JJ 01/62: Conversation With Coltrane

Sixty years ago Valerie Wilmer came face to face with the source of those frantic sheets of sound on tenor and ugly wailings on soprano. First published in Jazz Journal January 1962

Wes Montgomery (left) and John Coltrane at the 1961 Monterey jazz festival

“Melodically and harmonically their improvisations struck my ear as gobbledegook,” wrote John Tynan in the November 23rd Down Beat. He was speaking of the recent musical experi­ments of John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy, experiments which confounded even ar­dent Coltrane supporters when he toured England last year.

The in-person sound of Coltrane was so different from his recorded work that most people wondered whether their auditory processes were in order. It seems they were, for Coltrane himself confirmed that his music had radically altered over the last twelve months or so.

Meeting the man himself, it is hard to believe that such a quiet, calm and serious individual could be responsible for the frantic “sheets of sound” which emanate from his tenor saxophone, or that such a sensitive person could think of some of his uglier wailings on soprano as beautiful.

“The sound you get on any instrument depends on the conception of sound you hear in your mind,” he told me. “It also depends on your physical properties, such as the shape and structure of the inside of your mouth and throat. I only tried to find the sound that I hear in my mind, a sound any artist hears and hopes to be able to produce. I suppose I did strive to get it with using different reeds and things as any artist does, but now I’ve settled on a reed at least, and I use a hard one.”

The harp: ‘I got interested in it around 1958 when I was interested in playing arpeggios instead of just straight lines, and so naturally I looked at the harp . . . but I don’t have time to sit down and make much out of it. Right now I don’t see any chance of making jazz out of it’

I mentioned that everyone had re­marked on how different he sounded in the flesh as opposed to on records. “I’ve discussed this fault with the engineers because the play-backs haven’t sounded right,” he said. “They get too close to the horn with the mikes and don’t give the sound time to travel as they should. Consequently, they don’t get enough of the real timbre and they miss the whole body of the sound. They get the inside of it but not the outside as well.

“I’ve heard one or two albums with this fault and I’ve tried to clear it up, even suggested that I play away from the mike as I’d do in a club, which makes a much more pleasing sound. And of course the loudness also varies accord­ing to the reed you have. If you have a good one you don’t change it – my good ones usually last about two weeks.”

Whatever one thought of the actual sound of John’s soprano, it was good to know that a leading modernist had taken up the instrument seemingly doomed to oblivion with the passing of Sidney Bechet. He has, in fact, been playing it for about three years, and as so often happens, took it up quite accidentally. “A friend of mine had one and as I hadn’t seen one too often before, I looked at it, tried it, and liked the sound. I thought I’d like to use it a little but I’d only just formed my own group and didn’t think I’d actually use it in public.

“I don’t consider my work on it a success, because I’m at the same place on it as I am on the tenor. Of course the tenor has more body to it, but the soprano lends itself to more lyrical play­ing. There are times when I feel the need for one and sometimes I feel the need for the other. I try to use either one according to what the tune feels like.”

It is also interesting to note that he has recently started playing the harp: “I like the sound. It’s one of the most beautiful things and just for the fact that it’s different, that’s what I like about it. I got interested in it around 1958 when I was interested in playing arpeggios instead of just straight lines, and so naturally I looked at the harp. It’s just pure sound, it’s not even like a piano where you’ve got to hit the keys to make the hammers hit the strings. A harpist friend of mine showed me some fingering but I don’t have time to sit down and make much out of it. Right now I don’t see any chance of making jazz out of it.”

Another of John Coltrane’s innova­tions was his recent use of two basses – well, not quite an innovation because Duke had the idea twenty years ago – but his regular bassist Reggie Workman has been playing the rhythm parts, while the group was augmented with the excellent Art Davis. It was through the latter that the idea came about:

“I’d heard some Indian records and liked the effect of the water-drum”, said ’Trane, “and I thought another bass would add that certain rhythmic sound. We were playing a lot of stuff with a sort of suspended rhythm, with one bass playing a series of notes around one point, and it seemed that another bass could fill in the spaces in the straight 4/4 line.

“Art and I had been working quite a bit together before the band started and I was interested in bass lines and sequences and he could help me. I actually wanted Art to join me as regular bassist, but he was all tied up with Dizzy and so I had to get in Steve Davis and when he left Art still couldn’t make it, so I got Reggie.

“Once I was in town and I said to Art to come on down because I liked him so much and I figured that he and Reggie could exchange sets. But instead of that they started playing some to­gether and I got something from it. Reg­gie played as usual and Art countered it and it was very good. I only wish I could have brought Art over with me.”

‘We had Wes Montgomery out on the Coast and I wanted very much to have him here in England. He’s really something else because he made everything sound that much fuller’

One night, according to Eric Dolphy, “Wilbur Ware came in and up on the stand so they had three basses going. John and I got off the stand and listened and Art Davis was really playing some kind of bass. Mingus has some ‘know-how’ of bass that he won’t tell anyone. But Art sure does have some ‘know-how’ of bass like Mingus. John made a date with two basses, one called ‘Africa’ on the Impulse label, and another called ‘Ole’ on Atlantic, and Art plays fantastic.”

There certainly seems no chance of Coltrane’s group becoming stagnant, a thing which he fears more than any other, with the constant change of per­sonnel combinations. “We had Wes Montgomery out on the Coast”, he said, “and I wanted very much to have him here in England. He’s really something else because he made everything sound that much fuller.”

As for Eric Dolphy, whose playing disappointed so many people when heard in person, John said: “He just came in and sat in with us for about three nights and everybody enjoyed it, because his presence added some fire to the band. He and I have known each other a long time, and I guess you’d say we were students of the jazz scene,” he smiled. “We’d exchange ideas and so we just decided to go ahead and see if we could do something within this group. Eric is really gifted and I feel he’s going to produce something inspired, but although we’ve been talking about music for years, I don’t know where he’s going, and I don’t know where I’m going. He’s interested in trying to progress, however, and so am I, so we have quite a bit in common.”

Apart from the epic performance of My Favorite Things which lasted for half-an-hour at all the London concerts, the majority of Coltrane’s material is original. Of his writing he said: “I think playing and writing go hand in hand. I don’t feel that at this stage of the game I can actually sit down and say I’m going to write a piece that will do this or that for the people – a thing which some artists can do – but I’m trying to tune myself so I can look to myself and to nature and to other sounds in music and interpret things that I feel there and present them to people. Eventually I hope to reach a stage where I have a vast warehouse of study and knowledge to be able to produce any certain thing.

“Duke Ellington is one person who can do this – that’s really heavy musician­ship and I haven’t reached that stage yet. I’ve been predominantly a soloist all my natural life, and now I’m a soloist with my own band, and this has lead me into this other thing: what am I going to play and why?

“My material is mainly my own, and I find some of my best work comes from the most challenging material. Sometimes we write things to be easy, sometimes to be hard, it depends on what we want to do.

“A year ago we had quite a few standards which made up a third of the book, but now a number of people, certainly Ornette and Eric, have been responsible for other influences.

“At the time I left Miles I was trying to add a lot of sequences to my solo work, putting chords to the things I was playing, and using things I could play a little more music on.

Of Miles Davis: ‘I used to want to play tenor the way he played trumpet when I used to listen to his records. But when I joined him I realised I could never play like that, and I think that’s what made me go the opposite way’

“It was before I formed my own group that I had the rhythm section playing these sequences forward, and I made ‘Giant Steps’ with some other guys and carried the idea on into my band. But it was hard to make some things swing with the rhythm section playing these chords, and Miles advised me to abandon the idea of the rhythm section playing these sequences, and to do it only my­self. But around this time I heard Ornette who had abandoned chords com­pletely and that helped me to think clearly about what I wanted to do.

“It was Miles who made me want to be a much better musician. He gave me some of the most listenable moments I’ve had in music, and he also gave me an appreciation for simplicity. He in­fluenced me quite a bit in music in every way. I used to want to play tenor the way he played trumpet when I used to listen to his records. But when I joined him I realised I could never play like that, and I think that’s what made me go the opposite way.

“Recently I’ve been doing songs with the rhythm section having more freedom and not being bound to chordal structures, but still giving the soloist just as much freedom. Sometimes we start with one chord and drop it later, and improvise on the bass line or the piano, and this I find much easier to do on original material. I haven’t done it on a ‘standard’ yet, but maybe I will soon. But unless I find a simple one, there are no more break-throughs on those standards for me.

“There are some great songs that have been played in this music and only need a new approach to revive them. Faced with this fact, I couldn’t revise my musical approach drastically, and so I said well, maybe I’m really doing some­thing with this harmonic approach and should stick with it for a while.

“There are going to be songs with one chord and songs with no chords, which in my case means freedom to see if I can develop more in a melodic fashion through these unlimited harmonies.”

Although he himself is not certain of the exact directions in which his music is going, this highly intelligent musician is striving for a music that will doubtless be entirely different to any we have heard before. He has been called the only important jazzman since Bird, and I asked him what he thought of his own contribution to jazz.

“Basically I am trying not to stagnate. I go this way and I go that way and I don’t know where I’m going next. But if I should get stagnant, I’d lose my interest.

“There are so many things to be con­sidered in making music. The whole question of life itself; my life in which there are many things on which I don’t think I’ve reached a final conclusion: there are matters I don’t think I’ve covered completely, and all these things have to be covered before you make your music sound any way. You have to grow to know.

“When I was younger, I didn’t think this would happen, but now I know that I’ve still got a long way to go. Maybe when I’m sixty I’ll be satisfied with what I’m doing, but I don’t know . . . I’m sure that later on my ideas will carry more conviction.

“I know that I want to produce beauti­ful music, music that does things to people that they need. Music that will uplift, and make them happy – those are the qualities I’d like to produce.

“Some people say: ‘Your music sounds angry’, or ‘tortured’, or ‘spiritual’, or ‘overpowering’ or something; you get all kinds of things, you know. Some say they feel elated, and so you never know where it’s going to go. All a musician can do is to get closer to the sources of nature, and so feel that he is in communion with the natural laws. Then he can feel that he is interpreting them to the best of his ability, and can try to convey that to others.

“As to the music itself and its future, it won’t lessen any in its ability to move people, I feel certain of that. It will be just as great or greater.

“But as to how it’s going to do that, I don’t know. It’s left to the men who’re going to do it – they would know!”