I was already a fan of John Coltrane when I saw Mr. Holland’s Opus in a Halifax theatre in 1996.
What – you weren’t there? Quickly: Mr. Holland, portrayed by Richard Dreyfuss, is a musician who wants to be a full-time composer, but becomes a music teacher to make ends meet. He ends up being a lifelong teacher.
I originally started another paragraph about the movie, but this post is about Trane, man — the jazz giant who took Giant Steps, and then some. Took on the tenor saxophone like a catharsis, bad teeth and all. Took the soprano sax from the edge of extinction by reinventing a Broadway Favourite. Took his spiritual quest to the Supreme. Took his musical quest as far as it could go — Out Of This World. Maybe too far? Till he ran out of horn.
Here’s the quote about Trane from Mr. Holland’s Opus that stayed with me (spoken by Dreyfuss):
When I was 15, I hung out at a local record store. And the guy there thought he knew what I liked and one day, handed me this record album. And it was John Coltrane. I took it home and played it — and I hated it. I mean — I really hated it. So, I played it again. I played it again. And I played it again. And I just couldn’t stop playing it.
“Oh wow!” I remember thinking in the theatre. “They’re going to bust out some Trane!”
You would think, right? Mr. Holland is obviously profoundly affected by the music of Coltrane, so much so that he and his wife name their son Coltrane.
So you would think, with Trane’s music such an integral part of the protagonist’s life, the moviemakers would give the moviegoers a taste.
But the Trane never comes. A two-hour, 23-minute movie that IMDB.com lists as having 27 music items — and there’s not one second of John Coltrane music.
That’s remarkable, but not surprising. Trane’s intense, long-form music doesn’t lend itself to cheery, movie-sized snippets.
Get down, real low down
You listen to Coltrane, derail your own train
Well, who hasn’t been there before?
Being the optimist that I am (seriously!), I hope those who saw Mr. Holland’s Opus who weren’t already familiar with his music were inspired to learn more about John Coltrane. Trane for short.
To paraphrase what I said in my first post about Brian Wilson, better-qualified writers than me have written about Trane, frequently. So this isn’t a comprehensive Coltrane bio. And as you know I’m no musician (just an occasional mandolin picker), so this is no technical musical analysis, either.
So what is it? It’s in the title: It’s a celebration of Trane. I want to try to explain how much his music means to me. I listen to a wide variety of music, but the older I get, I listen to Trane more frequently. And I hope in my own humble way (seriously!) that those who aren’t already familiar with his music might check it out.
Coltrane’s big break came when Miles Davis hired him to join his first great quintet in the mid-1950s. It wasn’t a popular choice: Critics and fans alike railed about his harsh tone on tenor and his lengthy musical excursions.
Davis himself wondered what was going on.
Miles said to him: “Man, why don’t you try playing 27 choruses instead of 28?” Trane answered: “I get involved in these things and I don’t know how to stop.” Miles said: “Try taking the saxophone out of your mouth.”
But that was Trane. Searching, searching, always searching, musically and spiritually.
I don’t know what I’m looking for. Something that hasn’t been played before. I don’t know what it is. … I’ll just keep searching.
In 1959, Trane played tenor on Miles Davis’s perfect album Kind Of Blue. If you have room for only one jazz album in your collection, conventional wisdom says Kind Of Blue is the one to have.
But if you’ve read this far — hey! Looks like you have room for more than one jazz album!
Try Trane’s Giant Steps, recorded later in 1959. Some have dismissed it as glorified technical exercises, but it still swings and contains Naima, one of Coltrane’s most beloved ballads. And as far as technical prowess goes … Trane was the man! Check out these sheets of sound, as writer Ira Gitler famously called Trane’s improvisational style:
I shake my head in wonder when I hear Countdown. I find all those notes — and the speed! — inspiring. I must get the sheet music for that so I can play it on mandolin.
Recorded in October 1960, My Favourite Things is another can’t-miss Coltrane album. Since everyone knows the title track, it might be a good place to start for the uninitiated. The waltz time is infectious, and Trane’s passionate improvisation is easy to appreciate since everyone knows the tune so well. He soars on soprano sax, at a time when few if anyone in jazz were using the horn. (I previously linked to My Favourite Things in this post.)
Coltrane’s most beloved album is his spiritual tour de force, A Love Supreme (recorded in December 1964). The four-part prayer was recorded in one day with what’s known as his classic quartet: Jimmy Garrison (bass), McCoy Tyner (piano), and Elvin Jones (drums).
As with all great works of art, A Love Supreme rewards revisiting. You can really feel the drive toward the final movement, Psalm, which features Trane “reading” a poem in the album’s original liner notes, via his saxophone. To my ears, A Love Supreme is the story of Trane’s life, a musical representation of his struggle through anonymity, drug and alcohol addiction — not to mention the stresses of being a black man in America — to his successful-yet-never-ending spiritual and musical quest.
You don’t have to be religious to get the passion and commitment of A Love Supreme. I’m not the only one who feels that way:
OK, so we’re up to 1965. This is where the music changes. This is where you might play a Coltrane album, hate it, hate it some more, and keep on hating it.
(Y)ears after it was recorded, John Coltrane’s Ascension remains a good way to start an argument. To some, it was Coltrane’s breakthrough album, a bracing declaration of independence from the prevailing musical restrictions. To others, it marked the beginning of a talented musician’s disturbing slide into chaos.
“It sounds like a car crash,” I’d tell people about Ascension. Recorded June 28, 1965, with Trane’s classic quartet augmented by four more saxophonists, two trumpeters, and another bassist, Ascension is loud, abrasive, relentless. And it does kinda sound like a car crash, until you revisit it enough times that you really start to hear it.
Once I heard it, I realized it was unlike anything I’d heard before. The intensity is overwhelming: I’d owned Ascension for years but didn’t sit down and give it my full attention until last year, when one night I poured a bottle of wine and cranked it. The reissue contains two versions (both roughly 40 minutes), but I could only get through one. Too much sound, too much information, just too much.
But I enjoy Ascension. Not every night, but it’s a good restart if I’ve been listening to too much of the pop music I so love.
Wanna sample it? This is the version Trane preferred. You won’t need your dancing shoes:
So if you listened to even a bit of that, I think you’d agree that it’s not for everyone. Coltrane continued searching for new ways to express himself until his death from liver cancer in July 1967, alienating many critics, fans, and fellow musicians along the way.
Till he literally ran out of horn. During some performances in 1966 and ’67, Coltrane would stop playing the saxophone, beat his chest and sing. Drummer Rashied Ali remembers:
“I’d say, ‘Trane, man, why are you doing that?’ … He’d say, ‘Man, I can’t find nothing else to play on the horn.’ He exhausted the saxophone.”
But not before he took us Out Of This World. Here’s my favourite Trane performance, recorded with the classic quartet in 1962:
 Coltrane: Chasin’ The Trane by J.C. Thomas (Da Capo, 1975). P. 41.
 Drummer Rashied Ali in Coltrane: The Story Of A Sound by Ben Ratliff (Picador, 2007). P. 109.
 If It Makes You Happy, Sheryl Crow. Sheryl Crow (A&M Records, 1996).
 Jazz fans will notice I pass over Coltrane’s time with pianist Thelonious Monk. I hope to talk about my main man Monk in a future post.
 Check out the Miles Davis albums Cookin’, Relaxin’, Workin’, Steamin’, and ’Round About Midnight.
 The Jazz Anthology by Miles Kington (HarperCollins, 1992). P. 1992.
 The Heavyweight Champion John Coltrane: The Complete Atlantic Recordings liner notes by Lewis Porter (1995). P. 29.
 John Coltrane: Ascension reissue liner notes by Lewis Porter (2000). P. 2.
 He was just 40 years old.
 Coltrane: The Story Of A Sound. P. 109.