such that the music lives in two states at once? Here is a 16-minute, strolling-tempo, major-key, 12-bar blues recorded during the Coltrane quartet’s two-week run at the Sutherland Hotel Lounge in Chicago, March 1961, recorded for live-broadcast radio and never officially released, perhaps because of poor sound quality. It doesn’t matter. The tune starts, and Coltrane solos for 13 choruses, about five minutes straight. “Vierd Blues” (written by Coltrane, otherwise known as “John Paul Jones” and “Trane’s Blues”) is simple and easy to know — it’s a blues — but within 15 seconds he is putting uncommon urgency in a modest place. Sometimes his playing sounds like a kind of focused preaching; sometimes he’s babbling or scrambling notes at high speed; all the while he’s also resolving and recapitulating. By the fifth chorus you can hear the crowd yelling, because what else can they do? They know it, they hear it; it’s that thing.
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Isaiah Collier, saxophonist
“One Down, One Up”
“One Down, One Up (Live at the Half Note)” is a record for the adventurers of sound — I would dare say truth-seekers — and I will elaborate. This is an album of pure mastery, and of exemplary musicianship. Everyone was still learning and figuring out so much in that time. The civil rights movement was alive and well, adding to the urgency that these musicians were executing on the bandstand. In this record we hear faint echoes of the musical genres that are emerging, in Garrison playing heavy funk bass lines, Tyner’s harmonic sophistication and the polyrhythmic enchantment of Elvin Jones’s drums. Then of course there is the explicit harmony and sonic landscaping of Coltrane’s tenor and soprano saxophones. This is a record for listeners and musicians alike: a testament of pushing the boundaries of artistry and innovation.
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Bill Cole, musician and Coltrane biographer
This piece marks Coltrane’s entry into a freer style of playing. In the early ’60s, Eric Dolphy had had a tremendous impact on him, and if you look at the things they did together, you can hear that. Thereafter, Trane began to play more freely. I would say that “Transition,” recorded in 1965, was the piece where he was saying clearly that he was going to move away from hard-bop. Jazz is an improvisational music, and it has always been changing. People coming out of the ’50s were bound to change up the music. Then the year after Coltrane recorded “Transition,” and about a year before he died, there was a concert in New York called “Titans of the Tenor.” He and Sonny Rollins and others were part of it, but there was one tenor that they didn’t want on this bill: Albert Ayler, who was really approaching the music in a different way. Well, Trane hired him into his band. He brought him in and paid him with his own money, because he felt that this player should be part of any situation where they were talking about the greatness of the tenor saxophone. And Coltrane was the greatest saxophone player in his time, so he had that kind of influence.
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David Renard, Times senior editor
Is it strange to spotlight John Coltrane with a five-minute-long track that has barely any saxophone for its first three? Maybe — but when that sax does come in, it’s just such a perfect, lyrical, gorgeous moment. Coltrane also recorded a longer instrumental cut of this Billy Strayhorn standard, released as the title track of an earlier Prestige Records album, but it’s the vocal version from “John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman” (1963) that I’ve returned to again and again over the years. McCoy Tyner’s piano and Hartman’s resonant singing set the melancholy scene, pulling up a stool for the listener at “some small dive” where love never walks in the door and no one’s expecting it to; Coltrane, waiting in the wings, sends the melody soaring with restrained phrases that perhaps recall the rosier times of the lyric’s first section. Then the torch is passed back to Hartman so he can finish out one of the great jazz ballads. Turn off the lights, it’s closing time.