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Giant Steps: John Coltrane

Wednesday, 01 February 2017 11:46

In jazz you can find doctors, a Duke, ladies, at least one Count and of course a Saint. Coltrane, Trane or in the eyes of one church Saint John William Coltrane, the jazz giant, seemed the right place to kick off our series.

We’re starting this series with the saxophonist, not because of his storied career, not because of the stunning collection of genre molding music he was part of creating over his short life - Giant Steps, A Love Supreme, Meditations - but because his mode of expression reflects so much of how black people ‘got over’ in the face of crippling inequality and mind bending injustice during the civil rights era and beyond.

Coltrane was a quiet man - his sound though was a loud rushed cascade of perfect notes - even Miles Davis tried to tame him. Trane was compelled to push his moods and voice through his instrument, using his horn to pull himself and his audience through moments of anguish AND joy.

Sometimes the sounds weren’t pretty, compelling yes, but not always pretty. That has always been the way of those of African descent, where words fail or justice is denied or the soul too bruised to put one foot in front of the other, or the horror too great,  black folk have found expression through their art,  from James Baldwin to Nina Simone to Basquiat.

John Coltrane and the civil rights leader Malcolm X were born within months of one another and died within years of one another. Both prematurely at around 40 years of age.  The fiery oratory and the fiery jazz pioneer. Both instigators in their own way. In interviews Trane talks about seeing Malcolm X speak and being convinced that music could change people, could shift thought patterns and he could be part of that shift. Ascension, Meditation, Expression - all late recordings from John Coltrane.  With each record as he got closer to a spiritual and social awaking Tranes spirit and sound expanded.

Truth is Miles and Monk wouldn’t be Miles and Monk without Coltrane. Bebop would be missing it’s reason to ‘be’ and free-jazz would be a whole lot less free without the influence of Saint Coltrane. The African Orthodox Church bestowed sainthood on Coltrane in 1982 forever upholding his belief in “deliverance through divine sound.” Amen.

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