Coltrane At 90: Triad Jazz Musicians Pay Tribute
Legendary saxophonist John Coltrane was born ninety years ago today (September 23, 1926), in Hamlet, North Carolina. He grew up in High Point, and attended William Penn High School where he played in the school band. Those who knew Coltrane describe him as serious, humble, and quiet, and yet he eventually became a towering figure in the musical world. Along with Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis, he remains one of the most influential musicians in the entire history of jazz.
Nearly a half century after his death, John Coltrane’s impact continues worldwide, and his native son status in the Piedmont Triad is a source of pride for the many jazz musicians who live and work here. Today, in recognition of Trane’s 90th birthday, five of those musicians—leading jazz performers all—share their reflections on Coltrane’s life and legacy: Steve Haines, Associate Professor of bass at UNC - Greensboro, Chad Eby, Associate Professor of saxophone at UNC - Greensboro, Brandon Lee, Assistant Professor of trumpet at UNC - Greensboro Mondré Moffett, Jazz Ensemble Director and Professor of trumpet at North Carolina A&T State University, and Wally West, Jazz Faculty at UNC - Chapel Hill, and Music Center of Greensboro.
Early musical influence
Mondré Moffett: Both of Coltrane’s grandfathers were North Carolina preachers, and his communal experiences in the Black church had a huge impact on him. Hearing the call and response, and the improvisational elements in the music that’s very common—the melismas, and guttural effects, and rhythmic things—so when his music started evolving into a jazz expression, those things were already present in his voice.
Less-than-flattering early recordings
Chad Eby: His family moved to Philadelphia when he was a senior in high school, but it wasn’t long after that that he decided he wanted to be a musician. He was taking classes in music schools and things like that. There’s a recording that exists of this navy band in 1946 out in Hawaii when he was just short of his twentieth birthday. Coltrane’s initial recording output doesn’t really hold up. It actually sounds like he’s having a really hard time.
Coltrane’s legendary work ethic
Wally West: He was what we call in the biz a ‘practice hound’. If he was awake and wasn’t eating, and wasn’t gigging, he was practicing!
Chad Eby: Coltrane was trying to purge himself spiritually through music and he knew that only by getting the saxophone out of his way—by practicing it to the point where anything was possible—he would then be able to exude himself spiritually through the music.
His drug addiction, redemption, and lifelong quest
Steve Haines: In 1957 he had a terrible heroin addiction. He fought that. He got clean, and had what I suppose folks would call a religious experience where he relearned the grace of God. And ultimately what he was scratching at was that he wanted to feel, and understand, and hear, and play God as if he was a vessel. And by doing so, he would bring happiness and joy to the world. And naturally, he did that.
Trane the revered jazz composer
Wally West: Giant Steps is one of those tunes that, I think you practice that song until you die and [only] hope to be able to play it as well as John Coltrane ever did. It’s one of those songs that has harmonic complexity and it’s centered around several tonal centers. The complex chord progression that he wrote for this later became known as ‘Coltrane Changes’.
Brandon Lee: He somehow still found a way to make [his songs] sound like standards even though they were his originals. So, I continue to grow from that because every time I come back to those tunes, I’m trying to find more on them that I [could] do, you know previously before. He’s definitely left a huge impact—or, a lot of work for us to do [laughs]!
Coltrane and the avant-garde
Mondré Moffett: What I loved about John Coltrane was his phase where he did avant-garde music and came back home with the spirituality in the 1960s with his focus. You know, my dad [Charles Moffett] was part of the Ornette Coleman Trio—he played drums with Ornette—and John Coltrane was studying with Ornette during the time that my dad was in the group. So I had some very intimate and close up looks at Coltrane’s quest for excellence in going outside the box, and once he discovered this avant-garde aspect of it, he thought that he could bring in more of his philosophy and his spiritual values even more so into the music.
A Love Supreme
Steve Haines: The Acknowledgement of A Love Supreme, that four-note theme; he plays that in every key, which Lewis Porter believes is John Coltrane’s way of saying that God is everywhere. But the emotional aspect of A Love Supreme, the depth of A Love Supreme, the depth in groove, the depth in melody, the tenacious forward propulsion of the rhythm section, the complete focus that they have of clear melody, it’s really, really something spectacular, and to me his greatest triumph.
John Coltrane died of liver cancer in 1967, just shy of his forty-first birthday. His brief career spanned the eras of big band, bebop, and the avant-garde, but his technical mastery, compositional innovations, and passion for world music changed jazz forever.