How one of America's jazz greats took on one of the greatests outrages in the American Civil Rights Movement.
On a bright Sunday morning in Birmingham, Alabama, a bomb exploded under the rear steps of the 16th Street Baptist Church. Four young girls who were in the basement changing into their choir robes for the youth service that morning, were killed. Another 20 people or so were wounded. The explosion left a crater five feet wide and two feet deep in the basement. The bomb was placed there by four members of the Ku Klux Klan. It was September 15, 1963.
Two months later saxophonist John Coltrane stepped into a studio to record a song that he had written in tribune to the girls who were killed. It was called simply “Alabama.” A few
weeks later he and his quartet performed the song on the National Education Television network. It was later included on his 1964 album called Live at Birdland, although “Alabama” isn’t one of the album’s live cuts.
The song begins with a low rolling minor chord on the piano, and then Coltrane’s saxophone comes in playing a line that sounds like a human voice riven with grief. His phrases are the phrases of a voice speaking, not the phrases of a typical piece of music. It’s almost like a chant, or a call to prayer, or the sound of a preacher speaking over an open grave. That’s purposeful. Coltrane patterned his phrasing after the eulogy Martin Luther King gave for the girls.
A minute and 20 seconds in there’s a pause, and then the bass player joins which starts to let you hear a chord structure where before you couldn’t. At 1 minute and 45 seconds into the piece the rhythm kicks in and begins to carry the piece into a different stage. It almost starts to sound like a regular Coltrane tune. It starts to build into a feeling of moving forward.
Then it stops abruptly, and after a pause, the mournful lament of his saxophone comes back in, like at the beginning. It’s almost as if to remind you the reason for the song in general—that it’s a song of grief and loss; that it’s a memorial, not just one of his typical tunes.
Coltrane wasn’t saying something in this piece of music about the Civil Rights Movement or about justice. He was saying something about humanity, about grief, about sorrow. But also, about remembering, and the value of remembering: the energy that can come even from remembering sorrow. Then, once Coltrane gets us there he knows that we ourselves as we listen can build on this grief, on this human emotion, and then do something substantive with it moving forward. But not forgetting is the first step. Rekindling the emotion is the first step. That’s what art can do. That’s the direction in which art can take us.