That which impresses the mind with a sense of grandeur or power.
Inspiring awe, veneration, and reverence.
Elevated in thought.
Complete, absolute, utter.
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.
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.
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:
- Coltrane’s final break-up with Miles
- Recruiting the “Classic Quartet”
- “The Shape of Jazz to Come”
- How the world changed in 1960
Coming on October 26th:
- “Village Blues”
- “My Favorite Things” brought to life
- Tom Dowd: from nuclear physics to recording wizard
- After Atlantic
- 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.
[vii] Simpkins, p. 55.
[viii] Woideck, p 51.
[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.