John Coltrane Biography is Interesting but Problematic
"There are two things in particular that I would like to get at in this book: John Coltrane as a musician, and John Coltrane as a religious person. And both of these aspects are bound up with his being African-American."
So Bill Cole begins his affectionate biography, and so continues ad infinitum. This is the pedantic, preconceived grid through which every fact of Coltranes life must pass. John Coltrane as an African-American musician is well understood so Cole spends most of his time defending a religious correlation between Coltrane and Professor Fela Sowande a Nigerian spiritual teacher. This is an interesting angle but in the end the exact nature of that correlation--or even its existence--remains unclear. Yes Trane's music is spiritual and yes there is such a thing as African spirituality but what does one have to do with the other?
Bill Cole Professor Emeritus of music at Dartmouth College and author of a well-respected Miles Davis biography was also a dedicated jazz fan in the right places at the right times. As a personal acquaintance of Trane and first-person ear-witness of his legendary music Cole's words carry more weight than they might otherwise. The text is generously supplemented with photographs commentaries even music transcriptions in the original Bb (perfect for students on tenor sax or trumpet.) Ironically even this abundance of reference material doesn"t quite drive Cole's hypothesis home.
John Coltrane by Bill Cole was originally published in 1976 but is now reissued by Da Capa Press to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Trane's birth. In the preface Cole acknowledges the book was adapted from his doctoral dissertation. As such the narrative flow is at times awkward and overstated. Where he succeeds however he succeeds mightily. There are tales and tidbits that even a Coltrane completist may never have heard before.
As a young man Coltrane played in the Joe Webb Blues Band. Cole suggests the female singer Big Maybelle was the inspiration for Trane's way of "vocalizing" the tenor sax. Shortly thereafter he picked up more wizardry modeling Earl Bostic in his band as well as Eric Dolphy who remained a lifelong collaborator. Other influential band mates at the time include fine hard-bop trumpeter Tommy Turrentine lyrical sax man Johnny Hodges and of course Miles Davis.
Some readers will discover little-known recording sessions such as "Tenor Madness" with Sonny Rollins made shortly before he replaced Trane in Miles' band. Cole remembers Trane and Clifford Brown playing together around the Philadelphia scene before Brown's tragic early death. He predicts that a bootleg tape will someday emerge.
In one passage Cole eloquently debunks the theory that Coltrane was simply a skilled technician:
"It is futileàto look for the explanation of Trane's music in his technique although without that technique he could never have become the master musician that he was. The technique is the container of something else and it is not to be confused with what it in fact contains."
The role Coltrane played within the broad concept of jazz has never been stated as perceptively as follows:
"Jazz has always been a people's art-form. It has always been accessible to those who want to play it. It is a music of choices and through a complex code communicates the spirit of the times. In the hands of a player like John Coltrane it prophesies the future. It has endured in spite of attempts to prostitute it or to redefine it out of existence. It has endured in spite of the fact that its leading exponents have far too often had short lives. It emerged out of the profanity of the brothels into the spiritually profound reality of the art of John Coltrane."
John Coltrane was certainly a man brimming with musical and religious influences. African heritage and the symbols it represents were central to his identity but it would be an injustice to ignore his other attributes. Many view him as a one-man-movement who pre-dated so many advancements for Civil Rights. Cole's African argument certainly rings true with the following analogy:
"àTrane as a musician is perhaps best typified by the "griot" or professional musician of West Africa. They both are living archives of the people's traditions; and because they both have great insight and wisdom they are often feared by the people because they have so many secrets. It also is quite interesting that the griot by and large emanates from the lower classes or castes of his tribe and that he is employed at all levels of societyùfrom the musicians who operate with the chiefs to the ones who play on the village streets. The transference of this concept to American jazz and to John Coltrane specifically is more than just an idle thought."
Cole rightly compares him to Moses who died before entering the promised land. He imagines this as Africa but what if the promised land was really peace or equality or perfect Harmony? From this spiritual point of view Coltrane has entered into the Promised Land.
Cole apparently believes John Coltrane's African DNA and vague African concepts drove everything he did. If this were so why didn"t Trane say so himself? And if you take that argument to its logical conclusion every religious black man should be a jazz genius. If he was really so all-consumed with Africa how do you explain his frequent references to Christianity Islam Astrology and Eastern religions? Isn"t it true Coltrane grew up under the specific teachings of two Methodist Preacher grandfathers and a devout mother and spent countless hours practicing his horn in a neighboring church? Wouldn"t these specific factors affect his religious world-view at least as much as some mystical inheritance? Who was the official reader for this doctoral dissertation Sowande himself?
Some readers say Cole made Trane into what he wanted him to be asserting his own spiritual beliefs upon someone else's sacred works. We"re all guilty of this to a degree. After all Trane chose to speak almost exclusively through his horn leaving the interpretation up to the listener. Even so Cole seemingly failed to take into consideration the most important personal aspects of spirituality: unique gifting revelation and relationship. Trane's music did not exist in a vacuum rather it was a natural spilling-over of his faith in a personal power a cosmic call-and-response a living well. Yes Cole was present at Trane's creation--today's readers were not--but perhaps the grand significance of Trane's music is more discernible at a distance.
Despite these critiques Bill Cole wrote an intelligent and interesting book containing many anecdotes and insights not found elsewhere. Even if you disagree with his conclusions he gives you plenty to think about. John Coltrane fans are indebted to Da Capo Press for keeping this important source-text in print.
Other recommended Coltrane reading:
John Coltrane by Lewis Porter
Ascension: John Coltrane and His Quest by Eric Nisenson
Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane's Signature Album by Ashley Kahn
Chasin" the Trane: The Music and Mystique of John Coltrane by J. C. Thomas
-David Seymour is a jazz journalist in Saint Louis Missouri USA.'