The Relevance Of John Coltrane Today
Coltrane’s music gets better and better over time. He played so well, so passionately, so sincerely, so perfectly.
It’s more than the normal nostalgia any individual feels for what influenced him or her at a certain crucial stage and in my case witnessed live during the 1960s. Trane’s music is eternal and for the ages. Appreciation of what he did will grow as time goes on, as it does for Duke and Monk and others who were so advanced for their time, for all time.
But why should listeners and musicians, for whom Coltrane is just another legend who has passed on, listen to him in more than a casual way?
It is precisely for the honesty and sincerity which Coltrane exuded at all stages of his brief career- these qualities are more important than ever as time goes on. We live in an age of fast communication and overload.
It gets harder to discern the real from pretense. With Coltrane, no one can walk away without getting the point. It may not be easy, especially at the beginning, to get past the intensity of his statement, but the well runs deep and can be drawn upon forever.
More specifically for musicians who are players, the sound of Trane’s horn along with his execution of ideas, feeling of the blues and harmonic depth are models of what we aspire towards.
Can there be any greater praise?
Another legacy for Coltrane is as an iconic figure for those who would honor the tradition of black creative genius in America. While this assessment is based upon Coltrane’s musical achievements, those who see his significance in this light regard him as a black champion of freedom and justice.
Finally, for still others there is Coltrane the spirit-filled man who, through both his art and his life, found a way to wed compassion and religious expression to the pursuit of truth and wisdom. This is Coltrane the prophet, who appeals to the spirit, leading himself and his listeners towards worshipful appreciation of life and creation, and compassion towards humanity.
His music calls for love, peace, and even serenity, while at the same time fully acknowledging the need to truthfully confront the terrible and the potentially devastating.
Coltrane’s place as an innovator in jazz is secure, as there are now several generations of jazz musicians who have taken up aspects of his personal idiom as standard material to be absorbed by all improvisers.
Some of these innovations are harmonic, including extensions upon the discoveries in diatonic harmony that the beboppers offered as well as the introduction of Indian and African melodic materials in jazz practice. His tritonic harmonic substitutions are also standard fare for jazz musicians, as is the more general abstraction of harmonic motion in major or minor thirds (rather than fourths or fifths), which he also explored during the same period.
The harmonic sequences that Coltrane utilized to reharmonize standard jazz progressions in songs like “Giant Steps,” “Countdown,” “26-2,” “But Not For Me,” and “Body and Soul” have become known as “Coltrane changes.”
The compositional techniques utilized in his later periods are equally influential. The introduction of playing in a single mode for long, indeterminate periods is another compositional practice that was widely accepted in jazz due to Coltrane’s example.
The abolition of harmonic cycles helped to open the door to Coltrane’s introduction of long enduring evocations of timelessness, and hence spirituality, that are influenced by the music of various African and Indian cultures through such practices as rhythmic chanting or the playing of ragas. Even more fundamental are the expanded timbral qualities and extended range of Coltrane’s saxophone playing.
Another way to view Coltrane as an innovator is through a consideration of him as a performer. Bootleg videos of Coltrane’s 1965 tour and photographs of him from this time on reveal a bodily involvement that was quite unrestrained compared to the videos and photographs of his earlier years. As his performance practices evolved, Coltrane became less restricted by “correct” posture and instrumental technique, just as he became less bound to the conventions of harmony or of sound production.
This unself-conscious absorption in Coltrane’s late performance style is part of a virtuosic jazz act that in Coltrane’s social moment signified a transcendent process and an exalted state of concentration. It also implies that nothing is held back, that the musician is completely available to his muse, and hence to his audience. Coltrane’s musical innovations combined his harmonic and melodic discoveries with the quartet’s rhythmic innovations.
The idea that the performing musician is a conduit brings the notion of spiritual involvement to the fore. First, the preparation for the transcendent performance relies upon inspiration and genius as much as the products of the titanic composer.
Second, the performer must have a degree of humility to be able to be so transparent about his/her struggles with the form and the message of their art.
Of course, this kind of generosity with the spirit has always been recognized as a hallmark of African American performance style, and is often what is referred to as “soul.” What makes Coltrane so compelling as a performer is that he was not only one of the most soulful players, but also one of the most virtuosic, technically and harmonically, and one of the most conceptually visionary as well.
Cornel West suggests that the “professionalization of the scientific endeavor” results in the modern evasion of the dark side of humanity. The resultant idolatry of technique that West identifies in the public notion of the scientific has found its way into the realm of art. A school of jazz criticism has flourished since Coltrane’s time, and especially in the last two decades, that values perfect execution over risk-taking, that idealizes the hip or the clever idea over and above the notion of feeling the spirit through art. Coltrane’s example stands out as one of the more comprehensive rejoinders to this point of view.
It’s what sympathetic listeners claim is in Coltrane’s music: terrifying beauty, redemptive spirituality, earnest goodness, and courage.
These perceived qualities in Coltrane’s work are what fuel his legacy as a cultural prophet. While the writers of the Black Arts movement, like Amiri Baraka and Henry Dumas, saw Coltrane as a black avenger who murdered white forms musically, and white oppression symbolically, others understand him as the bearer of the message, the songs that uplift souls.
As a religious expression, his message is, of course, decidedly non-sectarian, as the sacred rituals take place in that most secular of places, the jazz club. In a sense, the ritualistic nature of his mature stages and the willingness to be explicitly spiritual in non-consecrated spaces evoke the sacred worldview of traditional societies rather than the compartmentalized modern world.
However, Coltrane’s music and understanding are modern, and his spiritual message was non-religious in the sense of expressing no single dogma. He was ecumenical in his studies of both religion and music. He was known to travel with the sacred books of various world religions, and was an avid student of the world’s folk musics. Indeed, his incorporation of Indian, South American, and African musical elements into jazz in some ways was a prototype of what we today call world music.
Because of certain events in Coltrane’s personal life, and certainly the music he created through his personal muse, we know that Coltrane was well aware of what Cornel West refers to as the “dark side of modernity.” This underside of modernity is, of course, experienced by all of humanity, but in a particular fashion by black folk in America.
Blacks have paid a disproportionate cost for so much of the spoils of the nation without being fully included in the benefits and advantages of our aspirations towards democracy or modern enlightenment. African American culture therefore necessarily remains in tension with the nation’s view of itself as innocent and as somehow being outside of the responsibility of history.
In a nation that is so identified with modernity, progress, and near invincibility, there is a push for perpetual celebration. West argues that often modernity’s celebration gives way to an evasion of the fundamental problems of human existence, of “death, disease, dread, and despair.”
It is the confrontation with these ever present conditions, along with the acceptance of the challenges and techniques of modernity, that has allowed the jazz/blues aesthetic to escape the sentimentality of much of American culture.
Coltrane’s music was ultimately a meditation upon the joy and beauty that is possible in human life through knowledge and understanding of reality and devotion to goodness. His deep awareness of death and disappointment tempered his celebration through music, and retained the character of struggle that is necessary to gain real understanding of the fundamental conditions of human existence.
Jazz has always been associated with such celebration and with the spirit of modernity. Albert Murray’s insight into the blues (which for him includes jazz as a refined expression of the blues) also associates the music with a celebration. In this case, it is a celebration of victory in the heroic battle between the individual and the cosmos. Murray also emphasizes the more mundane impulses such as the desire to play or compete with oneself that informs the music as well.
Coltrane’s music embodied these principles in such a way as to stand against the idolatry of technique that has been the potential danger of jazz ever since it became primarily a listener’s music rather than a dance music in the 1940s. Coltrane certainly embraced technical superiority and a particular methodical, scientific approach to his musical explorations. Yet, he always retained in his music a connection to black vernacular traditions, traditions in which the emotional and the spiritual were categories at least as important as the intellectual.
The revolutionary potential that is at the heart of the jazz/blues aesthetic is of course there; it is at least latent. However, Coltrane was not interested in revolution per se. He was methodical and comprehensive in his search and experiments, arriving at his mature voice after a long apprenticeship with several of the music’s greatest practitioners.
In a 1963 interview he remarked: “I’m kind of—actually, I’m groping, I’m trying to find my way. I can only try to work out of what I’ve been in…. Work my way forward, so I just try to set one stone upon another as I go.”
The quest for freedom was in Coltrane’s music all along, particularly from 1957 onward. The revolutionary zeal that characterized the music of his later years was the fruit of an evolutionary process that had unfolded more or less continuously for at least a full decade. In part, it is this coupling of such a remarkable respect for tradition with the far-reaching implications of his most radical music that makes him such an authoritative figure. Wedding these two extremes brings to the fore the notion of freedom, as opposed to unrestrained license.
The seemingly relentless exuberance that some criticize as self-indulgence was always tempered by the extraordinary levels of preparation as well as a willingness to experiment and take chances.
Coltrane’s reverence for truth required that technical restraints be placed upon his art at all times. These restraints, inasmuch as they reflect or seek truth, place the music in service of a higher good. It is intended to render the artistic creation more true to life, and to give its impact greater strength.
At the heart of Coltrane’s spirituality is the search for something he had never heard before, but believed he would recognize if he could only play it. Nevertheless, his goal proved unattainable. Whereas Early asks rhetorically whether the search for more freedom was a search for its own sake, Coltrane’s search for change becomes the journey towards an asymptotic ideal. The American emphasis on improvisation and contingency is thus recognizable in Coltrane’s artistry as a composer and performer.
Coltrane’s quest for the truth engendered huge risks that he met with courage and humility as well as with mastery of his chosen idiom. When he advised aspiring musicians to improve themselves first as persons, he drew a connection between jazz and the moral life. Certainly, for many musicians and African Americanists, Coltrane as prophet is one legitimate way of understanding his ultimate significance.
Any student of art can appreciate in Coltrane’s music the effort to wed the Dionysian passion with Apollonian control and form. Perhaps his most lasting legacy will be the example of the spirit-filled life combined with the intellectual rigor that Nietzsche called for in The Birth of Tragedy. Coltrane’s contribution to American civilization is clear, but his significance extends farther.
His music represents a compelling example of how artists wrestle with the complexity and profundity of human life.
– Various Sources