Last Sunday, Sept. 23, was John Coltrane's birthday. He would have been 86 years-old.
Whenever I think of Coltrane, I hear the opening bars of his masterpiece, A Love Supreme. The album was recorded in December 1964, and it was released in early '65, flooring the critics. It was an instant classic that featured jazz legends McCoy Tyner on the keys, Jimmy Garrison on bass and Elvin Jones on the skins. And of course, Coltrane was just straight-up killing the sax.
But for me, hearing that album was the first time I understood that compositions, even without lyrics, were narrative journeys. I'll never forget the first time I heard the beginning of the album -- the four-notes of the bass and the gong introducing the firestorm of saxophone as if it was God calling from the mountaintop.
Back in college, my music professor used to say great compositions tell stories, and words aren't always necessary. Music as journey without lyrics, well, just never jelled with me. At least, until I heard "A Love Supreme."
If you haven't heard the album, then you need to stop what you're doing and check it out. For me, even generations after the original release, it was unlike any piece of music I had ever heard. Something bigger was happening, and I was on a mission to figure it out. I needed to know the story behind the album.
It turned out that John Coltrane, like many of the great beboppers (Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Charlie "Bird" Parker), would fall victim to the black-tar bug -- in other words, heroin. Not only was Coltrane an addict, but also he felt that the secret to his musicianship, the substance of his breath swirling through the brass, was a product of the drug. Almost everyone back in New York, playing on 52nd Street or at Minton's Playhouse in Harlem, thought heroin was the muse.
In 1957, Coltrane was fired from Miles Davis' band for being strung out. At the time, this job, as you could imagine, was one of the top jobs you could have in jazz. That might have been the turning point for Trane, and he finally quit heroin, having his mother and wife lock him in a room to detox. From that moment, he began a spiritual journey towards God that would lead to his album, "A Love Supreme." And that supreme love he's talking about, well, it's a love for a higher power.
Coltrane's symphonic masterpiece is considered a musical suite -- a composition told in four parts linked by theme and motif. Don't worry, I'm not going to get too music geek on you right now, but it's important to note the sections of the album: 1. Acknowledgment 2. Resolution. 3. Pursuance. 4. Psalm. Throughout the album, Coltrane is taking you on a trip, using improvisation and themes as a vehicle to tell the story of his struggle with addiction and the path towards God.
The way I was initially told the story -- the cross between legend and truth in music history is always interesting -- was that during detox, when he was locked in the room, Coltrane reached out to God for the first time in years and begged. Coltrane promised, that if God got him out of this, if God freed him from the pain, that he would write an album in praise of his new faith. Years later, he kept that promise and would record the album in one day.
Happy belated birthday, Trane!