JAM, XIV: Andrew Nathaniel White III's "TRANE 'n ME (A semi-autobiography): A Treatise on The Music of John Coltrane"

Every weekday this month I'll be posting new content in observance of Jazz Appreciation Month (J.A.M.), so-designated by the Smithsonian National Museum of American History beginning in 2001. International Jazz Day, so-designated by UNESCO in partnership with the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, is on the last day of April, the 30th; it was first celebrated in 2012. Debating the relative merits of designating specific days or months for celebrating heritages, traditions, and the like aside, Jazz Appreciation Month is at the very least an excuse to dig into some material that I've been interested in for a while on the blog. 

Friday's installment featured my liner notes to NYC-based drummer Curtis Nowosad's neo-hard bop release last month, "Dialectics." Tomorrow's features my favorite Joe Henderson solo of all time, recorded live in Baltimore forty-seven years ago to the day tomorrow.

†If you enjoy the content on this blog, please consider supporting my band's homegrown effort to get our record through the final stages of mastering and production. It's all recorded—you can listen to it now!—but we just need a bit more help to get to the finish line. We appreciate it. </self-promotion over>

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Trane 'n' Me
Putzing around in NEC's Spaulding Library a few weeks ago, I happened to come across a slim volume entitled TRANE 'n ME (1981), by one Andrew Nathaniel White III, "Musical Achiever," as indicated on the inside cover followed by a brief biographical listing of achievements. White, who has long resided in D.C., made his first NYC appearance in nearly two decades last year around this time at The Jazz Gallery; I edited an interview with White conducted by Harrison Wood for Jazz Speaks and got a taste of his tongue-in-cheek sensibility, which apparently permeates all of his writing. White returns to the Gallery this weekend, so I thought it'd be appropriate to jot down some thoughts and observations after taking a look at the self-proclaimed "Keeper of the Trane."

Volume, as far as I can tell, is the defining characteristic of White's output; there's just a lot of it. As mentioned in the introduction to the Jazz Speaks interview:
Since 1971, White has run “Andrew’s Music,” a self-run operation out of his own basement that has nearly 3000 items in its catalogue for sale: almost 1000 Coltrane transcriptions, numerous vinyl records, CDs, books, essays, and even an 800-page autobiography, Everybody Loves the Sugar.
The extraordinarily long list is a hallmark of post-modernist humor, especially in the writings of folks like Donald Barthelme, who can spin long trails of images that self-compound into something unexpectedly amusing. Returning to that same inside cover, White describes his role(s) at Andrew's Music:
---President, executive producer, producer, editor, collaborator, transcriber, copyist, recording supervisor, arranger, accountant, publicist, engineer, composer, performer, manager, booking agent, package handler, mail boy, janitor.
Not a bad set of descriptors to put on a business card; I, like other independent free-lancing musicians, appreciate the situation White is in as the single person who handles all dimensions of the business (including custodial duties).

As far as the text itself goes, TRANE 'n ME, as the title suggests pretty explicitly, is as much about White as it is about Trane. The table of contents lists: "INTRODUCTION; I: First Impressions; II: Trane 'n Me "Lord, I got dis nigger* down 'fore it was too late."; III: Coltrane Not A Genius; IV: The Four Periods of Coltrane; Reflections; List of Recordings; Glossary" (*The word nigger is used with endearment only).

It's refreshing to read a text that defies generic categorization, and White's treatise is a homemade admixture of personal essay, aesthetic theorizing, musical analysis, and general musing; it's weird, but there's plenty to think about (and disagree with and debate). 

Early on, White makes a critique of the commodification of jazz by the emergence of jazz education; written from the vantage point of the early '80s, just a few decades after the beginnings of Berklee, school-educated rather than street-educated musicians, White's account is an early primary source documenting one perspective on what has since grown into the jazz education juggernaut we know today:
The stylization of jazz has taken place. Jazz has been reduced to its lowest common denominator. Only those elements that can be bought and sold in the academic market place have been emphasized at the expense of the elimination of the very individualistic elements which have gone to make jazz the unique field it is. 
The characteristics of pure hard jazz which have made it what it is have been wiped from the slate. With the exception of a few band stories and jazz folklore used in the classroom being substituted for hard core legitimate music theory (God only knows why)...
The use of "folklore" here is fascinating, considering the almost buzzword-like status it's attained in recent years. I hear Miguel Zenón use that phrase pretty often, as well as Ethan Iverson, the post-Steve Coleman generation, et al., where today "folklore" is associated with authenticity, rootedness in communities rather than in theoretical constructions. White goes on:
Who's teaching those kids how to swing? Who's teaching them how to get funky? You ever heard of a funk course? No--they can't teach that, but they won't tell a kid that he's either got it or he hasn't... No--they won't do that but they'll take his enrollment fee... 
...The market place is based on fact not fiction...Fiction..illusion...Jazz is illusionary... [ellipses here part of text] You can hear it and feel it and maybe you can do it but you can't be taught how to do it. Stop foolin' yourself...Study basket weaving instead. You'll have more success. 
It may sound like I'm putting down jazz education but I'm not. I do too much business with jazz educators to put down their field. All I'm saying is keep it in its proper "elective" context. Don't sell dreams. We have movies for that.
I've thought in the past about writing an essay on jazz education, specifically the hypothetical of having undergraduate jazz studies as a part of the liberal arts and what that would take—what the standard of scholarship, writing, etc. would have to be to have that education be comparable to, say, English or physics or computer science. I see where White is coming from here, along the lines of, "Majoring in jazz? What?" 

Getting back to Trane, White supplies a couple recollections of running into Trane around D.C.:
After the set was over...I had packed my horn and was standing near the door when this cat came up to me and looked into my eyes and after a brief pause said, "I hear you playin' all of those hard tunes! HA! HA! HA! HA! (laugh)". It was Trane. Then he turned and walked away... 
...Just then Reggie Workman came up to me and said "Hey man, you sho sound good." By that time I could muster up a "Thanks man, do yall play Giant Steps? and Reggie said prophetically "Nah,----John's gone on to something else." And as he gazed into the crowd he walked away.
Fact or fiction, this makes for interesting reading. As many others have done, White makes the case for the essential role that Elvin played in the band, even moreso than Jimmy Garrison or McCoy:
One night, I think in late 1962 or early 1963, Trane was around at Abart's and I was studying on the break at the Caverns. I don't remember what I was into now but my mind was way off. Ray Codrington came into the cubby hole dressing room and interrupted me by saying "Drew, you ain't got to worry about nothin' man. Trane and them, they ain't nothin'...Na, they ain't into nothin'.........silence.......They into  somethin'........(laughing)...........Man, you oughta hear em....I ain't never heard nothin' like that".............. 
It was just what I thought it was. When Ray said that to me I thought immediately, "Trane has perfected his polydiatonicism and is playing it to death." For the rest of the week I was going around there on all of the breaks listening to Trane. And it was just what I thought. He was playing "Impressions" every night almost in the same place in his program. I got to hear him, not developing, but doin' it to death. But, there was something else which I had noticed before but which was not important to me because as a professional I always expected it. Enter Elvin Jones. I knew that Elvin was a musical grammarian but not to this extent. Trane was structuring his music around Elvin. This was the main source of the symmetry in Trane’s music. No matter how far out things sounded like they were going Elvin’s One at the cadence would always lock it in. It was the restraint at the cadence that built in the tension that made everything happen. This this day I believe that Trane knew this as well as the great masters, Bach, Beethoven and Mozart. They all knew how to build climaxes, they all knew structure and they all had respect for the cadence. [break added] 
To simplify what a cadence is in this sense would be to say it is the point of breath. This is the most natural place to breathe in the standard sense of poetic license. Trane favored the four-bar phrase and the eight-bar sentence. He knew that no matter how sophisticated his phraseology would become, it would all gravitate to the natural resting place at the end of four or eight bars and Elvin would be right there to punctuate that element of finality and start the next section. He knew he didn’t have to worry about building momentum in his solos from this perspective because the momentum was already built in due to the standard recurrence of the cadence. After a while the listener gets to expect the cadence. He is conditioned to the cadence. He is conditioned to breathing. Breath is life. The music must breathe. Elvin was the breath in Trane’s music. Elvin also had the unique sense of knowing when not to breathe at a cadence. Very often Trane would play extended ideas that would go across the cadence point and Elvin would be right there with him. Usually the missing cadence would be made up at the next primary pressure point or the next cadence. It was the manipulation of standard devices that established Coltrane as a thorough improvisor as well as a spontaneous creator, but it was the Elvin Jones grammer [sic] that brought these elements into clear focus. 
White's "polydiatonicism" is central to his understanding of Trane, which he discusses in more detail elsewhere, placing it into context with regards to the relatively static harmonic environments Trane negotiated:
Ironically, modality has its limitations after a short time during a solo...If he were going to play long solos, what was he going to do? Enter "polydiatonicism". It is this extra touch of systematic dissonance which would keep the listener on the edge of his seat from mid 1959 until Trane's death on July 17, 1967...Everywhere you went the cats were playing "modal" but Trane's modal was different. You couldn't get tired of hearing it because it wasn't pure. It was the science of music taking place.  [break added] 
When the ear can predict a tonality it takes it for granted and thus stops listening both melodically (to the soloist) and harmonically (to the back up group). But when the ear predicts a tonality and hears impurities in that tonality then it begins to humor the impure tones trying to gravitate them to the pure tones of the system. When this gravitation does not occur the ear is automatically raised to a higher level of comprehensive listening. The ear hears something else but what is it? It is the master of Coltrane's ability to meld two diatonic systems to the point of total surprise in the area of melodic superstructure.
The specific maneuvers and pathways of "polydiatonicism" aren't borne out in the text in so much detail, but just about all students of Trane have developed a personal way of looking at what Trane was playing, with some taking those seeds of inspiration further than others. There aren't too many musical examples given in TRANE 'n ME—that material is all in White's transcriptions, which are conveniently advertised in a long catalog following the final "Reflections" section. White's treatise is a curiosity more than a definitive work of scholarship and, in some ways, seems to be more or less a teaser for the rest of White's published material on Trane, but it's never boring. I don't know if or when I'll get to reading White's 800-page autobiography, but I expect that to be similarly colorful and unapologetically opinionated.