Coltrane circa 1955-56 while recording “’Round About Midnight” with Miles Davis’s First Great Quintet
By Matt Silver
From June to August 1954, John Coltrane records in Los Angeles with the first saxophonist whose sound he sought to emulate, Duke Ellington’s legendary alto man Johnny Hodges. Up to this point, with the exception of his bebop stint with Dizzy Gillespie from 1949 to 1951, most of Coltrane’s formal gigs — with Earl Bostic, Billy Valentine, Gay Crosse and even with Johnny Hodges — had been very blues and dance party oriented.
This all changes in the Fall of 1955.
At the encouragement of Philly Joe Jones, Miles Davis hires Coltrane away from organist Jimmy Smith’s band in Philadelphia. And with that, the final piece of Miles Davis’s First Great Quintet was in place.
After tune-up performances in Baltimore, Detroit, and New York City, Columbia Records’ legendary 30th Street studios in New York City beckoned. Columbia chief George Avakian had heard Miles over the summer at Newport and had been so blown away that he just had to sign him. Davis was still under contract with Prestige, so this was the arrangement: Avakian and Columbia could record Miles and his new quintet; they just couldn’t release those recordings until Miles had delivered the five remaining albums he was obligated to make for Prestige.
Here’s how it went down: On Oct. 26, 1955, the quintet held their first recording session for the record that would become 'Round About Midnight. You’ll hear several cuts from that Columbia debut–most you’ve heard before, but some you haven’t—including recording studio chatter between takes on Charlie Parker’s “Ah Leu Cha.”
Then, between November 1955 and October 1956, Miles and the quintet record enough for five Prestige albums, enabling Miles to free himself of his debt to his first record label. The first,titled Miles: The New Miles Davis Quintet, but effectively known plainly and definitively as Miles, was released in 1956, followed by Cookin', Relaxin', Workin', and Steamin' with the Miles Davis Quintet, released respectively in 1957, 1958, 1960, and 1961.
From a virtual unknown as a 28-year-old in Johnny Hodges’ band, Coltrane would become a STAR in Miles’s quintet performing on “The Tonight Show with Steve Allen” in November 1956 and being featured, along with the quintet, playing “Sweet Sue” on Leonard Bernstein’s 1956 Columbia recording, What is Jazz?
When Miles signed with Columbia Records, he became labelmates with Leonard Bernstein, maybe the most famous musician in the world at the time.
Fame brought both the rewards and pressures that accompany sudden stardom. Coltrane famously struggled with drug addiction through this period and frequently quarreled with Davis, who—though he’d been an addict himself just years earlier—now had no patience for Coltrane showing up late or sloppily dressed for gigs or nodding off on the bandstand.
Miles would do strange things to test his talented tenorman during this, a particularly troubled time. In early 1956, the band had gigs at Jazz City in LA, the Blackhawk in LA, and at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, where Miles’s Quintet shared billing with Shorty Rogers and the Lighthouse All Stars and the Modern Jazz Quartet. But, after those gigs, Miles decided, for whatever reason, to fly back east himself and strand the rest of the band out west without having paid them.
Temperamentally, Davis and Coltrane were very different men, but on the bandstand, it worked…until it didn’t…and then it did again.
This led Trane and Paul Chambers to organize recording gigs in order to pay for their travel home. So, in March of 1956, Trane and Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones rounded up some talent and cut a record. Chambers’ Music, on the short-lived Jazz West label, included Kenny Drew on piano and tunes with names like “John Paul Jones” and “Eastbound,” tongue-in-cheek references to their….predicament of having been stranded out west by Miles.
Coltrane would continue playing side gigs with Mr. P.C. through the spring, including an April 1956 Blue Note session with the Paul Chambers Sextet, parts of which were later released by Blue Note on the Chambers/Coltrane compilation High Steps (1975). But he also returned to regular engagements with Miles and the Quintet, including March dates at the Blue Note in Philly, a May ’56 prestige recording called Informal Jazz with pianist Elmo Hope, and extended May and June engagements at Greenwich Village’s Cafe Bohemia, the group’s de-facto home.
We’ve got audio from all of those dates for you, and then some—including most every recording through the summer, fall, and winter of 1956—from Peacock Alley in St. Louis, to Storyville in Boston, to the Blue Note in Philly and then back out to Chicago and, from there, the West Coast to close out the calendar year.
And if you think THAT’s something…just wait till you hear what happens in 1957. THAT YEAR changes the trajectory of jazz and what the idea of state of the art tenor saxophone playing is considered to be forever.
And it’s all here. On DAY 3 of THE COLTRANE LEGACY.