Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Understanding Jazz - John Coltrane

By G. Clark Baldwin

Why is he important? In the realm of jazz improvisation and the saxophone, John Coltrane's life and accomplishments are so monumental as to seem to be beyond the scope and constraints of time.

Despite a relatively brief career (he first came to notice as a musician at age 29 in 1955, formally launched a solo career at 33 in 1960, and was dead at 40 in 1967), saxophonist John Coltrane is among the most important - and most controversial - figures in jazz.

Since Coltrane was a multifaceted player who changed his style radically over the course of his career, it has made for much confusion in the appreciation of his playing. There remains a critical divide between the adherents of his earlier, more conventional (if still highly imaginative) work and his later, more experimental work. No-one, however, questions Coltrane's religious commitment to jazz or doubts his significance in the history of music.

John Coltrane was born on September 23, 1926 in Hamlet, North Carolina. He grew up in High Point, North Carolina, in a relatively comfortable small town environment. Coltrane, unlike many musicians, did not show his amazing talents when he was young. He started developing into a phenomenal player in his late 20s and early 30s. Coltrane obsessed over his tone and was very critical of his playing. Even as a child he practiced a lot. His cousin Mary says that he practiced "all the time." Alice Coltrane, his second wife, talked about how he would study pictures of cathedrals and somehow play them. "We practice", Coltrane said, "so that when the doors of perception open, we're prepared to step through."

His early musical influences, in high school, were Lester Young and Johnny Hodges. In the '40's people like Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Dexter Gordon and Tab Smith were doing things he didn't understand at the time, but that he felt emotionally.

In his solos Coltrane strung together arpeggios so dense that his saxophone seemed to play many notes at once. In 1957 he joined Thelonious Monk's band and claims to have learned a lot. He developed a technique that critic Ira Gitler labelled "sheets of sound," and the name stuck. A lot of soloists reach a certain intense peak during their solos. However, Trane would play such a flurry of notes and play so intensely, that you would think he reached his peak, and then he would play with even MORE intensity, and it kept growing. The effect was like waves of intensity, or "sheets of sound", coming at you.

John Coltrane, although he had a relatively brief career, is among the most exceptional and dynamic figures in jazz. His contributions are so outstanding as to seem to be beyond the confines and limitations of time.

G. Clark Baldwin is an educator, saxophonist, improviser, composer, and author committed to helping people learn the language of the heart. His album 'Round About Saturn is available through CD Baby, Amazon, and other retailers. His books include Etudes For Jazz Volume I, and Saxophone One: The Beginner's Guide To The Saxophone. Visit to learn more.

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