The Problem With John Coltrane ~~ Part 1: The Audience

JohnColtrane1Many 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 [1961], 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.

audienceAnd 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)

6 responses to “The Problem With John Coltrane ~~ Part 1: The Audience

  • The Problem With John Coltrane ~~ Part 2: Technique « Savage Music

    […] The Problem With John Coltrane ~~ Part 2: Technique (See Part 1) […]

  • Steve Bowie

    Even at his most daring, Coltrane could still command a fervent audience response. Listen to the live version of A Love Supreme, recorded in 1965. At the conclusion of the suite, the audience applauds enthusiastically and is demonstratively upset that there is not more to follow. The Jazz Icons DVD performance, also from 1965, is decidedly not commercial, easy listening music. Again, the audience is very enthusiastic about the music. As the camera goes to the crowd, you can see quite a few of them giving Coltrane a standing ovation. (Keep in mind that once upon a time, a standing ovation was not automatic as it seems to be today.) Live in Japan? Wild music, passionate audience. All of these examples were in front of foreign audiences that did not necessarily get a chance to hear Coltrane’s incremental development. If they only knew him from his work with Miles Davis, the change would be shocking.

    While well written, I believe this article’s premise is flawed. John Coltrane, while one of the giants of jazz, did not carry the entire jazz audience on his shoulders. At the time of his death in 1967, he was survived by Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Coleman Hawkins, Stan Getz, Dave Brubeck, Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, Wes Montgomery, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Dexter Gordon, Ben Webster, Ella Fitzgerald, Pharaoh Sanders, Cannonball Adderley, Charles Lloyd, Tito Puente, to name just a few. All of these artists had (and in the case of Rollins, Brubeck, Sanders and Lloyd – have) a different audience experience in the time since Coltrane.

    The shrinking of the audience for jazz audience is actually due to two simple things. The first would be the popularity of rock music. Take a look at the contemporary press of the mid-60s and you’ll see the musicians, promoters and club owners bemoaning that they couldn’t keep up with the tide of rock and roll.

    The second would be lack of exposure for jazz (and anything that’s non-pop music, too). Once upon a time, music appreciation was taught in the schools. Even if the kids didn’t like it, they were exposed – maybe they might even pick it up later in life. With the budget cuts, music, like physical education has gone by the wayside. The high school and college jazz performance education programs are not an equivalent source for building an audience.

    Another side to the exposure angle was the local record store. At Tower Records and the like, there used to be expert sales staff that could steer you in the direction of an artist similar to one you were already familiar with. A thing of the past! And how often do you see jazz on television? How many jazz radio stations are there?

  • a

    its rather impious to assume that an audience ought to occupy some measure of complicity in the practice of art making. viewership should be considered an extrinsic afterthought whose essence was only prioritized subsequent the godless commodification of such a profound art form

  • gordsellar

    Well, Steve, but I think the essay is supposed to suggest an analogy between the decline in popularity of jazz and its exploration of increasingly difficult systems of organization. (Increasingly difficult for listeners, anyway.) That’s certainly what has happened to “classical” music in the last hundred years–it’s gotten a lot more challenging for listeners, and a lot less like what most people expect music to sound, and, well… except in tiny niches, it’s basically a museum piece.

    That said, you have a good point about how the decline in jazz’s popularity is complex and has to do with a lot of different things: exposure, the success of rock and other “popular” music, and I’d also argue the “conservativism” of some of the most vocal proponents of jazz in the States since the 80s. When I saw Wynton in a suit talking about “tradition” and how Louis Armstrong was practically the alpha and omega, I was not inspired. I certainly was not led toward the music, or given a sense that it would speak to me or was “for” me the way popular music was promoted to make me think it was for and about people like me.

    For what it’s worth, I was a white male Canadian teenager at the time, and thus maybe not quite in the reboppers’ target audience–I can see why the idea of “tradition” and “history” might inspire some listeners and players–but with those suits, with all the characterization of jazz as “African-American classical music” it felt… well, on the one hand it was like, yes, this is an amazing, complex, artistic music that owes much of its amazingness to African-Americans, yes, and it deserves respect of the highest sort, and it is an art. But to start throwing words like “classical music” around when attendance at classical music concerts was dying too, that’s…

    Well, I think it amounts to a conscious museumization of jazz, with curators and a specific historical revisionism that always go in hand with the internment of anything in a museum. (I know I was always waiting for Wynton to start waxing poetical about late Coltrane, or Ornette Coleman, or Cecil Taylor, but I never heard him mention them. As an individual, that’s his prerogative, and I don’t know what his story of jazz looks like more recently, but in a curatorial capacity, leaving out all that experimental, interesting stuff felt absolutely just wrong.)

    And while I am only mentioning Wynton, my impression from what people say about Ken Burns, and other promoters of jazz these days, seems to be just as guilty.

    In contrast, for me, hearing some of Miles’ fusion albums (like Pangaea and Aghartha), hearing Medeski Martin & Wood, seeing demonstrations of the impurity of modern music–in a very exciting way–on episodes of David Sanborn’s Night Music, where jazz musicians and rockers and blues people were jamming together, listening to a bunch of John McLaughlin stuff where he’s with Billy Cobham (Mahavishnu Orchestra or otherwise) and tons more stuff that was left out of all that was actually inspiring to me not just because, yeah, I like that kind of stuff, but also because it wasn’t about dreadfully serious young men in suits lecturing about history, but something more like a a sonic adventure, one way more engaging than I heard on pop radio. That led me back to things like Ornette Coleman’s Science Fiction, to Ascension and Giant Steps alike, to digging Sam Rivers records out of the library’s collections to check out, and yeah, Louis too, and so on.

    I think that conscious museumization was perhaps a combination of a kind of career-niche creation for Wynton Marsalis and a few others associated with him, but also a survival strategy. I mean, by the end of the 1970s, weren’t jazz musicians really wondering, “What now?” That’s certainly the impression I get, though I was too young then to have any idea. The question then wasn’t how to keep the audience, but instead how to get more young people into it, and with the massive success of pop music–and its singular binding to the formation of identity in youth culture in North America–it’s easy to see jazz musicians were kind of between a rock and a hard place.

    (At least, in my experience of high school and middle school, jazz kids were weird in that we tended not to stylize ourselves along musical lines… unlike the punk/thrash kids, the metalheads, the pop music kids, the guys who listened to rap and tried to act/dress/walk/talk in ways they thought were “black”, the weirdoes who liked The Cure and Morrissey and so on. Sometimes we kids who were into jazz would goof off using words like “cat” or “blow” but truth be told all those kinds of things were pretty alien to us too–there was no continuity, so we were grasping at straws.)

    One more thing, I think the resistance to Coltrane early on is, for one thing, downplayed above. When he was with Miles, especially the first time, he was pretty unpopular with certain segments of jazz audiences, including a lot of fans of Miles David who questioned the decision to hire Coltrane instead of, for example, Sonny Rollins.

    But to reiterate, I think the author (whose name I can’t seem to find on this site, so I’m calling him or her “the author”) does have a point about audience ease of listening. In fact, I suspect the argument expressed above is probably implicitly what motivated some of those post-1980s revisions of jazz history that started excluding things like free jazz and fusion from the story.

    A caveat to all this I’ve written: I would probably never have gotten into jazz had I not started playing an instrument at some point. So the argument that music education resonates for me. My music education prior to picking up a saxophone was learning to play recorder and folk-singing with an acoustic-guitar playing teacher in middle school. Which is to say, close to zero.

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    […] The Problem With John Coltrane~~Part 1: The Audience […]

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