By Matt Silver
Through 1966 and the rest of his Earthly existence, Coltrane kept on in the direction of the cosmic music, the compelling but ultimately unknowable new thing. Trane and his new quintet toured the country and were once again, one last time, recorded live by Impulse at the Village Vanguard in May, then again, one last time, at Newport in July, where the new thing was now a year less new and, on this occasion, Archie Shepp-less.
They toured Japan—the first and only time Coltrane would — in July, and were treated like mega rock stars playing 17 shows over 16 nights in cities and towns across a rapidly rebuilding country (the most comprehensive musical account is the 4-CD box set Live in Japan, released by Impulse in 1991). By this point, Coltrane would’ve already been diagnosed with the liver cancer that would kill him a year later, two months shy of his 41st birthday. The trip’s breakneck pace must have aided the disease’s capacity to inflict bodily discomfort, and it’s been reported that he experienced headaches throughout the trip. In J.C. Thomas’s biography Chasin’ the Trane (1976), Coltrane is described as “chugging aspirin by the bottle” to cope with the headaches. Rashied Ali told Thomas that in looking at photos from the trip after Coltrane’s death, he noticed Coltrane holding his hand over where his liver would be, “like he was trying to stop the pain he must have been feeling all by himself.”
And yet, biographers note his spirits were remarkably high; it seems he’d found a way, aspirin notwithstanding, to transcend the corporeal discomfort. Eric Nisenson, who authored Ascension: John Coltrane and His Quest (1993), called Coltrane’s tour of Japan, “...the event that was probably the greatest single triumph of his life,” and writes, notably, that a good deal of the music Coltrane played in Japan was, “surprisingly lyrical and accessible,” perhaps because, presented with his Japanese fans’ enthusiasm, he wished to, “present them with something of a retrospective of his music.” Or maybe he simply “...felt his own mortality slipping away and was feeling nostalgic for past triumphs.”
Along these lines, when a Japanese journalist asked him what he’d like to be in ten years, Coltrane replied, “I’d like to be a saint.” His affect communicated that he’d responded jokingly; yet, again, this is a man who was aware he was dying and thoughts of what he might encounter beyond the earthly realm sooner rather than later couldn’t have been far from the top of his mind.
As summer 1966 rounded into fall, the quintet of Alice Coltrane, Rashied Ali, Jimmy Garrison, Pharaoh Sanders, and John Coltrane — now bringing not just his tenor and soprano saxophones to gigs but also playing more flute and bass clarinet — approached a year together as a unit. For the better part of a year, they’d brought this inscrutable gospel to audiences that didn’t necessarily demand it but, perhaps, showed up anyway.
Some did so because Coltrane’s new music spoke to them politically and affirmed a righteous indignation. For the black intellectual and activist circles of the late 1960s who began to call for a more confrontational approach to civil rights activism than that of Martin Luther King, Coltrane’s new sound had been galvanizing. Even though there’s no evidence that that’s what he’d consciously intended.
“What happened was that for a literary fraternity, the music of Coltrane and others, like Mingus…really represented black militancy,” Bob Thiele told Ashely Kahn, author of the aforementioned Impulse book. “Most of the musicians, including Coltrane, really weren’t thinking the way their militant brothers were. I mean, LeRoi Jones could feel the music was militant, but Coltrane didn’t feel that it was. But he didn’t go out of his way to tell LeRoi Jones that.”
Still others showed up because they didn’t quite get the new thing but wanted to; or because they’d loved the Coltrane of an earlier era and sought to recapture some—any—of that just by seeing the man blow his horn and occupying physical space within reach of his garment’s hem; or because they’d loved the Coltrane of an earlier era and sought to spend an evening reveling in maximum irritation and frustration. As always, some who criticized did so mournfully; others did so gleefully, as the hall monitors of any era’s concept of propriety often do.
Coltrane, almost always soft–spoken, gracious, and demure interpersonally, used his horn to respond to any priggish jazz gatekeepers who might’ve polluted his periphery; he blew — maybe even overblew — his way through doubters’ criticisms like a heedless streetracer who believes stop signs are for other people. He’d ventured so far out to space that not even NASA would catch him until they put men on the moon two years after his death. But in the fall of 1966, after returning from the Japanese tour and its punishing schedule, Coltrane started to fall back to Earth. He canceled a European tour, then basically took most of September and October for himself.
But in the spirit of Rocky Balboa — a cinematic character that hadn’t yet been invented — he got up again.
On November 11, 1966 Coltrane brought a new kind of quintet to North Philadelphia’s Temple University. He played tenor, soprano, and flute. Alice was on piano. Pharaoh Sanders, having recorded on Don Cherry’s Where is Brooklyn? earlier in the day, played tenor and piccolo; Rashied Ali played drums; Sonny Johnson played bass, and Jimmy Garrison, too, may have been there.
Coltrane employed a few extra saxophone players he knew from the area, as well as a line of percussionists including but not limited to Rashied Ali’s brother Omar and Algie DeWitt, a local Coltrane had met just days earlier at a benefit concert he’d played at a nearby Philly church.
Drums were Coltrane’s fetish of the moment. In the liner notes to Live at the Village Vanguard Again! (rel. Dec. 1966), Coltrane describes himself as having “drum fever.” And in a 1990 interview for the documentary The World According to John Coltrane, Rashied Ali tells Howard Mandel, president of the Jazz Journalists Association, “[Coltrane] was in a drummer thing. He just wanted to free himself from playing these strict changes…. There were times when I played with Trane, he had a battery of drummers, like about three conga players, guys playing batas, shakers and barrels and everything.”
This drummer thing would continue into 1967. In late February, Coltrane and Ali — just the two of them — would record Interstellar Space, a six-part suite for saxophone and drums, with each part named after planets. At this point, Coltrane had less than half-a-year to live, and so it’s interesting that the music here is literally out of time. In earlier experiments in free jazz, Coltrane’s improvisations were laid on top of a steady pulse, a rhythmic foundation tethering the music to…something. Here, there is no steady beat or rhythmic center.
The late avant-garde saxophonist David S. Ware told Ashley Kahn that it would’ve only been reasonable for Coltrane to understand that going this directionless direction was bound to lose people, even those who’d followed him faithfully up to that point.
“You can get almost as avant-garde as you want to be, as long as you keep that steady pulse, right?” He asked Kahn rhetorically. “But once you break pulse, I guarantee you, you’re going to lose half your people.”
Though reasonable people can differ.
Lewis Porter, in his Coltrane biography, contends that “These duets are the ideal starting point for the listener who wants to understand Coltrane’s last music—it’s so easy to hear what he’s doing. Each one begins with a theme, [then] encompasses some kind of working up to a climax, followed by a calming down, which leads to a recapitulation.”
Coltrane may have lost some people when he abandoned rhythm as most people understand it on Interstellar Space, his penultimate studio recording. Still others—most of them fellow musicians—feel that Coltrane was on the doorstep of a breakthrough. Something that would’ve transcended music and gotten him closer to what son Ravi has called “a universal language through sound” that would “call together the most basic and divine qualities that are common to all human experience.”
By the end of his life, Coltrane seems less a musician per se than a truthseeker, a technician using the tools he’s mastered to discover a language that could be even more universal than melody, harmony, and discernible rhythm.
Either way, his late-stage offerings didn’t alienate so much that they prevented Coltrane from remaining commercially viable.
Regardless of why people continued to show up and buy Coltrane’s records, the important thing to Impulse and its corporate parent was that they did. Rock and roll would’ve been the furthest thing from what Coltrane was interested in the late ’60s, but as rock quickly became king, the appetite for Coltrane among young, rock-inclined listeners, didn’t wane appreciably.
“Coltrane’s music had found a growing audience among younger, more rock-oriented listeners,” Kahn writes, “even as his name and music spanned distinctions of generation and genre. The demand for new releases—answered by his older labels Prestige and Atlantic as well as Impulse—meant that there was always a wide and somewhat confusing variety in most record bins.”
It’s no surprise, then, why Impulse renewed Coltrane’s contract one final time in April 1967, shortly after he’d wrapped recording on the final studio recording he’d see to completion.
On July 14, 1967, Coltrane went to visit his producer at Impulse, Bob Thiele. The two brainstormed about what to call the new album. Coltrane recommended Expression.
Thiele, years later, told Ashley Kahn about the state he suspected Coltrane was in at that meeting. “When he visited my office three days before he died,” Thiele said, “I went to the sales manager of the company, who was in the next office, and I said, ‘I hate to tell you this, but he’s going to die.’”
Expression was released two months later, in September 1967; it became the John Coltrane memorial album. Even the album cover’s thick black border lends it the look of a packaged requiem. Each member of Coltrane’s final quintet plays on it: Pharoah, Alice, Jimmy Garrison, and Rashied Ali. The track “To Be” is particularly memorable, with Pharoah and Coltrane on flute and one of the few recorded instances of Coltrane singing.
The funeral, at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Manhattan, drew a thousand mourners, including most of the musicians you’d expect. Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler played.
“He was our leader,” Shepp told Kahn years later. “He may have left town, but he remained so.”
Of course, there was truth to that; Coltrane the man may have passed to the next dimension, but he left a staggering amount of unreleased recordings behind. And even after 50-plus years of “previously unissued releases,” and “newly discovered recordings,” we still likely haven’t heard all there is to hear from John Coltrane.