I know there was me before and after Coltrane. I never heard him when I was younger never even knew who he was. In my college years I was mad obsessed with a couple rock bands and read music journalism voraciously. I guess its while reading one of the many publications I was infatuated with that I came upon his name. Every musician that I considered far-out at the time dropped this cats name and I knew I had to hear what all the fuss was about. This occurred in the prime of the Limewire illegal downloading on american-campuses-era, this is before the schools woke up and banned Lime wire. The way Lime wire worked I tended to look up an artist and download there 20 most popular songs and with Tranes favorite things almost always came up at the top. I downloaded it and burned it to CD (iPods were out but I was a cash strapped student custodian so my sony disc man had to do) , so that I could listen to it on my way to Math 101. As I was listening I was not really impressed by it at all, I liked the melody and all but the seemingly unending Solos from the band just bored me and i just lacked the attention span to deal with it. At this point I was patient enough to digest a dense piece of underground NY rap, or enjoy some indie rock spaceyness but I was not ready for Jazz.
But I made it a mission because all my heroes kept bringing up jazz as a formative part of there evolution as artists and people. I tried listening to Miles and tried tapping into all the big names people kept dropping. I remember the exact moment i understood Jazz and I knew that my ears actually were enjoying it. I remember this moment clearly because it was during one of those long walks on campus walking in and out of buildings pretending to be walking to class when the truth was I was done with my classes but I wanted to hear a song that had captured my attention.
Night in Tunisia is a straight jazz standard initially composed by Dizzy Gillespie and it has all the romp, pomp and excitement that I associate with Dizzy compositions. But there is something about how Basie executes it that floored me and opened my eyes to the mechanics of this art form. Meaning it taught me how to enjoy jazz. The huge trumpet sections the very clear call and response between the sections of the big band and the driving rhythm created an intoxicating party like atmosphere. As well as this song another song was my man Ahmad Jamals “Ponciana”.
I have a pretty obsessive personality at least when it comes to things that give me pleasure and music was and still is an obsession. I used to play poinciana at the rate of once every 3-hours when I was awake in a day. I knew this song so well, I even remembered the part in the record when you can hear the people working in the kitchen were jamal was playing start screaming out orders. Poinciana pointed me towards a simpler less swinging style that was cooler but defined by beautiful melodies and a minimal but beautifully combined string of notations. I went straight from there to Miles Davis and I bought my first belt driven record player and my first two records were Miles Davis “Sketches of spain” and John Coltranes ” blue train” two very different records but all the same records that were taking me into exciting new territory.
By my second year of college I was a bonafide Jazz freak spending the little i made as a custodian buying books about jazz or buying jazz records & CD.s. I had fallen hard and fast for “Kind of Blue” and could not stop listening to Mingus ” Black saint and the sinner lady”. Unbeknownst to me I was courting the avant grade and the straight ahead almost simultaneously but there were records I owned that I still didn’t get like early Charlie “bird” parker stuff or Duke Ellington. Then around that time my man Ken Burns dropped the long as hell documentary series called jazz, and I would download them onto my newly purchased IPod 5 which could play video and I would sit by the stairs close to the door of the building I was cleaning that night and listen to thrilling tales about everyone from Jelly Roll Molton, Bix beiderbeck all the way down to stuff about crazy a van gardists like Cecil Taylor. This series as well as books by Amiri Baraka helped contexualize the art forms history, origins and aesthetic underpinnings. For me Jazz was and still is about a complete immersion into the culture and identity politics of the art form. As far as Trane was concerned I was going hard trying to understand records like ascension. A record I still do not get to this day.
But I was also messing around with “A love supreme” an eastern influenced improvised prayer to God. But It wasn’t until I picked up “Giant Steps” that I fully lost my SHIT (sorry for the language but this literally happened). Giant steps for me at first seemed like a very disconnected record with moments of excellence and moments of lackluster performance. I was infatuated with syeeda’s flute and totally enamored by Naima. The rest of the album was hard to get but after long sessions of blasting it while writing journalism papers I began to understand the record. Giant steps is still in my opinion a straight standard. Its an album that works as a benchmark to the Trane sound in my world.
His later period has a few gems in my book, but is still something i am trying to understand because a lot of it sounds a bit too self-satisfying and in a way lost a lot of the technique and collaborational attitude thats at the heart of jazz. But even within that tradition I always discover incredible records like the record “Ole” or “Om”. I also fell in love with his sidemen and one of his frequent associates my man Eric Dolphy whose records are in my opinion some of the most consistently far-out works of music.
I am personally not one to deify pop-cultural figures, but in my own life Tranes music was a path towards an expanded view of what art especially music attempts to do and say about human reality. His persistent unending search for truth lies at the heart of what makes his execution so timeless. You listen and always get the sense of a frantic soul searching and yearning to get clearer glimpses of the nature of reality and the universe. Maybe I am exaggerating but his most impressive records always sound like journeys to me.
TO BE CONTINUED