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About John Coltrane

James C. Hall

COLTRANE, JOHN (1926-1967), saxophonist, composer, and iconic figure. John Coltrane's immersion in modern jazz took place in bands led by Eddie Vinson, Dizzy Gillespie, and Johnny Hodges. In 1955 he joined the Miles Davis quintet and was soon identified as one of the most talented tenor saxophonists of the era. The story of Coltrane becoming a major African American cultural icon really began, however, in 1957. In that year he underwent a spiritual "conversion" concomitant with his overcoming a drug addiction. A brief but salient collaboration with Thelonius Monk followed and Coltrane was on his way to becoming one of the major innovators in jazz. Associated with the radical improvisatory style called "Free Jazz" (or pejoratively "anti-jazz"), Coltrane's own contribution was sometimes referred to as "sheets of sound," a lightning fast style of improvisation, with great attention given to melodic freedom. His mid-1960s recordings were increasingly complex and dense, often reflecting an interest in Eastern and African music, and were marked by radical experimentation in instrumentation. Coltrane died at age forty of a liver ailment.

Coltrane had a major impact on literary artists who came of age in the 1960s. Kimberly Benston has suggested that the "Coltrane poem" exists as a distinct genre within contemporary African American literature. Coltrane's premature death has generated a most compelling body of elegies. There is no question that at some level many artists were affected by his creativity and genius, but the evidence suggests that Coltrane's spirituality as much as his musicianship created disciples. Coltrane's monumental 1964 work A Love Supreme became a kind of musical scripture to many poets, novelists, and playwrights. His commitment to experimentation, his crosscultural interests, in addition to his search for a life contrary to the sterility of the mainstream, made Coltrane a hero to a generation whose hopes were nurtured by the energy of the Black Arts movement.

See also: Art Lange and Nathaniel Mackey, Moment's Notice: Jazz in Poetry and Prose, 1993. Eric Nisenson, Ascension: John Coltrane and His Quest. 1993.

From The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Ed. William L. Andrews, Frances Foster Smith and Trudier Harris. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Copyright 1997 by Oxford University Press.

Kimberly W. Benston

The power of music ... to unfix and as it were clap wings to
solid nature, interprets the riddle of Orpheus
—Emerson, "History"

Late Coltrane. Those ecstatic ebullitions, attacks on expectation and consciousness, furied emotiveness: all this we yet hear, possess as records of a fierce and visionary askesis, of a quest for cosmic knowledge and salvation. Through a passion of innovation, John Coltrane perfected his own calculus of musical impossibility--for him, the world became regenerated inwardly by the musical afflatus.

The power of Trane was apparent from his first sessions with Miles Davis in 1955 (vide "Ah-Leu-Cha"). But those awesome manifestations of the Coltrane genius--the late (post-1962) compositions--come after many often tortuous dissolutions, reformations, and recrystallizations of approach as the "heaviest spirit" (Imamu Baraka's encomium) traveled the road from apprentice to rebel to creative master.

Ultimately, passages in Trane's music became so bright and so piercing that the sounds seemed to be words, or cries deeper than words. He discerned or discovered for Afro-American music what Rilke called "the language where languages end." Music became the externalization of the telos within; it reflected Trane's attempt to respond with fidelity to the incognito name and nature of our universe. In turn, as he carried his horn in search of what he termed "Selflessness," Trane himself became the sun and the node, the zero point of the universe, and all things (incarnated by a variety of rhythmic/percussional accompaniments) swirled in dynamic flux around him. He knew the sense in which music could conceive the very possibility of the future and then furnished that future in joyous and terrified anticipation, thus preparing all of us (technically as musicians, spiritually as kinsmen) to inhabit it. For in the last works of Coltrane, as in the late quartets of Beethoven, we witness genius challenging hitherto unglimpsed realms of imagination and expression and, in the same effort, somehow conquering them. We witness, in short, the mystery of the Orphic dismemberment and restitution: the destructive-creative threat to and recovery of Expression itself.

The effort of this essay is to touch upon the salient and haunting aspects of Coltrane's last phase. Only one dimension of Trane's final achievement is strictly musical: the stylistic, structural development which is carried by the actual notes. Equally important, however, are the cultural, aesthetic, and spiritual ideas which the music evokes: the links to contemporary Afro-American revolts, to the modern "black aesthetic," to the blues root of jazz impulses.

At every stage of this exploration we will discern a lineament of Orpheus who, above all for us, represents mastery of life through the power to create harmony amid the stillness of primordial silence or the ferocity of discord. For Orpheus, the savage beasts and Furies stand mute and listen. Yet a dark future awaits the vates, a violent destiny concealed (though perhaps also provoked) by the lyre's sound. The frenzied Maenads tear him to pieces, severing head from body. The voice of Orpheus seems to offend life in some hidden and primal way. Whatever that sin may be, expression, as signal of an emergent consciousness, is complicit in it. The mad jealousy of nature (the uncontrollable women) spends itself against a competing voice of fury, the Orphic hunger to order existence.

Trane partook of this Orphic fury, a metaphysical revolt without metaphysical surrender, a dialectic of violence in which the very being of man is put on trial. For if the Orphic voice is a response to Nature's chaos, it is also an appeal to man's own inner being, to the "perfection" and "deep peace" Trane sought for us all. It invokes a reordering of life by an alteration of consciousness; it summons apocalypse in its original sense of revelation by penetrating the moment's perplexities to the heart of awareness. Fury and Apocalypse: these are the obsessions of the Afro-American's Orphic imagination, the vital and dangerous necessities of its existence.

For the modern black art of which Trane was a prime mover, fury envisions apocalypse as the artist engages Euro-American culture in an agonistic relationship. This apocalypse is something more than the destruction conceived by the oppressed as retribution against their enemies. Implied in it is a nearly total rejection of Western history and civilization. The revolt of the Afro-American artist against specific literary or social conventions is, at bottom, a rebellion against authority and the memory of imposed systems. As trumpeter Clifford Thornton (alumnus of the fabulous Sun Ra cabal) declared, true revolution of consciousness begins by a radical "un-learning" of existent modes. It is not an improvement or modification of available techniques that the black artist requests; rather, his call is for an entirely new grammar, a "post-Western form" (Baraka et al.). Divorced from the enveloping society, he sets out on a fresh journey into the uncharted spaces of the self. He courts the dismembering anger of the herd by undertaking the liberating psychic descent.

Modern black culture wants to remake, to reconceive, that fundamental activity of mind we call art. It has come to realize, however, that all real transformations in the form of expression, all fruitful adventures in that domain, can only take place within a transformation of the idea of expression itself. Thus, while the new "black aesthetic" turns inside-out all the pieties of life and art, speaking outlandishly in no language we ordinarily hear, it still speaks for the life and increase presumably afforded by a new syntax of desire. That it has dared to do so in such assertive tones is certainly attributable to the startling discoveries of contemporary jazz musicians.

The sounds of John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, Pharaoh Sanders, and their fellow travelers unfolded before the black poet a new kingdom, a world which has little in common with the systematized reality around him, and in which he leaves behind all concrete feelings in order to discover within himself an ineffable longing. The "new wave" jazz--having extended and mastered the contribution of bebop--opened the floodgates of passion, anger, pain, and love, and aroused that fury for liberty which is the essence of the new black art. It joined itself to earlier, major epochs of black music by reaffirming the creative union between the improvising soloist and the total musical collective. But it also forged a new role for music in the hierarchy of black expressions--that of guide rather than mere analogue to other communicative modes.

The root of the black writers' elevation of music to a position of supremacy among the arts lies in the music's aversion for fixed thoughts and forms. By the very fact of its "otherworldliness," of its independence of values derived from empirical and alien experiences, it enters the Afro-American's consciousness on its own, necessarily general, terms. And because of their independence from familiar, "Western" idioms, these terms represent for the new artists the ethos of black nature with an absoluteness and an intensity denied to other creative media.

The thought of giving to words and prosody values equivalent to music is an ancient one, in African and Afro-American as well as Western culture. But with modern black literature, it assumes the force of a specific idea: the notion that black language leads toward music, that it passes into music when it attains the maximal pitch of its being. This belief contains the powerful suggestion that music is the ultimate lexicon, that language, when truly apprehended, aspires to the condition of music and is brought, by the poet's articulation of black vocality, to the threshold of that condition. Thus, in the verse of Baraka, Larry Neal, Alice Walker, Etheridge Knight, Michael Harper, and countless others, the poem, by a gradual transcendence of its own forms, strives to escape from the linear, logically determined bonds of denotative speech into what the poet imagines as the spontaneities and freedoms of musical form. Black poetry now unabashedly seeks the unfettered lyricism of "actual music" (Haki Madhubuti) for it is in music that the poet hopes to achieve both the individual creation--the call bearing the shape of his own spirit--and communal solidarity--the response of infinite renewal.

From Henry Dumas’s Probe ("Will the Circle Be Unbroken?") to Ishmael Reed's Loop Garoo Kid (Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down), the artist in modern black fiction is, archetypically, a musician (especially a horn player); for it is only in music that aesthetic conventions can touch upon both the pure energy and improvisational wit necessary for survival in the black diaspora. This faith in the dominion of music leads the black poet to experiment in the use of words for their musical effect, inducing a mood proper to the experience, not of the static text, but of the jam session performance. The fullest statements of this hope, of this merging of the word with the musical ideal, can be found in the myriad poems directly inspired by Coltrane. The "Coltrane poem" has, in fact, become an unmistakable genre of black poetry and it is in such works--by Ebon, Madhubuti, Sonia Sanchez, Carolyn Rodgers, A. B. Spellman, and Harper, to list but a few--that the notion of music as the quintessential idiom, and of the word as its prelude and annunciator, is carried to an apex of technical and philosophic implication. Harper's "Dear John, Dear Coltrane," for example, in the brooding intensity of its incantatory lyricism, turns upon a metaphor of cosmic, and searing, musicality. It images the black man's spirit, Trane's essence, as a resolve to play the elemental notes despite the Orphic rending:

there is no substitute for pain:
genitals gone or going ...
                                    You pick up the horn
with some will and blow
into the freezing night:
a love supreme, a love supreme.

All the poets, like Harper, felt in Trane's music the self-commitment to an exalted state, the "will" to pass beyond apparent limits of material (including political) existence or of mere method. Listening to Trane, they sensed that formal entities no longer derived from the dicta of an inherited tradition but from the spiritual unity of the artist's vision. Since this vision was inimical to existing structures, the traditional artistic forms would be incapable of containing them, and new forms, expressing the new attitudes and offering new stimuli, would necessarily arise. They did arise. And Trane's was the most magical of formal revolutions.


                    ... The poet's limbs lay scattered
Where they were flung in cruelty or madness,
But Hebrus River took the head and lyre
And as they floated down the gentle current
The lyre made mournful sounds, and the tongue murmured
In mournful harmony.

--Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book Eleven

Whether the Maenads dismembered Orpheus at the behest of Dionysus or; as Ovid suggested, in a fit of sexual pique, one thing is clear: this supreme creator was the victim of an inexorable clash between the Dionysian principle, represented by the Maenad's ungovernable zeal, and the Apollonian ideal which he, as maker of songs, venerated. The power of Dionysus--which civilization inevitably tends to suppress--erupts with a vengeance. In the process, energy may overwhelm order, expression may burst into scream or dissolve into silence. The deformation of Orpheus is thus an attack on form itself. Yet, as Orphic bearer of new black culture, the Afro-American rebel-artist needs and celebrates his ancestrally privileged energy, and so must always risk the annihilation. On the other hand, should he fall too far back into the Dionysian sources of fervor, should he avoid all abstraction and structure, he will have expunged the motive for his being: the healing of the fractured communal will.

This complex tension is strongly felt behind the technical ingenuities of Coltrane's music. Its assault on form has, in all probability, no exact parallel in the history of Afro-American music. It is at once more various, destructive, and self-conscious than its precedents; it challenges the idea of form itself and resolves that challenge by forcing new demands on every aspect of the medium. No category of space or time, order or chaos, arrangement or improvisation, solo or ensemble, tone or mode remains quite intact after this upheaval of the imagination. Yet it is worth remarking, particularly in view of the misleading impression left by Trane's critics and admirers alike, that the supersession of established formal principles did not lead to formlessness, to an irreparable splintering of the Orphic lyre. The dynamic power that Trane and his "new wave" brethren unleashed seemed to shatter the very possibility of clarity and form--such was the force of the new content that was being freshly conceived. But there is a rigorous inner logic at the root of those works which, upon scrutiny, makes it hard to believe they were "amorphous," "random," or simply "shucking," as critics claim.

[. . . .]

If, in his capacity for surprise, Trane knew the scope and holiness of sound, he also divined the plenum of silence. Pauses and silences are often the climaxes of his late works, the still centers of the prophetic storm, the nuclei of tension around which the whole movement is structured. The more one listens the more those silences seem to be among the first causes of the overall effect. This is, again, partly a technical consideration. From pieces as early as the Miles Davis/hard-bop works, Trane was leaving large rests within lines, delicately spacing bursts of triplets, in the effort to achieve rhythmic variation within given harmonic limits. When his playing became liberated from the centripetal force of tonality, time became his prisoner and silence a consequent choice against time--a choice that facilitated expansion within the ultimately temporal musical order. The authority of the silences is a direct consequence of the late pieces' density of texture: each note and each rest is part of an integrated design of utmost economy and vigor. The mystical effect, to paraphrase Nathalie Sarraut’s account of the new, "nontonal" novel, is that of a time that is no longer the time of our intended life, but of a hugely amplified present.

But this dialectic of sound and silence betokens more than just a technical imperial expansion over wide, new territories. Trane’s is the silence of Orphic utterance momentarily stilled, of the voice that temporarily ceases singing in the face of mystery, only to embrace a new strain that will henceforward echo this silence, but in song. This silence presupposes the possibility of song and the relevance of expression to the life of the individual soul and the community. Trane, like his African forebears, was delving for the primal Sound that lends music its magical quality. The very possibility of such discovery, he intuited, begins in the silence of the quest, what Kenneth Burke termed the hunter’s "silence of purposiveness."

[. . . .]

Baraka, Coltrane's most sublime critic, was trying to express what anyone of artistic awareness sensed in the presence of a music more powerful, more anguished and celebratory than any in recent memory. But there is a source to this power, despite the blinding sparks of Trane's titanic assault on tradition (which I have, admittedly, stressed somewhat tendentiously). What he actually did was to obey an obscure but profound impulse to revolt against established conventions in order to rediscover convention on a deeper level. Specifically, Trane recalled, for himself and for his generation, the old cry and shout of the blues. This impulse can be felt throughout his career; in his construction of melody, he always maintained a hint of the blues' folk scales. When, in the later works, the tonal centers were mixed and shifted in rapid succession, the blues did not disappear. On the contrary, they were asserted more energetically, more primally in the sheer outpouring of shout, screech, wail and cry, in the uninhibited pitch and movement within the register. Listen to "Manifestation" (1966), to "The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost" (1965), to "Transition" (1965). There are long patches there which are virtual encyclopedias of oral tradition, with grunt, scream, joke, and soothing speech all intended as confessions and calls to the people.

One feels the blues as naked vocality especially in recordings of Trane's live performances. Trane always sought to pull his audience into the force-field of his long, explosive solos. His ideal, like that of the earliest jazz masters, was one of collective improvisation. "When you know that somebody is maybe moved the same way you are," he once said, "it's just like having another member in the group." Again, the contrast with the white avant-garde is revealing. To the latter, demands for communication and participation are not only irrelevant but disruptive of the fundamental rage for disorder. It seeks the dismemberment and abhors any interruption of its own destruction. For Trane, as for all black artists, the community's involvement in a ritual of restitution is paramount. It is they who must ultimately--and continuously--re-member his total Orphic being.

Excerpted from "Late Coltrane: A Re-Membering of Orpheus." In A Chant of Saints: A Gathering of Afro-American Literature, Art, and Scholarship. Ed. Michael S. Harper and Robert B. Stepto. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1979. Copyright 1979 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

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