David and Art - John Coltrane Pt. 2
John Coltrane's story in the 1950s and early 60s led to the creation of a profound work of art.
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Last week we talked about saxophone player John Coltrane, one of the absolute giants of American music. There’s a sense that you get when you talk to some of his devotees that his name should be spoken almost with reverence; that his music unlocked something deep in the human soul; that more than any other artist, his work was a conduit to a higher plane of spirituality. Indeed, there’s a church in San Francisco that has rather adopted him as its patron saint.
In 1957, the year he turned 30, Coltrane quit the heroin and alcohol to which he had become addicted years earlier—quit cold turkey as they say. He attributed his recovery in part to the grace and power of God.
After cleaning up he rejoined Miles Davis in time to make the sensational Kind of Blue album in 1959. Then over the next few years Coltrane branched out and starting with the 1960 album Giant Steps recorded some of the most creative and emotional music ever made. After assembling his own classic quartet, consisting of himself, pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and drummer Elvin Jones he went on to record the 1961 album My Favorite Things, which featured his version of the song from the musical The Sound of Music which had opened on Broadway two years early and won five Tony’s. It became something of hit.
On November 18, 1963, Coltrane went into the studio with his quartet and recorded a plaintive song called “Alabama,” a memorial to four little girls who were killed by a bomb planted by Klan members in a Birmingham Church. Critic Ben Ratliff called the piece “an accurate psychological portrait of a time, a complicated mood that nobody else could render so well."
Coltrane’s music tapped into the deep sense of spirituality and emotion that also underlies the blues, but he was able to express it with his horn and with the sound and structure of his songs instead of through lyrics. In 1964 he remarked to his ex-wife that 90% of his playing was in fact praying. Former Harvard professor Cornel West who now teaches philosophy and Christian practice at Union Theological Seminary called Coltrane “the grand exemplar of twentieth century black spirituality.”
In 1965 Coltrane poured all of that into a recording that to him represented the ultimate expression of God’s love and grace. Let’s turn our attention to that record next week.