Saint John Coltrane

It’s 50 years since the death of John Coltrane, jazz saxophonist.

John Coltrane is god. At least, according to the Yardbird Temple, he was for a while. He’s since been demoted to a mere saint to allow the Yardbirds to incorporate themselves into the African Orthodox Church (without upsetting the, you know, “other” god). You can visit the St. John Will-I-Am Coltrane African Orthodox Church in San Francisco and hear live jazz mixed with some Christian liturgy. You can even get the greeting card.

How come this man is so revered? Surely it’s a bit silly, even crazy, to beatify a mere saxophonist? Perhaps not…

With my interest ignited by the passion radiating from Kerouac’s descriptions of be-bop in On The Road, I desperately wanted to like jazz. But, back in the ’80s, with no YouTube or Spotify to allow me to easily sample the vast range of styles, I had no idea which jazz. I knew the turophilic Kenny G wasn’t even real jazz, but the impenetrable stuff, like Mahavishnu Orchestra, also left me cold. Surely there was something in the middle? Something that had a spiritual dimension?

In desperation, I asked a jazzer friend what I should listen to to find a way into ‘proper’ jazz. Without hesitation, he said ‘Kind of Blue – it’s the best jazz album of all time’. Miles Davis I’d heard of, so I gave it a go. My friend was right. It was quite a revelation. An epiphany. Maybe even a theophany – I just don’t know. But, whatever it was, it certainly felt like what I’d imagine a religious experience would feel like.

Transcendent improvisations sit atop beautifully constructed and deceptively simple schemata. Notes sing in exultation, flowing freely between keys, scales and chords that are often subliminal rather than explicitly stated. But you don’t need those pseudo-intellectual analyses to appreciate it. Just listen. All the playing is exemplary, but I particularly loved the saxophone parts. So who’s the guy blowing that horn? Ah, John Coltrane…

And so I moved on to his Impressions album. Wow. He can play fast too. Really fast. I found out much later that the holy grail I had been searching for had been labelled ‘modal jazz’ by the be-bop taxonomists. Miles Davis popularised the form but Coltrane took it and went much, much deeper. Many cite A Love Supreme as his best but, for me, Giant Steps is his ultimate triumph.

Superb technical skill combined with a soul as deep as the blues, Coltrane’s personal journey away from heroin addiction towards deep spirituality, put him unquestionably on the road to sainthood. As he said himself “In order to play a truth, a musician has to live with as much truth as possible.” I can’t help thinking those founders of the Church of St John Coltrane knew the truth and were not as crazy as they may have seemed.

Coltrane was born on September 23, 1926 in North Carolina and died of liver cancer on July 17, 1967, at the age of 40.

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