Portrait of a jazz player: Remembering John Coltrane
- By Tom Steadman News & Record Jul 16, 2017 (7)
Jazz legend John Coltrane grew up in High Point.
Bob Mahoney/ABC Inc.
Years before John Coltrane became a genius and died young, he skittered away Christmas mornings with the other children along Underhill Street, testing new roller skates against the paved slope and fearing only skinned knees and parents’ tempers.
Even then, he was called John, or simply Coltrane. Never Johnny. He was quiet, a husky boy with big, serious eyes and an aura of gravity that camouflaged a playful nature. Neighbors spoke well of young Coltrane, but they had no hint he would become an international god of jazz music, a saxophonist who would help redefine both his instrument and his genre in a supernova of a career that ended, legend-like, with his death at age 40.
How big was Coltrane in the jazz world? He was Babe Ruth and Michael Jordan rolled into one. What Charlie Parker was to the alto horn, Coltrane was to the tenor saxophone, and then he took up the soprano and swung for the fences. Even among jazz giants such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Miles Davis, John Coltrane was the real deal.
“Nobody has ever come up to what he did musically,” says Paul Jeffrey, a student of Coltrane’s who went on to become a prominent saxophonist. “Guys are still playing Coltrane, and they’re playing it the same way he did.
“He was the last major stylist we’ve had.”
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All that came later, though. First there was cozy, unpretentious Underhill Street, where the Coltranes moved when John was only a few months old. His first home had been in Hamlet, but his memories were of High Point.
Here, the Coltranes shared a home built by John’s grandfather, the Rev. Walter Blair, venerable pastor of St. Stephens African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. John’s father, J.R. Coltrane, a short, dapper man who played both the violin and the ukulele, had met Blair’s daughter, Alice, in Hamlet, where they began married life. The move to High Point brought them instant respectability.
This was the East Side, the Griffin Park neighborhood, the heart of Middle America for black High Pointers who aspired to own property, start a small business or build a solid reputation. And plenty aspired.
The Coltranes, who owned outright the modest, two-story frame home that had been built by John’s grandfather, survived better than most.
“We weren’t rich — that was for sure — but we were very happy,” says Mary Lyerly Alexander, Coltrane’s cousin, who now lives in Philadelphia and operates the John Coltrane Cultural Society, a nonprofit group that promotes jazz and commemorates the artist’s glory years in Philly.
Philadelphia has not hesitated to claim Coltrane as its own. In 1986, the city’s Historic Commission designated Coltrane’s home at 1511 N. 33rd St. a historic building. A year ago, the Philadelphia City Council put up a historic marker at the house, where Coltrane had lived with his mother and Mary.
Now his cousin is among those who wonder why Coltrane has been so little recognized by his true hometown of High Point.
His old neighborhood, located not far from the well-trimmed campus of High Point College, has grown shabbier since the days when Coltrane and his buddies were wearing knickers and coveting cars, comics and girls, maybe in that order. Today, no children play in the street.
The city has erected no signs directing tourists to Coltrane’s boyhood house, which is still a private residence, still standing neat and sturdy at 118 Underhill. There is no Coltrane collection at the High Point Historical Museum, only a poster dating from the ‘70s and a postcard depicting his birth city of Hamlet.
“It was very striking to me that a person and world-known artist of the caliber of John Coltrane could grow up in High Point, yet there be nothing here to commemorate the fact he’s a native son,” says John Morton, an international banker for BB&T and a jazz buff who came to High Point in 1980.
It’s not as though Coltrane has been forgotten here. Just not remembered.
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Few seem to have photos of Coltrane the boy. Betty Leach Jackson, a schoolmate at Leonard Street Elementary, can produce a third-grade class photo that shows a stolid John, presumably around age 8, standing in the back row. Even cousin Mary can’t lay her hands at the moment on a family album with photos that chronicle his formative years. “But they’re around somewhere,” she says.
Even at the height of his fame, even on the nights in New York when he’d pack the fans into Birdland or the Village Vanguard, Coltrane often would come off stage and greet a friend who turned up from Carolina.
John Hammond, a boyhood chum who moved to New York while John and the other Underhill kids were still in high school, recalls walking into a jazz club years later and being startled to see a fellow from down home playing horn with Earl Bostic’s band.
“With his background, I had thought he would be a minister,” Hammond says. Hammond says he approached Coltrane after the set, and they talked of old times.
“He asked when was the last time I’d been to High Point, about different people we knew,” Hammond says. “We were just two homeboys. Had I seen anybody who had moved from High Point to New York? Was I married? We talked about home cooking — collard greens and black-eyed peas, that sort of thing.”
Hammond made it a point from then on to look up Coltrane when he could catch a jazz show. “His ego never got too big,” Hammond says.
As an adult, Coltrane was apt to brush aside questions about a cutting-edge jazz riff he had just played, shrugging his shoulders and calling it “just something, I guess.” He was never much of one for explaining himself to the world, but he did tell Down Beat magazine in 1958 that it was wrong to consider himself an “angry young tenor.”
“If it is interpreted as angry, it is taken wrong,” Coltrane said. “The only one I’m angry at is myself when I don’t make what I’m trying to play.”
Even back in High Point, Coltrane was known for finishing what he started.
“I remember John being a very fine little boy, a very conscientious type child,” says Grayce Yokely, who was Coltrane’s music teacher during his elementary years. “He was interested in wanting to learn and he always showed great potential for music. ”
Bertha and Walter Williamson, still living in their childhood home on Underhill Street, remember all those skating parties in the street, those picnics down at Dan Gray’s Springs, where a man of that name owned a wooded lot through which bubbled the coldest water anywhere around. In the days before refrigeration, Dan Gray’s water could get you through a hot summer day.
Theirs was a neighborhood where everyone literally knew everyone else, and where all the children ran together as in a giant extended family.
Time and memory tend to smooth rough edges. Friends say that John must have gotten into his share of childhood scrapes, but no one can truly recall any.
“You’d have those boy fights, where the next minute everybody is friends again,” Bertha Williamson says. “Just boy stuff.”
The High Point years had their bad times, too. When John was 12, his father was hospitalized and died suddenly. That same year, his grandmother died, as did Mary’s father. John’s mother went to work as a domestic, then got a job at the country club. Mary is remembered as the one who was publicly distraught; John remained stoic, on the surface almost unaffected.
No matter what, he kept up with his music. Inspired, perhaps, by his father’s abilities, the boy had gotten his first organized music experience in a small community band put together by the Rev. Warren Steele, a pastor of St. Stephen’s church. John was 13 and quickly picked up the clarinet.
After high school graduation, Coltrane headed north. John’s surviving family already had relocated to Philadelphia. He stayed behind to graduate at William Penn High School. Once in Philly, Coltrane got a job as a laborer in a sugar-refining factory and studied at the Ornstein School of Music.
Then, in 1945, Coltrane was drafted and assigned to the Navy band. He played clarinet in the service’s marching and dance bands, still practicing saxophone on the side.
Then things happened quickly. Coltrane began to attract notice, playing with the likes of Eddie Vinson, Dizzy Gillespie, Earl Bostic, Charlie “Bird” Parker and the other masters of American jazz.
In 1955, Miles Davis, a trumpeter who was in the process of redefining modern jazz, hired Coltrane as saxophonist for his quintet. Together, they produced “Kind of Blue,” possibly the most acclaimed jazz album of all time and a cornerstone of every serious LP collection.
Also in 1955, Coltrane married Naima, the first of his two wives. During their eight-year marriage, Naima’s Muslim faith helped him kick a heroin and alcohol habit, but too late to avoid the long-term liver damage that later would kill him.
Drug abuse helped other jazz stars, Parker among them, to premature deaths. Jazz, after all, was an out-of-wedlock American child, reared in clubs and juke joints, not symphony halls.
“It was an entertainment facet for illicit pleasures, considered to be music to copulate by,” says Jeffrey, the former Coltrane student.
And since almost all jazz performers, no matter their stature, were overworked, underpaid and usually uninsured, few were dreaming of living to a healthy old age.
Before his death in 1967, however, Coltrane spent years using his own ensemble to push jazz far beyond mainstream comfort. Already, he had developed a “sheets of sound” approach, in which the horn would spew forth a torrent of intricate, intense arpeggios. Now he continued the experiments with chords and tonal quality that kept him in the forefront of avant-garde jazz. His second wife, Alice, was a musician herself who played with his band for a year and a half before he died.
Coltrane had a small estate when he died, but he never got rich or even really wealthy. Jeffrey recalls taking the subway over to Coltrane’s first apartment, on 103rd Street in Manhattan, during the late ‘50s and finding the legendary saxophonist living in a clean but modest three-room walk-up.
Usually, he would find Coltrane playing the horn. Most of his waking hours seemed to be spent with a saxophone. During gigs, the band might take a break, but not Coltrane.
“While everybody was at the bar having a drink or socializing, John would be back in the kitchen at the Vanguard practicing his horn,” Jeffrey says. “There would be all sorts of noise going on, but Coltrane would be over in a corner somewhere practicing something he wanted to get better.”
His patience and practice regimen have become legend. One story has it that Coltrane once played a single saxophone solo for three hours. On stage. At home, he practiced and practiced, then played some more.
“If you wanted to see him, you waited until he got finished practicing,” Jeffrey says. “He’d be playing, so Naima would let you in, and she would make you some tea or you could watch television. Maybe after two or three hours, he’d come out. It wasn’t like you would knock on his door and he would stop what he was doing. He was too bored into the music.”
Coltrane became a student of Eastern religion, toured abroad frequently and acquired a fanatical following throughout Europe and Asia.
After he died of liver cancer on July 17, 1967, his memorial service packed more than 700 people, including some of the world’s most famous musicians, into St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in New York. He was buried in Pinelawn Memorial Park in Farmingdale, N.Y.
Back home in North Carolina, the High Point Enterprise announced the death three days later — a short story on Page D7.
Still, Coltrane never forgot High Point. Even during those years of stardom, he would visit occasionally when his band would be playing somewhere within driving distance. He would just show up on Underhill Street, still acting like the respectful little boy who had read comic books, had walked Mary to dance lessons, had been the star of Rev. Steele’s community band, the one who couldn’t go to bed at night unless he had practiced the horn enough.
“John was always the same,” says Bertha Williamson, his boyhood friend.
Even when he was something special, driving a big car and wearing a fancy new suit, Coltrane would arrive in the neighborhood and go from house to house, knocking on doors and greeting old friends. Talking quietly about the old days, the classmates, who was still alive and who wasn’t, who had moved away and who hadn’t. Talking about home.