Section from chapter 1963-64: Technology and Spirituality   [ return to introduction ]

Return to Home Page
By Mervyn Cooke • 325 illustrations,
82 in full color • 256 pages • 8-1/2 x 8-1/2"
Cloth • ISBN 0-7892-0399-5 • U.S. $45.00
Add to Shopping Cart
The somber sleeve for Coltrane’s album A Love Supreme, on which the other musicians taking part were not credited--perhaps so as not to dilute the sense that this was a single artist’s ultimate spiritual statement. [ view larger image ]
A Love Supreme: John Coltrane

Few performers straddled the apparent gulf between hard bop and the avant-garde with the conviction of tenor saxophonist John Coltrane. A solid bop apprenticeship with Dizzy Gillespie (• p. 219) in 1949-51 laid the foundations for his improvising technique, but it was not until he joined Miles Davis’s famous quintet (• p. 137) in 1955 that his uncompromising musical personality began to assert itself. Unlike Davis, however, Coltrane’s improvisations often comprised strings of notes delivered at a frenetic speed that sometimes conflicted with the underlying chords (an approach aptly described by critic Ira Gitler as "sheets of sound").

Coltrane’s own quartet--featuring the talents of pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones--was established by 1961 and survived until the year before his death in 1967. By then, Coltrane had begun to associate himself with the free jazz movement, absorbing Ornette Coleman’s experiments into his own octet album Ascension (1965), and working with leading innovators such as saxophonists Eric Dolphy and Pharoah Sanders. Sanders and Archie Shepp were primarily responsible for furthering the aggressive tone representative of Coltrane’s playing at its most powerful, a sound that became a prominent feature of the avant-garde in the later 1960s.

Coltrane emerged from a drug-related personal crisis in 1957 with a heightened sense of spirituality and a strong religious fervor. His deliverance from self-destruction was celebrated in the 1964 recording A Love Supreme, a landmark in the development of the "concept" album, which connected as much with white hippies of the time as it did with black civil rights activists. In the first track, "Acknowledgement," a four-note instrumental motif is reiterated to saturation point, and then is explained when the quartet sings it to the four syllables of the album’s title. The fourth and final track is an ambitious "Psalm" in which the saxophonist improvises, in a suitably declamatory style, an instrumental interpretation of his own poem of praise and thanksgiving printed in the sleeve notes.

Coltrane had as great an influence on younger tenor saxophonists as Charlie Parker did on subsequent alto players, especially in terms of tone production. The impact of his playing was immediately evident in the 1960s and has continued without significant interruption to affect the work of musicians up to and including recent figures such as Mike Brecker, Courtney Pine and Branford Marsalis.