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.
- “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] 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
[xiii] Bob Bernotas, “Benny Golson,” http://www.melmartin.com/html_pages/Interviews/golson.html
[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;
[xxiii] Woideck, the John Coltrane Companion, Frank Kofsky, “John Coltrane: An Interview,” p. 145.