Issue 278 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 2003 Copyright © Socialist Review

John Coltrane


John Coltrane at the Guggenheim Museum in 1960
John Coltrane at the Guggenheim Museum in 1960

Martin Smith explores jazz, racism and resistance through the life of a legend

John Coltrane was one of the most important musicians of the 20th century. His saxophone playing revolutionised jazz music not once, not twice, but three times. Today, 35 years after his death, Coltrane remains more popular than he was when he was alive. Almost every modern jazz player has fallen under his spell. Yet his creative spirit reaches beyond the world of jazz. Rock band Audioslave cite Coltrane as a major influence. Hip-hop artists like Mos Def and Talib Kwali, and drum & bass DJs, have borrowed heavily from the Coltrane back catalogue.

Coltrane's artistic creativity was in large part a product of his own musical genius, but he was clearly aided and abetted by a coterie of young musicians. But the Coltrane 'sound' was also shaped conciously and subconsciously by the growing civil rights movement that was sweeping the US in the late 1950s and 1960s.

Coltrane was born in Hamlet, North Carolina, in 1926. By 1943 Coltrane's family found themselves in Philadelphia. Like millions of other black families they had sought work in the expanding war industries. From the end of the Second World War until the early 1970s the US witnessed a sustained economic boom, which is exemplified in the Hollywood musicals and feelgood films of the 1950s.

But US society was also haunted by racism. In the South, from the cradle to the grave, black and white people were legally segregated under a system called Jim Crow--it was like apartheid South Africa. This vile racism was backed up by organisations like the Ku Klux Klan. In the Northern states there was formal equality. But still society was riddled with institutional racism. In Philadelphia unemployment for black youths aged between 16 and 28 remained at 70 percent during these boom years.

Despite and sometimes because of their talents, jazz musicians couldn't escape the indignities of racism. Coltrane's best friend was beaten to death by the police. One of the great free jazz drummers, Sonny Murray, lost his finger in a racist attack. The poet Langston Hughes summed up the growing resentment when he wrote:

And explode it did. On 1 December 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, a black woman, Rosa Parks, refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white woman. Her arrest sparked off the year-long Montgomery bus boycott. The protest forced the bus companies to desegregate the buses. The victory sparked off a wave of sit-ins and boycotts against segregation all over the country. Martin Luther King led that movement.


Elizabeth Eckford attempted to enter segregated Little Rock Central High School in 1957
Elizabeth Eckford attempted to enter segregated Little Rock Central High School in 1957

The civil rights movement had a massive impact on jazz. But first, a couple of general points about the relationship between mass movements and art. Just because art or music is political it doesn't necessarily make it good. Art should be judged on its own terms--does it move us, make us think? The music critic and author Leroi Jones stated, 'The most expressive black music of any given period will portray black people at that particular time.' Who could deny that hip-hop is a reflection of ghetto life in the US?

There is not a crude relationship between art and mass movements. For example, the attitude, the dress and the musical style of bebop artists like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk predated the civil rights struggles by at least 12 years, whereas the Specials song 'Ghost Town' was of the moment--it encapsulated the despair of unemployment as riots rocked our inner cities in 1980. Today, despite the massive anti-war and anti-capitalist movements, no such radical transformation in musical styles has taken place.

The mid-1950s saw a new school of jazz called hard bop, also known as soul jazz and funky jazz. Hard bop tried to breathe new life into the music. It drew its musical influences from gospel and the blues, and restored the art of improvisation. Song titles displayed a growing sense of black pride. Here are just two--Sonny Rollins's 'Airegin' (Nigeria spelt backwards) and Max Roach's 'It's Time' (short for 'It's time for liberation'). This music was proud to be black and clearly inspired by the civil rights movement, but its message was codified. But there were artists like Charles Mingus, Max Roach and Sonny Rollins who openly supported the movements.

Coltrane's big break came in 1955, when Miles Davis asked him to play in his Quintet. Over the next four years the music the band created was some of the best hard bop jazz ever recorded, and can be heard on albums like Workin', Steamin' and Cookin'. Coltrane was no natural born genius. All those who worked with him were taken aback by his drive--he would regularly practise 20 hours a day! He refused to accept musical boundaries--he believed in the universality of music. He studied the work of classical composers like Debussy and Stravinsky. Indian ragas and African rhythms fascinated him. But most of all he wanted to push back the boundaries of the greatest music to come out of the US--jazz (with the possible exception of soul and hip-hop).

In 1959 Coltrane recorded two albums, one with Miles Davis, A Kind of Blue, the other with his own band, Giant Steps. Both albums transformed jazz. A Kind of Blue, with its lush modal playing, is one of the seminal records in US history. On Giant Steps Coltrane introduced a technique of playing several chords at the same time--described by the critics as a 'sheet of sound'. It was his first major contribution to the jazz canon.

In 1960 Coltrane left the Miles Davis Quintet for good. He was a prolific recording artist--in the space of just one year he recorded seven albums for Atlantic Records. He set about creating a permanent band, settling eventually for McCoy Tyner (piano), Elvin Jones (drums) and Jimmy Garrison (bass). Coltrane signed to Impulse! and produced a wonderful series of albums--Africa Brass, Live at the Village Vanguard and Impressions culminating in A Love Supreme. Each one was more musically adventurous than the next. The backdrop was hard bop, but more and more Coltrane was pushing back the boundaries of musical improvisation. Ultimately the music the band created was totally unique. Impulse! put pressure on Coltrane to record more commercial albums. But events were moving the band elsewhere.

In 1963 Martin Luther King decided to launch a non-violent assault on Birmingham, Alabama--the bastion of segregation. Within days 2,500 protesters swamped Birmingham jails. After ten days the authorities caved in. Birmingham was the civil rights movement's biggest victory. The protests had a massive impact--there were 758 demonstrations against racism and 14,753 arrests in 186 US cities in the ten weeks that followed Birmingham, culminating in the historic march on Washington.

Coltrane never described himself as a political activist--he was a musician first and foremost. He was also a deeply religious person. But it was his deep-seated humanity that drew him towards the civil rights movement. In 1964 Coltrane played eight benefit concerts in support of King. He also recorded a number of tracks inspired by the struggle--'Reverend King', 'Backs against the Wall' and his album Cosmic Music was dedicated to King. Events in Birmingham would also move him to write 'Alabama'.

On the Sunday morning of 15 September 1963 a dozen sticks of dynamite were planted by white racists in the basement of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. At 10.45am the bomb went off, killing four young black girls aged between 11 and 14.

Coltrane wrote the song 'Alabama' in response to the bombing. He patterned his saxophone playing on Martin Luther King's funeral speech. Midway through the song, mirroring the point where King transforms his mourning into a statement of renewed determination for the struggle against racism, Elvin Jones's drumming rises from a whisper to a pounding rage. He wanted this crescendo to signify the rising of the civil rights movement.

New Generation

Coltrane had already revolutionised jazz twice--the sheets of sound and his 'classic quartet' sound. He changed direction again with the recording of Ascension. He threw himself into the free jazz movement which was coalescing around a new generation of young musicians--Ornette Coleman, Archie Shepp and Albert Ayler. The music was pure improvisation. Coltrane was now playing two hour long solos. The music was free from constraints and barriers. Coltrane began to introduce percussionists, harp players and African vocalists. He was creating a world music 25 years before the term was even coined. For some in the free jazz movement the musical revolution was purely artistic, but for many that aesthetic revolution was linked to the explosion sweeping the Northern cities. Coltrane's drummer, Rashid Ali, said as much:

'Those were trying times in the 1960s. We had the civil rights thing going on, we had King, we had Malcolm, we had the Panthers. There was so much diversity happening. People were screaming for their rights and wanting to be equal, be free. And naturally, the music reflects the whole period... I think that that's where really free form came into it... I'm sure that the music came out of the whole thing.'

As one club manager noted, 'Whenever Coltrane played we seemed to attract the most politically advanced blacks. He'd take a long solo, probably close to an hour, and these guys would be shouting, "Freedom Now!"' King and the other leaders of the civil rights movement were left floundering as a new generation of leaders such as Malcolm X and the Black Panthers began to articulate the growing radicalisation of the movement. Coltrane heard Malcolm X speak in 1964.

Despite all their attempts, Coltrane and the free jazz musicians failed to become the musical voice of the movement. It was the sound of the Beatles and Motown that the youth bought into. Soul and rock expressed in a much more direct and dynamic way the spirit of the times. While jazz musicians codified their message, James Brown sang 'Say it Loud--I'm Black and I'm Proud' and Aretha Franklin demanded 'Respect'.

That criticism is not in itself a reason to write off free jazz. It is an incredibly complex music, and the lack of melody can make it difficult to follow. But for any art form to move on it has to shock and it has to experiment. As is the case with much art that is regarded as avant garde, years later it becomes understood and familiar, and swiftly moves into the mainstream. Many of Coltrane's musical ideas that shocked the music critics have today been incorporated into the jazz canon. Just listen to the music of Joshua Redman, Courtney Pine and Kenny Garret.

Sadly Coltrane died on 16 July 1967 aged 40 from the effects of liver cancer. So what does Coltrane offer us today? During his life the US was waging war against Vietnam. When he was asked for his opinion on the war, he replied, 'Well I dislike war--period. So therefore, as far as I'm concerned it should stop, it should have already stopped. And any other war.' Oh yes, and of course there is his wonderful life affirming music.

Martin Smith's extended version of his biography John Coltrane (Redwords) is out now for £6.99

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