Avant Garde, a Force for Good
At the peak of his popularity, JOHN COLTRANE went for something deeper.
by Ashley Kahn
Originally published in Arthur No. 3 (March, 2003)
Excerpted from A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album by Ashley Kahn. Copyright (c) Ashley Kahn, 2002. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Putnam, Inc.
Perhaps it was a four-year itch.
Not that John Coltrane planned his career turns with any exactitude, but the timeline of his most creative period does imply a certain regularity: one year bursting with diverse activity and unsettled exploration—1957, 1961—followed by three of relatively focused progress. By that schedule, 1965 promised another creative eruption.
On cue—while the sound of A Love Supreme threaded its way into the cultural tapestry—Coltrane again accelerated his experimental drive in contexts large and small, in the process testing the bonds that held his core group together. Before the year was out, the reign of the Classic Quartet would come to a close, and Coltrane would front a new band and a new sound.
The signs of his future direction were already present in the Love Supreme sessions. Coltrane’s measured key-hopping on “Acknowledgement” presaged a harmonic approach in his playing bordering on—and soon embracing—a passionate atonality. His penchant for chanting would resurface on recordings like “Om”; his love of poetry on the album cover of Kulu Se Mama. His explicitly hymnlike titles became an unbroken theme among the many tracks recorded in 1965—”Dear Lord,” “Welcome,” “The Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost”—and their meditative sonority a looser reflection of that on A Love Supreme.
A Love Supreme also left its trace in the extended, suitelike compositions Coltrane brought into the studio throughout 1965. He even chose the title “Suite” for a five-part work with sectional names again suggesting spiritual focus–“Prayer and Meditation: Day,” “Peace and After,” “Affirmation.” The album Meditations (and the later release First Meditations, among the final sessions with the Classic Quartet) furthered Coltrane’s trend to multisectioned constructions presented in continuous performance. Meditations also elicited questions as to whether he was consciously following in his own footsteps. Coltrane’s response leaned more to the spiritual than the musical, as he saw his current efforts as points along the same continuum:
“Once you become aware of this force for unity in life, you can’t ever forget it. It becomes part of everything you do. In that respect, [Meditations] is an extension of A Love Supreme, since my conception of that force keeps changing shape. My goal of meditating on this through music, however, remains the same. And that is to uplift people, as much as I can. To inspire them to realize more and more of their capacities for living meaningful lives.”
As Alice [Coltrane] noted, “From A Love Supreme onward, we were seeing a progression toward higher spiritual realization, higher spiritual development.”
Notwithstanding the unreleased quartet-plus-two experiment of December 10, 1964, Coltrane seemed taken by a need to augment his forces. In February, he revisited the two-bass idea at a session again matching Garrison with Art Davis, which yielded two deeply hypnotic takes of “Nature Boy.” The tenor-on-tenor concept inspired Coltrane to consider recruiting another tenorist into his group. By that spring, the bandleader was frequenting various Manhattan clubs, and began following a young tenor player from Little Rock, Arkansas, whose unfettered style was clearly in the Coltrane mold. “This was before I was working in clubs nightly,” Farrell “Pharoah” Sanders recollects:
“I was playing at this place called Slugs on a Saturday, and I think it was seven-ish. It was only for about an hour and a half before the regular bands came out. I didn’t even know he was in the room–I looked up and he was at the bar. I was into a more modal kind of thing and he heard me play some of those tunes I wrote—’Upper and Lower Egypt—that was before I recorded it. He came up, and we talked very briefly. He said that he enjoyed the music.”
Sanders, like Dolphy, would soon become the second horn in Coltrane’s band, his presence having an undermining effect on the tight solidarity of the quartet. But the most striking example of Coltrane’s expansive drive took place in early June, in his first big-band effort since Africa/Brass, and arguably his most daring effort since “Chasin’ the Trane.”
Take a roomful of players of varying experience and abilities and, sans rehearsal, allow them to improvise simultaneously over a loose series of themes and modal frames. Turn on the tape machine, and let it roll for forty-odd minutes. Coltrane called on no fewer than seven horn players (trumpeters Freddie Hubbard and Dewey Johnson, alto saxists Marion Brown and John Tchicai, and tenors Shepp, Sanders, and himself), plus Art Davis again, to supplement his quartet. Short of finding a few swing-era stalwarts friendly to the avant-garde cause, Coltrane could not have picked a more disparate group, from those with conservatory training (Davis, Tchicai), to those with a strong bebop background (McCoy Tyner, Garrison, Hubbard), to “New Thing” newcomers (Shepp, Sanders, Johnson).
The fact that the session threw together players of unequal experience and different temperaments both excited and daunted Coltrane. “He was just very quiet and concentrated…very much occupied in his mind with what he wanted to do,” Tchicai remembers. Coltrane seemed to demand from the group the same unspoken dialogue his quartet had achieved, giving “small directions, he didn’t say a lot–‘OK, we have this little theme here, and then at a certain point you come together in the piece and play this theme, and then you take a solo, and then after you it’s…Freddie Hubbard.'” Coltrane himself recalled being happier with the results than with the session itself:
“I was so doggone busy; I was worried to death. I couldn’t really enjoy the date. If it hadn’t been a date, then I would have really enjoyed it. You know, I was trying to get the time and everything, and I was busy…to hear the record I enjoyed it; I enjoyed all the individual contributions.”
It had been an adventurous effort, and would have been even more so had Coltrane realized his wish to have two drummers on the recording. He had originally asked a Philadelphian he met, Rashied Ali, who had managed, through youthful persistence, to sit in for Jones on a few nights at the Half Note. With incredulity, Ali recalls turning down Coltrane’s invitation:
“I had an ego bigger than this building at that point…I was young, I was ridiculous, and I said ‘Yeah, I would like to play. Who else is gonna play?’…’Well, I don’t think I wanna play with two drummers.’ He said, ‘Oh, you don’t?’…so I blew the date on Ascension!”
Nonetheless, Coltrane continued to pursue the idea of multiple percussionists, along with his other additions. Upon returning from his European tour, he peppered live and studio dates with unlikely combinations of instruments. He invited Archie Shepp to a Down Beat Jazz Festival appearance in Chicago. A subsequent West Coast tour found him working with Pharoah Sanders, flutist Joe Brazil, two bassists, and someone playing a thumb piano in Seattle. Upon reaching Los Angeles, he doubled every instrument save piano—including bass clarinetist/bassist Donald Garrett and percussionist Juno Lewis—and recorded the African-flavored, chant-heavy “Kulu Se Mama.”
Upon his return to New York, Coltrane was determined to honor the past and yet face the future—to maintain the quartet, but augment to it at will, as he described the following year:
“I figured I could do two things: I could have a band that played like the way we used to play, and a band that was going in the direction that the one I have now is going in—I could combine these two, with these two concepts going. And it could have been done.”
Alas, given personality clashes (Jones and Ali never saw eye-to-eye) and divergent musical paths (Tyner especially was not in accord with Coltrane’s more atonal experiments), it was not to be. One night in November, Coltrane walked onto the stage at the Village Gate carrying his soprano, tenor, a bass clarinet, percussion instruments, and even a bagpipe–accompanied by Sanders, Ali, alto saxist Carlos Ward, and the quartet. It was one of the last times he would play with Tyner and Elvin Jones. As 1965 drew to a close, the strain on the senior members was proving too much, and in short order, Tyner left, to be replaced by Coltrane’s wife, Alice; Jones soon followed, leaving Ali alone in the drum position. Only Garrison remained from the groundbreaking quartet. Years later, Tyner and Jones explained their respective departures matter-of-factly:
Q: What prompted you to leave…?
Tyner: I felt if I was going to go any further musically, I would have to leave the group, and when John hired a second drummer, it became a physical necessity. I couldn’t hear myself.
Q: Do you think you [and Ali] were compatible as drummers?
Jones: I think that I was. I don’t think he was…I didn’t think my leaving would have any debilitating effect on the group.
The winter of 1965-66 delivered the full windfall of A Love Supreme. Of the public citations crowning Coltrane’s artistic and commercial achievements over the years, none matched the awards and attention this album engendered in the few weeks that came exactly a year after its recording and release. A popular poll conducted by Down Beat, the country’s leading jazz publication at the time, resulted in Coltrane’s being inducted into the magazine’s Hall of Fame (a first for a living musician) and receiving awards for Tenor Saxophonist of the Year and Album of the Year. The music industry took notice as well, nominating A Love Supreme for two Grammys. And though ABC-Paramount never officially secured the gold-record distinction for the album, Impulse’s parent company had a gold replica of Coltrane’s best-selling disc made, and hung it proudly in their New York corporate offices. “Gold before it went gold,” laughs Archie Shepp. “It’s a good marketing technique.” He explains:
“Jimmy Garrison told me a really strange story of how on the ninth floor of ABC was the jazz office and they had the glass cage there with gold records, and he used to see A Love Supreme beside the all the others. He couldn’t believe it, and finally went to Bob Thiele and Bob acknowledged that it was in fact a gold record.”
Not since the heady success of “My Favorite Things” in 1961 had Coltrane enjoyed such a wide and warm embrace as he did at the close of 1965; yet not since the harsh critical reaction of 1962 had he faced as dramatic a reversal of support as he did following the changes he effected in his lineup. But unlike the “anti-jazz” storm, this one was neither headline-grabbing nor loud. Tyner and Jones left with little fanfare (their departures eclipsed by Coltrane’s far-ranging explorations of later 1965); and a flock of fans and fellow musicians began to slip away.
“That was really cataclysmic to me,” submits Dave Liebman. “Seeing Coltrane starting to use two drummers, then Elvin not there anymore, and one tune for an hour and a half with three or four guys playing at the same time. I’m used to ‘Impressions’ and that certain vibe that Elvin and McCoy had, and here he was breaking that.” Coltrane’s music became more challenging than ever:
“It was disturbing, but fascinating–like a bunch of maniacs just screaming at the top of their lungs. This doubled the ante because the energy level and intensity of the free stuff live was beyond description. It was hard to believe it was Coltrane.”
Liebman recalls one gig in particular. In February, at the Philharmonic Hall (now Avery Fisher Hall) in New York’s prestigious Lincoln Center, a night devoted to the tenor saxophone was scheduled. Coltrane joined a lineup featuring Coleman Hawkins, Zoot Sims, Sonny Rollins, and others playing with their own bands. His slot would be the final one of the evening:
“I recall the last part of the first half was Sonny Rollins–he was in one of his not-really-into-it moods, walking around the stage playing in the corner. He only played about fifteen minutes and then he got on the microphone to say ‘I’ll be back later with John Coltrane.’ Everybody went crazy, you know. Then there was a break and after, Coltrane walks on the stage holding Alice’s hand–[with] about ten cats who look like they’re off the street, holding shopping bags with bells, shakers, and tambourines. It was [drummer] J. C. Moses and Rashied [Ali], and [trumpeter] Don Ayler and Albert Ayler, [and Sanders, Garrison, and Carlos Ward]. And people are very excited. Coltrane gets on the microphone and he starts chanting “Om Mani Padme Om,” which [was]—by that time I knew a little bit about that stuff—a heavy Tibetan chant of the dead. Alice starts rolling into a tremolo, and the group starts shaking the tambourines and everything, and people start to look at each other weird. Then he goes into “My Favorite Things.” He plays the melody over this rolling rubato and people applaud. But of course, after the melody there was nothing that was recognizable, and it went on for an hour and a quarter, or so it seemed [25 minutes, in fact]. I’m not exaggerating—at least half the audience got up and left. He had his head down and he was playing near the ground and in those days he was, he got very low and was kneeling, off mic. It was just a barrage of sound. I was there with a very good friend—we used to go together to see Coltrane a lot. We were just speechless. I couldn’t talk for a couple of days.”
Meanwhile, Ascension had been released in the final weeks of ’65 and was gathering a momentum of its own. The collective tour de force culled a largely positive critical reaction (“massive and startling,” the normally buttoned-down New York Times declared), and as Liebman recalls, “was the torch that lit the free-jazz thing. I mean, it really begins with Cecil [Taylor] and Ornette [Coleman] in ’59, but Ascension was like the patron saint saying, ‘It’s OK–this is valid.’ I think that even had much more of an effect on everybody than A Love Supreme.” Yet it also had an effect as divisive and alienating as the Philharmonic Hall concert, according to Frank Foster:
“The main complaint came after the album Ascension. That was the turning point for some musicians who had been Coltrane enthusiasts up to that time; after that they turned off. I thought it was a little extreme, but he was always my man. I agreed with some who said, ‘Coltrane’s experimenting. He’s done just about everything that can be done with a tenor saxophone, so now he’s trying to reach out for something else.’ It wasn’t even about the tenor sax anymore, it was about exploration. It was more about finding oneself spiritually than trying to turn the tenor saxophone into something.”
In 1966, Coltrane’s saxophone “sound was changing dramatically,” writes Lewis Porter, pointing to “a richer tone, with fuller vibrato…he also extended his altissimo range…didn’t hesitate to produce squeals…[and] increased his control of multiphonics.” Dissonance and atonality–freely hopping from one key to another–were the new hallmarks listeners came to expect from his horn.
The startling shift went beyond Coltrane’s own sound and pervaded his band. Gone was the drama of Tyner’s rich, hammered chords; Alice’s facile sweeps along the keyboard provided a more diffuse rhythmic accompaniment. Sanders favored Coltrane at his most forceful and vocal-like: his unabated energy was both trying and exhilarating. Jones had always suggested a steady swing, even at his most polyrhythmic. Ali, whom Coltrane praised as “one of the great drummers…laying down multi-directional rhythms [that] allow the soloist maximum freedom,” had substituted an intuitive, improvised drive for any sense of regular pattern.
To David S. Ware, who frequently traveled into Manhattan to catch Coltrane in 1966, the loss of that pulse, be it explicit or implied, was the reason for many of the empty seats he saw. “You can get almost as avant-garde as you want to be, as long as you keep that steady pulse, but Coltrane lost a lot of people when he broke that time, and went into that other world and started messing with that multidirectional time.”
It certainly was not about jazz–not in the commonly accepted definition of the term in 1966. Coltrane still spoke of his group’s music in terms of specific melodic and harmonic structure, but began to refer to more general sonic qualities (“the right colors, the right textures…the sound of chords”) and more abstract characteristics (“human foundations of music”…”integrity”…”essences”).
Various writers, committed to keeping abreast of Coltrane, strove to find a vocabulary to describe his new, adventurous leap. Some opted for a confessional route. “This music…opens up a part of myself that normally is tightly closed, and seldom recognized feelings, emotions, thoughts well up from the opened door and sear my consciousness,” wrote Don DeMicheal in a Down Beat review. Others, like A. B. Spellman and Nat Hentoff, offered disclaimer and instruction. “A caveat for the casual listener. Be advised that this record cannot be loved or understood in one sitting…it’s like Wagner–it begins on a plane at which most performances end and builds to a higher plane than the average listener considers comfortable,” wrote the former on Ascension. “Listening to Coltrane work through his own challenge may well stimulate self-confrontation in the rest of us,” Hentoff noted on Kulu Se Mama, adding that “each listener, of course, will himself be challenged in a different way.”
As Coltrane’s 1965 recordings were released (in a fashion mixing quartet and augmented sessions), what most fans and musicians noticed was that his sound and stance became those of the avant-garde. No longer the reluctant leader aware of, but not involved with, the new improvisers showing off his influence, he began to actively champion the younger players he came to know. He took advantage of his stature at Impulse, playing an A&R role, urging Thiele to consider signing many of the newer artists. “It was certainly through Coltrane that I became aware of Archie Shepp and many of the younger players,” recalled Thiele. “I think that if we signed everyone that John recommended we’d have four hundred musicians on the label.” Most noticeably, whereas Coltrane had in the past sporadically used younger players, his albums and live gigs now started to rely on them. With his new quintet–Sanders, Garrison, Ali, Alice–he performed through 1966, intermittently adding African percussionists and a second bassist to the mix.
With a wave of his hand, Coltrane had legitimized the angry, discordant sounds of the New Thing, forcing serious attention to be paid to a subgenre that might otherwise have been dismissed. Critics scrupulously explained their terms (“free,” “avant-garde,” “New Thing”) and cited precedents (Coleman, Dolphy, Ra), and, certifying their acceptance, began to distinguish various players–Ayler, Shepp, Sanders, Brown–as deserving particular consideration and praise. “Let me make the necessary observation that it is impossible to talk of the new jazz as if it were a homogenous movement,” argued Hentoff. “On the contrary, there has never before been a time of new jazz directions during which so many different routes are being taken by so many implacable individualists.” “I must say that you can’t put them all in the same bag,” agreed Cannonball Adderley. “They are playing what they believe in and what they hear, what they feel.”
Another sign of arrival, as Shepp recalls, was that even among the brotherhood of the New Thing, a standard of ability had developed: “The term ‘free’ was often a euphemism for, in my estimation, people who were total novices in some cases. There were certainly levels of this music, and a player like Coltrane was the consummate horn player within that African-American improvising tradition.”
In addition, Coltrane’s duty as standard-bearer helped affix his own brand of spirituality and well-being on the larger group. Not that the disposition did not preexist with many avant-gardists; “I think you’ll find that the spirituality of the music during the ’60s wasn’t something exotic. It was coming directly out of the church, especially the Holiness church,” commented Marion Brown. But Coltrane did stand out as more than a musical role model, as Don Cherry recollects:
“It changed the whole scene because of him being a vegetarian and meditating and everything. And everyone became aware of health and balance and life…he was one of the main persons to really set an example. He didn’t speak about [it], he just set an example.”
By December 1966, such was the collective weight of the new jazz rebels that the mainstream magazine Newsweek devoted a six-page study to the phenomenon, an article which served as a serious defense of the new guard, interviewing Taylor, Ayler, Ra, Shepp, Coleman, Coltrane, Marion Brown, and writer Nat Hentoff, who emphasized the social consciousness intrinsic to this “jazz revolution.” “It believes in soul and law and freedom. There’s almost a touching belief in music as a cleansing, purifying, liberating force, as if jazzmen were the unacknowledged legislators of the world. They all want to change the social system through their music.” As if to still any fears caused by the word “revolution” (examples of strong black nationalism were in the headlines by the close of 1966; the rise of the Black Panthers was only a few months away), Hentoff added that “the jazz revolution is not a programmatic black-power movement.”
And yet the political connection was there, to at least one young African-American. “You couldn’t help but pick up on it, being a black kid in America and being in the generation I was in,” Frank Lowe points out. “It was already written that I would be interested in cats like Malcolm X, and right after that came the Panthers.” Lowe recalls an indelible impression left on him while he was a university student in California that tied together the music, movement, and mood of the time.
“It was a documentary on this cat named Fred Hampton, who was a big leader of the Chicago Black Panthers, who organized breakfast for the kids [The Murder of Fred Hampton, 1969]. He was ambushed one night in his bed—the police shot through the walls, assassinated him right through the walls. As the camera was panning the room that was shot up, under the bed there were some records. Right on top, man, covered with blood, was Dolphy’s Out to Lunch! That showed me right then that what these cats were saying and what we were listening to were all of the same mind—it was in the body, in the walk, in the air.”
The jazz avant-garde certainly did not speak for black America in general. One had to look no further, Hentoff pointed out in his own article on the New Thing, than the dearth of black clubs booking the new jazz generation. “Their predecessors, at the start of their [bebop] revolution, at least were able to work in urban Negro neighborhoods…but the current avant-garde, also predominately Negro, has stirred minimal interest in the Negro night clubs. Thus the present revolutionaries have even fewer places in which to play than did Monk and Parker.”
On at least one occasion, Coltrane himself fell into the gap. Lewis Porter writes of a Newark, New Jersey, club engagement in late 1966—also witnessed by saxophonists Byard Lancaster and Leo Johnson—where “the audience and manager became hostile and insisted that he play some of his old standards…the gig was actually cancelled after the first night.”
Coltrane, in Hentoff’s terms, was both a patriarch and a revolutionary. Notwithstanding the negative reaction in some live situations, his cross-generational appeal to the black community transcended considerations of style—and even the music itself. Like Miles Davis, as Ben Sidran has noted, Coltrane had become an iconic figure:
“Davis and Coltrane became giants in the black culture specifically because they represented the elder statesmen, black men who had gone through the mill and survived, not empty-handed, but with peculiarly black solutions to peculiarly white problems. Their triumph and their acceptance by the black culture at a time when some of the jazz ‘avant-garde’ were undergoing openly hostile treatment, lay in the fact that they had ‘paid their dues’ in the old school and emerged with their individuality intact.”
In what would be the last year of his life, Coltrane stood as an enduring force in a series of ever-widening circles: from the tight, avant-garde brotherhood to the larger jazz scene to black America in general. In the black community, it’s a safe bet that few forty- to fifty-year-olds picked up Ascension, just as younger fans may have bypassed Coltrane’s earliest Prestige recordings. But the one album that could be found among them all would have been A Love Supreme.
“It was like, boom! Knocking the doors down–like a revelation,” maintains Frank Lowe. “It was the sixties and A Love Supreme seemed to express a lot of blackness. At a time when people were talking black, it seemed like Trane was saying more with the music than the cats were saying with the words.” Lowe adds:
“Sure, it was black music, but it was almost beyond that. It took on a universality that could embrace these other things and still keep its blackness. In other words, it’s not like us against the world. It’s like all these things are included and we all are the world.”
In the spring of 1966, if one crossed the Brooklyn Bridge from Manhattan and followed Flatbush Avenue for about ten minutes (fifteen if traffic was heavy), one would have located the center of Crown Heights, a Brooklyn neighborhood rife with New York City jazz players, a stone’s throw from Prospect Park, a mere half-hour’s drive to most of New York’s jazz clubs and even less by subway.
“I lived on Sterling Place, Calvin Massey lived right around the corner on Brooklyn Avenue,” says baritone saxophonist Cecil Payne, then one of the senior members of the community and a veteran of Dizzy Gillespie’s big band in the forties. “[Pianist] Cedar Walton lived on the same block. Bobby Timmons, Freddie Hubbard–they were on the next corner, and [alto saxophonist] Jimmy Spaulding. They were all there.”
Curtis Fuller, a Manhattan resident, recalls the same collective drawing him to Brooklyn. One of his favorite haunts was the home of Cal Massey. “I was at the house all the time with Charlotte, his wife, and the kids. I’d be over there on the porch, sitting around, right across the street from that church.”
St. Gregory the Great, a Catholic church, convent, and school centered on the corner of St. John Place and Brooklyn Avenue, functioned as the religious and social heart of the community. Neighboring residents sent their children there, and some, like local television executive Earl Toliver, also volunteered their time and services.
“In 1965-66, I was president of the PTA and an officer in the parish council,” recalls Toliver, who had lived in the neighborhood since 1951. “When I moved there, St. John Place and all the blocks around there were maybe ten percent black, ninety percent white. That was true of the whole neighborhood.” The sixties, however, brought a radical racial shift:
“When the change came, it came overnight almost. The flight from that parish was unbelievable. By the mid-sixties, it was eighty percent black. Shirley Chisholm [soon to become the country’s first black congresswoman] was our state assembly representative.”
Toliver remembers that the tenor of the time–a more militant black awareness, increased activism–was felt even in the confines of the church:
“There was a lot of turmoil in the church. I remember [in early ’66] there was a sit-in at the rectory, a group of young people who wanted to take over the church, that kind of resistance to traditional kind of organization and structure.”
Despite misgivings from Father Thomas Haggerty, St. Gregory’s more traditionally minded pastor, Cal Massey had coordinated a number of Sunday afternoon jazz performances in the school’s small auditorium. In April 1966, with the weather turning warmer, Massey was inspired to hold a concert with a very specific purpose, as his son, Zane, then eight years old, remembers:
“My father wanted to build a playground–not only for his kids, but all the kids in the neighborhood. There was only one park nearby, but it had been taken over by gangs, so it was kind of dangerous. His idea was to build a playground at St. Gregory’s, and since we lived right across the street, he could keep his eye on us. Father Dobson became involved.”
Father James Dobson, then a young priest who would later leave the clergy, confirms that the old convent on the church property had recently been torn down, leaving a hole in the ground. He and a fellow priest proceeded to help Massey plan the event, but as Toliver recalls, the church was reluctant at best. Plans nonetheless moved forward for a daylong event on April 24. The auditorium–already in use for a theatrical presentation–was booked. The schoolchildren created musical notes from construction paper to hang on the wall. Flyers and word of mouth filtered out as the day of the event approached. Toliver:
“It was not really publicized. In fact, I think I only knew the week before that Coltrane would be performing there. Massey was really in charge of that: getting Coltrane and the other people.”
The flyer promised a concert with a “Religious Theme,” featuring the “Top Names of the Jazz World.” It was an impressive array for a neighborhood event: saxophonist/flutist Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Cedar Walton, Cecil Payne, McCoy Tyner (leading his own group), Elvin Jones (playing with Kirk), Jimmy Garrison (with Coltrane), saxophonist Charles Tolliver, bassist John Ore, drummer Andrew Cyrille (misspelled “Surelle”), and–positioned first on the flyer–John Coltrane. Many of Massey’s neighbors would be playing in Massey’s own band; Coltrane’s lineup was expected to include his wife, Alice, along with Sanders, Garrison, and Ali.
April 24 turned out to be a beautiful day. “I remember it was pleasant weather, people interacted in a positive way with each other and with the musicians,” says Dobson. An entrance fee of $2.50 was collected at the door, and food and drinks, most supplied by the parishioners themselves, were on sale. By midafternoon the music began, and a crowd soon filled the small auditorium.
“The hall contained room for at least 300 people with standing room,” notes Alice Coltrane, who had driven in with her husband and children from Long Island. The well-attended affair brought a mixed crowd, reflecting the generational shifts of the day. Toliver notes that the dress ran from formal to Afrocentric. “It was a hot day, I remember shirts and ties, dashikis, and no polo shirts or anything like that. It was respectable.”
To many–performers and audience alike–the most impressive aspect of the day was witnessing the effect of the music on many of the younger attendees, who were more familiar with the then-ubiquitous sounds of James Brown and Stevie Wonder. “I think this was the introduction for many of the young people in the audience to jazz,” remarks Toliver. Zane Massey confirms his memory. “It was a whole afternoon of jazz. They did some incredible stuff. I was very young, but I remember Rahsaan [Roland Kirk] played. I had never seen anyone play flute through his nose.”
There were no journalists present, save for three French jazz fans–Daniel Berger, Alain Corneau, and Natasha Arnoldi, whom drummer Sunny Murray had brought. “We were the only whites there,” Berger notes. “It was mostly families in a non-show business, non-jazz concert atmosphere–quite casual.” “They were just regular people from the neighborhood that came–they weren’t like jazz fans going out to hear jazz,” adds Payne. “And they really enjoyed it, because it was something they would never think of going to see or to hear.”
The idea of reaching new listeners, of performing in a location where ticket prices and age limits would not hinder attendance, was a primary concern for Coltrane in his last year. “His goal, shortly before he died, was to get a loft in [Greenwich] Village,” explained Bob Thiele:
“He wanted to set up a place where people could come in, listen to his music…in other words, people could attend rehearsals, no admission, just the price of a Coca-Cola, ten cents if you wanted anything to drink, but this was definitely an ambition of his.”
Though Coltrane never found the time to create his dream venue, he did help out a friend, Babatunde Olatunji, performing in spring 1967 at the Nigerian percussionist’s Center of African Culture on 125th Street, a performance space based on the same ideals of access and learning. Cal Massey’s benefit at St. Gregory’s offered a similarly rare opportunity to a jazz star whose schedule was normally overwhelmed by tour commitments, studio dates, and family time. For the event, Coltrane chose a neat, dark suit, and prepared a set list that included a tune appropriate to the setting. “John made his own decision to perform ‘Acknowledgement’ from A Love Supreme…and to recite the poem during the program,” Alice remembers.
The afternoon had been long. Zane Massey had managed to grab one of the seats near the stage. “I was very close to the front with my brother. Coltrane was the last perfor-mance, right after Rahsaan, actually.” When Coltrane set up to perform, it was with a quartet; Sanders was not present. And according to various witnesses, a slightly injured Jones sat in on drums.
“When Trane came on, Elvin had a cast on his foo—-I think he had just been in a fire not too long before—and Jimmy Garrison and Alice,” Massey maintains. Alice sat behind a “spinet in good condition,” as she recollects, obviously provided by the church. Massey:
“I remember they just got up there and played. It was so intense. I was very young, but I was very touched by that music. It was a very long performance–Trane played for over an hour. They played for so long that there were puddles of sweat. Where they were standing–John, Jimmy, Elvin–there was literally water there on the floor.”
Whatever the complete selection of tunes Coltrane chose to perform may never be known, but as Massey recalls,
“I remember at one point after he played for maybe a half-hour, he went in his pocket and he read the prayer, the whole A Love Supreme prayer. He actually read it–‘Thank you God,’ you know–while the band was playing. Then everybody was chanting [sings], ‘a love supreme, a love supreme’ while he was reading the prayer.”
Photographs confirm Coltrane having a piece of paper in his pocket, as Massey, as well as other attendees, claims. “Coltrane was indeed reading a piece of paper,” states Berger. Though he played only “Acknowledgement” (Alice: “John did not perform the entire suite”), his performance was enough to touch a communal nerve. The chant from the well-known album—a year old by that point—had certainly become part of the lingua franca of the jazz circle, disseminating as well into the larger black community. Massey adds:
“The band was playing, and he was reading the prayer. And I remember in the back of the room it was all musicians and they were chanting his name, ‘John, John, John.’ Rahsaan was actually crying, and I couldn’t understand. I was in shock, because I hadn’t ever seen anything like that before.”
To those who knew Coltrane’s repertoire, his performance elicited surprise, Corneau recalling “a soft accompaniment by Alice, Jimmy, and Elvin,” and Arnoldi noting:
“After having heard Ascension and seen him at the Village Gate when he was exploring his new voice, the concert in Brooklyn was far more subdued…it seemed to me like a step backwards to a certain extent.”
Even those who, like Toliver, were unfamiliar with Coltrane’s music report that the performance was not what they expected:
“It was sort of melodic, just a little different. It wasn’t hard jazz–the Gillespie kind of jazz. I was thinking that maybe it was tempered because of the church. His stuff was very…it was almost symphonic. I understand now, having listened to some of his music, that that was his jazz.”
A warm reception followed the concert. “John spoke highly of all the musicians’ performances,” Alice comments, while Dobson, who got a chance to thank Coltrane for his participation, remarks, “I had to meet him and thank him for coming. He said he was just happy to be there.” Berger states, “I remember after the performance, the mood was quite emotional. Sunny Murray went to shake hands around, but we three had a rather reserved attitude in the middle of such a meditative and religious atmosphere.”
Zane Massey recalls the festivities then moved across the street:
“After the concert, everybody came to our house. My mother cooked, and they all came over and ate dinner. I remember being in my father’s room and Elvin, Jimmy, and Trane were all sitting on the bed. They were eating, and Trane’s saxophone was out–I actually tried to blow in it. My father stopped me–‘No! Get away from the horn!’ And they were all laughing, “Let him blow, let him blow!” I got a little sound.”
In many respects, Cal Massey’s event was a success. “The pastor [Thomas Haggerty] was overjoyed, man,” recollects Payne. “They were amazed to see that something that good came to them.” Zane Massey says proudly, “The playground was built in part because of that concert. Children still use that very same yard behind the school.”
“I want to be a force for real good,” Coltrane stated in 1966. In another interview he expanded on his socially conscious aim:
“I want to discover a method so that if I want it to rain, it will start immediately to rain. If one of my friends is ill, I’d like to play a certain song and he’ll be cured. When he’d be broke, I’d bring out a different song, and immediately he’d get all the money he needed. But what these pieces are, and what is the road to attain the knowledge of them, that I don’t know. The true powers of music are still unknown. To be able to control them must be, I believe, the goal of every musician.”
When asked why Coltrane did not perform his suite more often, Alice shrugs. “To speculate on why A Love Supreme was rarely performed opens up many variables.” Why that evening in a Brooklyn church? “I believe the sacredness of the event may be a reason.”
The next time Coltrane’s poem would be read aloud, it would again be inside a church, but for a much more solemn occasion.