The photo that became the cover of “Blue Train,” 1957. Photo by Francis Wolff.
By Matt Silver
By mid-September of 1957, John Coltrane had been kicked out of Miles’s band, he’d kicked heroin, and he’d kicked his musical development into overdrive. First by joining Thelonious Monk’s Quartet for a transformative six-month run at The Five Spot in New York City and then by making up for a relatively late debut as a leader by pumping out Prestige recording dates in volume. This prolific recorded output for Prestige would continue in earnest through 1958; it’s no accident that one of those sessions came to be titled Settin’ the Pace.
But let’s get back to September ’57. Trane kicked off the month as a sideman on pianist Sonny Clark’s iconic Blue Note release, Sonny’s Crib. He’d guested on others’ Blue Note sessions — Johnny Griffin’s A Blowing Session with Hank Mobley five months earlier and as a featured guest of Monk's quartet just months later at Carnegie Hall — but he’d never led one.
From left: Curtis Fuller, Coltrane, Donald Byrd, recording session for “Sonny's Crib.” (Blue Note, 1957). Photo by Francis Wolff.
And after September 15th, 1957, he’d never lead one again.
But, for a one and done, Blue Note Records sure got their money’s worth with Blue Train. Blue Train was so impactful that — together with Sonny’s Crib — it’s considered the epitome of Blue Note’s hard bop sound. Paul Chambers and Curtis Fuller carry over from the Clark-led session, while Coltrane adds Kenny Drew on piano, Philly Joe Jones on drums, and a fellow Philadelphian on trumpet who’d just turned 19 two months prior — Lee Morgan. There are certainly more uniformly celebrated Coltrane recordings — Giant Steps, A Love Supreme, and virtually anything else produced by the Classic Quartet of Coltrane, Tyner, Jones, and Garrison — but Blue Train is Coltrane’s first truly independent musical statement. And, like Kobe without Shaq, Coltrane demonstrated the capacity to carry out an iconic session just fine without Miles Davis.
That historic one-off for Blue Note was followed with a flurry for Prestige, including Dig It!, with Red Garland leading a quintet featuring Donald Byrd, and Groove Blues, a date led by boss tenor Gene Ammons, where, because of a surplus of tenor talent in the recording studio and the presence of Pepper Adams on baritone sax, Coltrane returns to his native horn, the alto.
The most interesting of these, however, might be the couple of dates that see Coltrane share billing with a sensational young jazz tuba player named Ray Draper, who debuted for Prestige at just 16-years-old, went on to lead three albums, and eventually led a fusion group that featured Coltrane-inspired saxophonist Ernie Watts.
What came next was the most important Reformation since the one that swept through Europe in the 1500s, the reunification of Miles Davis’s First Great Quintet, which was about to enter its most iconic period. But THAT will have to wait….until tomorrow.