A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane's Signature Albumby Ashley Kahn
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Few albums in the canon of popular music have had the influence, resonance, and endurance of John Coltrane's 1965 classic A Love Supreme-a record that proved jazz was a fitting medium for spiritual exploration and for the expression of the sublime. Bringing the same fresh and engaging approach that characterized his critically acclaimed Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece, Ashley Kahn tells the story of the genesis, creation, and aftermath of this classic recording. Featuring interviews with more than one hundred musicians, producers, friends, and family members; unpublished interviews with Coltrane and bassist Jimmy Garrison; and scores of never-before-seen photographs, A Love Supreme balances biography, cultural context, and musical analysis in a passionate and revealing portrait.
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Q: [Did Miles Davis have] a major stranglehold on you, or you got a chance to play like you do? Coltrane: Well, I've been free here [to do] almost anything that I want to try. I have the freedom to do it, so the freedom has helped me. Q: I heard you were splitting [from] the Miles group here, and trying something on your own.
Coltrane: Yeah, I am.
-STOCKHOLM, SWEDEN, 1960 ><
Miles Ahead, Miles Behind
March 21, 1960: John Coltrane stood, irritable, jet-lagged, still in his sideman role with Miles Davis, waiting to go onstage at L'Olympia music hall in Paris. It was the first night of a monthlong tour through Europe arranged by jazz impresario Norman Granz. It was also to be his premiere performance before a European audience, but Coltrane, customarily calm and even-keeled, was not in a good mood.
Drummer Jimmy Cobb, then nearing two years with the Davis group, remembers:
It seemed like it was a last-minute kind of a situation, because Coltrane [came to Europe] with the one blue suit he wore, a white shirt, one other white shirt, an airline bag, and some rum-flavored Life Savers that he liked. That's all he had. Miles probably talked him into doing it for the last time.
In fact, on the phone Davis had grown insistent. Coltrane had only reluctantly agreed to remain with the group that had lifted him from obscurity five years before. But doing so required that he put his own plans on hold; he canceled a series of late-March dates as leader in New York's Five Spot nightclub. "He grumbled and complained and sat by himself all the time we were over there," the trumpeter still recalled years later.
Davis might have been dismayed by his star saxophonist's lack of enthusiasm, but he was not surprised. Coltrane's foot had been pointed toward the door for well over a year. His desire to leave the Davis group had even made headlines the summer before. While on tour out West, Miles had opened the Oakland Tribune to read an interview in which Coltrane spoke of his imminent departure. The trumpeter had, typically, exploded. "This made me real mad...I told him I treated him like my brother and here he was doing this kind of shit to me and telling a white boy all about my business."
Since joining Miles in 1955, Coltrane had grown accustomed to patiently dealing with Davis's short temper and his long, frosty stare. The two had developed a relationship that accommodated their respective quirks and habits, respecting personality differences rather than succumbing to conflict. "As much as I liked Trane we didn't hang out much once we left the bandstand because we had different styles," Miles later wrote. "[He] didn't hardly ever hang out, he would go back to his hotel room to practice...it was almost like he was on a mission."
For Coltrane, it had always been about the music, whatever the abuse or personal slights he endured. Normally, that was just water off his back. But now his frustration was mounting. Davis, in trying to placate his restless sideman, had only intensified the situation with a push-pull plan that deferred the inevitable:
It was hard for [Coltrane] to bring up that he wanted to leave...but he did bring it up finally and we made a compromise: I turned him on to [my manager] Harold Lovett...to handle his financial affairs. And then Harold got him a recording contract [and] set up a publishing company for Trane... To keep Trane in the band longer, I asked Jack Whittemore, my agent, to get bookings for Trane's group whenever we weren't playing, and he did.
Despite his assistance, Davis did not hesitate to pull on the apron strings one last time that March. For Miles it was the final tour he would enjoy with Coltrane by his side. For Coltrane, that evening in Paris served to introduce him to an audience that took their music very seriously: French jazz fans.
Miles chose a familiar songlist-"'Round Midnight," "So What," "Green Dolphin Street"-meant to satisfy fans both new and diehard. When the quintet-Miles, Coltrane, drummer Cobb, bassist Paul Chambers, and pianist Wynton Kelly-walked onstage, the welcome was enthusiastic and expectant.
Coltrane was mid-solo on the first number, "All of You," when the whis-tling and catcalls began. He was alone with the rhythm section, Davis having soloed first and then left the stage. A breathless flurry cascaded forth. Coltrane built up steam, leaping between registers, finding sounds that tested ears attuned to more mellow tones. Frank Tenot, the legendary Parisian impresario who produced the 1949 festival that first brought Miles to France, recalls the evening with a smile:
I remember very well this show-it was Oscar Peterson, Stan Getz, and the second part of the evening was Miles Davis, all on the same night. I was on the left side in the audience, near the doorway to the backstage. I had to go see what was happening with the recording of the concert, to hear the sound. When John was playing, Miles would go backstage, you see. He didn't stay on the stage. And John was alone, and the people was very surprised why there was no John Coltrane like on Kind of Blue and the session before with Miles [Milestones], and for Coltrane, it was a new step. So, part of the audience thinks that Coltrane doesn't play well, that he was playing the wrong notes involuntary. Too much drugs or alcohol or something like this. So they started to whistle.
On the recording made that evening, one can easily hear the crowd growing restless during the saxophonist's solos; whistling and arguments erupt as Coltrane's improvisations continue. Tenot points out that Miles's modal masterwork Kind of Blue had only just been released in France. It had entranced the French with its relaxed, late-night tempos; on it, Coltrane's solos fit hand in glove with the subdued lyricism of the rest of the band. But that night, each tune came off as if it was being played by three different bands, depending on the soloist of the moment: Miles, Coltrane, or Kelly.
For the first time, most Parisians were witnessing the raw, boundless intensity that would guide the rest of Coltrane's career; what had been a tentative, experimental breeze when he first upped with Miles was becoming a full-force gale. The trumpeter's modal experiments had proved the launching pad that propelled the saxophonist to another musical plane. If that was not clear from the audience's perspective, onstage it was impossible to miss. "That's the way he played every night, you know?" notes Cobb. "By that time he was through playing Miles's stuff. He had outgrown everybody's band except his own."
Parisian propensity for vocal dissatisfaction notwithstanding, Tenot is quick to add that "the audience was completely with him when he returned [to France in 1961], the year of 'My Favorite Things.' He had a big success."
But in 1960, Coltrane's live sound was still testing French waters. Following Miles's habitual set-closer, "The Theme," Tenot rushed backstage:
So after the show, I said to John, "You're too new for the people, they don't hear much [of what] they liked in the past. You go too far." And he had always a little smile on the face. He said, "I don't go far enough."
"For all their theoretical sense of freedom, jazz musicians have a tendency to be surprisingly hidebound," wrote New York Times critic John S. Wilson in 1967. "As a rule, they find their mode of expression early in their careers. After that...basically the adventure is over." A "strong and influential" exception to the rule, Wilson quickly noted, was Coltrane's "process of constant development."
In 1960 Coltrane was thirty-three, an age when most of his contemporaries sought career stability. Yet his most adventurous work-including the creative apogee of A Love Supreme-was still to come. To better understand the course ahead, it is best to turn back and measure the path he had made for himself.
John Coltrane was born in 1926-the same year as Miles Davis-in the small North Carolina town of Hamlet. His family moved soon after, and Coltrane grew up in the larger High Point, surrounded by relatives, though an only child himself. His cousin Mary Lyerly-for whom he would compose the tune "Cousin Mary," and who now goes by her married name, Alexander-was the one family member close to his age, and they became constant companions.
Coltrane was a sensitive child with a quiet air of curiosity about him. Neither well-off nor poor-his father was a tailor, his mother a domestic and a seamstress-he was exposed to a rich mix of education, religion, and music from a young age. His mother, Alice, had attended college, and sang and played piano; his father, John, dabbled on various stringed instruments. Both parents were the children of Methodist ministers. Besides the parlor music his parents would play, the sounds of Coltrane's youth blended the hymns he sang in church, country blues from street musicians, swing numbers played by the touring orchestras that blew through town, and the jazz-inflected pop tunes heard on the radio at home.
But it was his father's musical habits that most influenced the youngster, as Mary recalls:
His father played violin and guitar in his room...I don't think I ever saw him outside the room, but he was always playing-as soon as he came home, before dinner he would relax. The same thing that John did in later years practicing...the very same thing. John's mother played piano, but I think he got a lot of that music from his father.
Coltrane's musical awakening coincided with his first steps along a strict religious path. As the scion of two lines of preachers, the boy seemed to have little choice. But there was another reason. As he told it, his mother's father, the Reverend William Blair, held the most sway over the family:
In my early years, we went to church every Sunday and stuff like that. We were under the influence of my grandfather, he was the dominant cat in the family. He was most well-versed, active politically...pretty militant...I grew up in that [and] I guess I just accepted it.
By all reports, Blair was a hard man to resist. As a community leader, he was persuasive and outspoken; as a preacher, he was more an academician than a pulpit-pounder. In fact, as Mary recollects, he was responsible for his grandchildren's education, and that of many other children as well:
My grandfather was instrumental in opening one of the first black schools in High Point where we were raised-the elementary school that we attended. He always fought for us. Christmas time we always got books...we had Langston Hughes, Paul Laurence Dunbar, [all] sorts of black books.
The reverend's influence on the impressionable Coltrane was to last a lifetime.
"He used to buy books and then he'd let me have them," recalls saxophonist Pharoah Sanders of his mid-sixties stint with Coltrane's group. "They weren't about any one specific religion, but there were a whole lot of books around." "I remember him reading the Bhagavad Gita, or the Torah," echoes trombonist Curtis Fuller. "He'd say, 'Hey, Curtis, check this out.' Or the autobiography of guru Yogananda."
By the time Coltrane entered high school, he was familiar with the pervasive racism of American society. He had to look no further than the torn schoolbooks he used or ratty football uniforms he wore-hand-me-downs from nearby white schools-to remind him of his secondary status. "Those things John didn't like at all," his cousin noted, "that just got to him." Though proud of his family, he came to associate such separate-but-equal indignities with the small-town South, and after reaching adulthood, he would never return to High Point.
In 1939, when his school formed a band, he found himself with a clarinet in hand, learning the fundamentals and playing simple marches. In short order-as his ears grew attuned to swing-era hits like "Tuxedo Junction" and swing-era heroes like Count Basie's smooth-toned saxophone soloist Lester Young-Coltrane was hooked. He dropped the clarinet, took up the alto saxophone, and a lifetime of practicing began. "He kept that saxophone with him," recalled a classmate. "You could hear him all the time, from any other part of the [school] building, back in the music room practicing by himself."
Music-or more accurately, music-making-arrived at a turbulent time in Coltrane's life. A few months after picking up the saxophone, while he was still a young thirteen years of age, his father, maternal grandparents, and uncle (Cousin Mary's father) all passed away. The foundations of the Coltrane-Blair clan collapsed; emotionally and economically, his world changed forever. Before 1940 ended, with no adult men to support the family, his mother had to fill newly empty rooms with boarders, and she and her sister took on extra jobs. Coltrane became withdrawn; his school perfor-mance suffered drastically.
Instead, he turned to music for company, solace, and strength. What had been an enthusiasm became a means of survival; his saxophone, a spiritual lifeline. "The loss of his father at the beginning of his teen years was critical," notes biographer Lewis Porter. "In a sense, music became his father substitute." A high school friend summed it up: "for a while, I don't think he had anything but that horn."
from A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane's Signature Album by Ashley Kahn, Copyright © November 2002, Viking Press, a member of Penguin Putnam, Inc., used by permission.
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Meet the Author
Ashley Kahn is the author of critically acclaimed Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece; the primary editor of Rolling Stone: The Seventies, and a primary contributor to The Rolling Stone Jazz & Blues Album Guide. His freelance features on music and culture have appeared in the New York Times, TV Guide, MOJO, Newsday, The New York Observer, New Statesman (UK), Jazz (France), GQ (Japan), Down Beat, Jazz Times and many other publications. He was music editor at VH1, and has also been a concert producer and tour manager, working with a wide variety of artists from Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel and Britney Spears, to Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Cassandra Wilson and Debby Harry and the Jazz Passengers.
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