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Coltrane’s ‘Alabama’ in the time of Trump

ravi-coltrane1Probably I’m not supposed to write about the music at a festival I curate, but something happened in Berlin on Saturday night that made me want to ignore the rules of etiquette. It occurred during the hour-long set by the trio of Jack DeJohnette, Ravi Coltrane and Matthew Garrison, when they slipped into the theme written by John Coltrane as a response to the deaths of four schoolgirls — Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carol Denise McNair, all aged between 11 and 14 — in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama by white supremacists on September 15, 1963.

John Coltrane called his piece “Alabama”, and included a studio version on the album titled Live at Birdland in 1964, released as he was approaching the height of his fame. Sombre and stately in its lamentation, with moments that hint at violence and others in which a great healing serenity breaks through, the piece is one of his finest creations: an artist protesting against against intolerance in the best way he knows how. It’s like a great war poem or painting, a “Guernica” in miniature.

DeJohnette played with John Coltrane. Ravi is John’s son. Matthew Garrison is the son of Jimmy Garrison, the bassist with the great Coltrane quartet. DeJohnette has known the two younger men since they were children. Together they took “Alabama”, stretched and turned it gently, made allusions to and abstractions of the theme, and turned it into a hymn for the era of the Black Lives Matter movement. When DeJohnette swapped his sticks for mallets, you knew he was thinking of the way Elvin Jones played on the original. And when Ravi hinted at the theme, the echo of his father’s voice filtered through the son’s own tenor saxophone sound was enough to make the scalp tingle.

In this of all weeks, when the future seems to depend on whether a man who symbolises intolerance can succeed in lying and bullying his way into power, the music took on an almost unbearable weight of feeling.

* The photograph of Ravi Coltrane at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele during Jazzfest Berlin was taken by Camille Blake.

15 Comments Post a comment
  1. Live at Birdland was my first Trane record, bought together with New Thing at Newport. It was back in 1968, I was 15. My first meeting with Jazz. Since then I collected John’s records. All.

    November 7, 2016
  2. Reiner Nitschke #

    Dear Richard, that was exactly the same feeling that I had, when Ravi went into Alabama. And your actual sideview to this terrible guy Trump is the point. In the new FONO FORUM I wrote about the new Nina Simone Biography-DVD, saying that we are missing her, because she would have been able to kill this bloody guy with her evil eyes. Thanks for your “Berlin Jazztage”.Hope to see you again. Reiner

    November 7, 2016
    • Thank you, Reiner. It was good to see you and I’m pleased that you enjoyed so much of the music. And thanks for the nice coverage in Fono Forum. See you soon.

      November 7, 2016
  3. Bob Bowden #

    Been listening to John since 1960 when I was 18. Giant steps. My ipod tells me I have 52 albums – 293 tracks. He’s been a part of my daily bread ever since. If he could see how it’s necessary for Black lives Matter to exist now……… Alabama still resonates. And Ravi has shown the same serious and considered approach as his father. Well done, my son !

    November 7, 2016
  4. Maurizio Comandini #

    Richard, I have tears in my eyes.

    November 7, 2016
  5. Richard Harris #

    A very poignant piece. I remember first hearing Alabama at the time and being surprised at its restraint. Given the outrage and horror I was perhaps expecting a much more overtly angry piece, ’60s screaming tenor, drums etc, one that maybe Shepp would have produced. Its a mark of Coltrane’s genius that it wasn’t and yet it could still be so hugely effective and moving. It does also press a depressing thought about how “far” we’ve come in the past half century.

    November 7, 2016
  6. i remember going over to Trane”s apartment to meet Ravi the day he came home from being born…time has certainly flown.

    November 7, 2016
  7. Sent from Yahoo Mail on Android

    November 7, 2016
  8. John Kieffer #

    So true Richard.

    November 7, 2016
  9. Paul Crowe #

    Another marvellous piece, Richard. Beautiful comparison with Guernica. I must get that Birdland album.

    I hope the Festival was well attended.

    November 7, 2016
  10. pt #

    great essay !are you familiar with this book ?   “Listen Whitey! the sounds of Black Power 1965-1975” ? goes into details of about hundreds of obscure songs, rare albums, that intersect jazz, folk, blues, and even rock with the Black Panthers and the Black Power Movement in general – with hundreds of images of these albums and rare ’45 7 inch singles. it also includes spoken word and speeches of LPs that the Black Panthers (Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, Angela Davis, and others released in small limited pressings, 

    November 9, 2016
  11. Dear Richard Williams ,

    thank you for this necessary Comment.

    I can only agree with your View or Ears.

    Was nearly shocked,, listening , no way to escape,

    I was there were with a couple of Friends and some were disputing, if Garrison or Coltrane should have played more as a trio,. Stating , that Dejohnette took to much time for his part.

    I was amazed about these comments and argued, it was – especially, when they went into Alabama – a pure work of art of today, developing an urgent, nearly desperate Feeling, which was hard to bear, direct and sublime, full of Sadness and Beauty. Perhaps a Cry for Help .

    A Moment i will never forget.

    Best wishes and thank you for the work, going into this Years Festival.

    Heino Lüth
    . .

    November 9, 2016
  12. Hello Richard

    Wonderful text above. It was good to see you again last weekend and congratulations . Let me say it again. You did put a wonderful festival together 😉 Thank you

    November 13, 2016

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