Black History Month 2024: The Coltrane Legacy

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John and Alice; Alice and Swami Turiyasangitananda

Or, you may not have known that Alice Coltrane lived in ancient Egypt in a past life.

Alice in the basement recording studio of the Coltrane home. Dix Hills, NY. Sometime after the release of Cosmic Music, c. 1968–69.

By Matt Silver

In 1963, John Coltrane met a pianist from Detroit named Alice McLeod in New York City. At Birdland. She was playing vibes and piano in Terry Gibbs’s band, which was splitting a double-bill with Coltrane’s quartet, and they fell in love. 

Looking for a Contemporary Album that Celebrates Alice Coltrane as Well as John?

Try Lakecia Benjamin's "Pursuance: The Coltranes"

Very few young saxophonists today possess the combination of charisma and facility that Lakecia Benjamin brings to the stage. Nominated for three Grammys for this past year’s “Phoenix,” one of Lakecia’s earliest and most enduring inspirations has been Alice Coltrane. Her 2020 album “Pursuance” was a tribute to the music of both Alice and John Coltrane.

By Matt Silver

Trained in jazz and forged in funk, alto saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin grew up hooked on Coltrane — Alice Coltrane. A friend introduced her to the music of John’s second wife, and she became enthralled. It wasn’t until some time later that Benjamin learned who John Coltrane was and that he could play a little, too.

Coltrane's Cosmic Music Part II: Trane's Final Impulses Transcend Pulse

In 1966, John Coltrane pushes his instrument, his music, and his body to their respective extremes.

Poster advertising The John Coltrane Quintet’s July 23, 1966 performance in Nagoya, Japan.

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. 

Coltrane's Cosmic Music Part I: From the Penthouse to Infinity

By Matt Silver

1965 was a year of upheaval and a year where things were happening on a grand scale in America. The space race was on, the heat was on in Saigon, and Martin Luther King led marchers demanding equal voting rights from Selma to Montgomery. Muhammad Ali stood like a conquering hero over Sonny Liston after knocking him out with a punch no one saw, least of all Liston; riots erupted in Watts and Malcolm X was assassinated — by whom exactly, we still don’t know. 

What we do know is 1965 was the end of the line for John Coltrane’s Classic Quartet.

Blue World: The 1964 Session Between Crescent and A Love Supreme We Didn't Know About Until 2019

And the only film for which John Coltrane ever recorded music.

”Le Chat Dans Le Sac” is a 1966 French Canadian film in the style of the French New Wave, in part about the disintegration of a young couple's relationship. With music by John Coltrane.

By Matt Silver

At just 37 minutes, and comprising eight takes of only five distinct tunes, it’s hard to categorize John Coltrane’s Blue World as an album, per se.

That doesn’t make it any less spectacular.

Issued by Impulse! Records in Sept. 2019, Blue World constitutes previously unreleased recordings from John Coltrane and his classic quartet at the very peak of the their powers and cohesiveness as a unit.

1964: John Coltrane Finds Love, Realizes A Love Supreme the Manifestation of an 18-Year-Old Vision

Or, that time a four-track, album-length jazz suite wasn't a losing proposition.

Coltrane smokes a pipe while taking a break from recording “A Love Supreme” at Van Gelder Studios, Dec. 1964. Photo by Chuck Stewart.

By Matt Silver

1963 chronicled a version of Coltrane’s Classic Quartet navigating between at least two worlds — the highwater mark of the group’s avant-garde experimentations, as heard on 1961’s "Live" at the Village Vanguard and Impressions, and 1962’s tidal recession to the more, shall we say, accessible repertoire of Ballads and the eponymously titled collaboration with Duke Ellington. It's a split-the-baby-in-two type scenario: you’ve got more adventurous sessions at Birdland as the year’s bookends — and, sandwiched between, the velvety lyrical decadence of Trane’s collaboration with Johnny Hartman AND six months of gigs with a substitute drummer, Roy Haynes, who filled in admirably for Elvin Jones, most memorably at 1963’s Newport Jazz Festival.

In 1964, there’s less vacillation, more incantation. Less compromise; more contemplation. Less soul searching; more satisfaction. More grounding and even more gratitude. 

And more happiness. In Coltrane’s career, but also in his life more generally. 

Some Thoughts on How to Begin to Make Sense of John Coltrane's Early Abstract Expressionism

There are several ways to think about Coltrane’s experiments with dissonance and atonality and multiphonics and other concepts that may or may not have been instructive to CIA enhanced interrogation protocols. It’s fun to speculate about what exactly Coltrane was trying to do; what abstract truth he was trying to render more material by pushing his horn — and himself — to the absolute limits of expression. 

Coltrane in 1961: From First Impulses to Fantastical New Modes of Communication

Coltrane pictured here sitting for an interview in 1961. It was a year that included one studio album and one live album with a new label, in addition to his last album as a sideman for Miles Davis and last as a leader for Atlantic. Plus a monthlong engagement at the Village Gate with Eric Dolphy at the end of the summer and an extended engagement at the Village Vanguard before a European tour at the end of the year. A moment in contemplative repose would’ve been rare for John Coltrane in 1961.

By Matt Silver

By early 1961, John Coltrane had wrapped My Favorite Things and soon its release would make it both a critical and commercial sensation. Coltrane had taken a schmaltzy, waltzy show tune and made it the height of hip sophistication. He was on the precipice of no longer being just another artist on a record label’s roster, about to become what Reggie Jackson would aspire to be in 1977: the straw that stirred the drink. 

In His Last Live Performances with Miles Davis, John Coltrane Becomes an International Star

And with this next step toward immortality, you can hear his musical sensibilities shifting

Even though he’d already released “Blue Train” and “Giant Steps” as a leader, this final tour with Miles Davis might have been the very thing John Coltrane needed to become a fearless leader.

By Matt Silver

Imagine Sting playing just one more sold-out gig with Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers as The Police. Or maybe Alexander Hamilton and George Washington getting together to teach the new country they built how to say goodbye, just "one last time."

If Miles Davis and John Coltrane — The Final Tour (Legacy, 2018) is any indication, not all fantasies of unlikely artistic reunions need be consigned to oblivion, even if the artists, corporeally speaking, have been.

Long live posthumous releases, because this compilation captures the two most iconic performers in the history of jazz performing live together, in venues across Western Europe, for the final time.

Valentine's Day 2024 Falls on Day 7 of The Coltrane Legacy. It's OK to Feel Kind of Blue

Still the best selling jazz record of all time, “Kind of Blue” is the point of entry into jazz for generations of music listeners, from casual listeners to serious ones to people who have the album because they know it’s culturally significant but don’t really know why.

By Matt Silver

On December 26, 1958, John Coltrane led a recording session that produced enough music for 3 LPs: The Believer, Stardust, and Bahia. These would be his last recordings for Prestige Records; Trane’s contract was up.