Tag Archives: John Coltrane

Unlearning the Learned and Thoughts on Exercises…

Watching this video interview with Michael Wolff, I was struck by a story he told about Cannonball Adderley:

He said “You know you’re so lucky you’re not hung up with the bebop style.” He said “Quincy Jones and I are trying to get that last food out of Birdland. He said “Bebop is hanging me up. I wanna soar with my music and i’m stuck with this saxophone style.” And he was really frustrated. So I was coming from a post-bop thing. I came up more with Bitches Brew and Headhunters and, you know, the straight ahead stuff would have been more like A.R.C. by Chick and Now He Sings, Now He Sobs and that kind of stuff, you know, more free. And Keith Jarrett and all that.

Bird is (perhaps incorrectly) famous for saying something along the lines of “First you have to learn the music, then you have to forget it”. This could mean a lot of different things. In relation to what Cannonball is saying, I think it means that to fully master the music you play, it has to be natural and inherent in you. This is, in one way, a asset, but as Cannonball illustrates above, it can also be a burden. Some artists were able to get past this, Miles, Coltrane, Herbie, by relentlessly pushing themselves into new areas, but it seems that it was harder for others.

What makes Wolff different, it seems, is that he wasn’t brought up in the same “tradition”. To him, coming out of Keith and Chick makes him more flexible. But aren’t Keith and Chick themselves just extensions of the same “tradition” that Cannonball is? How can this extra degree of separation make such a difference?

Another interesting quote from this brief interview shed some light on how Cannonball viewed certain aspects of Coltrane’s legacy:

So Cannon was trying to get free and I was so impressed. When I first joined the band I said “Well, Cannon”, you know I had been in New York, scuffling to learn Moment’s Notice and Giant Steps and all the things everybody was learning at the jam sessions and I said “Cannon, can we play Moment’s Notice or Giant Steps?” And he said “No. We don’t play exercises on our bandstand. Why don’t you write me some music…John Coltrane was my favorite saxophonist, but those were exercises for him.”

It’s nice to hear, even third hand, that even Coltrane himself (as well as his contemporaries) viewed songs like “Moment’s Notice” and “Giant Steps” as ‘exercises’. This is exactly what a lot of young musicians today don’t realize. If more young musicians approached these songs the way Coltrane himself clearly approached them, perhaps it would alter the trajectory of much of their music in a positive way. I’ve opined on this before…


As I have mentioned before, it’s pretty easy to mask the influence of others’ music on your own and call it an original composition. Whether this is done intentionally or innocently (or both), it still surprises me when I find antecedents to songs which show that, in essence, they were essentially already written.

Maybe I’m a little out of the loop on this one, but in all my years, no one has brought this to my attention:

1. Written: 1938

This 20th century composer was popular in the early to mid 50’s among jazz musicians, enough to inspire this interpretation:

2. Recorded: October, 1955

Now, if you haven’t noticed it already, check out 1:36-2:17 on the first track, and 1:36-1:56 on the second…

It’s really interesting to see the progression of influences that helped lend a hand to the development of modalism. It would be interesting to know if Coltrane wrote “Impressions” based on the latter or the former, but its far more likely that it was from the latter (which should be a hint).

Oh, and if you’re wondering, October 1955 was certainly prior to the writing of Coltrane’s “Impressions”. November 1955 was the first recording session John Coltrane had with Miles, meaning he was at least two or three years from beginning to explore modalism.

So does anyone know the sources?

The Problem With John Coltrane ~~ Part 2: Technique

(See Part 1)

Few would categorize the beginning of the 21st century as a time of jazz-information overload. We all know that jazz is escaping more and more from the public eye. But the diffusion of music-related technology and the prevalence of ways to download mp3s for free has made music of eras-passed especially available to the curious listener, and this applies to jazz probably more so than any other type of music. The average music publishing company is not raking in the majority of its profits from much recorded before 1970 other than Elvis. Thus, the crackdown on mp3 blogs leaves most jazz recordings (including/especially out-of-print and rare records) readily available. Combine that with the fact that each year jazz education programs across the country are increasing their enrollments, and you’ve got a lot of this music changing hands very quickly. Being a child of the 80’s (add 30 years to this song), I was (un?)fortunate enough to have begun my serious delving into this music pretty much at the exact turn of the millennium. That being said, from the start I was already being subject to a large dosage of a jazz-information overload. This meant that unlike children of anyone prior to the internet revolution, I wasn’t necessarily inclined to start at the very beginning of any presumed listening list. The internet and CD burning allowed me to begin at one of any number of branches of a large tree, and extend individually down it until I felt the need to jump to another. The largest and most prominent branches were not necessarily the ones I needed to grab onto, and because of their over-exposure, were sometimes the ones I would consciously avoid.

One album that I avoided in such a way was John Coltrane’s Blue Train. This album is undoubtedly a ‘classic’, certainly in the ranks with Kind of Blue, Time Out, Headhunters, and all the other albums that even the most casual listeners can name off the top of their heads. And because of this album’s reputation alone, I spent at least 10 years refusing to listen to it. I was a jazz snob from day 1, and that meant that I was disinclined to associate myself with what the commoners listened to; I was above that. But in retrospect, and after all my listening inbetween, I have found that going back and finally listening to it has given it a meaning I would not have originally discovered. When I listened to John Coltrane’s solo on “Blue Train” recently, for the first time, I heard the present, the future, but certainly not 1957.

“…the barrage of notes in his extended solo helps to create the urgency of a man spilling out his inner-most feelings” – Lewis Porter, Coltrane Biographer, describing Coltrane’s tenor solo on “Blue Train”

What I heard speaks volumes about John Coltrane and his lasting legacy, but it shines very poorly on the current state of the music, and the way that most current jazz musicians approach the music. John Coltrane was an incredibly versatile artist, one whose legacy stems as much from his compositions and albums as his solos and technique. He was also a smart musician, and he knew when and where to show off certain abilities. Compositionally, Coltrane’s albums tended to occupy one of two distinct categories. On albums such as Ballads, John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, and My Favorite Things, he showed off his power of interpretation. However on albums like Giant Steps, Crescent, and A Love Supreme, Coltrane sought to highlight and focus on his own compositional ideas. These were purposeful differentiations, and they were crucial to building the overall effect of Coltrane’s oeuvre. But what many don’t understand is that Coltrane made very similar decisions regarding his technical output.

The Quintessential’s Quintessential:

An inherent characteristic of Coltrane’s flurrying technique is that it is distracting. That does not need to be a negative property, but unfortunately the legacy that Coltrane sowed through his masterful ability can indeed be distracting in the worst way. Players today have become blinded by technique, and more often than not this preoccupation comes at the expense of good music.

The true technicians of early jazz were mainly self-taught and most, upon reaching a desired level of ability, plateaued. Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker, among others, maintained the same general technical ability throughout their entire careers. Charlie Parker, in particular, still holds a special place today as a remarkable technician, but it should be noted that this technique emerged very early on in his career and went virtually unchanged until his early death.

The next generation of artists that began to emerge from the be-bop era had a greater amount of technical development to undergo because of the natural virtuosic abilities of artists like Parker and Armstrong. However, upon reaching greater fame and credibility, artists such as Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter (who, contrary to what many believe, were remarkable technicians at an early age) scaled back their technical output in favor of developing other aspects of their music.

John Coltrane represents a breed of musician unlike the two previously mentioned, and one that today dominates the scene. Coltrane was a restless spirit, and one content only on reaching further into the unknown. In terms of his technical output, this meant moving from the depths of harmonic exploration to the depths of sonic exploration.

Of course, this kind of constant development is important for the music, but only the most masterful musicians are tastefully capable of balancing endless technical development with musicality. Today, unfortunately, players, listeners and critics alike are much too concerned with technical ability than quality output, and it is because of the success and misunderstanding of Coltrane’s restlessness that this has occurred.

“Ohhhh, KILLIN!”

A prime example of Coltrane’s legacy as a technician stands in his song “Giant Steps.” To this day, “Giant Steps” has a reputation of being one of the most difficult jazz standards to play, but its reputation is still somewhat misunderstood. In reality, the composition is remarkably simple: there are only nine chords in the entire song, V-I’s or ii-V-I’s in three keys that constantly repeat in an ascending or descending augmented pattern. And Coltrane’s solo, while stunning, is quite repetitive (for example, in the master take, on the ii-V-I in F, Coltrane plays various permutations of the “5-6-7-8 of ii, 6-5-3-2 of V, 5 of I” pattern at least 10 times in his two-and-a-half minute solo). But performing the song is still considered a bellwether of technical ability, and the song has thus been overplayed and overstudied.

Overplayed not just on computers and CD players (and record players?) either. If you want to torture yourself by sitting long enough at a jam session, you’ll hear it called. And it will be called most likely by someone with something to prove. And it will be counted off as fast as the rhythm section is willing to play it. And it will last for what seems like an eternity. And why not? To the musicians at a time like this, there is no audience, so why not play for as long as possible? In an interview with Ted Panken, a veteran of the jam-session scene (and someone who was able to emerge unscathed), Roy Hargrove, succinctly summarized the problem Coltrane has created at jam sessions, and pleaded for humility:

“It’s very needed. Excuse me, but a lot of times, especially now, when I got to the jam sessions, people are so ego! I’ll give you an example. We’ll play an F-blues, and everybody with an instrument will get up and play, and it goes on for three hours. Each musician will play 100 choruses. There’s no humility there…everybody can’t be John Coltrane!”

Largely due to Coltrane’s legacy as a technical powerhouse, many modern musicians neglect to appreciate his moments of restraint. A saxophonist friend once told me that “everybody knew” Coltrane’s worst solo was on Miles Davis’ recording of “You’re My Everything” from the album Relaxin’. “Why?” I asked. “Listen to how much space is in-between his phrases. He’s lost, he has no idea what he’s doing.”  This is pure ignorance. Too many people believe that technical ability cannot be reflected in restraint. And what if, perhaps, it can’t? Why does it always have to be shown off? For too many young musicians, the first thing they hear is ability, and the last thing they hear is music. I’m sure that if Coltrane had known he would have had such an effect on future generations, he would have taken some time out from blazing forward to pause a moment, breathe, and step back. I’m sure, because he cared that much about the music.

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)