Art thou troubled? Music will calm thee… were the words that Ralph Ellison claimed changed his life. They came from no book, the likes to which Ellison would contribute his legacy, but from a song. Before he declared himself a writer, and long before he wrote Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison wanted to be a jazz musician.
‘Instead of soothing, music seemed to release the beast in me,’ Ellison said. Jazz seemed to have done that to the entire nation, decade in and decade out, since the first horns were blown in Louisiana and their tunes floated through Chicago, Kansas City, and New York. If jazz released the beasts in people, some of them returned the favour, putting the fury right back into their instruments, blowing out new, at times more frantic cries, searching for more sound territory. Perhaps more than any other form of music (with the broad term ‘classical’ only coming close), jazz is the musical form of transcendence. It starts somewhere and ends somewhere else. It is often bigger than what we hear—it transcends itself—and what begins as a sound from a person’s mouth and fingers rises and escapes us all. It becomes a part of the air and impossible to grasp.
Its ungraspability is one reason why, throughout its history, people fought for jazz. They fought for it, fought with it, and fought over it. It evolved into America’s music; in many ways it became America, especially when we remember how people fought for, fought with, and fought over the country. At times jazz brings out our desperate search for meaning, a strange feeling with which we can sometimes cope through a need to possess or own. Jazz has been fought over because of its malleability, its mutability. Ever since its invention, it has been claimed, popularised, commercialised, economised, reinvented, and reclaimed many times over.
In the fifties, a frenzied form known as bop emerged and polarised jazz more than any other style before it. At the height of its infamy, musicians, critics, and fans alike formed two camps; one group found bop harsh, dissonant, alienating, while the other group believed Dizzy Gillespie a genius and Charlie Parker a saviour. Bop made many jazz ears uncomfortable because, for the first time, one’s capacity to hear jazz was almost now overtly determined by one’s place in the world. ‘Bop comes out of them dark days,’ Langston Hughes wrote through one of his characters. ‘That’s why real Bop is mad, wild, frantic, crazy—and not to be dug unless you’ve seen dark days, too. Folks who ain’t suffered much cannot play Bop, neither appreciate it. They think Bop is nonsense—like you. They think it’s just crazy crazy. They do not know Bop is also MAD CRAZY, SAD CRAZY, FRANTIC WILD CRAZY—beat out of somebody’s head! That’s what Bop is. Them young colored kids who started it, they know what Bop is.’
Jazz mirrored its times—there was segregation in some bands, integration in others. Jazz bounced from black heads to white heads, tugged and pulled in and out of shape. In the sixties, when America was being tugged, stretched, and pulled into new shapes, jazz musicians clamoured to make the music their own. In a musical form that existed on the realm of innovation, to innovate jazz required much more. It required vision and courage. In some, anger. In others, restlessness.
Ellison always thought of the jazz musician as a hero in the Greek mythological sense: ‘he must then “find himself,” must be reborn, must find, as it were, his soul. All this through achieving that subtle identification between his instrument and his deepest drives which will allow him to express his own unique ideas and his own unique voice.’
‘You have the impression that [Coltrane] expresses himself so completely and comprehensively in his music that when it comes to interviews there is little left to say.’ —Michael Hennessey
On 1 August 1965 the John Coltrane Quartet played an outdoor jazz festival called the Comblain-la-tour in Belgium. It was an uncharacteristically chilly August night, yet by the time the Quartet began playing their most popular song to date, each musician was already bathed in sweat, and the rolling cameras were able to capture clouds of body heat floating off their faces.
The first few notes of ‘My Favorite Things’ were, for most of the jazz aficionados in attendance that evening, instantly recognisable. The entry of Coltrane’s soprano saxophone acted like the apex of a ski lift, and from there you were taken along by the speed and velocity of the rest of the song.
By then the song was enjoying its first reincarnation and would very soon undergo a third. Before Coltrane’s and well before Julie Andrews’ film rendition, ‘My Favorite Things’ was written for the stage by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II as a key number in their 1959 Broadway musical The Sound of Music. In the original narrative, the strong-spirited Maria sings the song almost as a defence mechanism against unwanted, sometimes inevitable forces. The lyrics work as deflectors, a happy shield against a subtly foreboding musical arrangement. The film version makes this dichotomy more explicit; Maria sings the song to distract the Von Trapp children from a thunderstorm.
According to legend, the sheet music for ‘My Favorite Things’ was presented to Coltrane on the bandstand one night during a performance. Possibly due to the musical’s popularity, Coltrane was familiar with the tune, as were his sidemen, and they went ahead and performed a rendition of it that same night. The version that Coltrane’s quartet recorded in 1960 drew out and re-emphasised the darker elements of the song. The show tune was extended, almost to the point of hypnosis, which many listeners attributed to Coltrane’s growing utilisation of Eastern and Indian rhythms. If Maria is the house against the wind in her version, Coltrane is the storm in his.
‘When you play [“My Favorite Things”] slowly,’ Coltrane said, ‘it has a “gospel” aspect, which is not at all unpleasant; when you play it fast, it has certain other undeniable qualities. It’s very interesting to discover a terrain that renews itself according to the impulse that you give it.’ Less certain is whether any of the song’s contextual history attracted him at all, though such notions are plausible. The lyrics deflected unwanted emotions and mirrored the way music possessed the power to deflect unwanted circumstances. Art thou troubled? Not only did music calm the Von Trapp family but it protected and released them.
Coltrane’s music was never overtly political, but the fact that it was innovative, challenging, and increasingly Afrocentric amidst the fervour of Civil Rights-era America was more than enough to assume where his music—and in essence his heart—stood. He was once spotted at one of Malcolm X’s public addresses. While he expressed his admiration for the civil rights leader, Coltrane himself was never verbose about racial politics, despite so many of his fans wanting him to be, given the standing and authority he had in his community. While performing in Japan, he had this exchange with an eager interviewer:
Interviewer: [How do] the problems of colored people influence you in your playing?
Coltrane: I don’t know. I don’t know.
Interviewer: About the problems of colored people again, would modern jazz be the tool to fight over with the problem?
Coltrane: I don’t know. I couldn’t answer that.
The musician’s reluctance to be a political mouthpiece seemed to have come from a place of humility rather than any cowardice. He was a man of belief, just soft-spoken in nature. In another interview, it took a small bit of prodding from journalist Frank Kofsky to get even this answer from Coltrane:
Well, I think that music, being an expression of the human heart, or of the human, of the being itself, does express just what is happening. […] I feel that it, it expresses the whole thing—the whole of human experience at any, at the particular time that it is being expressed.
In the same interview, Kofsky brought up the subject of the tenor saxophone, the horn that Coltrane played to international prominence, and the soprano saxophone, the horn Coltrane resurrected from musical obscurity in ‘My Favorite Things’ and the horn he found himself playing more and more often. When asked whether he regarded the soprano as an extension of the tenor, Coltrane responded, ‘Well, at first I did, but, I don’t know, now it’s, it’s another voice.’
The last years of his life illustrated a near complete devotion to what music meant to him on a personal, spiritual level. If he lost fans going from hard bop to modal, he gained new ones in the process, and the same thing happened when he went from modal to the more avant-garde experiments of his last years. Even ‘My Favorite Things’, which his quartet continued to perform, had an updated energy each new time they performed it, more free and frenzied than ever before.
‘There is never any end. There are always new sounds to imagine, new feelings to get at. And always there is the need to keep purifying these feelings and sounds so that we can really see what we’ve discovered in its pure state. So that we can see more and more clearly what we are.’ —Coltrane
After his classic quartet disbanded in 1965, Coltrane put together a new group of musicians shortly thereafter. Pharoah Sanders, Rashied Ali, and Coltrane’s wife, Alice, brought an even freer, worldlier influence to thrust Coltrane into the stellar regions of sound territory. In the liner notes of Live at the Village Vanguard Again!, critic Nat Hentoff writes that Coltrane’s music has ‘a lyricism that can be exceptionally sensitive to nuances of mood and color but that is always based on strength—a strength and openness of feeling that allows for that lyricism to pass through a wide range of transformations.’ Throughout the performance of ‘My Favorite Things’, the recognisable melody is barely audible, and even then only in stints, amidst an onslaught of freewheeling percussion. This version is already worlds away from Coltrane’s 1960 recording, let alone the Rodgers and Hammerstein song that started it all.
‘I take off from a point and I go as far as possible,’ Coltrane said. ‘But hopefully I’ll never lose my way. I say hopefully, because what especially interests me is to discover the ways that I never suspected were possible.’
Ralph Ellison believed the jazz musician must achieve his self-determined identity. Said Coltrane: ‘You can only play so much of another man.’