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Posts Tagged ‘John Coltrane’

An Absolute Truth: On Writing a Life of Coltrane

June 3, 2014 | by

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A few years ago I found a used, first-edition hardcover of Dr. Cuthbert Ormond Simpkins’s 1975 book, Coltrane: A Biography, online for $150. I had long admired its feverish, street-pulpy story about the saxophonist John Coltrane, whose powerful music increasingly seemed capable of altering one’s consciousness before he died in 1967, at age forty. Posthumously, the mythology and exaltation of Coltrane, as well as his musical influence, only grew. But by that point, Simpkins had already researched and written Coltrane’s story, expressing an uncompromising, unapologetic black voice rarely found in the annals of jazz before or since.

I forked up the money for the hardback. The dust jacket bears an impressionistic black-and-white painting of Coltrane playing soprano saxophone. The rounded, sans serif font resembles that of Soul Train, the popular TV show that premiered in 1971. On the back cover is a photograph of a young, Simpkins sporting a West African dashiki shirt, a high Afro, thick sideburns, and a beard.

Simpkins’s idea for the book was conceived during his senior year at Amherst, in 1969; he worked on it during breaks from Harvard Medical School in the early seventies. Simpkins possessed no credentials in jazz or literature. The publisher of the original hardcover is Herndon House; quick Google and Library of Congress searches yield no other books from that publisher. There are identical typographical errors in all three editions—first and second hardback, and paperback. (Sarah Vaughan’s name, for instance, is spelled once as “Vaughn,” and Nesuhi Ertegun appears as “Nehusi.”) All indications point to the book having been self-published, the original piece preserved in two later editions. Read More »

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Meet Me in Treasondale, and Other News

March 27, 2014 | by

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Elegy for Lee

October 23, 2013 | by

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In 1965, celebrated jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan released the song “Speedball” on his album The Gigolo. A year earlier, the title track from his album The Sidewinder had become the biggest hit in Blue Note Records’s history, reaching number twenty-five on the Billboard LP charts, even appearing on a Chrysler TV commercial during the World Series. Although “Speedball” never attained the commercial success of “The Sidewinder,” it endures as one of Morgan’s best-known originals, and, with the possible exception of Art Pepper’s album Smack Up, its title serves as the most barefaced allusion to the monkey on midcentury jazz’s back.

Drugs, risk, rebellion—this unholy trinity seems more evocative of rock-and-roll longhairs than clean cut men in suits, yet these dark elements remain central to the jazzman archetype established by Charlie Parker. Between the midforties and early sixties, tons of talented players were strung out: Art Blakey, Hank Mobley, Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, Grant Green, Dexter Gordon, Jackie McLean, John Coltrane. If Coltrane later provided a countervailing archetype—the sober, spiritually aware, gentle genius—then Parker embodied creativity’s menacing, consumptive side. Morgan got lost between these poles. A promising, prodigy it-kid, he received his first trumpet at age thirteen. Five years later, he joined the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band. That same year, in 1956, he recorded his first Blue Note album as a leader, and soon after played on now legendary recordings such as Coltrane’s Blue Train, at age nineteen, and Arty Blakey’s Moanin’, at twenty. His own early output ranks as nothing short of astonishing—eleven albums as a leader by age twenty-two—which is why his 1961 departure from Blakey’s Jazz Messengers takes on the sinister weight of an omen. Read More »

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Freedom and Light

December 17, 2012 | by

I saw Ravi Shankar at Carnegie Hall in 1966 or 1967. Because of the Beatles, of course. And I learned so much about music from that one concert. Not that the lesson stayed with me; it wasn’t like that. But it set me up for hearing music in a different way than I was used to (that is, as pop songs on the radio, as 45s on my record player, as the songs we sang at camp about the cat coming back or your heart going where the wild goose goes, or, worse, much worse, as the moth-eaten songs from musicals on Broadway).

The first half of the concert was endless and dull, nothing but a couple of notes played over and over, like a foreign cuckoo clock gone mad. And then, an hour in, it all changed. And time stopped. The notes began to form a pattern, and the pattern grew more and more beautiful, like a house materializing from thin air, rising out of nothing into the most glorious vista, a home and a garden and hope and love and time, spread out before me. Read More »

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They Say It’s Wonderful: Hartman and Coltrane, an Appreciation

December 13, 2012 | by

Over the past month or so, I have listened to John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, one of the greatest jazz vocal albums ever made, about once a day. I haven’t tired of it, which is a testament to its durability. But I think there’s more to it than that. I discovered John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman about four years ago, and it continues to enchant me. The album—composed of six slow yet easily digestible romantic ballads—may contain the most beautiful half hour of music I have heard on one CD.

I’m not trying to idealize the record. But I’m not alone in feeling so strongly. Writing in Esquire magazine in 1990, Daniel Okrent named John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman the greatest record ever made. Okrent admitted such a claim “is a fragile limb on which to walk.” But he stood firm. “If you want to argue,” Okrent wrote, “forget it; having listened to John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman for some fifteen years, I simply can’t be moved.”

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Branford Marsalis

December 8, 2011 | by

It’s sixty-two degrees and raining in downtown Durham, North Carolina, on a Tuesday in mid-October. At noon members of the Branford Marsalis Quartet gather at the former St. Joseph’s African Methodist Episcopal church, built in 1891, now converted into the Hayti Heritage Center, an arts-and-community nonprofit. Their goal is to record a new album over the next few days.

When Marsalis moved his family to Durham from New York a decade ago, the local press assumed he was replacing the retiring director of Duke’s jazz department, saxophonist Paul Jeffrey. But Marsalis, who'd grown up in Louisiana, simply wanted to return to the South and picked Raleigh-Durham because the area had an airport large enough to get him anywhere he needed to go. Later, he began teaching part-time in the noted jazz program at the historically black North Carolina Central University, which is a mile down the road from Hayti.

The original St. Joseph’s sanctuary remains intact: a wood-plank stage, hardwood pews, a balcony, chandeliers, and lots of stained glass. Marsalis began recording albums here in 2006 when he noticed that the room had a unique quality: there is no reverb at low decibel levels; it grows gradually with the sound.

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