John Coltrane is, together with Louis Armstrong and
Charlie Parker (and I already dare to include Brad Mehldau who brings again
together jazz and classical European music), one of the rare musicians who
brought fundamental change to jazz.
Born in 1926 in North Carolina, John Coltrane's saxophone
playing is rooted in the (more urban R&B) blues tradition. "Trane",
as he was called in allusion to a fast train, had one of his first jobs with
Joe Webb and his R&B band from Indianapolis and with blues-singer Big
Maybelle. 1947/48. he was part of Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinsons R&B
band. From 1949 to 1951, Coltrane worked with Dizzy Gillespie, 1952/53 with
Earl Bostic and 1953/54 with Johnny Hodges. A year later, he became part of the
Miles Davis Quintet - and famous with his solo over Round About Midnight.
And Sonny Rollins invited him to be a part of his album Tenor Madness,
even before the album with Miles Davis was released.
In contrast to another leading figure of what became
free jazz, Ornette Coleman, Coltrane had been accepted by the other musicians
right from the beginning. Coleman, a self-made musician, had from the
beginning created his own style whereas Coltrane acquired his harmonic
liberties in a painful and one decade taking development, from the first timid
experiments with Miles Davis in 1956 to his 1965-album Ascension.
Ascension is considered Coltrane's decisive step
to liberty, a watershed in the history of jazz. But before that album,
Coltrane developed in the late 1950s, playing with Thelonious Monk, what Ira
Gitler calls Sheets of Sounds. "Trane" played the notes,
which chased one another, in a (with the exception of Coleman) unprecedented
rhythmic and melodic liberty. In 1960, after a change of label, these Sheets
of Sounds became less important. Coltrane was now a leader of a Quartet
and a Quintet. In 1964, he recorded A Love Supreme, considered by many
the highlight of his work: a hymn to God; in 1957, he had had a spiritual
awakening, a religious conversion - and God had become the center of his life
In the winter 1964/65, Coltrane connected on the human
as well as the musical level to the New York avant-garde, the surprise
and sensation of the season, according to Joachim-Ernst Berendt. In March
1965, Coltrane played in the New York Village Gate, on the
musical, social and racial level an avant-garde place of the "New Black
Music". He gave a programmatic free jazz concert. For these people,
"Trane" was a poet of the black nation.
A few days before his famous Newport Jazz Festival
concert, Coltrane recorded the album Ascension, his first album
completely free on the tonal level. With Pharaoh Sanders, Archie Shepp,
Freddie Hubbard, Dewey Johnson, John Tchicai, Marion Brown, Art Davis, Jimmy
Garrison, McCoy Tyner and Elvin Johnes, he had united the most important
representatives of the New York avant-garde. The result: a forty-minute
orgiastic-ecstatic hymn, as Marion Brown called it. Critics called it
"anti-jazz", his followers named it "the new thing". - Coleman
of course had reached this freedom five years before with his album Free
Jazz - the first time the term was used for the music of the 1960s. In
1965, Ascension was voted album of the year by both Down Beat
and Jazz. Down Beat readers also named Coltrane jazzman of the
year and best tenor saxophonist.
contrast with Coltrane's already in A Love Supreme vibrant and dynamic
style, Coleman's album Free
Jazz was lyric, melodic (!), calm, even-balanced and static. Later, with
his Prime Time band, Ornette's Free Funk was terribly loud, the only
way to make people hear certain (higher) tones. Both made intensive music.
Coltrane's starting point was improvisation, whereas with Coleman, composition
came first (Joachim-Ernst Berendt).
Coltrane/Live at the Village Vanguard Again was
released immediately after Ascension. On this album, Coltrane could not
continue his musical adventure with his quartet and, therefore, had created a
new quintet with Pharaoh Sanders, Trane's wife Alice on the piano, Rashied Ali
on drums and Jimmy Garrison on bass. Together with
Pharoah Sanders, who pushed him to his musical and physical limits, Coltrane
discovered new ground. But in the end, he had to pay tribute to his effort
and, last but not least, to his liver-problem.
New Thing At Newport by John Coltrane and Archie
Shepp is one fine example of how Coltrane gave a helping hand to other
musicians. With this concert at the Newport Festival, Archie Shepp instantly
rose to fame. The album also shows how Coltrane slowly introduced the public
to "the new thing", starting with the melodic and fast-paced One
Down, One Up. In My Favorite Things, the music becomes less
harmonic and, after a spoken introduction, the free jazz really begins to
dominate with Gingerbread, Gingerbread Boy.
On the musical level, there
were a lot of changes in John Coltrane's group from 1965 to 1967. The leader was still in
search of something new but died in 1967 without finding an answer to his