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  • Kinesthetics of Music and Words: Poems on John Coltrane1Vol. 65, No. 2, Winter 2003
  • John T. Shawcross

Jazz Legend John Coltrane died in 1967 at the age of 40. It was, however, quite a while before the music of Trane, as he is called, was heard on popular radio, even though the sounds one heard in those last years of his life suggested a music of tomorrow. Today much of his music still is avant garde and, in comparison, makes a good proportion of today's popular music seem unimaginative prettiness or overaccented beat or music-for-sex's-sake. He made his first public appearance in Philadelphia in 1945 at age nineteen, and twenty years later he was a major tenor saxophonist, composer, innovator, and influence on a long line of musicians. He also played soprano sax, and in those days he performed with various bands on either horn, including Miles Davis from 1955 to 1957 and 1958 to 1960, and then either freelanced or headed up his own group. A few still available recordings illustrate the range of his style and development in his later years: Thelonius Monk's "'Round Midnight" with Davis's group, recorded in 1960; and with his own group "Softly as in a Morning Sunrise," recorded in performance at the Village Vanguard in New York City on November 2 or 3, 1961; "Soul Eyes" from April 11 or 12, 1962; "My Favorite Things" in performance at the Newport Jazz Festival, July 7, 1963; "Psalm'' from A Love Supreme on December 9, 1964; and "Naima" from Juno Se Mama in performance at the Village Vanguard, May 28, 1966. Coltrane wrote the last two pieces.

Even in these few items one will immediately recognize a change in style and technique. The melody sounds increasingly fractured into non-recognizable form if one is not listening carefully for theme and variations, which Coltrane develops more than most improvisators. There will be an ethereal and mystic excursion that most people would not normally cast as jazz, I suppose; and there are African rhythms mixed with seemingly non-jazz sounds. The change in style and technique, rather than the introductions of the mystic and Afro sounds, is what is most significant in Trane's influence on other musicians and on poets who have reflected his achievements in their poems about him.

Ira Gitler aptly described Coltrane's music as "sheets of sound" (6). Askia Muhammed Toure works the phrase into his poem "JuJu," which was written "For John Coltrane, Priest-prophet of the Black Nation"; and it also appears in Larry Neal's "Don't Say Goodbye to the Pork-Pie Hat," [End Page 319] which otherwise does not mention Coltrane but does name many other musicians. The phrase implies continuousness and relatedness of sounds to each other, an implication of harmonious density and some amount of repetition or at least similarity (one sheet after another, as it were) as a composition is presented. Further, the lack of a definite ending-off is suggested. The developed Coltrane style does not signal when the end is coming, how many repeats there will be-it is even difficult to know what is or is not a repeat. A repeat may be occurring or a different theme may be introduced as an invention on the basic theme. A. B. Spelman, who wrote "Trane's horn had words in it," indicates such invention, repetition, and unendingness with the final stanza of his "Did John's Music Kill Him?":

so beat john's death words downon me in the darker partof evening. the black light issuedfrom him in the pit he madearound us. worms came clearto me where i thought i had beenbrilliant. o john death willnot contain you deathwill not contain you

I describe Coltrane's technique as fracturing the sound; that is, he takes a musical phrase and breaks it up into its component parts—not just note after note but note in relationship to other notes, the next one and the one before and the one after the next and the one before the preceding one. There is frequently a constant up...


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