Too often, being a jazz giant means being a big fish in a fairly small pond. Jazz aficionados may love to wax eloquent about the unique genius of Charles Mingus or Thelonious Monk, but for average music fans, distinguishing between Mingus and Monk is as hard as remembering the difference between Manet and Monet. They may be famous names, but beyond that it's all academic.
There are a handful of jazz stars whose names do cut through the clutter, however, and few loom as large as the late John Coltrane.
He didn't have the sort of decades-long prominence that made Louis Armstrong a fixture in popular culture. Although he would have turned 80 on Sept. 23, his career as a solo artist lasted only a dozen years, with his most important work recorded toward the end, between 1959 and 1967. And while he had his share of jazz "hits," including Blue Train, My Favorite Things and A Love Supreme, none of his albums have enjoyed the million-seller status of Miles Davis's Kind of Blue and Bitches Brew.
Yet Coltrane's shadow extends well beyond the normal parameters of saxophone jazz. He was an inspiration to psychedelic rockers in the sixties (the Grateful Dead were huge fans), fusion stars in the seventies (Carlos Santana covered his A Love Supreme), post-punks in the eighties (Dream Syndicate paid homage with John Coltrane Stereo Blues), rappers in the nineties (he was name-checked by Public Enemy in Don't Believe the Hype) and jam bands in this decade (guitar phenom Derek Trucks is a huge fan).
Naturally, jazz listeners and practitioners continue to worship him -- literally, if they happen to attend the St. John Coltrane African Orthodox Church in San Francisco.
Last year, two of the three bestselling titles on the Billboard jazz charts were previously-unreleased recordings featuring Coltrane: Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane -- at Carnegie Hall, recorded in 1957, and One Up, One Down, which derives from a 1965 radio broadcast. And his legacy was so central to the success of the legendary jazz label Impulse that its 45th-anniversary reissue program celebrated it as "The House That Trane Built."
Specific reasons for Coltrane's enduring potency are hard to pin down, in part because they spring from an emotional, rather than an intellectual response to the music. Guitarist Roger McGuinn, whose guitar solo on the Byrds' Eight Miles High was an attempt to evoke Coltrane's sound, recalled first hearing Coltrane as an utterly visceral experience. "I felt an actual pain in my chest," he told author Ashley Karn. "It wasn't a heart attack or gas pain, it was like some emotional pain, like it was opening up a new emotional area.
"It hurt at first, and then I liked it."
It wasn't simply the power of a specific recording, either. As saxophonist Branford Marsalis points out, there's something intensely affecting about Coltrane's sound. Not his tone, which Marsalis calls "a bit bright for my taste," but "his ability to use sound to create emotion.
"He sounds like he's crying," says Marsalis. "When he plays ballads, he sounds like he's weeping. I mean loud -- not sniffles. Wailing.
"That's his weapon, and that's the thing that's least discussable. You talk to musicians now, and they're just paradigm-oriented. They study Coltrane, but they miss the whole thing. They miss the whole damn thing. It has nothing to do with harmonic analysis."
Ah, yes -- harmonic analysis. That's the part of Coltrane's legacy jazz players and scholars love to go on about, no matter how much it makes the casual fans' eyes glaze over. Obviously, for those who play jazz, Coltrane's insights into harmony and improvisation -- his use of exotic scales, for instance, or his fondness for "stacking" chords to extend the harmonic potential of a tune -- is well deserving of study.
"Harmonically, he was in all keys, all the time," says saxophonist Joe Lovano, who pays tribute to Coltrane on his Streams of Expression album. "That's part of why he played so much. He had so much to say, because of how much he studied and was able to get around his horn. " Indeed, Coltrane would try to cram so many notes into each bar that the critic Ira Gitler dubbed his phrases "sheets of sound" in the liner notes to the 1958 album Soultrane (recently reissued as part of the box set Fearless Leader). It wasn't a universally popular approach in Coltrane's time. In the fifties, when he was part of Miles Davis's first great quintet, some critics carped about Coltrane's frequently prolix solos; a decade later, when his own quintet had moved firmly into the avant garde, Coltrane's penchant for lengthy, note-packed extrapolations on a single chord had traditionalists dismissing the result as not jazz, and possibly merely noise.
But his initial work with Davis and later ventures in the avant garde are generally seen as mere bookends to his recordings in the late fifties for Atlantic Records. This period, which stretched from 1959 to 1961 and overlapped with the end of his tenure in Davis's group, was what cemented his popularity as a soloist and bandleader. In addition to his work on Davis's Kind of Blue, it produced such landmark recordings as My Favorite Things, which single-handedly lifted the soprano sax from obscurity into the mainstream, and Giant Steps, which has become, as Marsalis puts it, "the basis for jazz harmony that is taught in schools."
Trouble is, "that does a disservice to Coltrane," he adds. "Songs like 26-2, Central Park West and Countdown were more like experiments than profound musical statements, which is supported by the fact that he never played that stuff live.
"I'm pretty sure that when he was doing it, he never imagined that this would be his academic legacy, that that small body of work would be used to represent his entire existence."
Indeed, the tune Giant Steps itself works best as a technical exercise, an opportunity for a soloist to deal with a very fast string of chord changes set along an unusual harmonic axis (the title refers to the large intervals of the bass line). But Coltrane had other, more pressing points to make, and seldom performed the tune -- unlike his more drone-oriented take on My Favorite Things, which was a concert staple for some time.
Still, it's fairly telling that jazz academia would enshrine the complex and technical aspects of Coltrane's playing, and overlook the immediate and emotional. "Coltrane had one experimental period in his life where the music that he played could actually be codified," says Marsalis. And because it can be codified, it can be taught, whereas the intensely human quality in his music "is impossible to put down on a piece of paper."
It can be located, however. "Coltrane was totally into the blues," says Lovano. He doesn't mean simply that Coltrane's roots were there, as might be expected of a young man born in small town North Carolina, or that he was heavily influenced by the years he spent playing with Eddie (Cleanhead) Vinson and Earl Bostic.
"He was in a lot of blues bands, yeah, " say Lovano. "But just that whole base, that whole foundation of the music was the blues. And with Coltrane, that sense of the blues and that feeling never left his playing. It was always about that cry and telling stories."