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John Coltrane 17 July, 1967

John Coltrane by Roy DeCaravaJohn Coltrane died in a Long Island hospital 50 years ago today. The singularly beautiful photograph above is by the great Roy DeCarava and was included in his wonderful book, The Sound I Saw. It was taken in 1960, and the figure dimly visible in the background is Elvin Jones.

My first encounter with Coltrane came through Miles Davis’s “Milestones”, in which he followed Cannonball Adderley and Miles with a solo that lifted an already elevated piece of music onto a different emotional plane. Then, because I’d bought a second-hand EP from a market stall, it was a quartet version of “You Leave Me Breathless” from his Prestige sessions. And then “Flamenco Sketches” from Kind of Blue. Then Giant Steps, My Favourite Things, Olé, “Chasin’ the Trane” and “Impressions” from the Village Vanguard, Africa/Brass, and, most of all, “Alabama”, his meditation on the racist murder of four schoolgirls in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing. Followed, of course, by A Love Supreme, CrescentAscension and the rest of the stages on his journey, all the way to its untimely conclusion.

No one had sounded like Coltrane before. No one had exerted that effect. The product of intense contemplation and rigorous preparation, his music expressed a constantly evolving spirituality with a transfixing directness that went beyond specific belief-systems and deep into the essence of human feelings. His legacy is immeasurable.

* Roy DeCarava’s The Sound I Saw was published by Phaidon Press in 2003.

20 Comments Post a comment
  1. Neil Hunt #

    God I love your writing. Over so many years. Some days like this piece on Coltrane it’s just the complete business. Thank you

    July 17, 2017
    • Thank you, Neil.

      July 17, 2017
    • artistjohnny #

      Couldn’t agree more. And that picture! Another giant step. As Miles said, the only thing that kept him happy was discovering new things. Beautiful information delivered with customary care and enthusiasm. Bliss.

      July 23, 2017
  2. gp #

    I share the feelings. I have been looking all day for this sort of memorial for Coltrane, and here it is. Thank you

    July 17, 2017
  3. Richard Harris #

    Spooky coincidence! Two weeks ago I requested Trane’s “You leave me breathless” to be played on R3’s Jazz Record Requests as one or the the first jazz records I ever bought. On an Esquire EP from City Radio in Cardiff c. 1960, then one of the best jazz record shops outside London. The guy eventually sold me “Giant Steps” S/H as it’s previous unimpressed owner had brought it right back!

    A wonderful record as are all those Prestige ballad recordings with Red Garland. Obviously Coltrane had some way to go (to put it mildly) but even at that point he was head turning. And heart stopping.

    July 17, 2017
  4. shoulda heard him play the harp !

    July 17, 2017
  5. Mick Steels #

    Took me a long time to get Trane, maybe it was the legion of copyists he spawned or the sheer intensity of his playing that unnerved me. I was more receptive to the booming authority of Sonny Rollins who infused his playing with an ironic humour totally alien to Trane’s concept.
    With the passing years, and the enthusiasm of musicians like Evan Parker, I’ve grown to appreciate the all-encompassing genius and deep spirituality of his music

    July 17, 2017
  6. That last paragraph Richard. Perfect.

    July 17, 2017
  7. Paul Crowe #

    Agreed, Ben. More flawless writing. Keep your indispensable blog spinning, Richard !

    July 17, 2017
  8. Evan Parker #

    A day to reflect on Coltrane’s desire to be a force for Good. The date passed me by.
    I’ve been listening to the Divine Sarah Vaughan all day. Thanks for the beautifully felt reminder.

    July 17, 2017
  9. Saverio Pechini #

    Thanks , Richard , for your heartfelt words . As an addendum , may I suggest the page dedicated to Coltrane by Richard Powers in his novel The Time Of Our Singing?

    July 18, 2017
  10. Michael #

    Absolutely spot on, Richard. While reading this I scrambled for my iPod and listened to ‘Alabama’. Incredible.
    I’m eagerly awaiting news of that film that’s supposed to be coming out, but – along with the Lee Morgan film – I bet it’s not that easy to see in the UK.

    July 18, 2017
  11. David Ward #

    Thanks for your lovely words Richard. Have never forgotten that dreadful day. Coltrane and his music have been an immeasurable influence on my life. Also have never forgotten your review of “Live at Birdland” in the Melody Maker, which perfectly expressed what I heard and felt.

    July 18, 2017
  12. John Evans #

    I didn’t encounter ‘You Leave Me Breathless’ until 1972, when RCA began to reissue Coltrane’s Prestige recordings as a series of double albums. The unexpected bonus of buying that particular reissue was the impassioned sleeve note by the poet Michael S. Harper, who ignored the specifics of the Prestige material and instead used the full gatefold to celebrate Coltrane’s overall importance in music history. Here’s a brief quote from Harper’s piece: ‘The mode of music is process, a continuous process of fluidity in the passage of creation, human creation, contingent human experience, ancestral reality, black history, aesthetic vision, and the essential decison to believe in life and the living as one conjures the images of process. Contact precedes human process and images follow upon contact, that touch which precedes images. Coltrane is thus power beyond definition.’

    At the same time that I was discovering the reissued Prestige recordings I was buying the previously unissued Impulse albums such as ‘Sun Ship’ that did not come out until the 1970s. ‘My Favourite Things’ (heard on the radio in May 1969) had been my point of entry into Coltrane’s music, quickly followed by ‘A Love Supreme’ and ‘Ascension’ because they were in stock in the shop when I went looking for more. I read no reviews and had no preconceptions. Having plunged in near the deep end and gone forwards and backwards through the catalogue to get my bearings, the concept of music as process made perfect sense to me. It still does. John Coltrane was truly one of the great life-changers.

    Finally (because it wasn’t issued in time to be included in your recent list of new British jazz releases) may I recommend Tommy Smith’s album dedicated to Coltrane, ‘Embodying the Light’, made with an excellent quartet who do full justice to the music.

    July 18, 2017
  13. John Evans #

    Meanwhile, a saxophonist named Coltrane continues to play in New York City: Ravi on stage at the Jazz Standard yesterday and today. Last week he took part in an Ornette Coleman celebration week organized by Denardo at Lincoln Center. A screening of David Cronenberg’s ‘Naked Lunch’ was followed by a live performance of the soundtrack music, with Ravi Coltrane and Henry Threadgill playing Ornette’s parts, accompanied by Denardo Coleman and Charnett Moffett. Another addition to the very long list of things I would love to have seen if I had been in the right place at the right time.

    July 19, 2017
  14. John Evans #

    Correction: Jazz Gallery, not Jazz Standard.

    July 19, 2017
  15. Augustus Hawkins #

    Trane!! The Greatest!!

    July 19, 2017
  16. Paul Tickell #

    Great to watch ‘Alabama’ on YouTube – love what the drums do towards the end so thanks for alerting me to this piece, Richard. By the way, the album I have been playing most over the last week is Alice Coltrane’s ‘Ptah’.

    July 19, 2017
  17. Vuyani Ndlovu #

    Beautiful, just beautiful.

    July 21, 2017

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