The highly celebrated American jazz saxophonist and composer, John William Coltrane has had an enormous influence on various music genres beyond the confines of jazz and subsequent generations of musicians long after his death in 1967.
The spiritual dimension that his music took later in his career and the visceral intensity we feel in his music may perhaps be 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 because of his father’s absence in his life, as a young boy, John was shy and somewhat introverted. He took up music as a way of filling up his time and the void inside him, and at that time, he was rather a mediocre musician.
His mother sought refuge in Christianity to deal with the hardship that entailed in life as a single parent, thus John spent a lot of time in a local African Methodist church in North Carolina, where he absorbed the spirit of the sacred world. The spiritual aspect of congregations left an indelible mark on him, which subsequently manifested in his music, especially when he turned to more avant-garde styles as a spiritual quest.
When he was 17 his mother decided to move to Philadelphia for economic reasons. His mother was concerned that her quiet son might not fit in the new environment. For the emotionally sensitive adolescent to ease the discomfort to deal with the environmental change, his mother bought him an alto saxophone. Although he had already played the clarinet and French horn in a community band prior to that, 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 had changed for him. Later he recalled, “the first time I heard Bird play, it hit me right between the eyes.” He 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 is not quite put in 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 had to be articulated and thus burst out of the horn.
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 possibly come in contact with. By imitating the master musician in each genre, he adopted different styles of play to his creative arsenal. He would read scores of classical musicians like 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. He often lay on his bed with his saxophone on his chest and fell asleep in the middle of practicing scales.
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 the “only white” fellow band members. There, he was also obsessed with practicing. He would typically practice even between breaks during the recording sessions. By the end of his Navy service, he was promoted to a band leader, transcending the racial boundary through the universal language of music.
After he returned to Philadelphia, he grew deeply involved with the development of bebop. He frequently played with Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, and those experiences served as critical moments in his development. 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 different ideas that he had accumulated in various genres over the years and creatively rearrange them in the most innovative ways possible. Often unconventional yet revolutionary ideas flooded out of his horn during his improvisations. For this reason, some argue that he was not only the most important jazz musician but also the most important artist in the latter half of the 20th century.
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 allowed a quiet boy in Philadelphia to become the “Trane” as we know 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. Yet the critical stance can equally run a risk of paralysing our creativity, particularly with regards to activities that requires the artist’s physical involvement in the process. 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 increasingly grow fickle and impatient. But the number of “Likes” on social media and sensationalist sound bites from the 24-hour news cycle did not create the palpable intensity we 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 every ideological narrative is our heightened ability for self-reflection. However, criticism is secondary to creativity. In other words, criticism is the epiphenomenon of creativity, and without creation, there is nothing to critique, other than critiquing the act of critiquing itself. 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.
Therefore, an antidote to inactivity and reluctance to invest energy and effort to avoid the embarrassment of failure is to passionately 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. Although it may not be cool as many young people aspire to be nowadays, in the age of information overflow when things are floating at superficial levels, we may perhaps feel a nostalgic yet fervent craving for something hearty and deep.
The story of Coltrane tells us that the kind of vehement spark Coltrane had actually resides in us all. Creativity is not peculiar to geniuses like Coltrane or Mozart, but available to us all.
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)