Ode to John Coltrane: A Jazz Musician's Influence on African American Culture

By Early, Gerald | The Antioch Review, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

Ode to John Coltrane: A Jazz Musician's Influence on African American Culture


Early, Gerald, The Antioch Review


In his study of African American poetry, Drumvoices (1976), East St. Louis Poet Laureate and creative writing teacher Eugene Redmond describes jazz tenor saxophonist John Coltrane as a "limitless [source] of inspiration" for black poets of the 1960s and 1970s, and as "a major influence" on the current generation of poets. Sascha Feinstein, in his Jazz Poetry: From the 1920s to the Present (1997), writes that "more poets have responded to Coltrane's music than to that of any other jazz figure," and discusses at considerable length the development of the "John Coltrane poem," especially among black American poets. The immediate question that arises is why this particular jazzman should have become such an iconographic figure. Coltrane, in this regard, exceeds even Charlie Parker as a charismatic personality, who is written about or evoked as a source of inspiration for many black writers since his death. This may be a bit more understandable in the case of Parker because he is an easily romanticizable figure: a brilliant player who was the prisoner of his appetites, Parker became the dissolute, tragic black genius, destroyed by an uncaring, racist, philistine white society. In this way, his appetites became the stuff of legend, as he consumed oceans of liquor, shot up mountains of heroin, had sex with hundreds of women; his intellect aggrandized until, like Jesus, he could humble the "scribes" and "Pharisees," the academics, intellectuals, and writers who surrounded him; and his playing became so storied that it beggared description, and no recorded version ever matched what someone heard in some club on some trans figuring night. Finally, Parker died young, at thirty-four, and used up, a flamed-out star. Coltrane's life had some similar elements - Coltrane has a tragic aura because he died at the relatively youthful age of forty. He had a dissolute period; indeed, his drinking probably contributed to his contracting the liver cancer that killed him. And he was, like Parker, an incandescent player who inspired many disciples. But he was by no means a reincarnation of Parker, either as a player or a man.

Coltrane was not, after all, an especially flamboyant jazz musician as Dizzy Gillespie or Illinois Jacquet or Art Blakey each was in his own way; Coltrane did not embody any sense of masculine cool or Hemingway bravado like Miles Davis; he was not mysterious and enigmatic like Thelonious Monk or Sun Ra; he was not as openly Afrocentric or Pan-Africanist in his religious inclination as Rahsaan Roland Kirk or Yusef Lateef or Sun Ra; nor was he as overtly political with his music as Max Roach or Archie Shepp or Charles Mingus; he was not popular with the masses of working-class blacks as were "Cannonball" Adderley, Jimmy Smith, Les McCann, Horace Silver, or Bobby Timmons (although he sold more avant garde albums than any other jazz musician in that school and his overall sales were in the hundreds of thousands); and he was certainly not as accomplished in the range of what he could do musically or in the way he could exploit the talents of the musicians around him as Duke Ellington. Why were none of these other more "likely" jazz figures adopted as eagerly by black writers, poets particularly, as a muse? Or, better put, why, despite his limitations as a symbol or a source of representation, was Coltrane to become what he did?

Understandably, several jazz musicians, black and white, have been inspired by Coltrane, who was a very proficient player - arguably the best technician of the tenor and soprano saxophone in the history of jazz, a music that has produced a number of great saxophonists from Sidney Bechet and Lester Young to Coleman Hawkins and Sonny Rollins. Single-handed, he brought to prominence the soprano saxophone, an instrument not played by any noted jazz musician since Bechet. (Steve Lacey played the instrument in the 1950s, before Coltrane, but had little impact on audiences.) Coltrane introduced a particular style of composition utilizing rubato effects, modes, and triads, some of which he learned from his stints with Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, that became widely imitated. …

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