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Better Living Through Coltrane

By Brian L. Knight

"You know, I want to be a force for real good. In other words, I know there are bad forces, forces out here that bring suffering to others and misery to the world, but I want to be a force which is truly for good." These were the words that saxophonist John Coltrane spoke to interviewer Frank Kofsky during the summer of 1966. These were more than simply words, they were a credo that Coltrane not only lived by but also embodied. Through his music, John Coltrane was a conduit for spirituality and joy.

In recent years, there has been an onslaught of Coltrane re-issues. Albums that have been long forgotten are being resurrected with the addition of long shelved extra tracks. These re-issues serve a much better purpose than just helping old time jazz fans replace their worn vinyl and attain mystery tracks. These reissues are now hitting and affecting a whole new generation of Coltrane fans. When Coltrane was playing his music for the first time, America was amidst a terrible war in Vietnam and a terrible Civil War in places like Watts, Newark and Montgomery. It was a time of uncertainty and Coltrane’s music was a lighthouse amidst a fog of dissatisfaction. Thirty-five years later, the uncertainty still exists but in different forms – disease, overpopulation, environmental and war. Once again, Coltrane’s music can serve as an outlet. There are seven albums that will guide the way once again are Coltrane Jazz, The Avant Garde, Impressions, New Thing at Newport, Kulu Se Mama, Ascension and Interstellar Space.

John Coltrane’s music is best remembered through his work with his "classic quintet" during the first half of the 1960s. With McCoy Tyner at the piano, Jimmy Garrison on the bass and Elvin Jones behind the drum kit ,the foursome went down in history as one of the most productive and innovative jazz bands. They belonged in the same category as Miles Davis’ first and second great quintets, the Modern Jazz Quartet, or the earliest incarnations of the Jazz Messengers. Even though the foursome was the most prevalent recording and touring entity, there were many different versions of the band. Sometimes Reggie Workman and Roy Haynes sat in for Garrison and Jones, respectively. Sometimes, the band was augmented by additional horns and sometimes there were two drummers. These releases definitely catch the many different phases of John Coltrane’s lineup.

One of the first appearances of the famous Coltrane quartet can be found on the album Coltrane Jazz, which was recorded for Atlantic Records during the winter of 1959 and the fall of 1960. For the majority of the album, Coltrane teamed up with Wynton Kelly (piano), Paul Chambers (bass) and Jimmy Cobb (drums). During this time, Coltrane and these players comprised Miles Davis first great quintet. Six months prior to the recording of Coltrane Jazz, the four sat in the studio with Miles Davis and recorded the legendary Kind of Blue, which produced future jazz standards such as "So What" and " All Blues". In comparison to Kind of Blue and even Coltrane’s later work, Coltrane Jazz is straightforward be-boppin jazz. The extraordinary soling capabilities start to surface on tunes such as "Fifth House" and "Harmonique". The one out of place track on the album is "Village Blues", a Coltrane original, that was recorded a year after the majority of the session work. For this tune, Coltrane called in McCoy Tyner, Steve Davis and Elvin Jones – almost the entire famous quartet. Coltrane used Steve Davis as well Reggie Workman on many instances throughout his late 1950s and early 1960s recordings. Even before he started stretching things out in the mid-1960s, Coltrane was being recognized for his adventuresome playing. In the original liner notes to Coltrane Jazz, pianist Zito Carno explained: " The point I’m trying to make is that this constant experimentation, this never ending probing into new things and new ways to do older things, is characteristic of ‘Trane. This applies not only to his playing, but also his writing – to his whole way of thinking. He runs up on something new, works around with it till he gets what he wants, and incorporates into his overall conception." This combination of tradition and innovation was a tandem that Coltrane used right up till his death. During the summer of 1960, Coltrane recorded The Avant-Garde with the members of Ornette Coleman’s band – trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Ed Blackwell. Ornette Coleman was Coltrane’s compatriot in forging new directions for jazz music. They both took the saxophone to new levels and explored the range of harmonics. The combination of the personnel and the album’s title would suggest that this recording was going to push the limits of jazz. With the album comprising of tunes by Coleman, Cherry and Thelonious Monk, it is a surprise that Coltrane’s name is on the cover. In general, the album is fairly subdued and does not break the rules as one would expect. Coltrane was saving his good stuff for his Impulse recordings. When this album was released in 1966 (six years after its recording), when Coltrane was deep into his far out style, The Avant-Garde served as an explanation of how Coltrane arrived to his present spiritual playing. The Avant-Garde, as well as Coltrane Jazz, hinted at the Coltrane potential but remained grounded in traditional forms. In retrospect, these albums are homing beacons along Coltrane’s path of discovery.

One of the first albums that Coltrane recorded with Impulse was Impressions, which was recorded over an eighteen-month period from November of 1961 through April of 1963. During that time, Coltrane’s band held many different identities. The classic song, "India", was captured live at Greenwich Village’s Village Vanguard with his traditional quartet of McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones which was supplanted by the additional bassist, Reggie Workman, as well as the brilliant Eric Dolphy who plays the bass clarinet throughout the song. "India" also highlights Coltrane playing on the soprano saxophone, the instrument that he single handedly revived from obscurity. The presence of the double basses on "India" was Coltrane’s idea as he wanted to re-create the sounds of Indian choir. For the swinging title track, Reggie Workman is absent from the band and Dolphy puts down bass clarinet for the alto saxophone and Coltrane switches to the alto. What is most evident on these recordings is the beginning phases of Coltrane’s exploring. On the two live tracks, one can hear Coltrane truly exploring. By following the solos of Coltrane, the listener is actually following Coltrane’s own journey. At moments, he falters and at other times, he attains exciting peaks. The one constant is that he continually pushes forward with the propelling Elvin Jones constantly egging him on. The two Village Vanguard tunes were culled from three nights of performances in which Rudy Van Gelder recorded 22 tracks which can now be found on The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings. Before the release of the impressive box set, this album was one of the first recorded outputs from those famous concerts.

Dolphy and Coltrane shared so much on a musical and spiritual level. They both looked towards their African roots for spiritual guidance and they both played in a soulful dense manner. Unfortunately for the jazz world, Dolphy slipped into a diabetic coma while the 1964 tour of Europe with Charles Mingus. Coltrane spoke of Dolphy: "Whatever I'd say would be an understatement. I can only say my life was made much better by knowing him. He was one of the greatest people I've ever known, as a man, a friend, and a musician." Dolphy’s bass clarinet from the Vanguard concerts remained with Coltrane throughout his life. When Dolphy died at an early age of 36, his mother could no longer have his son’s instruments lying around the house. They haunted her. In order to live in peace, Dolphy’s mother gave Coltrane the instruments, which were cared for and highly regarded for in Coltrane’s home in Long Island.

Almost a full year after the Vanguard concert, Coltrane recorded the short and swinging blues of "Up ‘Gainst the Wall" with Garrison and Jones. It was a rare occurrence of Coltrane in a trio setup. Seven months later, Roy Haynes replaced Elvin Jones, and joined Coltrane, Tyner and Garrison for the traditional "Dear Old Stockholm." This Swedish song has been covered by other jazzmen like Stan Getz and Miles Davis, but for some reason Coltrane left a lasting "impression" on the tune.

After the recording of Impressions, Coltrane and the classic quartet recorded some of their most popular albums. Throughout 1964, Coltrane recorded some soft albums such a Ballads and his collaborations with Johnny Hartman and Duke Ellington. During the Winter of 1964, the quartet recorded the seminal A Love Supreme. This album, which is worthy of an article all by itself, set the stage for a new installment of Coltrane’s production. In June of 1965, the John Coltrane went into the studio with two different personalities. During the first two weeks of the month, the classic quartet recorded "Vigil", "Welcome" and "Dusk Dawn". The first two songs eventually surfaced on the album Kulu Se Mama which was not to be released until two more songs were recorded later in the year. "Vigil" features an incredible duet between Elvin Jones and Coltrane. "Vigil" was perhaps one of the last times that the two would communicate so well on a musical level as Rashied Ali was soon to replace Jones.

In describing the song "Vigil", Coltrane also described his own stance in the world. " I don’t try to set standards of perfection for anyone else. I do feel everyone does try to reach his better self, his full potential, and what that consists of depends on each individual. Whatever that goal is, moving toward it does require vigilance." During the incredible summer of this recording, Coltrane was losing fans as quickly as he was gaining them. With his lengthy songs, cacophonous breakdowns and overall, unorthodox behavior, people were walking out of his performances or completely lost within the music. Although he took abuse for his dissonance, Coltrane maintained vigilance and followed his musical path. He did not let the influence of others affect his own musical quest. In some ways, the tune "Vigil" was Coltrane’s mantra for his final years of playing.

If "Vigil" was the guiding light for Coltrane’s sonic journey, than the tune "Welcome" was the light at the end of the tunnel. Coltrane discussed the tune with critic for the album’s original liner notes. "Welcome" is that feeling you have when you finally reach awareness, an understanding, which you have earned through struggle. It is a feeling of peace. A welcome feeling of peace." By keeping his focus, his calmness and his vigilance, Coltrane was able to discover this peace. He may have created discord for others, but only his peace that really mattered. It is an innate characteristic for all humans to be self-interested as it supports the theory of survival of the fittest. Coltrane’s innate characteristic was self-interested for he was searching for his musical grail. If others were seeking the same grail, they were welcome to join the pilgrimage. If others were not interested, Coltrane simply moved on.

Two weeks after the recording of "Vigil" and "Welcome", a whole new Coltrane entered the studios. Along with Tyner, Garrison and Jones, Coltrane invited trumpeters Freddie Hubbard, alto saxophonists Dewey Johnson, Marion Brown, John Tchicai, and tenor saxophonists Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp, and bassist Art Davis for a big band blowing session. Gone was the song structure of the earlier sessions. Coltrane had gathered his disciples and now was ready to take off. The session resulted in plenty of music but none that was in any kind of listener friendly format. The music of Ascension was a definitive launching point for Coltrane’s search for freedom and Van Gelder’s New Jersey studio was the common center.

For Ascension’s original liner notes, participants Marion Brown and Archie Shepp explained the energy associated with the sessions. Brown felt that the recording was " wildly exciting. We did two takes; and they both had that kind of thing in them that makes people scream. The people who were in the studio were screaming. I don’t know how the engineers kept the screaming out of the record." Shepp added "It achieves a certain kind of unity; it starts a high level of intensity with the horns playing high and the other pieces playing low. This gets a quality of like male and female voices." Brown spoke of screaming while Shepp spoke of unity. Both of these characteristics – chaos and togetherness in one session? Only the soft-spoken Coltrane could accomplish such a range of emotions.


Ascension was the definitive album for Coltrane’s musical transition. It either inspired or irked. Jazz guitarist John McLaughlin spoke of the album’s inspiring moments. "Once, as I was listening to Ascension, I went into a kind of trance and saw myself flying over Africa. I could feel the spirit of the entire continent and it's pulsating, teeming life; I could hear African music and Coltrane's music simultaneously. But I couldn't see the people; only the jungle and savannas, even though I was no more than fifty feet above the ground. It was John Coltrane's music that carried me there, as if he was leading me by the hand."

After the busy month of June in which Coltrane recorded all of Ascension and half of the tunes for the upcoming Kulu Se Mama album , Coltrane gave one last glimpse of the old Coltrane when he brought Jones, Tyner and Garrison to the coveted Newport Jazz Festival. During the same year, Impulse released New Thing at Newport to celebrate the quartet’s performance. There was no better place for Coltrane to divide his fans than the popular event. The quartet’s set started innocently enough with "One Up, One Down" which effectively highlighted each band member’s skill. Tyner attacks the keys with percussive fervor while Jones effortlessly moved between pounding note and subtle timekeeping. The other song was his popular "My Favorite Things". There was no better way to see how Coltrane transformed from the subtle to the overbearing than that tune. It was one of the first songs that skyrocketed Coltrane to popularity and like "St. Stephen" and the Grateful Dead, it was every fan’s desire to hear it played. The structure for the songs may be the same but the improvised sections had Coltrane pushing the limits. It was probably in the deepest moments of either "One Up, One Down" or "My Favorite Things" with Coltrane blowing with all of his might and Jones creating a thunderstorm of drums that the people who came to hear Duke Ellington may have made a bathroom break.

The remaining songs from the disc feature Archie Shepp’s set from the same evening. Like Coltrane, Shepp represented the ‘New Thing’ in Jazz and like all avant-gardists, Shepp owed a debt of gratitude to Coltrane’s innovation. In , Shepp recorded Four for Trane, which was one of the biggest forms of honor that a musician could receive. Recorded in August of 1964, the album featured four Coltrane compositions and one Shepp original. It seems that most tribute albums are done posthumous, yet Coltrane got his tribute while he was alive and well.

During the fall months following the exciting summer of 1965, Coltrane recorded the songs "Kulu Se Mama" and "Selfnesses" with Pharoah Sanders, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, Donald Rafael Garrett, Frank Butler, Juno Lewis, and Elvin Jones. Like Eric Dolphy before him, Pharoah Sanders was an excellent multi-instrumental tandem to Coltrane’s playing. Pharoah went be the name Ferrell until Sun Ra dubbed him with his new Egyptology moniker. "Pharoah is a man of large spiritual reservoir, " Coltrane continued, "He's always trying to reach out to truth. He's trying to allow his spiritual self to be his guide. He's dealing, among other things, in energy, in integrity, in essences. I so much like the strength of his playing. Furthermore, he is one of the innovators, and it's been my pleasure and privilege that he's been willing to help me."

"Kulu Se Mama" and "Selfnesses", coupled with "Vigil" and "Welcome" (recorded earlier in the summer) became the meat for the album Kulu Se Mama. More than anything, this album signified the disintegration of the classic quartet. The four shorter songs taken from the June sessions was the quartet in action while the epic tracks "Kulu Se Mama" and "Selflessness" showed the new directions of Coltrane’s music.

The epic title track is 18+ minutes long with the Juno Lewis’ poem and percussion providing the songs emotional introduction. The New Orleans born Lewis wrote the poem in honor of his mother and recites the lines in an Afro-Creole dialect known as Entobes and its content open the doors for an incredibly spiritual album. This relationship between vocalist and saxophonist would be patterned a few years later when Pharoah Sanders and Leon Thomas recorded numerous tracks together.


Interstellar Space was recorded in February of 1967. Duets between Coltrane and Ali that had Coltrane blowing away on every level or register imaginable while Ali exploded in every direction with his free form impassioned percussion work. What ultimately arises from these sessions is the realization that they’re no boundaries to music. These exemplified that music can be totally free of limits and boundaries. In comparison to the work that Coltrane did on Ascension, which carries that same sense of freedom, Interstellar Space breaks it down to a bare minimum. With the large format, Ascension was the shoot out at OK Corral while the tandem of Interstellar Space was the High Noon one on one duel.

Alice Coltrane spoke of landmark album. "A higher principle is involved here. Some of his latest works aren't musical compositions. I mean they weren't based entirely on music. A lot has to do with mathematics, some on rhythmic structure and the power of repetition, some on elementals. He always felt that sound was the first manifestation in creation before music."

The session was designed as a training session for the young Ali. Although a test for Ali, he never abandoned the spirit of the music. During the 1970s, Ali teamed up with tenor saxophonist Frank Lowe for the album Duo Exchange, which can now be found on Knitting Factory records. In the 1990s, Ali continued with duet spirit with his album Rings of Saturn on Knitting Factory with tenor saxophonist Louie Belogenis. During this past Bell Atlantic Jazz Festival, Ali teamed up with saxophonist Sonny Fortune for an evening of Coltrane inspired playing.

These recordings not only show the compositional and instrumental beauty of John Coltrane but also many of the saxophonists that shared his vision. The earlier recordings bring out the serene playing of Eric Dolphy while the later sessions highlight the great Pharoah Sanders. In between, you get performances by Archie Shepp. Coltrane was not alone in the world of "New Thing" jazz, but since he was already tremendously popular, his leaps and bounds were well chronicled. The one beautiful aspect of Coltrane was his refusal to be compromised. He didn’t care about money or where he was positioned on a bill or how much he got for a record. He only cared about creating music and satisfying his own pursuit for inner peace through music. In 1987, Edward Strickland, a writer for the Atlantic Monthly, summed up the late work of Coltrane: "He complicated rather than simplified his art, making it more visceral, raw, and wild. And even to his greatest fans it was anything but easily understood. In this failure, however, Coltrane contributed far more than he could have in success, for above all, his legacy to his followers is the abiding sense of search, of the musical quest as its own fulfillment."