Portraits in Jazz: A Piano Album (Oxford University Press, 1992)
ISBN-10: 0193385627 / ISBN-13: 978-0193385627
Simple yet elegant piano pieces for intermediate standard players
(approximately grades 4-5) of any age with a demonstration CD.

John Coltrane: Bringing Verismo to Jazz
By Valerie Capers
The Village Voice (circa 1985)

When speaking of the tenor saxophone, sooner or later it’s inevitable to speak of John Coltrane. This in itself is no small tribute to a man and his talent when we consider the extraordinary musicians who have found their home in the voice of the tenor—Lester Young, Ben Webster, and Coleman Hawkins, to mention only three. The impact of John Coltrane, however, extends far beyond the tenor saxophone itself.

Trane’s presence in the ’60s forever changed not only the concept of how to play the tenor, but how to play jazz as well. Yet there are those who write about jazz, with access to publishers and therefore the potential for enormous sales in academia, who either dismiss Trane with an offhand remark such as “he plays outside the beat,” or worse yet, omit him entirely from his historical niche in the ’60s. I recall being outraged when I heard a lecturer refer to John Coltrane as a “folk hero.” This statement is absolutely absurd. Paul Bunyan is a folk hero, not John Coltrane!

What was it about Trane that flamed the imagination of his contemporaries and sent them all scurrying to their private chambers for some critical self-analysis and heavy woodshedding?

First of all, we hear in Trane’s music a personal vision profoundly related to its time. Coltrane was and is a voice of the ‘60s.

Although he came up through the ranks of be­bop, John emerged with something new at a time when the bebop period of Bird and Diz and Bud was a thing of the past—an immediate past, but the past nevertheless.

What, then, was the essence of Trane’s music? I have thought long and hard on the answer to this question and, with a reasonable degree of humility, I offer my thoughts and reflections for your consideration.

John’s music is not about melody, rhythm, and harmony alone. It extends far beyond that and becomes something spiritual, philosophical, and intellectual. There is a mystique about John Coltrane’s music and perhaps I can shed some light on it by expressing what this giant meant to me (a classical pianist at Juilliard, struggling from the arms of the European masters to embrace a new set of masters in a new musical idiom and discipline). The amazing thing about Coltrane is that you do not have to play the saxophone in order to feel the full weight of his influence.

The immediate thing that drew me to Trane was the magnetic force of his sound. John played with an energy and vitality that was totally compelling and his musical statements were powerful and expressive. Young aspiring horn players just discovering Trane often mistake his technique and full dynamics as the essence of his playing. This couldn’t be further from the truth because technique and tone were merely the tools of his artistic expression, not the end result. Trane’s music was about life as he perceived it, lived it, and reflected on it. He brought “verismo” (realism) to jazz in the ’60s and caused all of us to dig deep into ourselves and examine who we are as artists and how we relate to our fellow man.

As a devotee of Richard Wagner, I find a striking set of aesthetic parallels between his music and that of John Coltrane. We need not delve into the lives and innermost thoughts of a Mozart, Lester Young, or Sonny Stitt in order to appreciate and understand the works of these great musicians. However, with Wagner or Trane, you cannot separate the man from his art. Coltrane, like Wagner, exalts the artist to the highest calling in society, possessing the most powerful and positive forces for good and love in the world.

John Coltrane created a new dimension for the jazz musician. He became a voice of conscience—speaking out against conflict (Vietnam), poverty, and social injustice. As Trane saw it, such issues should indeed be the concerns of the artist. Think back and remember the cries of pain and frustrating emanating from his horn. Remember “Alabama”—a statement about four little girls who lost their lives in church one Sunday morning.

In talking with fellow musicians about Trane, one word in particular was always mentioned in describing his music—spiritual. As I see it, spirituality is at the core of Trane’s music and of his very existence. In understanding his philosophy, we gain an important insight into John’s musical concept.

Take, for example, the concept of time. In Wagnerian dramas, time is totally unrelated to the actual physical structure of time as we know it (60 minutes to the hour, 24 hours to the day, etc.). In Tristan and Isolde, for instance, a fleeting glance may be dramatically extended orchestrally in musical time-space. Likewise with Trane, the rhythm section playing an ostinato (repeated vamp pattern) establishes a steady rhythmic flow over which John moves melodically and rhythmically at will, unencumbered by the relentless beat or flow of time under his solo. Time, of course, is relative. If you have an hour to catch a plane and find yourself in a traffic jam on the way to the airport, an hour races by. That same hour, spent leisurely on the beach on a lazy summer day, moves at a much slower pace.

Stretching this concept of spirituality a step further, we are better able to comprehend Trane’s approach to melody and harmony. For example, a C major chord has certain fundamentals that determine how it is used and what is played with it. To Coltrane, however, a C major chord is no longer simply a C major chord. He transforms it into a texture of sound made up of a combination of tones having both an immediate and a more remote relationship to all other pitches and tones. This means that there is no such thing as playing “outside” or away from a tonal center because theoretically (or philosophically, if you like) there is no fixed tonal center. Such concepts were an integral part of John’s music.

For instance, in listening to “Green Dolphin Street” as played by Cannonball Adderley and Trane in Miles Davis’ old group, I hear a startling musical difference between those two giants.  Cannonball played with a joy and swing that was fluid and spontaneous in spirit.  Trane, on the other hand, played with a sense of forethought and consideration in what he expressed.  His musical vocabulary was so impressive we were compelled to listen, whether we comprehended or not.

Another important thing for me about Trane’s playing was the growth and development in his music and his performances. I can think of no other musician in jazz whose musical concept is so clearly heard and documented from its early stages to its full-blown maturity. The evolution of this genius is dramatically discernable as we listen and follow the Coltrane discography year after year.

This was a particular inspiration for young musicians such as myself, struggling to create our own concepts. Trane’s constant striving for the next plateau was an indescribable joy.

Despite the nearly 20 years since the physical passing of John Coltrane, there remains an intensity of feeling and emotion about this man and his music. Even today musicians continue to look to Trane as a source of inspiration, enlightenment, and new challenges. His music is studied and performed all over the world, and Coltrane is recognized as one of the most significant musicians of the 20th century in American music. What a triumph for a man who was so harshly criticized and so totally misunderstood back in the early ’60s. Time and time again history has shown us that intellect, genius, and creativity cannot be bound or imprisoned by walls of established tradition, social rejection, or lack of financial success. If this were not so, the humanities would be diminished by the loss of such visionaries as Beethoven, Stravinsky, Monk, and, of course, John Coltrane.

My thoughts as expressed here are not concerned with deciding who is the better player—Trane or Rollins or Webster; that would be as silly as discussing which is the better ocean, the Atlantic or the Pacific. I would rather enjoy the unique genius of each individual artist on its own terms. I would no more wish to live in a world without Gene Ammons and Lester Young than I would John Coltrane.

In John’s composition “A Love Supreme”, he acknowledges the Creator as the spirit within all of us—thus connecting each of us to the other and all of us with the infinity of the universe.

Thank you, John!