This month marks the fiftieth anniversary of the death of John Coltrane. When he died of liver cancer on 17 July 1967, the composer and saxophonist had established a reputation as one of the leading figures in jazz music. While on the rise, he played as sideman on records by Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, and Thelonious Monk. He found popular success as a leader with records such as Blue Train (Blue Note, 1957), My Favorite Things (Atlantic, 1961), and his 1965 masterpiece, A Love Supreme (Impulse!, 1965). In addition to his commercial viability as a composer and performer, Coltrane was known for his searching sound and his increasing commitment to free jazz improvisation through the 1960s.
I first encountered Coltrane’s playing while I was a teenager listening to Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959). I began listening to A Love Supreme a year or two later, and it still ranks as one of my favourite records of all time. When I went to college, I would dig around second-hand record shops for Coltrane box-sets, and it was there that I began to delve into his extensive back catalogues with Atlantic Records and Impulse! Records.
Writing for JSTOR Daily, Ellen C. Caldwell summarises an article by Arun Nevader entitled ‘John Coltrane: Music and Metaphysics’. Caldwell explores how Nevader’s piece aims to reconcile Coltrane’s music with his own spiritual and philosophical standpoint. Among the insights is a suggestion that Coltrane’s music rewards close, even meditative, attention:
“Nevader, in many ways, pleas for a larger understanding of and more meditative listening to Coltrane’s music in order to fully appreciate the richness, complexity, and sheer magnanimity of Coltrane’s oeuvre and influence. […] The act of listening closely is a deeply meditative process that the average person does not engage in everyday.”
Kevin Laskey (Music & Literature) has written an interesting piece on the music performed at John Coltrane’s funeral. Firstly, he cites that “nearly one thousand people filled the church for the service, including a who’s who of jazz musicians: Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Gerry Mulligan, Archie Shepp, Milt Jackson, and Nina Simone, to name a few.” But what is significant for Laskey is the presence of Calvin Massey, Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman, and others who signified the avant-garde of jazz music at that time:
“The service featured readings, including Coltrane’s friend, the trumpeter Calvin Massey, reciting the former’s poem “A Love Supreme”, and musical performances by Coltrane’s saxophonist-peers Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman. Ayler’s quartet, featuring Donald Ayler on trumpet, Richard Davis on bass, and Milford Graves on drums, opened the ceremony, while Coleman’s quartet, featuring David Izenson and Charlie Haden on bass, and Charles Moffett on drums, played just before the benediction. Both of these incendiary performances were captured on portable recording equipment—albeit with fairly low fidelity—and were eventually released on record.”
Finally, The Paris Review‘s Sam Stephenson offers some wonderful insights into the way John Coltrane’s life and work was first recorded for posterity – not in the form of live and studio recordings, but Cuthbert Ormond Simpkins‘ “feverish, street-pulpy” biography of the musician that helped cement Trane’s almost mythological status:
“Simpkins had […] researched and written Coltrane’s story, expressing an uncompromising, unapologetic black voice rarely found in the annals of jazz before or since.”