John Coltrane and the End of Jazz
John Coltrane (1926 -1967)
August 26, 2018 at 4:58 AM
Putting his classic quartet’s ‘lost album’ in its context.
The Renaissance, taking man as the measure of all things, produced music for soloists. The Age of Revolutions, gestating democracy and the nation at arms, expressed its collectivism in orchestral music. The 20th century saw the triumph of capitalism, eventually, and the musical format of the market economy was the quartet. A quartet is the cheapest way to mimic an orchestra’s range. Ringo plays the rhythm, Paul holds down the bass, John adds the chords, and George does the decorations. The logical consequence, economically if not musically, was for all four members to sing a bit and write their own tunes. Hence the Beatles, self-contained and self-commodified, with a little help from their friend Brian Epstein.
In the modern arts, the quartet is the format of late style. The economy here is more aesthetic than financial, though it might be significant that Beethoven, the first major composer to make a living without patronage, was also the composer who hit upon the quartet as the arena for technical speculation. The quartet format allows the artist to cover the bases of rhythm, harmony, and melody, but it also leaves plenty of open spaces. The laboratory of Beethoven’s five last quartets incubates a century of harmonic experiment. T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets are a titration, an apocalypse that returns art to religion drip by drip, line by line.
The concept of “late style” was formulated in 1852 by Wilhelm von Lenz. He divided Beethoven’s music into an early style, imitative of Haydn and Mozart; a middle style, grand and exhortatory like the Eroica Symphony; and a late style, more private than public, that meditates on eternal questions of form. This concept has the tripartite tidiness of the dialectic; it rests on the Hegelian assumption that musical biography, like secular history, is a progress towards spiritualization. In late style, the Romantic ego, as if preparing for death, turns inward and considers infinity. Inflated further in the politicized criticism of Theodor Adorno and Edward Said, the concept floats under Freudian cover in Harold Bloom’s theory of the “anxiety of influence.”
Jazz was in a sense always a late style, a timekeeper’s music out of time. In the 1920s, while jazz musicians were playing early show tunes and improvising with rudimentary harmony, the Second Viennese School was pushing ahead into total chromaticism and atonality, and Stravinsky, Milhaud, Prokofiev, and Ravel were experimenting with jazz’s musical signature—its fixed pulse, syncopated rhythm, and emphasis on flattened thirds and sevenths. Jazz was modern long before Modern Jazz was named in the 1940s, for the harmonic modernity of bebop was the chromaticism of Liszt, Chopin, and Wagner. In the wider chronology of Western music, jazz’s harmonic development is a long game of catch-up, finished too late—around 1972, when Miles Davis heard Karlheinz Stockhausen for the first time. Davis had already reached the same conclusions as the joyless German but without losing the funk.
No jazz musician incarnates the legend of late style more than the saxophonist John Coltrane. His early style is undistinguished; he was a bluesy sideman whose grasp of the instrument falls short of the reach of his ear. His middle style, stertorous and ambitious, began in his mid-1950s stint with Miles Davis’s quintet. Coltrane in this period is still less melodious than Hank Mobley and less witty than Sonny Rollins, but his chops are catching up with his ear. Only Johnny Griffin has fleeter fingers and only Rollins can beat him for persistence. Coltrane thinks aloud and never stops thinking; he is the perfect foil for Davis, who is also ironic and intellectual, also latent with eroticism and violence, but who never shows his working, only the finished idea. Coltrane’s sound waves are square and heavy, metallic and dark like lead. He is both implacable and lazy, like a bull elephant: You never know where the charge will take him, only that—as he himself admitted to Davis—once he gets going, he doesn’t know how to stop.
Coltrane’s late style emerged in his 1960s quartets. Now leading and writing for his own group, and newly clean of drink and drugs, he was finally able to pursue his vision and the possibilities of the music to the limits of form and expression—and ultimately beyond both. The further he went, the more ambitious and less accessible the music became, until it was incomprehensible to almost all of his audience and even to some of his closest collaborators. In the logic of modernism, further means better. But “faster” and “louder” aren’t necessarily better, so why should “further” be the supreme critical value? To judge Coltrane’s late-style art is, in an important sense, to judge modernism itself, and especially American modernism. And we have now an opportunity to listen afresh, with the release this summer of what may well be the last significant studio recordings of Coltrane’s classic quartet, Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album.
Jazz is modernist music, and the jazz quartet the home chemistry kit of modernism. The experiments of Coltrane’s 1960s quartets broke the mechanics of jazz’s classical physics, with its show tunes, its blues, and its endless staircases of chords ascending in fourths. The title of Both Directions at Once alludes to a remark Coltrane made to his successor in Miles Davis’s group, the tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter. Coltrane said he wanted to play as though jumping into the middle of a sentence, playing a song outward in both directions at once. The passage backward travels from complexity to simplicity; the passage forward travels from further complexity to the simplicity of a final restatement. The simultaneous execution of both moves evokes the mathematical backflips of 20th-century physics—principles of uncertainty and indeterminacy and relativity. “In my end is my beginning,” as Eliot puts it in his rhythmic reflections on time and space in Four Quartets.
Coltrane’s late style began on the legendary Davis album Kind of Blue (1959), and jazz began to die there too. Working in both directions at once, Coltrane erected ever more complex chordal ziggurats while also flattening the structures of the music back into the formless modal void. After departing the Davis group and signing as a solo artist to Atlantic Records, in 1960 Coltrane created the new chordal landscape of “Coltrane changes” with Giant Steps: Rather than returning to the home key by the traditional cycle of fourths, Coltrane shifted the tonal center by major thirds. Musicians call this challenge to mind, ear, and fingers the “Three Tonic” system.
Coltrane somehow found musicians capable of following him and meshing. His classic quartet—with drummer Elvin Jones, pianist McCoy Tyner, and bassist Jimmy Garrison—remains the heavyweight champion of jazz quartets.
This revolution had been incubating in plain sight, and in some very traditional places. Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” (1930), the locus classicus of the cycle of fourths that became a nervous tic in bebop, makes the major-third jump when it enters the bridge, only to return to the home key by a steady sequence of fourths. “Have You Met Miss Jones?” (Rodgers and Hart, 1937) and “I Remember You” (Victor Schertzinger and Johnny Mercer, 1941) also use major-third shifts. Coltrane himself experimented with major-third shifts in a 1956 recording with Davis, “Tune Up.” In the 16-bar sequence of “Giant Steps,” Coltrane made 10 major-third shifts, all set up with two-step chromatic substitutions in fourths, as if to remind us how far we have come. And he played this as fast as possible—too fast for most players: The tonal center changes about every eight beats and it starts to shift after only two beats. Just as your mind and ear find their balance, the harmonic floor gives way beneath your feet. Coltrane hammers through these changes with barely a pause for breath.
Jazz could not get any faster, but it could get louder and deeper. Somehow, the runaway Trane found like minds, capable of following him and meshing with each other. He now had the polyrhythmic fury of Elvin Jones on drums and the weirdly calm McCoy Tyner on piano. Coltrane had taken up the straight soprano saxophone, apparently because he liked Sidney Bechet, but perhaps also because its snake-charming sound fitted his growing interest in pushing the modal envelope into non-Western musics. Coltrane had the studio time and tape to play with, too, after having an unlikely hit in 1961 with a modal take on Richard Rodgers’s “My Favorite Things,” in which the rhythm section’s heavy vamp and Coltrane’s oriental noodling evoke images of the von Trapp family on the nod in Marrakesh. The addition later that year of bassist Jimmy Garrison stabilized the classic Coltrane quartet. This is the unit that we hear on Both Directions at Once, and it remains the heavyweight champion of jazz quartets.
Impulse Records calls Both Directions at Once a lost album, but it isn’t an album and it wasn’t really lost. Nor, despite Coltrane’s interstellar motifs and spatial excursions, has it fallen from the heavens. It has emerged from the attic of Coltrane’s first wife, Naima, as an “audition tape” whose master tape was either lost or destroyed. It was recorded all in one day at the studio of Rudy Van Gelder. In the fifties, Van Gelder had created the Blue Note sound by building a high-ceilinged extension to his house in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, nailing the drums to the floor and running a jazz group through spring-reverb amplifiers the size of refrigerators. Apart from recording Coltrane’s only Blue Note album, Blue Train (1958), Van Gelder also recorded several Coltrane albums for Prestige Records, whose less-polished sessions were a notorious source of cash for drugs.
In 1961, Impulse Records bought Coltrane’s contract from Atlantic and Coltrane and Van Gelder were reunited. Like candidates for the fifth Beatle, there are several candidates for fifth member of Coltrane’s quartet. Coltrane even expanded it into a five-piece with a couple of prospects, saxophonists Eric Dolphy and Pharoah Sanders—the former a subtle altoist who combined Coltrane’s changes with Adderley’s swing, the latter a rootin’, tootin’ tenor honking his way into psychedelic religion. But Van Gelder was more important to the quartet’s development. His church-like space was just right for Coltrane’s increasingly spiritual aspirations, much as Studio 2 at Abbey Road was to become ideal for the Beatles’ orchestral ambitions.
Cover of ‘Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album’
Both Directions at Once lacks the finished Van Gelder sound, but you can still hear the Van Gelder space. You can also hear the moment in time, which is what jazz is all about. This is not a real “album,” since it is not a premeditated sequence of songs. In his liner notes, Sonny Rollins compares the recovery of the session tape to “finding a new room in the Great Pyramid.” It is—but the room is a storeroom, or an attic. The music stands in relation to Coltrane’s official studio and live recordings as Keats’s letters do to his verse. It illuminates not just the mind of its creators but also the meaning of their work. Like Coltrane with his changes, Both Directions pushes the concept of late style to breakdown.
As the meaning of each note depends on its harmonic setting and its placement in the chain of melody, so the significance of this newly released recording derives in large part from its place in Coltrane’s chronology. On March 6, 1963, the day Both Directions was recorded, the quartet was approaching the end of a two-week stand at the Birdland jazz club in New York City. That night’s performance would be recorded, and three tunes from those tapes would be issued in April 1964 on the Live at Birdland album. (A fourth, “Vilia,” was eventually included in the Live at Birdland CD reissue.)
More broadly, Both Directions was recorded during a stretch of time in which Coltrane made a trio of albums touching the past and the future of music. On Ballads, recorded in late 1961 and early 1962 but not released until March 1963, Coltrane palpates the most romantic of formats, then turns the diaphanous material of pop harmony inside out, revealing a scorched metallic skeleton. On Duke Ellington & John Coltrane, recorded in September 1962 and released in February 1963, Coltrane made an extended and respectful bow to the first and last jazz composer. And the day after recording Both Directions, Coltrane’s quartet was booked into Van Gelder’s studio to begin recording an album with the crooner Johnny Hartman. The motive for this trio of retrospective records may have been producer Bob Thiele’s attempt to find a hit to follow “My Favorite Things.” But that doesn’t really matter. The Coltrane quartet is playing an art form in the process of self-dissolution. From phrase to phrase, and sometimes within the same phrase, Coltrane teeters between homage and sabotage, articulacy and noise.
The passage of time allows us to hear Both Directions at Once in both directions at once. We look back and trace Coltrane’s development from bop to modal to free jazz. We look forward and anticipate the quartet’s further development in Crescent (1964) and even its final expression, A Love Supreme (1965), the spiritual concept album that leads to the transcendentally incoherent music of the last two years of Coltrane’s life. And we cannot but wonder whether Coltrane’s late style really expresses the same drive towards an apogee that Lenz heard in Beethoven or whether the discharge of energy fizzled away, and if so, when.
Both Directions at Once contains seven tracks from the daytime session in Englewood Cliffs, with a further seven alternative takes on a second CD in the deluxe edition. The alternative takes are only a little less superfluous than usual. We hear Coltrane varying his solos and the trio responding, but it is clear why the album’s compilers, record producer Ken Druker and Coltrane’s saxophonist son Ravi, relegated the alternative takes to the second disc. Further, two of the seven “master” tunes, “Nature Boy” and “Impressions,” are themselves alternative takes on recordings Coltrane released during his lifetime.
“Nature Boy,” written by the proto-hippie Eden Ahbez and most famously recorded in 1948 by Nat King Cole, is fresh and lively, with a feel anticipating the Crescentsessions of early 1964. But the version we already have from early 1965, recorded after the watershed of A Love Supreme, and with Art Davis on bass, is more developed and will remain definitive. The value of this early version is its hint that A Love Supreme is not the revolutionary breach that the critics describe but rather a cohesive summary of the developments that Coltrane had pursued since 1960—an end, not a beginning.
Opinion varies as to the definitive version of “Impressions,” Coltrane’s splicing of the modal sequence of Miles Davis’s “So What” with a theme from the composer Morton Gould. In the 1961 Live in Stockholm recording, Coltrane developed his solo with unusual economy from mellifluousness to fury, only for Dolphy’s alto to pour like honey from the rock. In July 1963, the quartet, with Roy Haynes subbing on drums, recorded an incandescent, chaotic version at the Newport Jazz Festival. In December 1963, recording a live set for Ralph Gleason’s Jazz Casual TV show, Coltrane looked at his sax, played five quick quavers, and the trio crashed into gear, already in the groove at top speed, to give one of the most synergetic recorded performances in jazz history. The version here, and the variations on the bonus disc, add little to our understanding of “Impressions.”
Now for the originals—two tracks that haven’t been heard elsewhere and have been named here for the slate numbers assigned by the studio producer. “Original 11383” is a fast and furious blues number. The chord changes are so heavily overwritten with modality that among the early reviewers, only the pianist Ted Gioia noticed it was a blues piece at all. Again, the suspicion that A Love Supreme is a summing-up is hinted at by the way the pushed emphases in “Original 11383” anticipate “Pursuance,” the third section of A Love Supreme. Meanwhile, “Original 11386” is Latin-inflected, with the stops and structures of fifties hard bop and Coltrane pushing against form with slow belligerence. As you can see the career of Henry Moore foreshadowed in a single Picasso sculpture, so you can hear in Coltrane’s soloing on this track a foreshadowing of the calmer, melodious Pharoah Sanders of the 1980s, in particular Sanders’s “Africa.”
As early as 1961, pianist McCoy Tyner had taken to dropping out when Coltrane’s solos slipped the bonds of chordal harmony. Bassist Garrison often followed when he could no longer find the tonic note. This produced epic saxophone and drum duels between Coltrane and Elvin Jones that, curiously, anticipate the rock theatrics of Pete Townshend and Keith Moon, or Jimi Hendrix and Mitch Mitchell. On “One Up, One Down,” the modal pounding is so heavy that Tyner drops out at the one-minute mark. In 1965, Tyner and Jones were to drop out of the quartet entirely, with Tyner unable to find a niche for his chords and Jones, who understood the difference between music and “a lot of noise,” convinced that Coltrane had slipped into making the latter.
Tyner’s tight, swinging piano on “Slow Blues” is firmly in the fifties, and this pulls Coltrane back into his Prestige Records style. You can also hear how the quartet’s spacious ambience and emotional intensity allowed Coltrane to recharacterize blues phrasing as spiritual questing. The suspended 11th chord calls for redemption by demanding resolution; the sharp 11th is the discord of the soul in torment.
The most valuable track here is the oldest composition. “Vilia” is a theme from Franz Lehár’s Merry Widow. The legend of Coltrane as avant-garde visionary sits uneasily with his pursuit of Habsburgian jollities. But the chronology of jazz sits awkwardly with the modernist ideal of the avant-garde. Jazz harmony developed chronologically but, unlike the developers of classical harmony, the developers of jazz harmony lived in the same period. The generations could and did play together, as Ellington and Coltrane did in 1962. On “Vilia,” the quartet minds its manners as it had done on Ballads and Duke Ellington & John Coltrane, and as it would do the next day with Johnny Hartman. Coltrane’s tenor solo follows the ancient course, the conventional and very difficult path of finding phrases with one foot in the blues and the other in the chord changes. You can sense the storm that might break out at any moment, but Coltrane’s restraint intensifies the impact.
There are many testimonies to American loneliness, and the blues might be the greatest of them. There are fewer testaments to American compendiousness. Coltrane’s quartet is the Moby-Dick of American popular music, with Coltrane still wailing in the depths when he died in 1967. By then, he would no longer be playing popular music. After A Love Supreme, his music bore little relation to the folk music and show tunes from which it had sprung. It became abstract and theoretical, and though it abounds in sincere emotion, there is something false about its donning of mock-African and mock-Asian styles, something overly plodding and earnest in a pastiching that Ellington had done with such light and ironic style in the Cotton Club. Unbounded space becomes mere formlessness.
The English saxophonist Ronnie Scott used to tell a joke about a man who goes to a pet shop in search of a singing parrot. The proprietor turns out to have three in stock. The first and cheapest parrot is a richly plumed specimen that can sing all of Louis Armstrong’s solos. The second is in equally splendid condition, but costs more, because he can sing all of Charlie Parker’s solos. The third is blind, can barely stand on his perch, and has lost most of his feathers. But he costs more than the other two birds combined.
“What does this one sing?” the customer asks.
“I don’t know,” says the proprietor, “but the other two call him ‘Maestro.’”
Most of the people who play jazz view Coltrane’s late period like the proprietor regards his parrot, with baffled respect. We see how he expressed the inner logic of the music, because we have the luxury of hindsight. We applaud the giant steps of harmonic invention that took him there—and admire the quasi-religious devotion that got and kept him there. But hardly any of us go there, and even most saxophonists only visit. The late style of jazz isn’t at the heart of our repertoire in the way that Beethoven’s late quartets and Eliot’s Four Quartets are in their fields. For most jazz musicians, it’s Coltrane’s middle style, rooted in the Modern Jazz of the early forties to the late fifties, that strikes the desired balance between form and content, tradition and deviation. We talk about the “Coltrane changes” more than we play them, and we tend to play them in their milder iteration by Richard Rodgers.
The fact that this 55-year-old recording is the year’s most significant jazz release tells you all you need to know about the health of jazz in 2018.
People who write about jazz tend to place the late style at the top of the pile—but what do they know? Most of them cannot play the music and many of them cannot understand the technicalities. Lacking practical understanding, they fall back on fashion and the hagiographic assumption that if progress is good, then late is great. I am not alone in feeling that, as works of art, Beethoven’s Fifth and Seventh are more successfully realized than his Ninth. Nor am I alone in finding the formal asceticism of Four Quartets less satisfying than the grab-bag of The Waste Land. I have also noticed that when someone claims that Finnegans Wake is better than Ulysses, you should stand by for an act of intellectual imposture. The story goes that Coltrane was using LSD after 1965. If so, then the overreach and incoherence of his final music, and his mingling with admiring but inferior talents like Alice Coltrane, the Yoko Ono of jazz, suggest that Coltrane might be the sixties’ first and foremost acid casualty, flailing out rather than flaming out, the peak of his late style already behind him.
The test of a jazz musician isn’t a facility for imitating terminal Coltrane, but for emulating the blues, finding an individual voice within the chordal and harmonic framework, and playing it with feel. That is what Coltrane and his late quartet are doing on much of Both Directions at Once, though they’re doing it at such intellectual altitude that you don’t notice it most of the time. But the blues is what they’re playing, even when they’ve exchanged chords for modes. That you can’t tell half the time shows that this is the sound of an art form at its furthest extension, which is also the moment of its collapse.
The fact that this 55-year-old recording is the year’s most significant jazz release tells you all you need to know about the health of jazz in 2018. The only real argument is about the clinical symptoms of jazz’s death and when it happened. It would be wrong to claim that jazz died with Coltrane in 1967, the year that rock cemented its takeover at Monterey. For one thing, many of jazz’s inventors were still going. Louis Armstrong, the first of the master soloists, had his biggest hit, “What a Wonderful World,” in 1967. Duke Ellington, the Debussy of the big band, was in 1967 preparing the second of his three “Sacred Music” concerts. And in 1967, jazz still contained the seeds of at least two of its final evolutions. The trumpeters Miles Davis and Donald Byrd had yet to form their electric bands, with Davis heading toward bleary oblivion and Byrd toward the dance floor. But Armstrong’s pop hit was orchestral, Ellington’s band always had been orchestral, and the crowded studios and thick textures of Davis’s In a Silent Way and Byrd’s Places and Spaces were, in their disorderly ways, orchestral too. None of this music was played by acoustic quartets.
The quartet had been the standard working unit in jazz since the 1930s. But by 1965, when Coltrane recorded the group improvisation of Ascension with 10 musicians and no sheet music, the quartet could no longer support the music’s technical and textural development. Nor could acoustic instruments. With the exception of the Hammond organ and Leslie speaker, jazz had electrified in order to make the stringed instruments audible rather than to reshape the sonic palette. Miles Davis tipped the balance towards electricity in 1968, with Miles in the Sky, and he kept tipping it, until he was playing through a wah-wah pedal with an all-electric rock band.
The assumption that it was the musician’s task to develop the music reveals how deeply jazz was soaked in the forms and assumptions of European art music. A Balkan folk musician or a West African griot doesn’t seek to push his people’s music forward technically but to imitate it and preserve their sonic memory. But a jazz musician, like a classical composer, has the modern itch. Imitation is not enough; he must go beyond his sources. He pursues formal development for its own sake and believes in progress. Jazz didn’t exactly die with Coltrane, but he certainly helped to kill it. No one (apart from Miles Davis) read its inner logic so clearly. No one did more to pulverize show tunes and the blues into stardust. Arguably no one did more to reunite secular Western art with religion, which is where secular Western art came from and what it had been striving to rejoin ever since it left. And no one (again apart from Miles Davis) did it better.
Coltrane’s late style peaks between 1961 and 1963, when he can make and unmake the music with equal facility. The rest should have been silence, but the inner logic of the music’s development made it noise. He crossed that threshold six months after the Both Directions session. In September 1963, Klansmen firebombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four black girls. Coltrane’s response, “Alabama,” is a mournful, angry dirge whose phrases evoke the cadences of Martin Luther King Jr. The version that Coltrane’s quartet recorded at Birdland in November 1963 is the last blues, the end of jazz in its beginning. After “Alabama,” jazz would never again be so close to its origins, while its sound would only get further away from them.
So Both Directions at Once sounds both antediluvian in form and avant-garde in content. In March 1963, three weeks after the Beatles have recorded their first album, an acoustic quartet wrestles with harmonies and values that Elvis and Chuck Berry have already consigned to the past. As this recording approaches the summit of late style, it becomes the apogee of modernism’s last style. For it is a sad fact of musical history that after Coltrane, there was nothing left to say on the saxophone. But Kenny G said it anyway.
Dominic Green is a columnist at Spectator USA and a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.