Notes on Lewis Porter's "John Coltrane: His Life and Music"

"Coltrane-Coltrane," Jean-Max Albert (Wikimedia Commons)
Lewis Porter's John Coltrane: His Life and Music first came out in 1998, and, as far as I know, it's still the definitive, go-to critical overview of Coltrane's musical career. The research that went into this book is staggering, and the voices of Coltrane's predecessors, peers, friends, and admirers are generously heard throughout the book. 

The awesome, inevitable movement of history makes itself known in the small, revealing details—for instance, that Miles Davis first heard Coltrane as early as '46, when Coltrane was still in the navy and recorded with drummer Joe Theimer, whom Theimer mentioned thusly in a letter: "This session was inspired by John Coltrane [sic], a Bird discipline, whom 2 weeks after this session cut out of this 'land of fools' to go home and make his way in life..." The misspelling of the Coltrane family name, a Scottish inheritance, is a motif throughout the book (as Porter writes in the end notes, even Coltrane's father, J.R., had his last name misspelled as 'Coletrane' on his death certificate while his tombstone reads 'Coldtrane.') But returning to the topic of Miles hearing Trane in '46, Porter affirms the jazz truism that "you never know who's listening," which I've heard from teachers more and more in recent years: "The connection that would eventually set Coltrane's career in motion had, unbeknownst to him, already been made."

The mystique of Coltrane's obsessive practicing is given more dimension through specific accounts by the cats who actually practiced with Trane, Jimmy Heath being one of them: 
We were talking about the fact that the older tenor players like [Coleman] Hawkins and [Ben] Webster played in the key of D-flat because it was the heaviest key for the tenor—gets the best sound. "Body and Soul," all those tunes were in D-flat. Duke wrote a lot of tunes in D-flat. Trane said, "I'm going to practice in D-flat." Being who he was, he would zoom in and practice in D-flat for the next six months. And when he later [with Miles Davis] played a solo in D-flat on "Two Bass Hit," nobody ever played that much in D-flat on a blues in the history of the saxophone. And it was fast. Sonny Stitt and others would rely on Lester's licks [when they were in D-flat]. They didn't finger that saxophone and play as much stuff as Trane did.
Heath also points out something that Miguel Zenón has alluded to in the past: Trane's rhythmic foundation, which saxophonists often overlook in favor of his codified, disseminated harmonic ideas:
When Coltrane played in my band and took solos, he didn't know all the changes, but there was one thing that was noticeable to me—regardless of the tempo, his rhythm would always be good. The only thing he had to learn was the harmonies and the chords, because he had the rhythm. His rhythm was similar to Parker and the bebop style, but he wasn't playing Parker's clichés. He had that eruptive feeling that Parker had—a way of exploding in chords, where he'd have understated notes, or ghost notes, and he'd erupt into these lines. He had that before he really learned all the right notes to play.
The indestructible quality of his eighth note—heavy but agile, inevitable—is something I hear in Lester Young particularly, also, like if the rhythm section just started either completely falling apart or else deliberately comping in a way to try to buck him off the horse—it just wouldn't happen with these guys, the eighth note can't be stopped.

The Philly hang for musicians and particularly saxophonists in the early '50s is the stuff of lore, and Benny Golson also tells some great stories, such as Coltrane's early attempts at composition:
I remember John did a thing for Jimmy's big band called "Nothing Beats a Trial but a Failure." We tried it and played it [at rehearsal] and it wasn't perfect, but it wasn't bad. He collected the music and we were walking home, as we always did, and he got to the corner and he took the whole arrangement and threw it in the gutter. It disappeared down below the ground int he grates. I said, "Why did you do that?!" He said, "Well, sometimes you win 'em, sometimes you lose 'em." I said, "All that work!"—copying the parts—and suddenly he threw it down the gutter. The title "Nothing Beats a Trial but a Failure" is an expression, a maxim or whatever. And he said, "Well, it was a failure."
At first I read this story as an isolated moment of whimsy in Coltrane's early career, but it's more than that: it's Trane being willing to just drop whatever doesn't work and move on ahead to the next thing, a similar kind of unstoppable decisiveness.

Coltrane's primary tenor influences have been contested perpetually, and it's interesting to hear Heath on his perceptions Dexter Gordon and Sonny Stitt's influences on Trane (Heath describes Sonny as "something between Dexter and Wardell, an outgrowth of of both of them.") Getz is also quoted from a 1960 Blindfold Test, speaking about Trane's "You're a Weaver of Dreams" solo from Cannonball & Coltrane: "It sounds like Sonny Stitt, and it sounds like a Coltrane approach, and it made me realize how Coltrane got some stuff from Sonny Stitt; I never realized it before."

Porter also observes traces of Paul Gonsalves in early Trane (ca. '50), which Billy Hart had also suggested to me in a lesson (Billy also specifically noted Eddie 'Lockjaw' Davis and Gene Ammons). 

And then there are just factoids on factoids for jazz history wienies: Trane's shift in the late '50s and early '60s to a clean, healthy lifestyle balanced by tobacco consumption, notably cigars and pipes, as Porter points to an account by Gene Lees that at the November '62 Ballads recording session, "Coltrane's case was full of cigars." Details of no particular musical import, but which do feed a certain desire tied to admiration from a historical distance.

In every episode of Trane's professional career, Porter presents details that grant slightly deeper insight into some now-canonized music that can be easy to take for granted; e.g., Trane in an interview with August Blume, speaking about what he learned from Monk:
Monk, he's always doing something back there [behind the soloist] that sounds so mysterious. And it's not mysterious at all when you know what he's doing. Just like simple truths. He might take a chord, a minor chord and leave the third. Then he'll say, "This is a minor chord, man," but you don't have a minor third in there, so you don't know what it is. You say, "How do you know it's a minor chord?" "That's what it is, a minor chord with the third out." And when he plays the thing, it'll just be in the right place and voiced the right way to have that minor feel. But it's still not a minor because the third is not there. Little things like that, you know.
On Gitler's "sheets of sound" description, Trane yet again gets more specific about the rhythmic coordination of his approach: "I found there were a certain number of chord progressions to play in a given time, and sometimes what I played didn't work out in eighth notes, sixteenth notes, or triplets. I had to put the notes in uneven groups like fives and sevens in order to get them all in." I remember a few years ago my friend, drummer Ethan Kogan, repeatedly stressed the specific groupings of notes while we were listening to Trane's "Good Bait" solo on Soultrane. At the time, I wasn't completely persuaded of intentional odd-groupings, but did appreciate the idea of examining the music as it was sounded—what it meant to have notes come out in uneven groupings, rather than thinking of them as sixteenths compressed or stretched in relation to a fixed pulse. But, having read this, it seems indisputable what Ethan was telling me.

And on Trane's early experiences with Elvin, an amusing anecdote: "He had been hired to replace Philly Joe Jones, who at that time was forbidden to perform in his hometown due to his drug-related arrest record. Elvin recounted with some amusement that the police were waiting at the club and Coltrane had to explain to them that this was a different Jones." A different Jones, indeed; bassist Steve Davis recalls their first night with Elvin in Denver: "After the gig, Trane put his arm around Elvin, took him to a barbecue around the corner, and bought him some ribs. Trane and Elvin were tight from then on."

There's much more, including a transcription of "Venus" from Interstellar Space that I'm looking forward to checking out on the horn. If there's anything I took issue with, some of the psychological analysis/speculation seemed to me, if not less than convincing, just somewhat out of place, but that kind of stuff is typically dicey territory in a biography without substantial testimony/documentation from peers and close friends. The amount that the book synthesizes boatloads of information and clarifies numerous misconceptions and myths about Coltrane obviously outweighs any potential confusion that would emerge from psychological speculation, which, to be fair, is presented as such in the rare occasions when it does pop up.

Lastly, I was pleased to have the mystery of Rocky Boyd's "Why Not" (a.k.a., bizarro "Impressions") discussed in detail in the endnotes. For those who haven't heard this, prepare to be dumbfounded.

I first heard about Rocky Boyd in a recent interview Ethan Iverson conducted with Ron Carter:
RC: We made a great record called Ease It with Rocky Boyd, a tenor player from Boston who left us a long time ago; Walter Bishop Jr., me, and Pete La Roca. We’d done other things together, but this is kind of Rocky’s entrée to the jazz scene from Boston, playing like Trane, you know. It’s for a Canadian label, Fred Norsworthy was the producer’s name.  
It’s since got sold to a couple of different labels and got reissued under different label names, but it’s called Ease It. It’s a good record. Rocky Boyd played really well, came to New York, and got too fast for him and it didn’t do him any favors.
Porter points out that "Impressions" comes from two Pavanes: the A sections from Morton Gould's "Pavanne," a movement from "American Symphonette" (1938), and the B sections from Maurice Ravel's "Pavane pour une Infante Défunte" (1899). "Why Not" is attributed to Pete La Roca, but La Roca denies any authorship. Porter offers this in the endnotes:
Priestly also reports that Pete La Roca used "Impressions" nine months before Coltrane as "Why Not." But here he is mistaken. True, saxophonist Rocky Boyd did record "Why Not" in February 1961, and it does use the second theme of Gould's "Pavanne." But for the bridge Boyd simply plays the same theme again in the new key. And Coltrane had already been performing his piece as early as the summer of 1960, according to Steve Kuhn and La Roca, so Boyd must have heard it. Finally, LaRoca, the drummer on the date, says he did not write that tune. He says since the piece was based on a theme that was not actually by Coltrane, perhaps "Rocky just felt he could do his version and put another name on it. I was there when Rocky Boyd played it and I might have been in on the thought process, underlying naming and all the rest of that, but if they have me listed as the writer, that's because of something Rocky said after I wasn't there any long.... It's a false attribution."
Always read the endnotes.

The summer is typically a more active time for A Horizontal Search, but I've been working on a feature article on another colossally influential saxophonist for the past month and a half: Mark Turner. The piece is slated to run in two parts over at Music & Literature, perhaps as soon as next week. I'm still working on it, but be apprised that I have been writing—just not so much in public.

Next month, Great On Paper is "going on tour" (i.e., playing a couple shows in a couple cities, no longer than a week). As pianist Eric Reed put it in a memorable tweet some time back:
So that's us, but we hope that you'll join us if you're around. Dates are on the "Upcoming" page, and we'll be in Boston, New York, D.C., and New Brunswick (NJ).

The album has also been mastered; many thanks to all who've supported us, and we're looking forward to getting it out to you. As bassist Josh Levine used to say when we'd go busking: "It's never too late to donate," so if you'd like to contribute in some way as we cover the remaining costs of getting this album out to you, we'd appreciate it. 

After conferring with some publicity specialists about possible ways of going forward, it seems like the "official" release date will have to be in a few months; in the meantime, we may look at the possibility of shopping the record to some labels, otherwise we'll proceed with the now-standard indie self-release vibe. As always, thanks for reading.

Oh, and sign this if you like liner notes and want to be able to read them when you buy music online.