John Coltrane: A Retrospective

“A true legend of his time, John Coltrane changed Jazz music forever by introducing free and experimental forms to the genre.”

“John Coltrane was a key figure in jazz, a pioneer in world music, and an intensely emotional force whose following continues to grow.”

This succinct description by author Lewis Porter in his book about the legendary Jazz musician, John Coltrane, is completely accurate. John Coltrane is to Jazz music what Neil Armstrong was to the successful Moon landings of 1960’s. He is revered not just by those involved in the world of Jazz but by people from around the world for his deep spirituality and his recognition and support of the civil rights movement in the early 1960’s.

To this day, John Coltrane remains to be the only Jazz musician to have become a saint post-humous, which was given to him by the African Orthodox Church. He also was one of the few Jazz musicians who could compete with the emerging Rock n’ Roll scene in the early 1960’s. His most famous album, titled “Love Supreme” released in 1964 was partially why Coltrane surged to popularity at a level equal to bands like The Beatles and The Beach Boys. What he lacked in terms of longevity in his career and sadly, his life, John Coltrane’s passion for Jazz and the spirituality his music had along with the masterful skill, improvisation he displayed playing the tenor saxophone continues to resonate today. Along with Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane is one of the few Jazz musicians to have received a Special Citation for the Pulitzer Prize in the study of music.

As a musician, John Coltrane’s contributions were immense especially during the relatively short amount of years he was on the top of the Jazz scene compared to other legends of the era. He was influential in promoting new forms of Jazz such as avant-garde and free form, which became popular during the 1960’s. Throughout his career, Coltrane was the leader of more than fifty recording sessions and then partnered along other musicians such as Miles Davis, Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk. John Coltrane started recording music in 1945 right after the conclusion of World War II for which he was enlisted in the U.S. Navy.

One of the first musicians to recognize John Coltrane’s inherent musical talent was fellow saxophonist, Charlie Parker, who played and recorded together with Coltrane during the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. His most famous albums included Giant Steps (1960), My Favorite Things (1961) and A Love Supreme (1965). All three of these Jazz albums that he produced with Atlantic and then Impulse! Records are some of the best-selling albums of all time. He is also noted for collaborating with Miles Davis on some of his most famous recordings including Kind of Blue (1959) and Milestones (1958). In addition, over the course of his career, John Coltrane created many standards in Jazz music such as “Moment’s Notice”, “Lazy Bird”, “Impressions”, “My Favorite Things” and “I Want to Talk About You.”

The influence of spirituality and religion on Coltrane’s life and music is what makes him unique and rememberable more than forty years after his death. While Ornette Coleman was the musician who is credited with leading the “Free Jazz” and “Avant Garde” movements, it completely changed the perceptions of what Jazz should be to young musicians like Coltrane who were originally more technical in their play originally who adapted more of a free-form style as they encountered different influences and perspectives. His philosophy on music and life in general was that it had to be “a whole expression of one’s being.”

More than most Jazz artists of his time and era, John Coltrane was a deeply spiritual and religious person who sought out the teachings and beliefs of not just Christianity but also Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc. Coltrane is said to have had a religious experience, which may have held him break his heroin and alcohol addictions in the late 1950’s. When asked about this pivotal point in his life that allowed him to produce the landmark records of A Love Supreme and Meditations, Coltrane states that, “During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, which has led me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music.” John Coltrane made many references to spirituality and different religions in many of his songs and albums. Specifically, those songs titles, “Ascension”, “Om” (Hinduism), “Amen”, “Dear Lord”, and the opening movement of Meditations which is titled, “the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.” He studied the Bible, Qu’ran, Kabbalah and other Buddhist and Hindu texts making him more of a Universalist than a subscriber to any certain religion. He incorporated chants and sayings into the few lyrics within his songs as well. Coltrane worked with Indian sitar player Ravi Shankar and even named his first son after him.

Beyond Jazz, John Coltrane dove into an idea of a universal musical structure and to take these spiritual influences from around the world and implement them within his own play and style. He was not political but he desired for his own country to get beyond racial and ethnic differences such as those that were plaguing America during the early 1960’s. Through his music, he spoke out against discrimination and supported the civil rights movement and gave an emotional ode to Dr. King in the song, “Alabama” after his assassination. Despite his death at the age of 40, Coltrane inspired a new generation of Jazz musicians to carry on his free-form style and his ability to reach out to different genres of music. He has been immortalized in certain Christian churches as a saint and his birthday is often a cause of celebration around the world. It is clear that he was not over-rated and that his legacy will continue to go on as long as his music is played for all.

Sources

  1. http://www.allmusic.com/artist/john-coltrane-mn0000175553
  2. http://www.pulitzer.org/citation/2007-Special-Awards-and-Citations
  3. http://coltrane.room34.com/thesis
  4. http://www.johncoltrane.com/biography.html
  5. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/01/us/01religion.html
  6. http://thewire.co.uk/in-writing/essays/john-coltrane_divine-wind
  7. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/3324621/Secret-of-John-Coltranes-high-notes-revealed.html

Duke Ellington: A Retrospective

'Jazz Legend' Duke Ellington: Playing the Piano (Circa -1940's)
‘Jazz Legend’ Duke Ellington: Playing the Piano (Circa -1940’s)

Edward Kennedy Ellington is rightly considered to be one of the leading figures and original titans of Jazz music. In addition to writing over 1,500 compositions, he was one of the most successful bandleaders and pianists of his time. To this day, he has stood the test of time and is one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century as well. Along with being a major figure in Jazz, Ellington’s music also delved into other musical genres such as blues, gospel, classical music and popular film scores.

His career was one of the longest of all the Jazz legends, spanning about 50 years from the 1920s to the 1970s. He was a versatile musician and was extremely dedicated to this work. In addition to running his big band and orchestra, Ellington composed new songs, put on many world tours and also scored the music for stage musicals and films. Many of his instrumental works have become Jazz standards that the average listener should be well aware of and familiar with many of Ellington’s compositions.

His ability to be an entertainer as well as a performer helped elevate Jazz to a level where it was considered to be equal or even more influential than most other genres of music during the early 20th century. He was the first musician to really incorporate the idea of using a big band and/or orchestra to really propel jazz/swing as being distinct forms of music with their own style and substance. Ellington came from a modest upbringing in a middle class black neighborhood in Washington D.C. and was considered by others to charismatic, compassionate and a brilliant and dedicated musician. He is as well known for his ability to entertain people as he is for his excellent piano playing.

Ellington would often refer to the music he played not as jazz but as “American” or “Negro” music and helped his orchestra’s musicians and others to develop their own jazz standards and compose for them. Some of the names for which he helped out so graciously were for Johnny Hodges’s “Jeep’s Blues”, Cootie Williams’ “Concerto for Cootie” and Juan Tizol’s “Caravan.” Many of his band members stayed with him throughout the five decades for which they were active. In addition to his band members, Ellington also worked alongside other musicians of the time such as Billy Strayhorn, Count Basie, Louie Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Charles Mingus, and Max Roach. Some of Ellington’s best known songs include, “It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing”, “Mood Indigo”, “Black and Tan Fantasy”, “Sophisticated Lady” and “Satin Doll” among many others. While which song exactly made the Duke most famous is a hotly debated topic, some argue that it is “Mood Indigo” which thrust him upon the world stage and gave him global fame for the rest of his career. When Ellington was once asked, what made him inspired to write, record and play music, he replied, “My men and my race are the inspiration of my work. I try to catch the character and mood and feeling of my people.”

Location played an important role in influencing Duke Ellington’s musical contributions to society. With each song he wrote and composed, he would try to tell a story about his community, his life and his race. It is no coincidence due to the Duke’s popularity and his wide following throughout America as one of the first prominent black musicians that he was often times referred to as a “race man.” People referred to him as this because of the cultural and social impact that he had as a popular musician representing the African-American community at a time when there were few black performers and entertainers in music. This was particularly due at the time to Jim Crow laws and general intolerance, racism towards the African-American community in many parts of the United States. Duke Ellington in a way broke through the color barrier along with Louis Armstrong because of those who came before them when it came to music in America during the early 1900’s. Ellington was an instrumental musician in bringing Jazz music outside of New Orleans to towns and cities across the country especially in New York City when he hit the big time and made his home starting in 1927, at the famous “Cotton Club” in Harlem. From that and other clubs, his big band/orchestra set the bar high when it came to playing brilliant jazz, swing, classical and other forms of music. Over the course of his career, He made jazz and swing music into American music as he traveled around the world for thousands of performances in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

There is no doubt to the average learner and student of Jazz that Duke Ellington is one of it’s most important figures in its’ history. He was the genre’s most important composer, one of its’ most highly regarded performers and band leaders who employed many talented black and white musicians believing that everyone should have the chance to play regardless of the color of their skin. Ellington’s compositions are studied and played over and over by many musicians today and his prowess at the piano is often overlooked but was also instrumental in talking about his legacy as a musician. It’s fair to say that there will only ever be one “The Duke” and those who follow his lead. His work is also very important in describing American culture and music. His legacy is still vibrant today as many young people continue to pursue the arts and perform in music groups. They strive to play jazz and other types of music because of men like the Duke himself.

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