A Man and a Myth Whose Legendary Status Literally Precedes Him

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A Man and a Myth Whose Legendary Status Literally Precedes Him

A Glimpse into Coltrane’s Philadelphia through a Side Door

Photograph of The Coltrane House in Philadelphia. Located near the intersection of 33rd and Oxford Streets in the city’s Strawberry Mansion neighborhood, Coltrane lived here—first with his cousin Mary, then with his first wife Naima and adopted daughter Syeeda—from 1952 to 1958. Photographed here in 1992 by the prolific chronicler of all things Coltrane, Yasuhiro Fujioka.

By Matt Silver

There was something happening in Philadelphia during the period John Coltrane came of age there. He arrived in 1943, shortly after his high school graduation and stayed until late 1957. After kicking heroin in the Strawberry Mansion house he shared with his cousin Mary, first wife Naima, and daughter Syeeda—all soon to be immortalized on Giant Steps — he did as one must when on the cusp of stratospheric artistic innovation; he moved to New York City. He hooked up with Thelonious Monk and, together, they transcended what jazz conception had been to that point. Then it was back to Miles and the new thing, the modal phase. And a year later: Kind of Blue.


'Trane needed that 10 months away from Miles. To get right in head and spirit, but also to develop the first of his signature sounds, the so-called “Sheets of Sound” we’d hear on Giant Steps — basically to become the musician he knew he was meant to be. He needed those transformative sessions with Monk. And those great Blue Note sessions as a leader. And even those sometime marvelous, sometimes middling Prestige outings. And he needed the solitude to ’shed like a demon. Consider that Bruce Wayne knew he needed to go off the grid in the Himalayas with the League of Shadows before he could return and be the hero Gotham needed. That sorta thing. Time didn’t unfold the easy way but did as the universe needed it to, in this instance. 

The Thelonious Monk Quartet Featuring John Coltrane at The Five Spot. New York City, 1957. Photo by Don Schlitten.

And yet…Philadelphia.

John Coltrane is a Philly guy. He learned what it took to become a professional there and then worked maniacally to reach a standard way beyond that — a standard only he could truly understand. Philadelphia was to Coltrane what the Siberian snow drifts were to Rocky in training for his fight with Ivan Drago. It was his crucible — and that of course includes the whole spiritual awakening/conquering addiction thing. But that also includes the iron-sharpening-iron part. Because the Philly scene in those years was… a moment. In the way the concentration of transcendent artists in 15th century Florence was...a moment. Philadelphia was an incubator, some say the innovation incubator for the kind of small combo jazz that would be realized most purely by Coltrane's Classic Quartet. 

The Heath brothers’ house was basically what Y Combinator has been to the Silicon Valley venture capital ecosystem; in other words, ground zero for jazz unicorns. Jimmy Heath and Percy Heath and young Tootie Heath. Benny Golson and Jimmy Smith and Bill Barron and Philly Joe Jones and Clifford Brown and Lee Morgan and McCoy Tyner and Bobby Timmons and Jimmy Garrison and Reggie Workman.

There is such a thing as The Philadelphia Sound; it may be hard to articulate, but you know it when you hear it, at least Ira Gitler did.* Coltrane was one among many, a part of the above group who forged it, exported it 90 miles north, and then saw it spread outward from the center of the universe to all corners. 

But there are other guys, too. Guys who were there but whose names don’t roll off the tongue quite so easily as the others — unless you’re from the area or just really happen to know your stuff. Guys lesser known because, for one reason or another, they never wanted to permanently leave Philadelphia. Count tenormen Bootsie Barnes and Larry McKenna and even to some extent drummer Mickey Roker and guitarist Dennis Sandole among that group. 

And though he toured and recorded with Max Roach for 30 years, Odean Pope, fairly or not, probably makes this list. 

Then there are other guys you’ve never heard of because circumstances just didn’t allow.

This story is ostensibly about one of those guys, an eccentric, possibly brilliant pianist who may have impacted John Coltrane’s musical development way more than we could ever have understood until very recently — a man who, for the better part of the last forty years, has existed more as myth than anything else. But it’s also about this tenorman named Pope whose musicality is even more in the tradition Saint Coltrane's than we previously understood — and who, like Coltrane, had to wait a bit to make his commercial recording debut. It’s a snapshot of Coltrane’s Philadelphia viewed through an unusual lens.

Hasaan Ibn Ali: A Most Colorful Character of Coltrane’s Philadelphia

The “Legendary” Hasaan Ibn Ali at work. Photo by Larry Fink.

Unless you’re a serious jazz wonk or an avid auditor of Philadelphia’s jazz history, you’re probably not that familiar with a pianist named Hasaan Ibn Ali. The fact that he was known by his musician peers as the "Legendary Hasaan" both belies this relative obscurity and clarifies the esteem in which he was held for a near-maniacal work ethic and a musicality thought to be ahead of its time.

Prior to the last seven years, it had been thought that Hasaan only recorded one commercially released album, 1964’s The Max Roach Trio Featuring The Legendary Hasaan.

About Hasaan’s musical legacy, some things were known and one very big thing had remained unknown. Among jazz cognoscenti, that he recorded a second album with Atlantic Records in 1965 was well known; it was also well known that the album’s release was shelved when, shortly after recording, Hasaan was arrested and jailed briefly for drug possession, making him unavailable to promote the record publicly as the label had wanted. And, again, it was well known that 13 years later, in 1978, a warehouse fire destroyed that recording session’s master tapes.

Though there were hopes and accompanying rumors that a copy of that unreleased Atlantic session existed somewhere, there was no proof. And that lone recording — on which Max Roach is given top billing but Hasaan is credited with writing all the music — was long thought to be the last recorded evidence of the mysterious, mythologized Hasaan (pronounced HAHssin).

Enter Alan Sukoenig, a close friend of the late Hasaan, who’d written the liner notes for the Max Roach Trio album, and Dr. Lewis Porter, an actively performing and recording jazz pianist, founder of the master’s program in jazz history at Rutgers University’s Newark campus, and author of John Coltrane: His Life and Music, the single most authoritative Coltrane biography. Combining networks and know-how, they unearthed the long-whispered-about jazz artifact in 2017.

Dr. Lewis Porter. Photo by Bill May.

“In my response [to an inquiring email from Porter], I raised the matter of the long-standing rumor,” Sukoenig writes in the liner notes of Metaphysics: The Lost Atlantic Album, one of the longest-awaited sophomore releases in jazz history, which nearly six decades after its recording, was recovered, remastered, and released commercially in 2021.

“Porter recalled an old friend, Patrick Milligan [a co-producer on Metaphysics], who, years before, was at Rhino Records and worked alongside [former Philadelphia radio personality] Joel Dorn on the Rhino/Atlantic Jazz catalog releases. He urged me to contact Milligan, and he in turn immediately contacted two friends of his with access to the Warner tape library [note: Atlantic Records became a subsidiary of Warner Music Group in the late ’60s].

“And the rumor was quickly confirmed. The tape copy, apparently made between 1971 and 1977, had been sitting there for as long as 46 years.”


A Tragic Figure who Traveled in Rarefied Company

Hasaan’s personality—even among a group, like jazz musicians, celebrated for its stylish non-conformity—was considered eccentric, and his playing, with its unexpected chord progressions, will, for many, be an acquired taste. Though it will be more quickly acquired if you appreciate Monk. And, joined here by Odean Pope, a tenor saxophonist in the Coltranian Philadelphia tradition, the listening and learning curve will be a bit more level if you’re familiar with the recordings Monk made with Coltrane in the late ’50s.

Hasaan presents with an essence that’s unmistakably Monk-like, with a musicality that’s both maniacally studied and precociously curious; he’s a pianist who takes his playfulness with dissonance very seriously.

“When Alan [Sukoenig] first heard about Hasaan,” Porter told me in 2021, “it was from a musician friend of his who said, ‘There’s a piano player who… sounds like the next development of Monk but with Bud Powell’s technique.’ So there definitely is a Monk sound to [Hasaan’s playing].”

Still, Porter cautions against thinking of Hasaan as a straight-line derivation of Monk.

“There are a number of piano players who seem to come from Monk,” he added, “but sometimes their styles are more…pastiche. Somehow, Hasaan comes from Monk, and yet, he doesn’t sound like a Monk imitator. He really got it together to make a very coherent musical vision.”

For Pope’s part, there are definite elements of his style that bring the Coltrane of those Monk sessions to mind. Take the opener, “Atlantic Ones,” a tune that presents with the rhythmic assertiveness of a Mingus blues-based cut. The Trane influence in Pope’s playing here is real and worth noting. The sound is like 'Trane’s — if Trane had gargled with steel wool before putting mouth to horn; it’s more intentionally abrasive, with an astringent quality that works so well as a foil to the playfulness of Hasaan’s right-hand freelancing.

Hasaan Ibn Ali’s “Metaphysics: The Lost Atlantic Album,” one of the longest awaited sophomore releases in jazz history.

“It’s the sound—[Odean] is his own person, but he definitely related to the world of Coltrane; he’s in that planet, as was the late [saxophonist] Bill Barron,” said Porter. “All these guys were in Philadelphia, they all knew each other, and, not coincidentally, they all knew Hasaan and played with him on various occasions. Of course, Odean is the closest to, like, a Hasaan protégé.”

That Pope’s playing should communicate Coltrane influence is no surprise, given this music’s ancestry. Here, on Metaphysics, we hear a 26-year-old Odean Pope making his recording debut. During the decade that preceded the session, Pope studied, intensively, with Hasaan. And Hasaan, just a few years earlier — most likely during the years of 1949 to 1953, according to Porter, the Coltrane biographer — had been one of a handful of Philly-based musicians to have a material impact on Trane’s evolution.

“When it comes to Trane, he had a lot of influences; he was into everything,” said Porter, cautious about overstating the Hasaan-Coltrane relationship without minimizing it. “But, I would say that Hasaan was definitely one of his influences. [In 1949], he was in this quartet with Hasaan [drummer] Philly Joe Jones, and [bassist] Percy Heath, and Dan Morgenstern, the famous jazz historian, told me he heard a 15-minute tape of Bill Barron, Coltrane, and Hasaan made in 1953.

“The fact that there was such a tape definitely shows that between ’49 and ’53, even if that’s the only time period that 'Trane was hanging out with Hasaan—that’s four years right there.”

The Hasaan/Odean partnership here really brings to mind collaborations between Monk and Trane on tunes like “El Hasaan” and “Epitome,” but you realize it’s not just a product of your own wish fulfillment apparatus when you get to “True Train.” On what may be the warmest tune on the record, Pope is something special; you can really hear that decade that Hasaan and Odean spent practicing together. There’s a certain quality of begging and pleading in Pope’s playing; there’s also a fatalist one, of resignation to an inevitable bleakness.

After Atlantic shelved the original iteration of this recording in 1965, Hasaan’s life and career never rebounded. He never recorded again (though solo piano recordings made between 1962 and 1965 have also been unearthed and subsequently released for the first time in recent years). And he stopped showing up to the clubs, where, as a younger musician, his sometimes outrageous behavior gave birth to a quirky brand: The Legendary Haasan.

“If someone wasn’t playing well,” Pope is quoted as saying in the liner notes, “[Hassan] would come right out and say, ‘Man, I think you ought to study some more.’” He’d hop on stage during another band’s gig and push the pianist aside if he felt the guy wasn’t doing the music justice, or even if he just felt particularly inspired by the music.

Hasaan died in 1981, and for most of the years since, with just the one album and all the stories, he came to exist more as urban legend and outsize myth than fully realized artist with a very formidable, very real legacy.

The music presented on Metaphysics, along with the research-backed testimony of Sukoenig and Porter, demystifies the unique pianist a bit while lending credence to much of the legend, especially those parts relating to his musicianship.

Hasaan’s Unique Musicality

Part of what earned Hasaan the awe of his peers was the way he balanced fluency of the known musical universe with inventiveness that sought to expand the boundaries of that universe. His approach to both “Viceroy” and “Metaphysics” perfectly illustrates this. Both are grounded in the chord changes to well-known tunes; the former is based on the changes to “Mean to Me,” a standard perhaps best known by Billie Holiday and Lester Young’s rendition, and the melody to the latter overlays the changes to Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation.” Except that, true to his style, Hasaan doesn’t play the changes straight; there are sections of each tune where the relationship between Hasaan’s unconventional chord substitutions and the originals are pretty attenuated.

Porter, who’s studied Hasaan’s work and even learned to play a good deal of it, explained to me that this is what makes interpreting Hasaan’s compositions particularly challenging.

Recent scholarship reveals that the “legendary,” enigmatic, eccentric innovator Hasaan Ibn Ali may have been more influential on musicians like John Coltrane–and definitely Odean Pope–than previously acknowledged. Photo by Alan Sukoenig. Courtesy of Omnivore Recordings.

“The music is challenging,” said Porter, “but it’s not because there are a million notes to play. It’s because as you play through the piece, there are unexpected chords and unexpected notes, as well. So it’s really just about getting into his world and saying, ‘Alright, you know what, I wouldn’t have thought of that chord, or of putting that note with that chord, but it works.’”

Yet, even though the signal dims in sections of his pieces, Hasaan’s antennae never quite lose touch with mission control; his compositions are like satellites that orbit around the dark side of the moon only to, surprisingly, re-appear on radar after you’re sure they’ve been irretrievably lost to the forever of deep-space.

It was more than just pith, then, that Philly Joe Jones was trying to communicate when, as he’s quoted in the liner notes, he characterized Hasaan’s playing as “almost avant-garde, but correct.” 

Case in point: right around the four-minute mark on “Metaphysics,” Pope lays out and Hasaan, who’s spent the last full minute freelancing somewhere around Neptune, returns to this side of the Kuiper belt. The strength of bassist Art Davis’s melodicism facilitates this re-entry, and though Hasaan never quite gets to a point where he’s playing it straight, you can discern the genetic link between Bird’s changes and Hasaan’s.

The great Philadelphia tenorman, Odean Pope. Coltrane's young friend; Hasaan's protege. Photo by John Abbott.

And then there’s Pope. 

Listening to his playing on “Metaphysics,” it’s clear this is no tyro’s debut. For as much as the circumstances call for celebrating Hasaan and a musicality that, conceptually, has come to be regarded by many of the greatest names in Philadelphia’s jazz history — from Philly Joe and Jymie Merritt to Duck Bailey, Benny Golson, and even Pope himself — as ahead of its time, it might be argued that Metaphysics is, above all else, the emphatic launch of Odean Pope's recording career that fans can, finally, hear for themselves.

*Gitler, a producer for Prestige Records and later a DownBeat magazine editor, coined the term “Sheets of Sound” to describe Coltrane’s signature sound of the late ’50s and early ’60s.

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