The 50th Anniversary of My Favorite Things – Part 3

 

My Favorite Things

The 50th Anniversary of John Coltrane’s Landmark Recording Sessions

– Part 3 –

Coltrane biographer Lewis Porter calls the sessions between Friday October 21st and Wednesday October 26th “the key week in Coltrane’s Atlantic output.”[i] One could easily say it was the key week in Coltrane’s entire, incredibly prolific career. (Acolytes of Coltrane’s landmark album A Love Supreme shall remember that its four movements/songs were all recorded on the single day of December 9, 1964.)

The first of Coltrane’s October 1960 sessions started in the early afternoon. Three of the five takes the group did survive: two of “Village Blues” and one of “My Favorite Things.” Unfortunately, the takes the group made that day of “Equinox” and “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes” were not issued and were tragically destroyed in a warehouse fire in 1976 together with all of Atlantic Records unissued pre-1969 recordings.[ii]  

“Village Blues” would be the first glimpse of Coltrane’s new band made available to the public when it was released on Coltrane Jazz in February 1961 together with seven cuts that Coltrane recorded in late 1959 with Miles Davis’s excellent rhythm session of Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb. While the Coltrane Jazz tracks from the late ’59 session are all excellent, they seem somewhat old-fashioned compared to bluesy, soulful, optimistic “Village Blues.”

McCoy Tyner carries “Village Blues” along with deep piano chords, Steve Davis lays down a simple yet steady bass line, and Elvin’s drumming and cymbal work is loose and light. Coltrane’s tenor sax work is bluesy and relaxed. Mid song, Coltrane hits us with a short spurt of plaintive, searching blowing, but pulls back up as if he only wants to give us a taste of things to come. Tyner’s piano solo is reminiscent of Red Garland and Wynton Kelly. “Village Blues” is solid bridge between Coltrane’s solo work of the late 1950s and Coltrane’s new group and style.

Coltrane then moved on to record “My Favorite Things,” a song the group had started playing live three months before (a bootleg recording exists from one of Coltrane’s July performances at the Showboat in Philadelphia).[iii] Frank Tenot, the Parisian concert promoter, was at the October 21st session and said that witnessing Coltrane play “My Favorite Things” for the first time was “a great shock.”  “It was under the supervision of Nesuhi Ertegun … I remember Coltrane at first tried to play tenor, and then for the second take he played soprano, and then there’s a take … where he’s playing soprano and tenor.”[iv]

A regal cymbal crash and deep piano chords announce the stately beginning of “My Favorite Things.”  The piano, drums, and bass begin a beautiful, mesmerizing vamp. After two rounds, Coltrane enters, singing through his soprano saxophone … “raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens … these are a few of my favorite things.”

Coltrane plays the song’s theme twice and then begins a short, joyous solo full of feeling and wonder. Coltrane ends his solo with a breathless, swirling stream of notes sounding of distant, exotic places. Coltrane gives way to Tyner whose piano solo sparkles with happiness as it slides in and out of deep, trance-like playing.

One can just imagine the amazed, wide-eyed looks of producer Nesuhi Ertegun, engineer Tom Dowd, and promoter Frank Tenot as they witness the amazing, fresh sounds being made. “My Favorite Things” is full of lightness and grace, yet at the same time is fiery and passionate.  Each of the four musicians is intent on his instrument, but a special energy seems to pulse between them as they communicate with one another through their playing.

What makes the Coltrane’s October 1960 sessions all the more incredible is the way in which they were performed and recorded. Each song is a complete live performance made in the studio. All the musicians are playing together at once and true individual and group improvisation is taking place. A typical recording session today individually records each musician in a building succession where the next track is recorded on top of the previous ones, for example in the order of drums, guitar, bass, and so on. With recording sessions today, significant technological polishing and tweaking is made to perfect each note and make sure the mix and all of the timing are just right. Today, the real-time artistry and interplay between musicians is lost.

The music that Coltrane and his new group made during the October 1960 sessions in truly of the moment. It has the “freshness of discovery” among the musicians who are learning each other and fusing their individual styles into an innovative new language cohesive group statement.

Elvin Jones, John Coltrane, Reggie Workman, McCoy Tyner, “My Favorite Things,” 1961

Recording engineer Tom Dowd must also be considered one of the creators of Coltrane’s music for Atlantic. Dowd was born in 1925, a year before Coltrane, and he grew up playing piano, violin, tuba, and stand-up bass. Dowd studied at City College of New York, and was then drafted into the US Army in 1942. However, instead of being shipped overseas, Dowd was able to work and study in the physics labs of Columbia University as part of the secret Manhattan Project which created the atomic bomb. Dowd planned to obtain a degree in nuclear physics when he completed his work on the Manhattan Project. However he decided to abandon his studies based on ethical issues he had with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan.[v] Dowd took a job in 1948 as a recording engineer and joined Ahmet Ertegun and Atlantic Records in 1954. It was Dowd’s idea to cut Ray Charles’ recording of “What’d I Say,” and a year later Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things,” into two parts and release them as the A-side and B-sides of the same single record. Dowd also engineered Atlantic’s first 8-track studio on West 60th Street in 1959 and began recording there in 1960.[vi]

Atlantic Records had an incredibly diverse roster of artists working for them in the late 1950s. “I would be sitting in the studio doing the Coasters at 2 o’clock in the afternoon … Ahmet would call me up and say, ‘Ten o’clock tonight, we’re going to do Mingus.’ You want culture shock? Go from the Coasters to Charlie Mingus in ten hours!” Coltrane and his group were highly serious and professional in the studio.

Dowd recalled that Coltrane would always arrive at least an hour before the recording session was due to start. “He’d stand in the corner, change a reed, a mouthpiece, an instrument, and he’d play arpeggios, practicing things by himself. Then finally he’d get down to something that he wanted to do, and he’d go over the same thing four or five times – there’d just be minute differences.” Coltrane would be so engrossed in warming up and preparing for the session that he often would not notice when the other musicians had arrived. “Finally, when he stopped and turned around, he’d say ‘Hi guys.’ … He was a very intense, very conscientious human being.”[vii]

Nesuhi Ertegun was also surprised by the band’s high level of preparation. “John and the musicians walked in without any sheet music. I was worried until they started playing, and then I could hear that they must have rehearsed on their own time.  I noticed there was less back and forth conversation than any other group I recorded.”[viii]

Many years after recording these songs, McCoy Tyner shared his take on why there was so little discussion during Coltrane’s “classic quartet” recording sessions. “He never told you what to do; he just sort of created the atmosphere. I think he picked us because he knew we were dedicated [and] he just let us do whatever [we felt was right.]”[ix]

Advances in recording technology also helped to set the stage for the music Coltrane and his group made during these sessions. Atlantic Records entered the 33-1/3 RPM, 12 inch long play (LP) record business very early, issuing its first album in March of 1949. Prior to the advent of the LP, the 45 rpm recording standard put severe limitations on the length that a recorded song could be, usually no more than four minutes per side. But with the LP format, which allowed up to 30 or 45 minutes of music per side (depending on groove format), musicians could take more time in which to develop their musical statements. Thus we see Coltrane recording “Summertime” which lasts eleven and a half minutes and “My Favorite Things” which lasts close to 14 minutes. Atlantic was also one of the first companies to record in stereo and all of Coltrane’s sessions with Atlantic were recorded this way.[x]

On Monday October 24th, the group returned to the studio for a busy four and half hour session. They recorded Coltrane’s compositions “Central Park West,” “Mr. Syms,” “Exotica” (AKA “Untitled Original”), and the standards “Summertime” and “Body and Soul.” Also recorded were two tracks with rhythm section only, “Lazy Bird” and “In Your Own Sweet Way,” that were released in November 1976 under McCoy Tyner’s name as part of a compilation of music that included Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, and Herbie Hancock.[xi]

The group left the studio for an hour break and then returned at 7:30 PM for a session that went until midnight. They did 11 takes to record six original songs: “Mr. Knight,” “Blues to Elvin,” “Mr. Day,” “Blues to You,” “Blues to Bechet,” and “Satellite.” 

“Mr. Knight” is among this writer’s very favorite Coltrane songs. It is pure joy. Steve Davis starts “Mr. Knight” with pulsing bass that goes on for almost half a minute before Elvin dances in, his cymbal work full of Latin tinge. McCoy Tyner layers on top with simple piano chords. Coltrane enters, playing in a lower register, yet still joyful and light. Coltrane paints incredible pictures with his saxophone … big splashes of colorful sound and plaintive searching. Elvin’s drumming is exquisite and Tyner thrills us with a bouncy piano solo with a carnival/Caribbean feel that is light and joyous. “Mr. Knight” connects us with what was going on in 1960, pointing towards all that is possible, all the good that hopefully lies ahead.

“Mr. Day” is like “Mr. Knight” and a steady, simple bass solo starts the song. But the tempo of “Mr. Day” is much faster and Coltrane rips in on tenor with unyielding backing from Tyner whose piano work really helps to swing the song forward. Coltrane’s style is one of happy, energetic searching, and he embellishes the song with spiral like runs on his tenor. The entire effect is one of powerful optimism and elation. Tyner gives a fantastic, powerful solo, his strong left hand gives the effect that there are two piano players on the track. It is clear that Tyner is having a ball. “[Coltrane] used to tell me, ‘keep moving, keep moving’ and that’s exactly what I did.”[xii] Coltrane plunges back in, playing in the upper register and overblowing. Tyner’s final solo blends into bass line and Elvin’s light cymbal work to end the song.

The final session was on Wednesday October 26th from noon until 6PM. The group recorded six songs and the archives show only one take of each. The Cole Porter standard “Everytime We Say Goodbye,” and the Gershwin standard “But Not For Me,” were released in 1962 on the My Favorite Things album. Coltrane’s composition “26-2” was based on Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation” but was only posthumously released in 1970 on the album The Coltrane Legacy. The final three tracks were all released in 1960 on Coltrane’s Sound: “Liberia,” “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes,” and “Equinox.”  

“Liberia” is a tribute to Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night in Tunisia” which was part of the repertoire that Gillespie and Charlie Parker played the night that Coltrane first encountered them at their Academy of Music concert in June 1945.[xiii] 

“The Night Has a Thousand Eyes” was the theme song of a 1948 film based on the novel by Cornell Woolrich. Jerry Brainin wrote the music and Buddy Bernier wrote the lyrics. The movie starred Edward G. Robinson as a nightclub fortune teller whose con game becomes all too real when he begins to actually foresee the future.  The song has been covered by numerous artists including Bing Crosby, Paul Desmond, Horace Silver, Stan Getz, Ahmad Jamal, Sonny Stitt, Shelly Manne and others.[xiv]

From the first note of Coltrane’s “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes” Elvin Jones swings the song forward with his energetic drumming and remarkable cymbal work. Pianist McCoy Tyner and bassist Steve Davis play straight ahead, but Jones is full of animation as he flies around the drums. “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes” is brimming with happiness as Coltrane’s earthy tenor saxophone soars ever higher. Underneath Coltrane’s playing, the rhythm section drives the song with a sense of anticipation and wonder. One can’t help but be blown away with the feeling and energy from Coltrane and his band. Tyner gives a sparkling, rhapsodic solo before Coltrane and the others enter to state the theme again and then close the song.

The final song recorded during the October 1960 sessions was Coltrane’s original blues composition “Equinox.” In his description of “Equinox” music Professor Lewis Porter writes “Coltrane was a serious blues player and his blues pieces reflect the desire to get back to a primal mood, and away from the emotionally lighter, harmonically more complex blues of the boppers.”[xv]

Tyner and Jones play a short Latin rhythm to introduce “Equinox.” The rhythm section shifts into the slow theme, the relentless underpinning of piano and bass creates a mysterious, primitive mood. Coltrane comes in on tenor, his playing is slow and deeply moving. After stating the theme twice, Coltrane begins an astounding improvisation that builds and builds emotionally, almost like a preacher exhorting his congregation. Coltrane’s playing shows us darkness and light, sorrow and joy, longing and fulfillment, the unjust and the just. Coltrane completely exposes his inner self through his playing. Elvin intersperses dramatic drum rolls and cymbal crashes throughout the song to add to the mystery and intensity of the piece.  McCoy plays beautifully with a light, sophisticated feel; his solo is remarkable and sounds like there are two pianos on the track.

Coltrane’s wife Naima named the song “Equinox.”[xvi] An equinox occurs twice a year, when the tilt of the Earth’s axis is inclined neither away from nor towards the sun, the sun being vertically above the point of reference. John Coltrane was born on September 23, 1926, one day before the official autumn equinox of that year. Coltrane’s biographer Dr. C.O. Simpkins was so moved by the song that he titled the first chapter of his book “Equinox.”

Coltrane’s tenor saxophone work on “Equinox” is full of profound searching and narration, as if he is simultaneously trying to explain and comprehend life at the same time. “Equinox” could be considered the culmination of Coltrane’s life to that point, an eight and a half minute summation of all that he has learned, and all that he still wants to know. It is the most sincere, thoughtful single piece of music this author has ever heard. It is so unique, nuanced, and emotion provoking that it can be listened to repeatedly without becoming tiresome.

“Equinox” wasn’t released until 1964 when Atlantic issued the album Coltrane’s Sound. Before recording it, Coltrane performed “Equinox” live several times, including during the December 1959 session with Miles Davis’ rhythm section, at the 1960 Monterrey Jazz Festival, during other stops on his initial tour, and during the Friday October 21 session. Unfortunately, the other official recordings of “Equinox” by Atlantic were never issued and subsequently lost in the warehouse fire. Further, unlike “Naima,” “My Favorite Things” and future songs he would records, “Equinox” did not a become part of Coltrane’s live repertoire and was not a popular favorite while he was alive. (Coltrane’s discography shows that he performed “Equinox” during a performance at Sutherland Hotel in Chicago in March 1961, but there are no other records of his playing it during the remainder of his career.) Luckily, Atlantic included “Equinox” as the centerpiece of the six songs on the Best of John Coltrane album they released in 1970 and the song has grown in stature since then.

Eighteen of the nineteen songs Coltrane and his quartet recorded during the October 1960 sessions were originally released over four Atlantic Records albums during Coltrane’s life:

–          Coltrane Jazz (released Feb 1961) 

–          My Favorite Things (released March 1961)

–          Coltrane Plays the Blues (released June 1962)

–          Coltrane’s Sound (released June 1964)

The first four Coltrane album covers from Atlantic all had photos of Coltrane on them. However, Atlantic took a different route for the next covers. Neshui Ertegun was a lover and collector of avant-garde art and he commissioned artist Marty Norman to create the abstract, Matisse-like cover for Coltrane Plays the Blues, released in 1962.  Ertegun then hired artist Marvin Israel to create the cover art for Coltrane’s Sound, a surreal, sliced up rendering of Coltrane’s head and shoulders (Marvin Israel also did a similar picture of saxophonist Sonny Stitt for the Atlantic album Stitt Plays Bird which was released in 1963). By the time Coltrane’s Sound was released in 1964, Coltrane had recorded multiple albums with his new label Impulse, each of which had a discrete cover, usually a photo of Coltrane playing. When Coltrane first got a copy of Coltrane’s Sound, he was in a club preparing for a show. He did not comment but was said to look very puzzled as he examined the result.

Coltrane’s popularity shot up after My Favorite Things was released in March of 1961. The record got serious radio play and sold 50,000 copies during its first year of release, tremendous results for a jazz album.[xvii] Coltrane was named 1961 Jazzman of the Year by Down Beat magazine and won best musician in multiple categories including tenor saxophone and miscellaneous instrument (soprano sax).[xviii] But instead of resting on his laurels and consolidating his fan base and record sales, Coltrane pushed foward.

In April of 1961 John Coltrane signed a recording contract with the newly formed Impulse! Records, a division of ABC-Paramount Records. Coltrane and Ray Charles were both represented by the Shaw Agency who had helped to engineer Charles’ defection from Atlantic to ABC in late 1959 with an agreement that was unheard of in the industry.  The deal that lured Coltrane to Impulse from Atlantic was also extremely lucrative and included a $10,000 advance for the first year, with two-year options that rose to $20,000 per year thereafter.[xix]

Shortly after the October 1960 recording sessions for Atlantic, Coltrane started a collaboration with multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy whom he had met in 1954 during a recording session with Johnny Hodges in L.A. Dolphy played the alto sax, bass clarinet, and flute and had a highly inventive sound and style of playing that some (including Dolphy) likened to the sound of birds. On May 23rd, Dolphy joined Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones, Reggie Workman who had just replaced Steve Davis on bass, and a small orchestra of additional jazz musicians for the first of the now famous Africa/Brass album sessions with Impulse.

Two days later, on May 25, 1961, Coltrane, Tyner, Jones, Workman, bassist Art Davis, Dolphy and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard would record the album Olé Coltrane, Coltrane’s final work for Atlantic. The title song “Olé” had the working title “Venga Vallejo” and included both Reggie Workman and Art Davis on bass, Coltrane on soprano sax, a hypnotic flute solo by Dolphy, a remarkable trumpet solo by Freddie Hubbard that conjures images of the conquistadors, and a superb piano solo by Tyner with hints of Spain and India. (During the middle ages, Spain was a melting pot of cultures and religions with major influences from the Islamic world as well as an influx of Roma Gypsies who originally migrated into Europe from India around 1000 AD).

Elvin Jones and Eric Dolphy, 1961

During the Olé Coltrane session the group also recorded “Dahomey Dance” in honor of the newly independent African Republic Dahomey. Coltrane lays down a rich, bluesy solo with some very fast, occasionally muddled, runs on tenor sax, followed by an expressive Hubbard solo on trumpet. Eric Dolphy then bounces into “Dahomey Dance” with a bubbly, squeaky, somewhat Parker-esque solo on alto sax that is pure fun. Tyner jumps in with a sparkly piano solo; then all of the horns come in to restate the theme and close the song.

During 1961 and 1962, when Coltrane’s popularity was cresting, the public was assaulted with a variety of Coltrane material that had been recorded at different times. Coltrane’s sound and style had changed rapidly during his solo career, and the intermingled release of records from different labels and time periods was confusing to the public. For example, in 1961 there were five Coltrane albums released to the public (in the following order):

–          Coltrane Jazz (Atlantic, recorded November & December 1959 & October 1960)

–          My Favorite Things (Atlantic, recorded October 1960)

–          Bags & Trane (Atlantic, recorded January 1959)

–          Africa/Brass (Impulse, recorded May and June I961)

–          Settin’ the Pace (Prestige, recorded March 1958)

1962 saw a similarly confusing series of Coltrane albums come out with the release of Olé Coltrane in February (recorded in May 1961), Live at the Village Vanguard in March (recorded in November 1961), and Coltrane Plays the Blues in July (recorded in October 1960).

Despite being savaged by critics for much of his career, Coltrane was always polite and granted numerous interviews to the press. Coltrane was a soft spoken person and in interviews he could be somewhat guarded. But he always gave very thoughtful, intelligent answers and with his few words he said much.

A favorite topic of most writers was to ask Coltrane to explain what he was trying to say with his music and if he thought people understood his work. “I never even thought about whether or not [listeners] understand what I’m doing … [t]he emotional reaction is all that matters. As long as there’s some feeling of communication, it isn’t necessary that it be understood. After all, I loved music myself long before I could identify a G Minor Seventh chord.”[xx]

Coltrane’s earliest known recordings are from 1945 when he performed a number of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie tunes together with a few of his US Navy band mates. Lewis Porter’s comments about these recording are quite insightful noting Coltrane “was not, as one might have thought, a great talent who took a long time to get recognized. He … did not begin with obvious exceptional talent [and] was not some isolated genius coming up with brilliant flashes of inspiration … but a normal person growing and developing in a fortunately inspired circle of musicians.” [xxi]

It is remarkable how much Coltrane is revered by his musical contemporaries and the young musicians that he inspired. It is clear from the many dozens of interviews of people who knew Coltrane that he was a sincere, gentle guy who had to struggle through much adversity and many hardships to achieve what he did.

There is a photo of Coltrane from the late 1940s with a group of his musician friends in Philadelphia. The young men look very happy and full of youthful exuberance, and the smile on Coltrane’s face is particularly radiant. But there are very few pictures of Coltrane after this where he is smiling. 

Coltrane is among the most dedicated artists in history and he was completely invested in his music and quest for higher meaning. His work ethic and focus on improvement is unrivaled in music and he was religious about practicing throughout his career. McCoy Tyner noted that even at the peak of his career Coltrane “would practice during breaks in the club. He was just diligent, very dedicated [and on] a mission in terms of developing himself.”[xxii]

Coltrane would tragically die on July 16, 1967 from liver cancer; two months shy of his 41st birthday and a mere six and a half years after his October 1960 sessions for Atlantic. His funeral was attended by over 1000 people. A group of Coltrane’s protégés performed a concert during the wake and his friend Calvin Massey read Coltrane’s prayer from the notes to the album A Love Supreme. Since Coltrane’s death, each of the main houses he lived in has been purchased and made into an historic location and landmarks have been erected in his honor in Hamlet and High Point, North Carolina.

One of Coltrane’s favorite topics outside of music was Einstein’s theory of relativity and his contemporaries marveled at seeing Coltrane reading Einstein’s book on the subject.[xxiii] Einstein had a truly incredible imagination and he would often conduct thought experiments to help him develop a new theory. In discovering relativity, Einstein recounted that he had imagined himself racing through space alongside a beam of light.[xxiv] I can imagine Coltrane dreaming of the same race as he performed many of the songs recorded during those three key October days in 1960. If you listen to them closely, maybe you can imagine it too.

Copyright 2010, Shawl Lobree, all rights reserved.

(The images and photography herein are copyright of their respective owners.)

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

Check out the excellent NPR radio program (link below) from 10-21-2010 by journalist Robin Washington on the 50th Anniversary of John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things.” The piece contains live interviews of McCoy Tyner and Steve Kuhn recalling their contributions to the song, archival interviews of John Coltrane from 1958 and Elvin Jones from 1988, and numerous audio clips of “My Favorite Things” as performed by Coltrane and others (including a complete version of the October 21, 1960 studio recording).

http://www.prx.org/pieces/53808-my-favorite-things-at-50/ 


[i] Lewis Porter, liner notes The Heavyweight Champion: John Coltrane the Complete Atlantic Recordings, May 1995.

[ii] Joel Dorn, May 1995, Liner notes, The Heavyweight Champion: John Coltrane the Complete Atlantic Recordings.

[iii] DeVito, p. 588.

[iv] Kahn, p. 43.

[v] Andy Schwartz, “REMEMBERING TOM DOWD (10.29.2002),” April 15, 2009, www.nyrocker.com/blog/tag/tom-dowd/

[vi] Schwartz

[vii] Ertegun, p. 135.

[viii] Thomas, p. 115.

[ix] McCoy Tyner interview, Trane Tracks: The Legacy of John Coltrane, DVD, 2005.

[xi] DeVito, p. 595.

[xii] Tyner interview.

[xiii] Porter, p. 188.

[xiv] Sandra Burlingame, ” The Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948),” www.jazzstandards.com/compositions-2/thenighthasathousandeyes.htm

[xv] Porter, liner notes, Heavyweight Champion, p. 21.

[xvi] Porter, p. 184.

[xvii] Thomas, p. 133.

[xviii] Porter, liner notes, Heavyweight Champion, p. 28.

[xix] Ashley Kahn, The House that Trane Built: the Story of Impulse Records, 2006, p. 49.

[xx] Simpkins, p. 182.

[xxi] Porter, p. 50.

[xxii] Tyner interview, Trane Tracks, 2005.

[xxiii] Thomas, p. 188.

[xxiv] Einstein: His Life and Universe, by Walter Isaacson (2007).

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The 50th Anniversary of My Favorite Things – Part 2

 

My Favorite Things

The 50th Anniversary of John Coltrane’s Landmark Recording Sessions

– Part 2 –

John Coltrane had considered leaving Miles Davis’ group and forming his own working band as early as 1957 but was worried that his shyness and lack of “personality” would limit his success. Coltrane’s friend, trumpeter Calvin Massey, told him “yeah, but you can play. That’s the difference, I can’t play. I got to have personality to get across. You ain’t got to have no personality. All you got to do is blow that horn.”[i] 

Miles has gone out of his way to help Coltrane establish his solo career with the hope that Coltrane would continue to play in his band as well. Miles set Coltrane up with his lawyer Harold Lovett who helped Coltrane land the contract with Atlantic and establish his own music publishing company “Jowcol.” But as 1959 progressed, Coltrane tried unsuccessfully to leave Miles Davis group by contacting his friend Jimmy Heath about the opportunity to take his place. Heath had just been released from a four and a half year prison term for selling heroin and was eager to get back on the scene. 

During a June 1959 performance at the Blackhawk in San Francisco, Coltrane told Oakland Tribune reporter Russ Wilson “there’s nothing definite yet, but I have been seriously thinking [of leaving Davis].”[ii] Coltrane went on to tell Wilson that Jimmy Heath would be his probable replacement. When Miles read the article he exploded in anger, “I had done everything for him, had treated him like my brother and here he was doing this kind of shit to me … I told him, if you want to leave, leave, but tell me before you start running around tell everybody else that shit and don’t be putting it out there who’s going to replace you.”[iii] 

Jimmy Heath flew out to LA after getting permission from his probation officer and joined Miles Davis, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, Jimmy Cobb and Cannonball Adderley at the Jazz Seville, replacing Coltrane midway through the engagement. Heath played with Davis in LA for two weeks, then flew to Chicago to play at the Regal Theater followed by an appearance at the French Lick Jazz Festival in Indiana. Before going back to Chicago to perform with Miles at the Playboy Festival, Heath stopped in Philadelphia to visit his girlfriend and future wife Mona, and to see his probation officer. “He told me I had to remain within a fifty- or sixty-mile radius of Philadelphia.”[iv] Heath was devastated. Miles did everything he could to pull strings and overturn the decision without success. So Miles performed at the Playboy Festival with only Adderley on alto saxophone. 

In the meantime, Coltrane has already formed a group (unfortunately, the members are not known) and during the first weeks in August 1959 he played dates at the Showboat in Philadelphia and the Caverns in Washington DC. However, when Davis returned to New York he convinced Coltrane to rejoin him for a month long stand at Birdland starting on August 13. (It was during this engagement on the night of August 26th that Miles was clubbed on the head and arrested by the New York police for loitering on the street in front of the Birdland nightclub after helping a white female acquaintance to a taxi).[v] 

Coltrane went into the Atlantic Records studio again on November 24 and December 2nd, 1959 and borrowed Miles’ complete rhythm section of Wynton Kelly (piano), Paul Chambers (bass), and Jimmy Cobb (drums). The songs recorded would complete the Giant Steps album and make up most of the album Coltrane Jazz. The December 2 session yielded another Coltrane masterpiece, the modal tune “Naima” that Coltrane had written for his wife. Coltrane had also recorded “Naima” during his first Atlantic session in March 1959. But it was the addition of Wynton Kelly and Jimmy Cobb during the December 2nd session that allowed Coltrane to capture the spare, exceedingly beautiful modal sound that is the essence of the song. 

Coltrane had taken nine months and five recording sessions with three different musician line-ups before he was satisfied with the programming for Giant Steps. Released in January 1960, Giant Steps was Coltrane’s debut album with Atlantic. All of the songs were original compositions and there was no question that the album was a strong statement that Coltrane had fully arrived as his own man. But as usual, some critics were tough on him. Whitney Balliett, Jazz critic for the The New Yorker from 1954 until 2001, wrote “Coltrane’s tone is harsh, flat, querulous, and at times almost vindictive … many of his notes are useless, and his rhythmic methods are frequently just clothes flung all over the room.” Charles Hanna, writing in the Minneapolis Sunday Tribune was more positive saying “he plays a chord five different ways, milking every possible sound from its structure [but] he avoids the danger of a clinical sound with use of a good rhythmic sense and a deeply emotional tone.”[vi] 

Despite the criticism, Coltrane had gained significant momentum with Giant Steps and he had a strong desire to form his own permanent, working band. But as 1960 began, Miles once again convinced Coltrane to join him for another trip to the West Coast and then a European tour that would visit France, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, West Germany, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. 

Miles Davis and Jimmy Heath had each been enchanted by their first trips to Europe (they played separately at the first Paris Jazz Festival in 1949). But the European tour with Miles was a tough experience for Coltrane. He was overflowing with ideas of his own and badly wanted to break free from Miles and start his own group. But with Cannonball’s departure, Coltrane felt an obligation to help Miles complete the tours. Jimmy Cobb recalled “… [Coltrane] really didn’t want to make the gig, but Miles talked him into it. He sat next to me on the bus, looking like he was ready to split at any time. He spent most of the time looking out the window and playing Oriental-sound scales on soprano.” [vii] To make matters worse, Coltrane was booed during many performances for his aggressive style of playing.[viii] Following a concert in Paris, French music impresario, Frank Tenot, rushed backstage to find Coltrane and apologize for the hissing crowd telling him “You’re too new for the people, the don’t hear [what] they liked in the past. You go too far.” Coltrane flashed Tenot a little smile and responded “I don’t go far enough.”[ix] 

As soon as Coltrane returned from Europe he signed a five year management contract with Shaw Artists Corporation.[x] Coltrane then landed a nine week engagement at the Jazz Gallery in New York that started on May 3rd 1960. Coltrane’s lineup included Steve Kuhn on piano, Pete LaRoca Sims on drums, and Steve Davis on bass. LaRoca had played with Sonny Rollins, Jackie McLean, and Slide Hampton; and Coltrane had known Steve Davis since the early 1950s in Philadelphia and Davis’s wife Kadijha introduced Coltrane to Naima.[xi] 

By the spring of 1960 Coltrane had recruited 21 year old McCoy Tyner to take over the piano chair in place of Steve Kuhn. During his 15 year career, Coltrane had played with a number of great pianists – Red Garland, Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly – and he knew the sound and style he wanted for his new group. Tyner’s nickname was “Bud Monk” since his playing displayed both the subtlety of Bud Powell and the strong, inventive key work of Thelonious Monk. 

Coltrane’s had first met McCoy Tyner in the mid 1950s when his friend, trumpeter and composer Calvin Massey, had introduced the 17 year old pianist to Coltrane. Tyner was also from Philadelphia and Coltrane and Tyner played together in 1957 during the time Coltrane was finally overcoming his heroin addiction. Coltrane was not ready to start his own band then, but Coltrane and Tyner had an understanding that when Coltrane was ready to go out on his own, Tyner would join him.[xii] 

When Coltrane enlisted Tyner he was playing in the Jazztet with Coltrane’s teenage friend Benny Golson and trumpeter Art Farmer. Together with Curtis Fuller on trombone, Addison Farmer on bass and Lex Humphries on drums, the Jazztet recorded their debut album Meet the Jazztet in early February 1960 including four compositions by Golson and one by Farmer. After Tyner’s abrupt departure, the Jazztet enlisted newcomer Duke Pearson from Atlanta, GA at the piano when they played at the Newport Jazz Festival in late June. Golson was later to jokingly grumble to Coltrane about Tyner “fine friend you are, I went out and … [found a great] piano player to join our group and you stole him.”[xiii] 

In May 1959, an innovative saxophonist from Fort Worth, Texas named Ornette Coleman recorded The Shape of Jazz to Come in L.A. for Atlantic Records. The following November, Coleman and his group (Don Cherry on coronet, Charlie Haden on bass and Billy Higgins on drums) went to New York to debut at the Five Spot in Greenwich Village. The group’s new freer style of music deeply polarized the jazz community; people either thought Coleman was a genius or a con man. But the controversial nature of the music caught the attention of the New York jazz community and the initial two week engagement turned into six months. The music is now considered “a watershed event in the genesis of avant-garde jazz, profoundly steering its future course and throwing down a gauntlet that some still haven’t come to grips with.”[xiv] Coltrane was among those deeply impacted by Coleman’s music and enlisted Coleman to give him a series of lessons on what he was doing.[xv] 

Coleman, Cherry, Haden, Higgins and also drummer Ed Blackwell had been playing together in LA and first recorded together in 1958. When they created their own fusion, neither Haden or Higgins played in a conventionally rhythmic way and with the absence of a chordal harmonies being supplied by pianist, the group had tremendous freedom in which to improvise and interact.   

In late June of 1960 during Coltrane’s stand at the Jazz Gallery, he entered the Atlantic studio with Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, and Ed Blackwell and recorded “Cherryco” by Don Cherry and “The Blessing” by Coleman. Two weeks later Coltrane, Cherry, Blackwell and Percy Heath on bass (in place of Haden) recorded two more Coleman compositions “Focus on Sanity” and “The Invisible” as well as Thelonious Monk’s composition “Bemsha Swing.” These were the first recordings of Coltrane on soprano saxophone, but the resulting album, The Avant-Garde: John Coltrane & Don Cherry, was not released by Atlantic until 1966. 

Coltrane was scheduled to play at Georg Wein’s Newport Jazz Festival on July 4th but the the festival was cancelled mid-event due to rioting outside the festival park during the Saturday night concert (the people inside the walled concert grounds were enjoying performances by Ray Charles, Horace Silver and others and were mostly unaware of the turmoil going on outside, WSJ article).

Coltrane took his new quartet – McCoy Tyner, Steve Davis, Pete LaRoca – on the road, including two weeks at Smalls Paradise in Harlem, one week at the Showboat in Philadelphia, two weeks at the Sutherland Hotel in Chicago, and a week at the Minor Key in Detroit.  Pete LaRoca played each of these gigs, but when Coltrane headed from Detroit to L.A, LaRoca did not join and was replaced by Billy Higgins from Ornette Coleman’s group who lived in L.A. Coltrane played at the Zebra Lounge in South Central LA, the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco, and the Monterey Jazz Festival on Saturday September 24th before heading to Denver.

Stories vary as to how Coltrane recruited the final core member of his quartet, drummer Elvin Jones. But all accounts make it clear that Coltrane had Jones in mind from the beginning. Elvin Jones was from a large musical family in Detroit and his older brothers were pianist Hank who was accompanist to Ella Fitzgerald and had played with Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman; and trumpeter Thad who was featured soloist with Count Basie. When Coltrane mentioned to McCoy Tyner that he planned to bring Elvin into the band, Tyner was surprised, “ironically I didn’t know Hank and Thad had a brother.”[xvi] 

Elvin Jones started recording as a sideman in 1948 at age 21 and recorded with Miles Davis in 1955, Sonny Rollins in 1957, and numerous other leading jazz musicians. It was during his time with Miles Davis that Coltrane first met Elvin. In September 1959, Jones played with Coltrane and an all star lineup at Birdland including Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Wayne Shorter on tenor sax, Tommy Flanagan and Cedar Walton on piano, and Ahmed Abdul-Malik and George Tucker on bass. Elvin also played percussion with Gil Evan’s orchestra on Miles Davis album Sketches of Spain

Miles Davis and Elvin Jones, c.1959

Elvin Jones would later recount that Tommy Flanagan, who played piano on two first two Giant Steps sessions and who played with Jones in a number of groups, alerted Jones that Coltrane was interested in him. When Coltrane and Elvin finally got together in the fall of 1960, Coltrane asked Jones to join him in San Francisco. “I thought at the time he just wanted me to join because I could drive and he was tired of driving! So I said ‘no, I don’t want to go to San Francisco.’’’ Coltrane then told Jones the group would travel from San Francisco to Denver and said “I’ll meet you in Denver.” Jones was non-committal, but soon thereafter, when Dizzy Gillespie invited him to join his band Jones told Gillespie he was going to go with Coltrane.[xvii] 

Billy Higgins was still with the band in Denver. During the rehearsal at the Melody Lounge for the show later that day, Elvin told them, “I don’t want to play, I want to hear what you’re doing so I can learn it.”[xviii] Higgins and Jones would alternate sets during the concert and sometimes play together. After the band left Denver, Higgins did not join and Elvin Jones became Coltrane’s permanent drummer. 

Elvin’s impact on the group was immediate. Bassist Steve Davis would recount “that first night Elvin was in the band, his was playing so strong and so loud you could hear him outside the club and down the block.”[xix]  Tyner agreed, “when we first played together he said ‘look I got it, just relax’ and he boy he had it, he really did, he set it right up, you couldn’t do anything but play.”[xx] 

When Coltrane returned to New York in early October, he started a three week stand at the Half Note that helped the new quartet to quickly gel and paved the was for the momentous Atlantic Recordings a few weeks later. 

How the World Changed in 1960

The year 1960 was a true turning point in U.S. and world history on many fronts and Coltrane’s October session reflect the turmoil, progress, fear, and hope of the time. The year started with Senator John F. Kennedy announcing his plan to run for the Presidency. Kennedy was a young, charismatic, dynamic man whose speeches were invigorating and uplifting to many. But his opponent was Richard Nixon who was Vice President to the very popular President Dwight Eisenhower and the race was closely fought.  In September, Nixon and Kennedy would carry out the first televised Presidential debate. Nixon looked stiff, pale, and had a five o’clock shadow of stubble. Kennedy looked relaxed and was much more telegenic. A survey of people who watched the debate on TV showed Kennedy as the clear winner.

Nixon/Kennedy debate 1960

In early February, four black students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University begin a sit-in at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. Although they were refused service, they were allowed to stay at the counter. The event triggered many similar nonviolent protests throughout the Southern United States including sit-ins in Richmond, Virginia; Nashville, Tennessee; and Atlanta, Georgia. Six months later on July 25, the four original protesters were served lunch at the same Woolworth’s counter in Greensboro. 

On August 1, 1960 Dahomey (now called the Republic of Benin) achieved full independence from France and became a sovereign country. Two years before, the Republic of Dahomey (République du Dahomey) had been established as a self-governing republic within the French Community. Across Africa during 1960 numerous European colonies gained their independence including Cameroon, Somalia, Gabon, Chad, Senegal, Nigeria, Togo, Zambia, the Congo and Ubangi-Shari (now the Central African Republic). 

The Civil Rights Act of 1960, which established federal inspection of local voter registration polls and introduced penalties for anyone who obstructed someone’s attempt to register to vote or actually vote, was signed into law by President Eisenhower on May 6, 1960. 

In July, Harper Lee released her critically acclaimed novel To Kill a Mockingbird which had a major impact on the way that Americans across the country viewed racism, segregation and the south. Despite her editors’ warnings that the book might not sell well, it quickly became a sensation, bringing acclaim to Lee in both literary circles, and also in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. The book went through numerous printings and went on to win the Pulitzer price for fiction in 1961.

The Cold War took a turn for the worse in May 1960 when the Soviets shot down an American Lockheed U2 spy plane in their airspace. The U.S. denied that they were spying on the USSR, but a few days later the Soviets produced pilot Francis Gary Powers whom they had captured after he parachuted to safety. The Soviets also retrieved the U2 plane itself which was not destroyed in the crash and was largely intact. Prior to the event, the Cold War had started to thaw and Soviet Premier Khrushchev has spent a good part of 1959 touring the U.S. and making overtures to American leaders to soften relations.  But after the U.S. openly lied about the intent of the U2 mission, the Soviets took the thawing cold war and turned it back into a freeze. Later in the year, Khrushchev was giving a speech at the UN concerning U.S. imperialism and is reported to have pounded his shoe on the lectern to drive home his point.  

Fidel Castro and Nikita Khrushchev

On New Year’s Day 1959, Cuban President Fulgencio Batista fled the country and Fidel Castro tool power in the Cuban Revolution. Castro visited the United States in 1959 and tried to meet with President Eisenhower but was rebuffed. In August 1960, in response to a United States embargo against Cuba, Fidel Castro nationalized all American and foreign-owned property in the nation. All American citizens and companies fled the country.

France would conduct the first test of its atomic bomb in February 1960 and would conduct two other tests during the year. As France struggled with Colonial wars in Vietnam and Algeria, the U.S. announced plans to send 3,500 soldiers to Vietnam.

The sexual revolution and women’s liberation movement were launched with full fervor in May 1960 when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced pending approval of “birth control” as an additional indication for Searle’s Enovid (a treatment for menstrual disorders), making it the world’s first approved oral contraceptive pill.

Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike became the world’s first elected female head of government when she is elected Prime Minister of Ceylon on July 20th and takes office the following day.

1960 saw commercial jet travel burgeon. The first commercial jet travel had happened two years before in October 1958 when British Airways predecessor BOAC and Pan American both inaugurated trans-Atlantic London to New York flights that made one stopover in Newfoundland. In August 1959, Pan Am launched the first non-stop intercontinental service between New York and London using the Boeing 707-320. All of the major arilines quickly followed suit and numerous carriers had jet service in 1960. [xxi] 

Starting in April 1960, the U.S. had an economic recession which would last 10 months. The recession was characterized by high unemployment, incredibly high inflation, and poor Gross National Product growth.

During the presidential campaign, Kennedy would promise a “New Frontier” of social and economic domestic reform. The major proposals included establishing a volunteer Peace Corps to assist underdeveloped countries, raising the minimum wage and broadening its coverage, raising Social Security benefits, providing Medicare to the elderly, providing federal aid to education, creating a federal department of urban affairs, and giving greater powers to the federal government to deal with economic recessions. [xxii] On November 8th Kennedy won the presidential election in a closely contested race against Richard Nixon. Kennedy was the youngest man ever elected U.S. President. His youthful charm, strong personality, and progressive social agenda gave hope and inspiration to millions of people in the U.S. and abroad.

In an interview with writer Frank Kofsky, Coltrane described music as being “… a big reservoir that we all dip out of.”[xxiii]  There are many who see life and the human experience as one collective reservoir of energy that we all share from. 1960 was a truly incredible year in modern history and it set the stage for so much that followed. Coltrane’s music from these October sessions captures some of the collective, hopeful essence of 1960. 


Part 3: coming on October 26th:
  1. “Village Blues”
  2. “My Favorite Things” brought to life
  3. Tom Dowd: from nuclear physics to recording wizard
  4. “Equinox”
  5. After Atlantic
  6. Racing Einstein’s beam of light

[i] Simpkins, p.71.

[ii] Simpkins, p. 90.

[iii] Davis, p. 237.

[iv] Jimmy Heath, I Walked with Giants

[v] Davis, p.

[vi] Thomas, p. 116.

[vii] Thomas, p. 109.

[viii] Thomas p. 109

[ix] Kahn, p. 5.

[x] Chris Devito et al., The John Coltrane Reference, p. 197.

[xi] ?? p. 172

[xii]

[xiv] Steve Huey, “The Shape of Jazz To Come”. www.allmusic.com

[xv] Peter Watrous, “John Coltrane: a Life Supreme” Musician, July 1987, p. 105

[xvi] McCoy Tyner interview, video, Trane Tracks, the Legacy of John Coltrane.

[xvii] Jazz and Pop, Frank Kofsky, November 1968, pp 19-20

[xviii] Kofsky, pp. 19-20.

[xix] Thomas, p. 130.

[xx] McCoy Tyner interview.

[xxii] History at the Department of Labor; Chapter 6: Eras of the New Frontier and the Great Society, 1961-1969;

 http://www.dol.gov/oasam/programs/history/dolchp06.htm

[xxiii] Woideck, the John Coltrane Companion,  Frank Kofsky, “John Coltrane: An Interview,” p. 145.

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My Favorite Things: the 50th Anniversary of John Coltrane’s Landmark Recording Sessions

sub∙lime

adj.

That which impresses the mind with a sense of grandeur or power.

Inspiring awe, veneration, and reverence.

Elevated in thought.

Complete, absolute, utter.

 

Author’s note:

In a society and culture that is based in part on in-your-face bravado and Madison Avenue fueled exaggeration and extravagance, one must truly pause, consider, and attempt to share when a hidden jewel of truth and beauty is found. In 1992, at the recommendation of a clerk during a solo visit to a nearly empty music store, I purchased my first John Coltrane album. As silly as this may sound, that chance purchase led me on a path of discovery that has not stopped yet. John Coltrane’s music is truly sublime and his life story is profound. It is my honor to share some of what I have learned about John Coltrane and his quest with you, in particular on the 50th anniversary of John Coltrane’s landmark recording session in October 1960.

Jazz musician and critic Leonard Feather wrote that “… [al]though a real understanding of his music demands technical knowledge and intense attention, Coltrane’s most devoted followers are young listeners, many of whom are musically illiterate.” This perfectly summarizes this author’s status: although I am musically illiterate and have almost no technical music knowledge, I have invested intense attention to the appreciation of Coltrane’s music for almost than 20 years.

It is my honest desire that readers of this article will enjoy learning about John Coltrane and give his music a sincere try. (Coltrane’s recordings for Atlantic, which are the focus of the story that follows, are among his most accessible music.) And I hope that you, too, will be inspired by what you hear, and seek to keep learning more. For indeed, that was what Coltrane’s life was truly about.

Shawl Lobree

October 21, 2010

…………………………………………………

My Favorite Things

The 50th Anniversary of John Coltrane’s Landmark Recording Sessions

The universe of modern music shifted in October 1960 when saxophonist John Coltrane and his newly formed quartet entered the Atlantic Records studio in New York and recorded “My Favorite Things” and eighteen other songs. These landmark sessions took place on Friday October 21st, Monday October 24th, and Wednesday October 26th and the resulting music was released between 1961 and 1964 across four albums. The music that Coltrane and his group created heralded the future of jazz and popular music and would influence scores of jazz musicians to this day, as well as pop and rock acts such as James Brown, the Byrds, the Doors and many others.

“My Favorite Things” would become Coltrane’s most famous song and he performed it live throughout his solo career. When he recorded it, “My Favorite Things” was a new Rogers and Hammerstein song written for the musical Sound of Music that opened on Broadway in November 1959 and was sung by Mary Martin (the famous movie version sung by Julie Andrews would not be released until 1965). When Coltrane decided to record “My Favorite Things” it was still comparatively unknown.

Coltrane magnificently transforms “My Favorite Things” in many ways. The piano introduction by McCoy Tyner and cymbal crashes by Elvin Jones immediately establish a majestic feeling. Coltrane’s modal arrangement featuring soprano saxophone instills the song with an eastern quality and the lovely piano soloing by McCoy Tyner adds to the joyous, hypnotic feeling.

The album My Favorite Things was released in March 1961 and included “My Favorite Things” as well as the standards “Everytime We Say Goodbye,” “Summertime,” and “But Not For Me.” The album cover had a picture of Coltrane playing the small, straight soprano sax, an instrument that had been made popular in the early days of jazz by Sydney Bechet but many in the public were now seeing for the first time. The title song became a hit attracting listeners from outside the jazz world.[i] Atlantic decided to release “My Favorite Things” as a single to gain more airplay. Following a technique that Atlantic engineer Tom Dowd had used the year before with Ray Charles “What’d I Say,” Dowd edited Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” from its original 13 minute 41 second (13:41) playing time to fit onto two sides of a 45 rpm single as “My Favorite Things, Part 1” (2:45) and “My Favorite Things, Part 2” (3:02).

In an interview published in January 1962, Coltrane told Francois Postif that “My Favorite Things” … “is my favorite piece of all those I’ve recorded.”

I don’t think I would like to do it over in any way, whereas all the other discs I’ve made could have been improved in some details. This waltz is fantastic: when you play it slowly; it has an element of gospel that’s not at all displeasing; when you play it quickly, it possesses other undeniable qualities. It’s very interesting to discover a terrain that renews itself according to the impulse you give it.[ii]

 

John Coltrane’s sudden success with “My Favorite Things” was not by chance, he had struggled through almost a dozen years as a professional musician before establishing himself as a leading saxophonist and signing with Atlantic Records in 1959. Coltrane started in music in 1939 at the age of 13, first playing alto horn and then switching to clarinet and finally the alto saxophone. Coltrane showed early talent, clearly demonstrating he was the best saxophonist at his high school. When Coltrane moved to Philadelphia from Highpoint, North Carolina in 1943, he soon met and impressed many other young musicians with his playing including Benny Golson, Jimmy Heath, and Calvin Massey. But Coltrane truly got the saxophone fever in the spring of 1945 when he witnessed Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie perform together during a concert at the grand Academy of Music concert hall in Philadelphia. “The first time I heard Bird play, it hit me right between the eyes … I wanted to be identified with him  … to be consumed by him.”[iii] This was a blessing and a curse as it would take Coltrane more than a decade to come out from under Parker’s spell and develop his own style.

Coltrane spent one year in the U.S. Navy; ironically he was inducted on August 6, 1945, the day the U.S. dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan.[iv] After his discharge from the Navy, Coltrane returned to Philadelphia and resumed his quest to become a professional musician. Between 1946 and 1955, Coltrane played with numerous band leaders including Joe Webb, King Kolax, Jimmy Heath, Howard McGhee, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, Dizzy Gillespie, Gay Crosse, Earl Bostic, Daisy Mae and the Hepcats, Johnny Hodges, Bill Carney, Jimmy Smith and others.

Coltrane’s switch from alto to tenor saxophone started in 1948 when he went on tour with Cleanhead Vinson who was himself sitting in the alto-sax chair. Coltrane solidified himself as a tenor man when he joined Dizzy Gillespie in 1949, although it was the young Paul Gonsalves who got most of the tenor solos in Gillespie’s band at the time.

miles , playlist

John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie, c. 1951

Although Coltrane learned a tremendous amount playing in these bands, he struggled with alcohol and heroin addiction and was fired multiple times. Even worse, his playing lacked confidence and Coltrane had yet to find his own sound. By 1955, after a decade of paying his dues, Coltrane had only played on a few professional recordings, with even fewer recorded solos, and was largely invisible to public.

In September 1955, Coltrane finally got the break that would mark the turn in his career; he joined Miles Davis’s newly formed quintet. Davis’ own career was going through a renaissance after getting clean from five years of heroin addiction. Davis had recently given a breakthrough performance at the Newport Jazz Festival and had signed a new contract with powerhouse label Capitol Records.

Coltrane’s start with Davis was rocky; Miles became exasperated with Coltrane’s questions or would intimidate Coltrane and his band mates with sarcastic remarks and dirty looks. And the reaction of public was also rough. During Coltrane’s first gigs with Miles, audience members asked “where’s Sonny?” in reference to the young Sonny Rollins who had made a name for himseld playing with Miles Davis and others. The critics were also underwhelmed. In his review in DownBeat magazine of Miles’ initial release with Coltrane, The New Miles Davis, Nat Hentoff remarked that Coltrane’s playing was … “a mixture of Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, and Sonny Stitt … but so far there’s very little Coltrane. His general lack of individuality lowers the rating.” [v]

Despite the difficult start, Coltrane began to find his way and the popularity of Miles Davis new band grew steadily with extensive touring, numerous recording sessions, and club dates in New York and LA that would attract top Hollywood stars including Marlon Brando and Eva Gardner.[vi] Coltrane married Naima Grubbs just after joining Davis and with the steady work and paycheck, things were looking up. However, Coltrane continued to struggle with heroin addiction and failed to get clean despite numerous attempts. A key reason was that with the exception of Miles, everyone in the band was using heroin including drummer Philly Joe Jones, pianist Red Garland and bassist Paul Chambers. Coltrane became so discouraged that in 1956 he considered quitting music and getting a job as a postal worker, even going so far as to make an application at the New York post office. But Naima reassured him and he did not abandon his career.[vii]

Coltrane continued with Miles and also started to do a significant amount of session work with other musicians including Tadd Dameron, Red Garland, and Paul Chambers. One recording session including an arranged “saxophone duel” with Sonny Rollins on Rollins album Tenor Madness. Despite this positive momentum for Coltrane, the tough times persisted. Davis fired Coltrane due to his heroin problem.

After being rehired later in 1956 and then fired again by Davis in the spring of 1957, Coltrane did two things, he finally summoned the strength to get clean and overcome his addiction and he joined Thelonious Monk’s quartet. “I learned new levels of alertness with Monk, because if you didn’t keep aware all the time of what was going on, you’d suddenly feel as if you stepped into a hole without a bottom to it.[viii] Working with Monk brought me close to a musical architect of the highest order. I felt I learned from him in every way—through the senses, theoretically, technically.”[ix]

John Coltrane, Shadow Wilson, Thelonious Monk and Ahmed Abdul-Malik, 1957

Another profound thing happened to Coltrane at this time … he found God. Coltrane’s liner notes to his most famous album, A Love Supreme, include this message:

During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music. I feel this has been granted through His grace. ALL PRAISE TO GOD.

 

Coltrane’s session work had transitioned into a recording contract with Prestige Records as leader and Coltrane led his own session on May 31, 1957 recording the song “Bakai” by his Philadelphia friend Calvin Massey, his own compositions “Straight Street” and “Chronic Blues,” and two standards. The album would be released as Coltrane/Prestige.

In September 1957 Coltrane would record his classic album Blue Train for Blue Note records with four original compositions including the title track.

Upon seeing the dramatic change in Coltrane and his playing, Davis rehired Coltrane in early 1958 and they resumed extensive touring including their famous appearance at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. Despite their rocky time together and tough-love relationship, Coltrane had lerned a lot from Miles and had come to appreciate his genius. “I found Miles in the midst of another stage of his musical development … the use of fewer and fewer chord changes [and playing instead] … tunes with free flowing lines and chordal direction.”[x]

Davis and Coltrane record the seminal albums Milestones in April 1958, which included the first recording using “modal,” non-chordal playing; and Kind of Blue in March and April 1959 which took the modal approach to an all new level and ultimately resulted in the best selling jazz album of all times.

Despite his career and popularity being at an all time high, the critics continued to savage Coltrane. In a review of a Coltrane performance in L.A. with Miles Davis, John Tynan was particularly brutal saying “… Coltrane would … blow long and searchingly … [he] communicated a sense of inhibition, sometimes even frustration, with his contrived dissonance … his contributions suggested superficially stimulating, lonely and rather pathetic self-seeking … with overtones of neurotic compulsion and contempt for the audience.” [xi]

Coltrane was definitely hurt by Tynan’s charges and similar ones made by other music writers. “If my playing is taken as frustrated or angry, it’s taken wrong. The only one I’m angry with is myself when I don’t make what I’m trying to play.”[xii] When Coltrane first joined Miles, he was derided by the critics for sounding too much like everybody else. Then as Coltrane and his music awakened spiritually, he was subject to even greater abuse by the media for sounding angry or too far out.

As 1958 turned into 1959, Coltrane took a significant step forward in his career when he left Prestige and signed a recording contract with Atlantic Records and producer Nesuhi Ertegun. Atlantic Records had been founded 12 years before by twenty four year old Ahmet Ertegun, son of the Turkish Ambassador to the U.S. Ahmet and his older brother Nesuhi were fascinated with jazz and blues and were avid music devotees and record collectors starting as young teenagers. When their father died suddenly in 1944, they decided to stay in the U.S. instead of returning to Turkey with their family. Ahmet started Atlantic three years later. By 1958 Ahmet and partner Jerry Wexler had built Atlantic Records into the leading label for rhythm and blues music anchored by The Drifters, Ray Charles and including up and coming star Bobby Darin, who had the number one record in 1959, “Mack the Knife.” Nesuhi had joined Atlantic in 1955 and started the jazz division, signing leading artists the Modern Jazz Quartet and Charles Mingus.

Jerry Wexler, Nesuhi and Ahmet Ertegun

Coltrane’s first recording session for Atlantic was a collaboration on January 15, 1959 with vibraphonist and Modern Jazz Quartet co-founder Milt “Bags” Jackson. The assembled group included Miles’ bassist Paul Chambers, drummer Connie Kay, and pianist Hank Jones. They recorded eight songs including three compositions by Jackson (“Bags & Trane,” “The Late Late Blues,” and “Blues Legacy”), Dizzy Gillespie’s “Be-Bop,” and three standards. However, the resulting album Bags & Trane was not released until December 1961, almost three years after being recorded.

On March 2, 1959, Coltrane joined Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Paul Chambers, Jimmy Cobb, Wynton Kelly, and Cannonball Adderley in the Columbia Records studio to record “So What,” “Freddie Freeloader,” and “Blue In Green” … the first cuts of the landmark album Kind of Blue.

John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, 1959

Three weeks later, Coltrane would go into Atlantic Records studio with pianist Cedar Walton, drummer Lex Humphries, and Miles’ bassist Paul Chambers to record the first takes of “Giant Steps,” “Naima” and “Like Sonny.” The takes were not included on the original Giant Steps album which was released in January 1960, but they signaled the future. Nesuhi Ertugun would recall “at our very first solo session with John Coltrane, we recorded … ‘Giant Steps’ … [which represented] a new chapter, not just in the history of the saxophone, but in the history of jazz development.”[xiii]

After Nesuhi’s death in 1989, Ahmet Ertegun wrote that his brother “was one of the earliest and most unerringly astute authorities on jazz music. But at no point in his career was he as sure of the importance of the talent with whom he was working as he was when he worked with John Coltrane, during the period that produced these now-historic recordings.”[xiv]

Coming next on October 24th:

  1. Coltrane’s final break-up with Miles
  2. Recruiting the “Classic Quartet”
  3. “The Shape of Jazz to Come”
  4. How the world changed in 1960

 https://shawllobree.wordpress.com/2010/10/24/the-50th-anniversary-of-my-favorite-things-part-2/

Coming on October 26th:

  1. “Village Blues”
  2. “My Favorite Things” brought to life
  3. Tom Dowd: from nuclear physics to recording wizard
  4. “Equinox”
  5. After Atlantic
  6. Racing Einstein’s beam of light

 


[i] Ashley Kahn, A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album, October 24, 2002, p. 50.

[ii] Francois Postif, “John Coltrane: Une Interview.” Jazz Hot, January 1962, pp 12-14.

[iii] Carl Woideck, The John Coltrane Companion: Five Decades of Commentary. 1998, p. 4 and p. 99.

[iv] C.O. Simpkins, Coltrane: A Biography, 1975, p. 38.

[v] Nat Hentoff, DownBeat, May 16, 1956.

[vi]

[vii] Simpkins, p. 55.

[viii] Woideck, p 51.

[ix]

[x] Woideck, p. 100.

[xi] John Tynan, “Caught in the act,” Down Beat, Aug 6,1959 (p. 14) and April  14, 1960 (p. 42)

[xii] Ira Gitler “Trane on Track,” Down Beat, October 16, 1958.

[xiii] Ahmet Ertegun, What’d I Say: The Atlantic Story, 2001, p. 116.

[xiv] Ahmet Ertegun, liner notes, The Heavyweight Champion: John Coltrane the Complete Atlantic Recordings, May 1995.

 

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Hello world!

I decided to start this blog in order to share the story I have written about the 50th Anniversary of John Coltrane’s October 21, 1960 recording of his landmark song “My Favorite Things” and 18 other classic songs recorded on the 21st, 24th, and 26th of October 1960.  I started working on some of this content in 2006. But even with four years to prepare, it is still a scramble to get everything complete in time for the anniversary (nothing like having a deadline to get something done!).

My plan is to post the story in three sections: (1) on October 21st, 2010 I will write about the introduction and background of Coltrane’s life and first 10+ years of his career; (2) on October 24th, 2010 I will write about the formation of Coltrane’s famous “Classic Quartet” and a summary of all of the changes the U.S. and the world went through in 1960; and (3) on October 26th, 2010 I will share a more in-depth look at my favorite songs from these sessions and more thoughts on Coltrane and life.

I hope you might enjoy the story and would be thrilled to hear from you, good, bad, or indifferent!

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