Anyone who's serious about music has pieces, composers, and musicians that he or she couldn't live without. I've got a short list. Handel's Messiah, Brahms' symphonies, Dvorak's Slavonic Dances, and Miles' births, blues, smiles, and brews are one it. So is everything that Duke, Strayhorn, and Beethoven ever wrote.
John Coltrane -- composer, instrumentalist, spiritual guide -- is at the top of my list, at least for today.
John Coltrane Quartet, Naima. In concert, 1965. Coltrane, tenor sax, McCoy Tyner, piano, Jimmy Garrison, bass, Elvin Jones, drums.
Many people associate Coltrane with sheets of sound. No doubt about it, that was part of his style. But so was something like Naima -- slower, softer, more inward-looking. Those are things that Roy DeCarava, the great African-American photographer, saw in him: "a true religion... the religion of work and the religion of selflessness; of giving oneself to what one does completely."
Roy DeCarava: Coltrane and Elvin, New York. 1960. Smithsonian American Art Musuem.
I found that DeCarava quote just the other day in Scott Saul's wonderful book Freedom Is, Freedom Ain't: Jazz and the Making of the Sixties (which, very belatedly, I'm getting around to reading). DeCarava was a dedicated Coltrane fan and photographed him often. Eventually, they became close friends. "Thus was born," Saul writes, "one of the more remarkable collaborations between sound and image in the history of jazz." Both men, he continues, were "connoisseurs of the dark.... DeCarava's shadowy palette was a visual equivalent of the minor blues so beloved by the saxophonist...."
DeCarava's "atmospheric obscurity" and "love of understatement," Saul says (and I have to agree), allowed him to capture Coltrane in a variety of moods, "spiritualist of the bandstand, a worker studying his craft, and a member of a jazz community who bridged generations and styles of performance."
Winston "Mankunku" Ngozi, Dedication (To Daddy Trane and Brother Silver). From his 1968 album "Yakhal' Inkomo." Ngozi, tenor sax, Lionel Pillay, piano, Agrippa Magwaza, bass, and Early Mabuza, drums.
It's worth mentioning that Coltrane is an icon wherever jazz is played and heard. Although he never met the man, South Africa's Winston "Mankunku" Ngozi was a disciple. It would be easy to say that like so many other musicians in Africa and elsewhere in the Third World, he heard, in Coltrane's music, the sound of freedom, self-determiniation, and pride. That's true, but it's leaves too much out. Ngozi was also responding to the challenge of matching Coltrane's technical mastery, to the love that his music expressed, and to the sheer joy of musical performance.
Freedom, pride, joy, and love. Sounds good to me.
John Coltrane, born this day in 1926.
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PS I've stolen this post's title from Michael S. Harper. But you already knew that.