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Essays on the work & lives of the artistic populace

Part One — Acknowledgment

On July 18th, 1966, John Coltrane arrived in Tokyo International Airport. With him was bassist Jimmy Garrison, tenor saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders, drummer Rashied Ali and pianist (and wife) Alice Coltrane. His reputation preceded him. Several thousand Japanese fans surrounded the plane shortly after touchdown, chanting and singing. Upon exiting, Garrison asked Coltrane if he knew if some ‘big shot’ was on the plane with them. It was then that they spotted the giant banner reading WELCOME JOHN COLTRANE QUINTET. In Japan, Coltrane sold around 30,000 copies of each of his recordings, equivalent to that of the United States, at that time a country with nearly twice the population. A red carpet awaited the musicians, and limousines; schoolgirls handed them bouquets of flowers. They were treated like royalty.

The admiration for Coltrane’s music in both Japan and the United States and elsewhere is in part due to its religious or spiritual quality. Listeners had perceived this quality in Coltrane’s music since the early 1960’s; it was his 1964 recording A Love Supreme with its overt spiritual connotations that somehow validated this perception. As one Japanese jazz musician observed, Coltrane’s "music is like a religious ceremony." The day after the arrival of the Quintet, Coltrane was ushered into a press conference where he was asked what he would like to be in ten years. Coltrane replied without hesitation, "a saint." This reply was, in part, a product of the era’s idealism, this being the year the Beatles discovered Indian sitar player Ravi Shankar, whom Coltrane had discovered five years prior through tenor saxophonist Yuseef Lateef. Coltrane was then deeply interested in Indian music’s emphasis on melody and rhythm, yet his interest in the East did not end with music; he was also reading Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi (recommended by tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins) and Krishnamurti's Commentaries on Living (recommended by pianist Bill Evans).

Upon his arrival in Japan, Coltrane was well into what most critics and listeners came to regard, after the dust had settled, as a spiritual quest. Some say this quest had started two years earlier when he had a self-proclaimed "vision of God" during meditation, and heard a "universal music" which he then spent the rest of his fiercely determined career, beginning with A Love Supreme, trying to capture. One reason for this fierce determination to capture the music of his "divine vision" (which he was beginning to hear echoes of in Western, Eastern and African music) was possibly due to Coltrane’s impending mortality, illustrated in the photographs drummer Rashied Ali took of Coltrane while in Japan, and only discovered after Coltrane’s death of liver cancer the following year. Garrison: "About half of these pictures showed Trane holding his hand over his liver, like he was trying to stop the pain he must have been feeling all by himself." However, it can be argued that this period was rather a sudden speeding up of his spiritual journey begun long before in the small town of Hamlet, North Carolina, where Coltrane was born on September 23, 1926.

Part Two - Pursuance

Coltrane’s spiritual upbringing was strictly Christian: his father was a minister of the Lord, the Reverend John Robert Coltrane. Coltrane worshipped at his father’s church, St. Stephen’s Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, and attended Sunday school. As with a number of popular musicians in jazz, R&B and elsewhere, the first live music he heard was in church; the spirituals and gospel hymns were often reflected in Coltrane’s later music: "Spiritual," "Psalm," "A Love Supreme," "Dear Lord," "Amen," "The Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost" and "Peace on Earth." In fact one can go so far to argue, as Wynton Marsalis does in Ken Burns’ great failure Jazz, that the entirety of Coltrane’s music is an effort to capture the inflections, rhythms and patterns of a black Southern preacher’s sermon, but while that’s an oversimplification at best, it illustrates that Coltrane’s music in fact often captures those speech patterns and rhythms that were key ingredients to the rich culture from which blues, gospel, rhythm and blues and jazz were born. Coltrane, the son of a preacher man, was no doubt aware of the correlations between the sacred world of the church and the profane world of jazz, then strictly relegated to night clubs, surrounded by booze and loose women, having begun its ascent from the streets of New Orleans only a decade or so before Coltrane’s birth. He picked up the clarinet in the community band at St. Stephen’s, proving himself a competent musician almost immediately. He later played at William Penn High School, and, in his final year, took up the alto saxophone. After high school, Coltrane moved to Philadelphia to wait out his inevitable tenure in the Second World War, meanwhile attending the Ornstein School of Music, where he probably became familiar with the roots of the music he adored (particularly of Duke Ellington’s saxophone player Johnny Hodges, Artie Shaw and Woody Herman), the twelve-bar blues, the blue notes, and syncretism: a marriage of European quadrilles and African rhythm, when blacks began playing European instruments, wedding the deep musical heritages into something altogether new. The blues itself was a product of the field holler, call-and-response, originating in slavery and the chain gang. These musical styles, in turn, when placed within a religious context gave birth to the Black ministry style and, by extension, the spiritual. When he was not studying or practicing (Coltrane would mature into one of the most stubbornly methodical of practicers in modern jazz history), he probably spent a great deal of his time listening to the live music being played in Philadelphia’s clubs and streets.

Following a one-year stint in the Navy, where he played clarinet in marching and dance bands while stationed in Hawaii, Coltrane returned to Philadelphia and the height of the Big Band Era, the last (and most) popular era of jazz music in the United States, as well as the beginning of "bop," to which Coltrane would soon be initiated under the twin influences of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and the diminishing available big band seats as audiences began to decline in the post-war era and the heralding of the dominance of rock n’roll less than a decade later. Coltrane had brief stints in the big bands of Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, Dizzy Gillespie and Earl Bostic, further developing his tenor style, a fast and energetic virtuosity heavily influenced by the manic flights of Charlie Parker. As with many young musicians who came to jazz in Parker’s wake, Coltrane not only copied Bird’s musical style, but his lifestyle as well, particularly later when he discovered heroin, a drug which Bird used and many of his followers developed a mis-guided proclivity for, thinking it was the drugs that allowed Bird such incredible technical and improvisational ability. In addition to drugs, Coltrane began to experience growing problems with his teeth and gums, and an increase in alcohol use, resulting in his being fired from numerous gigs. But this period was not without its positive developments, including Coltrane’s growing competence as a player, his first experience under Vinson and Gillespie with the horn he would become most identified with, the tenor saxophone (more from financial necessity on his leader’s part than any growing interest on Coltrane’s). It was also during his stint with Gillespie that Coltrane first met tenor saxophonist Yuseef Lateef, a Muslim who sensed Coltrane’s interest in religion (due perhaps to Coltrane’s shy, introspective nature and his wide, deep eyes that betrayed a sensitivity, inquisitiveness and inner peace, despite Coltrane’s outward turmoil of worldly addictions). Lateef recommended Coltrane read Kahlil Gibran, the Koran and Krishnamurti. Drummer Bill Barron gave Coltrane a book on yoga. Coltrane, apparently, while appreciative of the gifts, did not seem interested in religion or spirituality, despite his impressions on others. As a Christian boy, albeit non-practicing — such texts must have had the air of exoticism. No doubt it left a mark: Coltrane would return to these texts over a decade later following his kicking of heroin, his growing interest in Eastern musical styles and his experience of a "universal music" while meditating, resulting in A Love Supreme.

Coltrane’s alcoholism out of control, he returned to Philadelphia in 1951 and played in various rhythm and blues bands. Rhythm and blues, a vulgar descendant of the blues that incorporates rhythmic patterns of jazz music with the guitar-based minor chords of urban blues, would be further vulgarized into rock and roll a few years later. It was during Coltrane’s R&B tenure that he picked up "honking" or over blowing the saxophone for effect, normally associated with a sexual burst of energy. He was also forced to "walk the bar" during his solos: that is, walk across the bar, horn in hand, honking, gyrating and gesticulating obscenely along the way. It was and is a humiliating experience for any serious musician, especially for a musician of Coltrane’s caliber. Rescued from this inauspicious and pathetic fate by Earl Bostic and later, his hero Johnny Hodges, it would ironically put him into even greater danger, by leading him back into the jazz scene just as heroin was becoming popular among musicians. As his addiction worsened, Coltrane began nodding off during performances. Hodges, who began to think of Coltrane as a son, was torn but had to let Coltrane go. He begrudgingly, ashamedly returned to the R&B circuit.

Still living in Philadelphia, Coltrane would journey to New York for jobs during 1954 and 1955, gaining attention from musicians, audiences and critics. Eventually Coltrane was noticed by his last and most crucial leader: Miles Davis, who, along with drummer Philly Jo Jones, pianist Red Garland and bassist Paul Chambers, would form the seminal Miles Davis Quintet, producing some of Miles best work: the albums ‘Round About Midnight (1955), Workin’, Steamin’, Relaxin’, and Cookin’ (1956), classics of the "hard bop" movement, an East Coast, primarily black reaction to the West Coast, primarily white "cool jazz" movement, ironically influenced by Davis himself. Hard bop would return the blusier, funkier elements of bebop; a return to roots by focus on improvisation in contrast to cool jazz’s focus on arrangements. And with song titles like "Cornbread" it was virtually impossible for whites to copy it without it seeming like minstrelsy. Coltrane was coming into his own as an artist; his strength and versatility on his instrument was growing ever more apparent. He had developed power on all the registers of the horn and his melodic complexity, a flurry of arpeggios and bent notes, was reminiscent of Bird’s, but with a flavor that was pure Trane.

Meanwhile, Coltrane’s addiction to heroin worsened, influenced in part by Jo Jones heavy usage. Davis had managed to kick the habit a few years earlier and, despite his occasional dabbling, was clean. He grew tired of Coltrane and Jones’ shenanigans and let go of them both, but not before he publicly humiliated Coltrane by slapping him in the face in front of a packed club, apparently out of disgust. Pianist Thelonious Monk witnessed this and offered Coltrane to play with him any time as he felt no one who blew the horn so hard should be treated in such a way, no matter what the reason. That recording, immortalized on the stunning Monk’s Music (1957) also featured Coleman Hawkins (who had nearly single-handedly invented the tenor saxophone with his classic interpretation of "Body and Soul"), Art Blakey on drums and Ray Copeland on trumpet. On one cut, "Well, You Needn’t", you can hear Copeland yell out to Coltrane, "Coltrane! Coltrane!" just before Coltrane’s solo; Coltrane had nodded out on heroin just before his turn to play. This was in June of 1957, months following Coltrane’s celebrated renunciation of drugs, both legal and illegal. This event was considered by Coltrane to be the spiritual turning point in his life, when his interest in spirituality was renewed. It was the seed of his newfound spiritual awareness that he celebrated with A Love Supreme, a gift to his maker who was able to remove him from the path of self-destruction. According to the liner notes:

During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music. I feel this has been granted through his grace. ALL PRAISE TO GOD.

As time and events moved on, a period of irresolution did prevail. I entered into a phase which was contradictory to the pledge and the esteemed path; but, thankfully, now and again through the unerring and merciful hand of God, I do perceive and have been duly re-formed of His omnipotence, and our need for, and dependence on him.

Coltrane wasn’t working. He was shooting up, drinking, smoking. One morning he turned to his wife and said, "I’m through." He had finally come to understand that drugs were keeping him from that which he truly loved: his family, yes, but primarily his saxophone, his music. He had been reading religious texts and works of philosophy at the time and felt a need for a physical and psychological purgation, a cleansing. He sentenced himself to his room, where he remained for three days, leaving only to drink water or to use the toilet. But as he stated above, and the Monk date attests: a period of irresolution did prevail; he did not immediately kick. And he was finally unable to quit smoking or to remove his yearning for sweet potato pie.

Coltrane returned to the music scene that fall, joining the Thelonious Monk Quartet at the Five Spot in New York, with bassist Wilbur Ware and drummer Shadow Wilson. Their performances, the three studio recordings and a bootleg recorded by Coltrane’s wife are considered the finest examples of "hard bop" music. Coltrane’s maturity is present: he confidently masters and builds on Monk’s complex melodies. Monk allowed Coltrane to indulge himself in long solos. His work with Monk was liberating: its freedom and complexity stood in sharp contrast to Miles’ comparatively simple and conservative style. Coltrane became increasingly interested in harmonics and the number of dates featuring him as a leader charts his growing preoccupation with the matter, as well as his progression from a top practitioner of hard bop into a leading experimentalist in the post-bop tradition, finally reaching its zenith on the 1959 recording Giant Steps. Dakar, Lush Life, Traneing In and the superb Blue Train (all 1957), the 1958 recordings The Believer, The Last Trane, Soultrane (a personal favorite of Coltrane’s), and Trane’s Reign show a steady increase in harmonic complexity, culminating in the exquisitely baroque Black Pearls (1958). By now, Coltrane was a master of delivery, nearly surpassing even Bird in his speed, range and power.

Miles Davis had been listening at the Five Spot and, as his career had been floundering since the dissolution of the Quintet, he approached Coltrane to ask him to join his new Septet, following the departure of Sonny Rollins, off on one of his periodic retirements. Together with Cannonball Adderly on alto, Bill Evans on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Jimmy Cobb on drums, the new Davis Septet would produce the most exciting and innovative jazz of the late 1950’s, including Milestones and the modal-based experiments of Kind of Blue, the largest selling jazz album in history. Coltrane was reluctant to sign on, he felt himself firmly on the path toward establishing himself as a leader and to slip back into a supporting role, even with such a great lineup, was felt to be a step in the wrong direction. He even more reluctantly toured with Davis in the United States and Europe in 1960, but as a revealing interview in Stockholm illustrates, Coltrane was clearly ready to put together his own band.

Over the next several years, the classic John Coltrane Quartet was formed, composed of Elvin Jones on drums, McCoy Tyner on piano and Jimmy Garrison on bass. In the meantime, Coltrane produced a series of records that solidified his stature as one of jazz’s finest and most exciting tenor players. On the title track of My Favorite Things (1960), Coltrane used a soprano saxophone, a rarely-used instrument, made famous by Sidney Bechet. Coltrane had been hearing notes too high for the tenor to play. The song was to become, along with his "Naima" from Giant Steps, Coltrane’s signature piece. (Coltrane produced some of his best music on soprano: "Afro-Blue," "Blues to Bechet," "Softly As In a Morning Sunrise," "The Inch Worm," "Chim-Chim-Chiree"). Another new development in these crucial years was Coltrane’s growing interest in African music, from which the big band Africa/Brass sessions was realized. Jazz had been incorporating non-European rhythms (African and Cuban) as part of a growing internationalism and black consciousness in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s.

Free Jazz was another result of this growing black consciousness, in tandem with a self-conscious exploration of the very fabric from which jazz music was created. Coltrane began his flirtation with the "Free Jazz" or "New Thing" at a July 1960 date with Ornette Coleman’s backing band, Don Cherry on trumpet, Charlie Haden on bass and Ed Blackwell on drums. His live recording Live at the Village Vanguard (1961) appropriated some decidedly avant-garde playing, best illustrated in his 17-minute improvisational masterpiece "Chasin’ the Trane". Also playing on the Village dates was Eric Dolphy, who had played on Ornette Coleman’s watershed Free Jazz record a year earlier.

Perhaps sensing that the material was ahead of its time, or capitalizing on Coltrane’s growing popularity by making his music increasingly accessible, or both, Coltrane recorded a number of conservative (by anyone’s standards) recordings, ironically at a time when Coltrane was most feeling the pull of experimentations being pursued by Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler and Sun Ra and playing solos that lasted upwards of an hour in New York clubs. There was Ballads, a studio date with Duke Ellington and a collection of sentimental songs with crooner Johnny Hartman. Considering the wild improvisations he was performing on-stage at the time, Coltrane exhibits remarkable restraint on these recordings. At the same time, the Quartet produced their first studio recording proper, the stellar 1962 Coltrane, incorporating the free-flowing improvisations he had been pursuing. Critics and audiences felt that the material had been growing increasingly "ugly" and "angry." Coltrane was clearly torn during these years; his albums with Ellington and Hartman sold and received good reviews, but his heart was firmly aligned with the avant-garde.

It was not until his Birdland date, just five days before Kennedy’s assassination, that Coltrane performed his protest song "Alabama," in response to an incident of two months prior: a dozen sticks of dynamite had been exploded in a Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four black girls, just after they had finished their sermon, The Love That Forgives. The melodic lines of "Alabama" were based on the rhythmic inflections of a speech by Martin Luther King; Coltrane would later base the melodic line of "Psalm" on his own poetry. A few years later, Coltrane would dedicate a song to King, "Reverend King." As a preamble to his masterpiece, Coltrane recorded what many consider its equal in technical mastery, if not content: the subtle, mysterious dark night of the soul before the radiant awakening of A Love Supreme, Crescent.

Part Three — Resolution

The word "Freedom" had definite political connotations. It was, to put it mildly, an explosive word in the early 1960’s, an era of the Selma Bus Boycott and the birth of the Civil Rights movement, an era of riots, protests, jailing, civil insurrection, violent and bloody feuds, all channeled straight into the typical white suburban family home through the t.v. eye. The ghettos were on fire — separationists and militants, both black and white, advocated racial violence. It was the time of Malcolm X and later the Black Panthers and the Muslim Brotherhood, a heady environment out of which Ornette Coleman and a few like-minded performers brought their revolution to the relatively conservative jazz world. Coleman was a controversial figure: with only an R&B background and a plastic saxophone, to some he was a genius, to others a freak. Also making waves was Sun Ra and his Arkestra, an eccentric but undeniably masterful musical entity. Coltrane, always ready to push the musical envelope, always looking to challenge, expand and broaden his art, was immediately drawn to the performances of these audacious and electrifying musical fellows. That it was a strictly black jazz movement, and not a reaction to white appropriation (as hard bop before it) was important to the credibility of the new music. "Free Jazz" had not yet been co-opted by the white establishment and so was, for the moment, strictly a black music. Some critics argue to this date that free jazz spelled the demise of jazz just as hard bop was beginning to catch on with the young, primarily white record-buying public. In fact, jazz had been steadily declining in popularity as its best known creative artists moved on to others things or died prematurely.

For Coltrane, the New Thing was not just a reaction to European (and therefore "white") harmonic structures and compositional forms, or, in the Marxist rhetoric of the time, a representation of bourgeois musical affectations, it was a "pure" music; an exploration of the very foundations of jazz music and, in its freedom from conventional forms, a unique vehicle to explore the spiritual, "universal" music he had started to hear in the mid 1960’s. Coltrane’s appropriation of Coleman and Ra’s music was not entirely derivative, though it can be argued that Coltrane and especially Ra shared similar obsessions: Ra claimed Coltrane borrowed his fascination with the Kabala (building his song structures based on numerology) as well as his fascination with astrology and the cosmos — in songs like "Leo," "Jupiter," "Cosmic Music," "Venus," "Mars," "Saturn," "Crescent" and "Sun Ship". The New Thing was naïve and overly-idealistic, in that sense it was dated, but there was something interesting and unique going on. For Coltrane it was another chapter in his spiritual quest; it was timeless and sincere, much as the abstract expressionists of the 1950’s interpreted their artwork as something transcendent of inherited forms, conveying beauty and a sense of life’s mystery, feelings general associated with the mystical and the religious.

Occupying the middle ground between Coltrane’s Quartet and the increasingly experimental works that followed, Crescent and A Love Supreme are the central works of Coltrane’s career. Following these achievements that alone would have firmly established Coltrane’s position as one of jazz’s top talents, Coltrane and his quartet began their dizzyingly prolific recordings, which in the year 1965 alone included The John Coltrane Quartet Plays, Transition, Sun Ship, Kulu Se Mama, Om, Living Space and, taking a cue from Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz (and featuring one of Sun Ra’s players, Pharaoh Sanders), Coltrane’s first full collective improvisation, Ascension, of which there are two full versions, each of equal interest (and both released after Coltrane could not decide which of the two was the master take). Combined with his readings of the Kabala, Yogananda, Krishnamurti and Edgar Cayce, along with his experiments with LSD, Ascension was Coltrane’s unabashed embrace of the New Thing ethos and is considered by many critics to be at best an interesting failure and by many listeners as approaching incoherence. After straddling the fence for several years, Coltrane made plain his breach with hard bop and his alignment with free jazz improvisation. Ascension is exciting for the first few minutes but quickly grows wearing and finally falls apart. Still, it was a controversial move by Coltrane and he would not repeat a full-band improvisation of this length, though he did, from ’65-’67, perform with a variety of musicians, augmenting his Quartet with additional drummers, reed players, percussionists and pianists. On "Kulu Se Mama," Coltrane incorporates vocal chanting from the Hindu Bhaghavad Gita, utilizing double bassists, drums and tenor saxophones. "Om," a similar work, features chanting from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, bells, flute and two bassists. "Om" was perhaps apocryphally recorded while the musicians were tripping LSD. There is a chant late in the piece with regards to clarified butter; apparently Coltrane did not want the music released. It was; but only after his death. By then the Summer of Love had long ended.

Also coming to a swift conclusion was the classic Quartet, whose integrity had been increasingly compromised by Coltrane’s sudden explorations of avant-garde music and his desire to augment the band to achieve a quality reminiscent of the universal music he heard, now constantly, in his head. Coltrane betrayed the occasional reservations regarding his new musical direction; he ideally wanted to have both the classic quartet and the experimental bands at his disposal, allowing the music to decide which style would be most appropriate. In February of 1966, Coltrane admitted to Newport Jazz Festival producer George Wein, after playing a spur-of-the-moment set with Thelonious Monk:

You know, I often wonder if what I’m doing now is the right way to play. Sometimes I feel this is the way I want to go, but other times I’d rather return to the way I used to play. But for now, I think I’ll continue in the direction I’m going and see what happens.

There was in many ways no going back for Coltrane. He certainly lost listeners and critical respect with his new music. Many wondered why he would give up his quartet’s unmistakable genius and marketability. He certainly could have returned to playing the music found on Ballads and the Ellington and Hartman and been considerably wealthier and musically respected, at least by the establishment critics and record-buying public. It is a testament to his strong-willed integrity that he didn’t, although, in the pieces "Welcome," "Dear Lord," "Dearly Beloved," and "Vigil" it was clear that Coltrane, despite his experimental proclivity, still possessed one of the finest conventional jazz styles in the business.

For all the growing internal turmoil, the Quartet, with the addition of a second drummer, Rashied Ali, still had one last classic left, in many ways a sequel to A Love Supreme, the phenomenal Meditations, also, incredibly, recorded in 1965, perhaps Coltrane’s last masterpiece. While not a suite in the proper sense, as A Love Supreme and the aptly titled "Transition Suite," Meditations possesses a cohesiveness and uniformity of vision that conveys a suite-like progression of musical sound and idea. Not as aurally shattering as Ascension, the group-based improvisations are more organic artistic statements, particularly the opening piece, "The Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost". As with A Love Supreme, Meditations closes with one of the Quartet’s loveliest performances, "Serenity". With a title like Meditations one expects a solemn, calming music, much like the clichéd lay interpretation of meditation, that of a smiling monk sitting cross-legged and reveling in spiritual tranquility. However, the music is mostly shrill, filled with honks, shrieks and squeals that do more to express inner turmoil than inner peace. This is typical of Coltrane’s art: it existed in such contradiction. Though Coltrane was often perceived as angry or violent he was, by his own impression and by the impressions of those who knew him, a peaceful man. Ravi Shankar, whom Coltrane idolized and finally met in 1965 (Coltrane named a son after him), felt that Coltrane’s music was "turbulent" and "negative" and that it expressed a kind of "trouble." Coltrane felt his music to represent the energy of the universe which was, as he must have perceived it, chaotic in limited interaction but halcyon when experienced in its entirety. Coltrane’s aspirations for his music aimed high; in his liner notes to the album, he is quoted as saying:

Once you become aware of this force for unity in life, you can’t ever forget it. It becomes a part of everything you do. In that respect, this is an extension of A Love Supreme since my conception of that force keeps changing shape. My goal in meditating this through music, however, remains the same. That is, uplift people, as much as I can. To inspire them to realize more and more of their capacities for living meaningful lives. Because there is certainly meaning to life.

Coltrane clearly considered Meditations simply another step on his musical journey, by no means to be interpreted as a summation.

There is never any end. There are always new sounds to imagine, new feelings to get at. And always, there is the need to keep purifying these feelings and sounds so that we can really see what we’ve discovered in its pure state. So that we can see more and more clearly what we are. In that way, we can give to those who listen the essence, the best of what we are. But to do that at each stage, we have to keep on cleaning the mirror.

His interpretation of the process of meditation as a method of cleansing or purifying one’s feelings and sounds to reach a purified state is an example of the influence of Coltrane’s readings in Eastern religious texts, particularly the works of Krishnamurti, who in his Commentaries on Living observes:

Right meditation is essential for the purgation of the mind, for without the emptying of the mind there can be no renewal. Mere continuity is decay. The mind withers away by constant repetition, by the friction of wrong usage, by sensations which make it dull and weary [. . . ] Only in discovery can there be joy — the discovery from moment to moment of the ways of the self [ . . . ] When all the many layers of consciousness are quiet, utterly still, only then is there the immeasurable, the bliss that is not of time, the renewal of creation.

Meditations is the final gasp of the classic Quartet. McCoy Tyner left first; with only Elvin Jones on drums it had been hard enough to hear himself play. Now with Rashied Ali it was mostly impossible. Jones, not happy to share drumming duties and confused by Coltrane’s new direction ("Only poets can understand it"), left shortly thereafter, leaving Jimmy Garrison on bass. Ali took over drums, and Coltrane’s wife Alice replaced Tyner on piano. The new Quartet’s first recording was a live performance at Birdland on May 28, which included only two songs, Coltrane’s "greatest hits", "Naima" and "My Favorite Things". The song selection was a reassurance perhaps that the ‘Trane critics and audiences knew and loved had not completely abandoned them. It was perhaps also an acknowledgement that he was creatively spent, after having produced such a vast amount of material in so little space of time. For awhile Coltrane entertained opening a club in Greenwich Village, with a non-alcoholic, concert hall atmosphere, supportive of the music Coltrane and his new Quintet were exploring.

The choice of compositions at the Birdland date may have also been inspired, in part, by his doubt about the music he was playing. How welcome the opportunity to play a series of concerts in Japan must have been. Coltrane was in a period of doubt; and there was no better way to counter those feelings than to charge full steam ahead into the unknown, into uncharted waters. Japan offered his new Quintet a unique opportunity to perform in front of receptive, appreciative audiences, work out any technical kinks that may exist and try out some new compositions. There was one song in particular, based around a simple melody, which Coltrane had recorded at one of a handful of studio recordings made in 1966, "Peace on Earth."

Part Four — Psalm

The mass adoration Japanese fans showed Coltrane upon his arrival at Tokyo International Airport was anathema in America. It was of great import for Coltrane to return something to the Japanese for helping to restore in him faith in his musical vision. That gift would come in the form of the stately, impassioned performances he gave throughout the island country during his two week stay.

While in Japan, the musicians were treated like movie stars: fans stopped them on the street, requesting photographs and autographs, wanting to shake hands or merely be in the presence of what they considered genius. The Quintet’s tour schedule was hectic; fourteen performances in fourteen days. Coltrane and Sanders were presented with Yamaha saxophones which they would play in several concerts; they jammed with a number of talented Japanese jazz musicians.

War weighed heavily on Coltrane’s mind, as it did everyone’s, as Vietnam escalated. Coltrane, an avowed pacifist, was asked by an interviewer to comment:

Well, I dislike war. Period. Therefore, as far as I am concerned, it should stop, it should have already stopped. Now, as far as the issues behind it, I don’t understand them well enough to tell you just how this could be brought about. I only know it should stop.

Coltrane must have been aware of the disproportionate number of black men being sent to die in Vietnam. He was aware of the heated racial climate in the United States, which had exploded during the Watts riot of 1965. He had recently written a song, "Reverend King," dedicated to the black leader Martin Luther King. There was no doubt "Peace on Earth" addresses these matters and myriad others; it is a song about that universal desire for peace, the noble, if naïve desire to end suffering of all kinds. In Nagasaki, Coltrane visited Memorial Park, the site of the end of World War II, where the United States dropped a second atomic bomb, "Little Boy," on the city, murdering more than 150,000 people. There, Coltrane prayed for the dead. There is a poignant photograph of him; hands held together in prayer, head bowed, in Buddhist reverence.

Of the extant recordings of this remarkable tour, the performances in Nagasaki have not been professionally recorded; it is not known by this author whether any extant bootleg recordings exist and, if so, if "Peace on Earth" was performed that evening. Of the two performances captured on monaural recording for Japanese radio broadcast, "Peace on Earth" was recorded twice, once at the July 11th performance at Tokyo Nenkin Hall and at the July 22nd Tokyo Sankei Hall. It is the shorter, July 22nd performance is the more magnificent, more assured, more pleasingly exact and well-realized of the two. It features two solos by Coltrane, an alto solo by Sanders (here considerably less eccentric than on the July 11th performance, more restrained). The performance, about 25 minutes in length, is most notable for Coltrane’s two extended solos, each a technical and emotional masterpiece (though most musicians might argue that emotion is no longer a part of the equation once technical concerns of the performance come into consideration). The earlier, July 11th performance, over 26 minutes in length, features a wildly hysteric solo by Sanders, a long piano solo, followed by a closing tenor duet in which Coltrane and Sanders re-state the theme in as many different variations as they can possibly produce. By now Trane had performed the song at least a few dozen times; his solos capture the bent notes and rolling arpeggios associated with his "sheets of sound" period, the honks and shrieks of his radical experimental phase, the stately and loving melodies of works like "Psalm," "Dear Lord" and "Welcome," the improvisational fervor of his Vanguard dates, echoes of the blues, of spirituals, of hymns, of the preaching of Southern ministers Coltrane listened to as a boy in St. Stephen’s Church in Hamlet, North Carolina, transformed and transcended into emotion in its "pure state" having successfully "cleansed the mirror" to give the children of the war dead and those waging the war across the sea, the "essence, the best of what we are." It is a powerful and cathartic listening experience, universal in its themes, transcendent of the frivolous details of time and place. It is, in short, an assessment and summation of Coltrane’s music and his most powerful and eloquent statement on the concerns of his life and art.

His hymn to peace is decidedly violent; like the Bhaghavad Gita, an Eastern text Coltrane admired, his was a religious dialogue set in the background of war. It seems appropriate that Coltrane’s final tour took him to the Far East as he possessed an Eastern mind, perceiving the universal music in the structures of Indian music; he was by extension attracted to Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism. Raised a Christian, this dialogue and synthesis between Orient and Occident was part of Coltrane’s catholic understanding of matters of spirit. In his Japanese interview, he states:

I am [Christian] by birth; my parents were and my early teachings were Christian. But as I look upon the world, I feel all men know the truth. If a man was a Christian, he could know the truth and he could not. The truth does not have any name on it. And each man has to find it himself, I think.

When Coltrane returned to the United States, he was experiencing considerable pain in his abdomen. He withdrew from public performance, experimented with a prototype for an electronic saxophone, played the Village Theater in New York in December of 1966, and recorded an album of duets with drummer Rashied Ali, Interstellar Space, featuring some of the freest music of his career (a reaffirmation of Coltrane’s decidedly percussive style; often in the classic Quartet, performances were effectively reduced to duets between himself and Elvin Jones) and the last music of Coltrane’s to be released. His last recorded music, however, released on the comparatively somber album Expressions, was recorded in February of 1967 and by March, Coltrane had died of liver cancer.

Coltrane undoubtedly left a major mark on jazz music. He was a maverick musician, whose drama was contained in the contradiction that much of his music while driven and aggressive (to others, ugly and angry), was, by intention, introspective and spiritual. As much as he was a product of an idealistic and naïve political landscape, Coltrane did not romanticize the ugliness and suffering of the world, his music was an expression of the rage any sensitive black person might have felt during such racially and politically heated times. Yet Coltrane also understood that one’s liberation was finally dependent on confrontation with suffering and violence and not, finally, ignorance. His music charted the path by which one might come to acknowledge suffering and, by acknowledgment, find liberation. Such was Coltrane’s program since his "vision of God" in 1964 and his "spiritual awakening" seven years before:

. . . to uplift people, as much as I can do. To inspire them to realize more and more their capacities for living meaningful lives. Because there is certainly meaning to life.

* The song "Peace On Earth" as recorded in studio was released on the now out-of-print recording Infinity with overdubbed harp by Alice Coltrane.

Quoted material:

Chasin’ the Trane by J.C. Thomas. DeCapo Press.

John Coltrane: Live In Japan. (liner notes) Impulse Records.