Many people today argue that jazz is dead. Many people who actively perform, listen to or support jazz scoff at this notion. But there is no denying that if not dead, the music that can be broadly considered “jazz” occupies a far-removed, niche area in the current landscape of popular art in America. What seems especially strange, however, in recent years is that despite the fact that jazz education has increased significantly and the relative musical communities within cities like New York and Chicago (among others) are thriving, the bridge between the music and the conscience of the public mind is weaker than ever. As the music grows, the ties that bind it with a general audience become weaker and, among many specific reasons for this, I think there is a broader, more loosely-based cause. That would be John Coltrane.
Now before you write this off you must understand that this is a correlative, not causal, relationship. But a strong one at that. All of the problems that I associate with the current state of jazz do generally tie back to the effect that John Coltrane had on this music. Today I focus on the issue of the audience.
the audience ~~
There are three phases in John Coltrane’s career that are most commonly cited. Phase 1 starts with the beginning of his career through 1961, essentially until the beginning of the classic quartet era. Phase 2 is the era of the classic quartet, and phase 3 is marked by the increasingly aggressive experimentations of Coltrane and the gradual dissemination of his classic quartet into a larger, more unconventional ensemble and eventually until his death. The relationship that Coltrane had with his audience throughout these three phases are, on a grander scale, the same that jazz as a whole has had with its audience since the beginning of the 20th century.
Phase 1, when John Coltrane was a member of the enormously popular Miles Davis quintet, was when he was a public and media darling. Less than a year after leaving the quintet, upon forming his new group as a leader for a 10-week engagement at the Jazz Gallery in New York, he was still much in public eye, performing sold out concerts to raving crowds.
Run, do not walk or otherwise loiter on your way down to the Jazz Gallery. The reason is John Coltrane, a tenor saxophonist who has the future coming out of his horn. – The New York Daily News, 1960
It was at this time that he was respected as much for his modern approach to playing as his nods to the tradition, always a concern to critics and purists. This attention surely affected Coltrane and the approach he had to his own music. Who would have thought that Coltrane, now an icon of unrepentant experimentation and development, was once concerned with not pushing too far ahead due to concerns of losing his audience? But to George Russell he explained his anxieties, lamenting that he was afraid of going too much in the direction of Ornette Colemen over fears of alienating the public. (Thus we find the utilization of a group other than his own quartet on 1960’s release The Avant Garde as a conscious move, clearly showing the divide he saw between two types of music he cared about, his own and that of Coleman).
But despite his concerns, Coltrane was unintentionally losing portions of his audience already. Saxophonist Evan Parker, often described as one of the few remaining true disciples of Coltrane’s 3rd phase, explains that even in England, where Coltrane’s popularity lingered longer due to his lack of live performances there, many people were beginning to think he had gone too far by 1961.
I remember in ‘61, the time that he did come with his own group to England, I think the only time that he did play in England, there was already a division of ‘this is going too far…we liked Milestones, we liked Kind of Blue, we liked those things but this is too much’…At the time, many people thought Coltrane’s “Chasin’ The Trane,” which was included on the original Village Vanguard LP , was his most radical performance to date because of what was considered its extraordinary length and intensity, and the fact that Coltrane was accompanied by only bass and drums. – Evan Parker, 2006
So by the early 1960’s there already existed a dichotomy between jazz followers and players and of Coltrane himself. So where did this leave the general public? Not too close. It is around the same time that John Coltrane, among others, is considered to have helped push the music into a new frontier. We see now that this frontier was not just musical, but also a conscious move from contract artistry to status artistry. From more concert halls to more clubs. From 5 minute songs to 20 minute songs. From chordal to non-chordal relationships. From rave reviews and album sales to hostility and indifference. The audience began to find its way out.
And so what is wrong with this? The music, now into the second half of a century of existence, was still growing, still moving forward. The problem is not with the players then, but rather with the players now and their relationship to this period. Many of the people who don’t understand why someone would think jazz is dead, who don’t get why the general public isn’t lining up outside the Village Vanguard on any given night, and are bitterly confused about why they or their favorite artists aren’t more generally accepted and respected, are the same people who consider this era beginning in 1960 to be the most important one in the history of jazz.
And yes, of course there are those people who don’t care for an audience, who find the approval of the general public to be almost an insult to their work. But the fact is that as mentioned before, jazz education is growing significantly, with thousands of students currently enrolled for bachelors and masters in an art form that the public considers dead. And with this growing market comes a dilution of the self-reliant, self-satisfied avant-garde. If jazz has reached a point where it was content with its unpopularity, these days will soon be over. Most of the current students are expecting an audience; they’re expecting to make a living and expecting to be understood. But unlike John Coltrane they are not beginning their careers playing rhythm and blues, and they will most likely not have a career that involves playing sold out concert halls with a Miles Davis-like quintet and recording one of the best-selling jazz records of all time. They instead study what Coltrane did after all of this, what he began in 1960 and what came after he was afraid of losing his own audience.
I recently asked a friend of mine, a very humble, eager and promising young saxophonist a question: “What if I told you that starting right now, you could never listen to John Coltrane again?” His reply was as much in his face as his words: “That would be a very, VERY bad thing.” To students of jazz, the popularity of John Coltrane cannot (and should not) be cut down. But with these mid-1960 records there should come a disclaimer, and this disclaimer should be studied just as much as the music on the recordings: “For Students: Beware of adverse effects on the size and composition of your audience.” John Coltrane understood it, but most of the people who respect him for this period do not, and as long as this continues the ties between this music and its audience become weaker by the day, until eventually even those of us who take part in it will admit we are just among gravestones.
(See Part 2)