The Intensity of the Artist

1. John Coltrane

2. The Intensity of the Artist

3. “My Favourite Things”

4. Culture of Critiquing vs Romanticism

5. Bibliography

1. John Coltrane

Widely celebrated by the many, John William Coltrane has had an enormous impact upon the subsequent generations of Jazz musicians, and his influence has echoed beyond the confines of music long since his death in 1967. 

The spiritual dimension that his music took towards the end of his career was perhaps rooted in his emotionally tempestuous upbringing. When he was 12, his father suddenly died, and it was only after his aunt and grandparents passed away a few months earlier. The bleak situation forced his mother to raise her son on her own. Perhaps due to the absence of his father, as a young boy John was rather shy and somewhat introverted. He took up music as a way of filling his time and the void inside him, though he was rather a mediocre musician in the beginning. 

His mother sought refuge in Christianity to deal with the hardship that life entailed as a single parent. As a result, John spent a lot of time in a local African Methodist church in North Carolina, where he absorbed the spirit of the sacred teachings. The spiritual aspect of congregations left such an indelible mark on him that it subsequently manifested in the visceral intensity of his music, especially when he turned to more avant-garde styles as a part of his spiritual quest. 

2. The Intensity of the Artist

When he was 17 his mother decided to move to Philadelphia in the hope of a better life. His mother was concerned that her quiet son might not fit in the new environment, so she bought the emotionally sensitive adolescent an alto saxophone to ease the discomfort of dealing with the environmental change. Although he had already played the clarinet and French horn in a community band prior to then, it was the alto saxophone that gave him the voice he desperately needed to give expression to. 

The most important event in his career took place around this time. On June 5, 1945, he saw the great Jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker perform live, and everything changed for him. Later John recalled, “the first time I heard Bird play, it hit me right between the eyes.” John was transfixed by Parker’s play, as he had never seen anything like it. As he was ushered into the world of free jazz, he realised that a musical instrument can be used as the vehicle to express one’s inner voice, something that he could not quite put into words. His father’s sudden death, the absence of a father figure in emotionally fragile adolescence, teenage anxiety, a hormonal rush of youthful energy, and the spiritual values instilled in him, all smouldered in him to be articulated. They burst out of his horn like molten lava.

Since then, Coltrane was a man possessed. He poured all his energy into learning and mastering the instrument. He tried to copy every style of play he could get a hand on. By imitating masters in various genres, he added different styles of play to his creative arsenal. He would read scores of classical musicians, such as Stravinsky and Bach, while later experimenting with exotic Indian music. Day in and day out, he practiced so intensely that his lips would split and start bleeding. Late at night, he often lay on his bed, practicing scales and fell asleep with his saxophone on his chest. 

In 1945, he had the first professional gig, and the same year, he was enlisted in the Navy on August 6, the day that the atomic bomb was dropped in Hiroshima. Despite the racial discrimination still brewing in the US at that time, he served regularly as a guest musician in the Navy, as his talent was quickly noticed by his fellow band members, though they all were “white”. There, his obsession with practicing continued. He would typically practice even between breaks during recording sessions. He epitomizes the phrase “practice makes perfect”. By the end of his Navy service, he was promoted to a band leader, transcending the racial boundary through the universal language of music. 

3. “My Favourite Things”

After he returned to Philadelphia, he became deeply involved with the development of bebop, a type of Jazz characterised by complex harmony and rhythms, closely associated with Charlie Parker. He frequently played with Charlie Parker himself, and for a short period of time, he played in Miles Davis’ band. Those experiences served as critical moments in his development as an artist. Within a decade of intense practice, he transformed himself into one of the most illustrious musicians. His series of albums are the testament to the creative freedom he finally attained. He was able to draw on numerous ideas that he had accumulated in various genres over the years and creatively rearranged them in the most innovative ways imaginable. During his improvisations, unconventional yet compelling ideas flooded out of his horn, characteristically. His idiosyncratic play style culminated in his 1961 album “My Favourite Things”, in which he deconstructs the well-known musical theme song, adding unusually visceral textures. 

His contributions to the innovation in jazz earned him multiple awards and recognitions, including the 2007 Posthumous Pulitzer Prize Board Special Citation, lauding his “masterful improvisation, supreme musicianship and iconic centrality to the history of jazz.” Coltrane’s work ethic and interests in other musical styles moulded him into a versatile and visionary jazz musician and composer, in both mainstream and avant-garde. Given the trajectory of his creative voyage, it is perhaps no exaggeration to say that Coltrane was not only the most important jazz musician, but also the most innovative artist in the latter half of the 20th century.

4. Culture of Critiquing vs Romanticism

This story illustrates an idea that a genius is not born because of some obscure notions like the alignment of stars. It was the intensity that enabled a quiet boy in Philadelphia to become the “Trane” as we know him today. 

In academia, especially in the highly intellectualised post-industrial West, whether in literature, music, or visual art, students are often taught various ways of critiquing existent works, as critical thinking allows them to deepen their understanding of the subject matter. And yet, the critical stance can equally run a risk of paralysing our creativity, particularly with regard to the creative process that requires the artist’s physical involvement. We often fall prey to the chronic contradiction in today’s fast-paced society, where we often set out to create something incredible, albeit merely busying ourselves with collecting more “Likes” and followers on our social media pages. The immediacy of information networks and convenience that technology provides cajole people into hasty actions and short-term thinking, whilst they grow fickle and impatient. But the number of “Likes” on social media and sensationalist sound bites from the 24-hour news cycles did not create the intensity we palpably feel in Coltrane’s music. 

Fear of rejection lures people into a retreat, assuming that if they do not try, they might as well never fail. The legacy of post-modernism to critique ideological narratives is found in our heightened ability for self-reflection. However, criticism should be secondary to creativity in art. Criticism is the epiphenomenon of creativity, and without creation, there is nothing to critique, other than critiquing the act of critiquing itself, which would further alienate the general public. A critical stance and sarcasm may easily succumb to creative paralysis and inactivity. If we are not careful, a distant, cold and stand-offish attitude can easily turn into a lack of enthusiasm. If post-modern conditions, i.e., scepticism towards meta-narratives, left us anything, then, its legacy might have been the excessively intellectualised connoisseurship that has reduced art to a mere intellectual exercise and that has, in turn, bourgeoned as a result of an surge in the number of PhDs in art, i.e., those do not create but critique. 

Perhaps, an antidote to inactivity and reluctance to invest energy to create is to return to romanticism. No matter how naïve we may appear, we have to revisit our romantic and idealist side in order to create something intense, evocative, and moving. In the age of information overflow when things are floating at a superficial level, intense living may not be cool. However, the fact is that we feel a nostalgic yet fervent craving for something hearty and profound. The story of Coltrane consoles us in that the kind of vehement spark Coltrane was endowed with perhaps resides in us all. Creativity is not peculiar to geniuses like Coltrane and Mozart, but available to all. 

5. Bibliography

Ashley, Kahn, and Elvin, Jones. (2003). A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album. Penguin Books. (4,2/5 – Goodreads)

Ben, Ratliff. (2007). Coltrane: The Story of a Sound. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. (3,9/5 – Goodreads)

Lewis, Porter. (2000). John Coltrane: His Life and Music. University of Michigan Press. (4,1/5 – Goodreads)

Tony, Whyton. (2013). Beyond a Love Supreme: John Coltrane and the Legacy of an Album. Oxford University Press, USA. (3,4/5 – Goodreads)

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