Album cover of
"A Love Supreme," John Coltrane
Today is the anniversary of the birth of John Coltrane, jazz saxophonist and composer, who was born in Hamlet, North Carolina, in 1926, and died July 17, 1967 on Long Island, New York. "Trane," as many who knew him called him, was one of the giants of the jazz genre, and though he died young, at 40, during his life as a musician, he changed the medium for all time.  

The biography on the his Foundation website states:

"Coltrane felt we must all make a conscious effort to effect positive change in the world, and that his music was an instrument to create positive thought patterns in the minds of people"
Jazz fans and critics all have their own favorite Coltrane recordings, but there is almost universal agreement that one of the greatest jazz recordings of all time was his quartets' "A Love Supreme," with Coltrane on tenor sax, McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass and Elvin Jones on drums.  
The album is a four-part suite, broken up into tracks: "Acknowledgement" (which contains the mantra that gave the suite its name), "Resolution", "Pursuance", and "Psalm." It is intended to be a spiritual album, broadly representative of a personal struggle for purity, and expresses the artist's deep gratitude as he admits to his talent and instrument as being owned not by him but by a spiritual higher power.
Coltrane's personal struggle to successfully conquer his own demons and find inner peace and liberation resonate today with those who hear his message.

I'm neither a musician nor a jazz critic. There are stacks of books, magazines and scholarly articles that can do more justice to Trane's music and legacy than I can.  

But on his birthday I'm musing about how jazz helped shape my thinking, and yes, even my politics. I am thinking about jazz, a music that was birthed in racial alienation, yet incorporated both African and European musicality, and how good it feels today to have a president and first lady in the White House who embrace, celebrate and nurture this music that is so essentially American, and now universal.

(Continue reading below the fold.)

My love affair with jazz came early, since both of my parents played it at home on LP records on a "record player." It wasn't until the late 50s early 60s that we could afford to have a real stereo system. That dovetailed with our move to Queens, New York, to our first home, bought with support from the GI Bill. The neighborhood we landed in—Hollis/Saint Albans, was rapidly undergoing change and "white flight"—making it a bargain place for young black working-class and middle-class families to buy into. Many of our neighbors were black jazz musicians, who could settle their families into a home, and still be close to the vibrant jazz club scene, and recording studios in Manhattan. There is even a "jazz trail" and map documenting this history.

As a teenager, I listened to folk, r&b and salsa, but my love affair and passion was jazz, and many of my peers were aspiring musicians. We found a welcome in the homes of musicians, and in one, the home of John Coltrane on Mexico Street, we found a place where young people were not only seen but heard. His wife, Naima, who we all called "Neet," would take us to jazz clubs. His step-daughter Toni-Syeeda was my age.  He wrote Syeeda's Song Flute for her.

Most of the young crew that hung out around the Coltrane home was male, and I'll never forget the day I sat in their basement arguing vociferously for my love of ballads, and being put down by my guy-friends who were championing more uptempo hard-core rhythms. I was "too mushy" and too romantic and girlish in their opinion. Suddenly the conversation was interrupted. Trane was speaking from where he had been quietly practicing fingering on his sax. "She's right, you know," he said. My bickering brothers fell silent. "Ballads," he continued, "are far more difficult and complex. It's about the space between the notes." They were silenced, I felt vindicated, and have never forgotten his gentle chiding of them. To this day, I have a deep and abiding love for the melodic lyricism of jazz ballads. As I listen, I hear Trane's words. At the top of my list is the ballad he wrote for his wife Naima, his favorite composition, which has been covered by many artists, and notably sung by Jean Carn.

My other favorite version is in French, sung by Mimi Perrin, from the European jazz vocalese group "The Double Six of Paris." I've worn out several albums of Johnny Hartman singing Coltrane. In many ways it's nice to have so much of the music I love no longer vulnerable to scratches and warping via the medium of CDs and mp3s.

Though today's post was inspired by Trane's birthday, I've been thinking about jazz in general a lot recently. Not only what it has meant for me personally, but about its future.  

For quite few years there has been a meme circulated about jazz being dead, or dying.

Countless articles have been written about jazz audiences shrinking, like this one at NPR. And then there is Nicolas Payton's take.

Though the list of jazz-formatted radio stations is small nationwide, new options are opening up on the internet. I still have a radio bias, having been one of the founders of a jazz station in D.C., WPFW. As a New Yorker, I'm still mourning the loss of WRVR in 1980 with other former listeners, which flipped one day to country.

At least once a week I head over to Breath of Life, hosted by Kalamu ya Salaam, and his son Mtume ya Salaam.

Kalamu had this to say about Trane:

I listen to Trane for inspiration information, instructions on how to surmount higher heights, up into the rarified atmosphere of total allegiance to purifying and making oneself a better human being, and, of course, I also dig the exquisiteness of creative music that shares/reflects not a final destination but rather the totality and struggle of the journey—as long as we are alive, there is no final destination because there is always more, somewhere else to go to, something else to get at, always more.

Like human life itself, Trane’s music never stood still, never backed up, always reached for the hitherto untouched. There is both an urging and a yearning in Trane’s sound. His cry initially repulsed me. It never was pretty. At different points, some critics even called it ugly. But it was always fully alive.

I've given up on broadcast television as a place to see much jazz, notwithstanding Ken Burns tackling jazz as a highly touted documentary series for PBS, which then became a book.

It seems that his effort in 2001 closed the door on anyone else being given a shot.

David Hajdu's critique in the New York Review of Books, Not Quite All That Jazz, pointed out some glaring flaws in Burn's work; the lack of current artists, wider definitions of jazz, and the passing over of Latin jazz.

The most notable form of this musical cross-fertilization is Latin jazz, which is all but ignored in Burns’s film and given passing nods in the book. This is not an easy error to make. The Puerto Rican valve trombonist, composer, and arranger Juan Tizol joined Duke Ellington in 1929 and appears prominently in still photos and movie footage of the Ellington Orchestra in Jazz: his collaboration with Ellington, “Caravan,” plays on the soundtrack. Tizol contributed a whole book of Latin-tinged compositions to the Ellington repertoire, including “Perdido,” “Moon Over Cuba,” “Conga Brava,” and “Jubilesta.” At the same time, the Cuban trumpeter Mario Bauzá was soloing in the Chick Webb orchestra, and the Anglo-Cuban composer Chico O’Farrill was doing arrangements infused with Latin rhythms for Benny Goodman. By the 1940s, the rhumba fad made Cuban big bands a rage in Manhattan, with Bauzá, the percussionist Machito, and others leading their own highly successful orchestras.

There is virtually none of this in Jazz. (Machito’s name appears on a theater marquee in a couple of still photos, and the subject of “Caribbean rhythms” finally comes up during a discussion of Dizzy Gillespie’s explorations in Afro-Cuban music during the 1940s.) Why? Is jazz less authentic when it reflects Puerto Rican or Cuban experience? Duke Ellington, Chick Webb, and Benny Goodman thought not.
The most acerbic critique (and the shortest) was posted as a letter to the editor in The New York Times, from Keith Jarrett.
Regarding Ken Burns's (or is it Wynton Marsalis's?) ''Jazz'': Now that we've been put through the socioeconomic racial forensics of a jazz-illiterate historian and a self-imposed jazz expert prone to sophomoric generalizations and ultraconservative politically correct (for now) utterances, not to mention a terribly heavy-handed narration (where every detail takes on the importance of major revelation) and weepy-eyed nostalgic reveries, can we have some films about jazz by people who actually know and understand the music itself and are willing to deal comprehensively with the last 40 years of this richest of American treasures?
New York
I'm hoping that documentation can still happen.  

Jazz, jazz education and its funding are affected, like everything else, by the political climate. Back in 1979 President Jimmy Carter established June as Black Music Month. The previous year, I got my first, (and probably only) invitation to the White House, which I wrote about here. President Carter is a jazz fan, and the invitees reflected that. After his one term, real political support of jazz would die, until Bill Clinton took office. Then came the drought.

Now I have new hope. Just as Naima Coltrane nurtured us young jazz fans, Michelle Obama is welcoming young jazz students to the White House.

Esperanza, means "hope" in Spanish, and I was moved to write about "hope and jazz" when President Obama selected Esperanza Spaulding to perform at his Nobel Prize Ceremony, and to be featured at his celebration for Stevie Wonder in the White House.  

Spaulding, jazz bassist and vocalist is the first jazz artist to win a Grammy award for Best New Artist.

Spalding cites jazz bassists Ron Carter and Dave Holland as important influences on her music; Carter for the "orchestration" of his playing and Holland for the way his compositional method complements his personal style. She has described the saxophone player Wayne Shorter, and singer-songwriter Milton Nascimento, as heroes.
She has performed with McCoy Tyner, from the original Coltrane Quartet, along with Coltrane's son Ravi.  

Just as our president and our party symbolize a nation of inclusion, Spaulding, whose father is African-American and mother is of Welsh, Native American and Latino descent, symbolizes a hope for the future of jazz. Not locked in the past, but moving forward into a bright multifaceted, multicultural musical future.    


Originally posted to Daily Kos on Sun Sep 23, 2012 at 03:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Black Kos community, Barriers and Bridges, An Ear for Music, Protest Music, and DKOMA.

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