Evan Parker Joaquim Mendes©2006
Evan Parker gave this talk on 5 August 2006 as part of Jazz Em Agosto in Lisbon, Portugal.
I follow the school of thought that says there are basically three phases in Coltrane’s musical life. I would identify his activities from the beginning up to 1961 as one phase. From ‘61 onward to ‘65 or ‘66 there is the period where he was leading his own group, especially what’s now often referred to as the classic quartet with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones. At the end of this phase, there is the transition period where Coltrane’s determination to keep moving forward, finding new possibilities, strained the quartet to the point where Elvin was unhappy with the addition of other drummers and McCoy Tyner probably couldn’t hear himself anymore. These are all matters of public record and I don’t think it’s wrong to talk about them. This transition led to the late period of Coltane’s life which, although you would think that the area that I might be most expert on, it is actually the area that I know least about. That’s partly because it overlaps with my own entry into a full-time relationship with music, attempting to be a professional musician, which, for me, started probably around ‘65, and ’66. There was no clear beginning for me between playing with student bands and then gradually earning some money by doing that and then gradually meeting the players that I thought I wanted to play with. All of this was happening during the last period of Coltrane’s life. At that time, his music from that period was available to us only through recordings. The last tour that Coltrane was supposed to have made of Europe was scheduled for 1966 but it was cancelled. His health was already suffering at that point and that’s probably the reason that last tour was cancelled. So we in Europe never got to hear those late Coltrane performances, the type that were documented during the tour of Japan. It’s hard to imagine what the response would have been in England; but I’m fairly sure that itwould have been pretty hostile. By then, Coltrane’s music was a step too far for many people.
I remember in ‘61, the time that he did come with his own group to England, I think the only time that he did play in England, there was already a division of ‘this is going too far...we liked Milestones, we liked Kind of Blue, we liked those things but this is too much’. And of course Dolphy was in the group. I heard that group play and it was, to me, a revelation. An amazing experience because it was Coltrane in the moment, not Coltrane six months later when the record arrived or a year later when the record arrived. But Coltrane at that point, in 1961. As I say, that to me is a key moment and it was literally one week after the recordings at the Village Vanguard. Originally, there was just one LP of material released from these performances. Over the years, especially since Coltrane’s death, interest in his work has become more and more intense, resulting in bigger and bigger editions. The final version of the Village Vanguards is four whole CDs , including multiple versions of some pieces.
At the time, many people thought Coltrane’s “Chasin’ The Trane,” which was included on the original Village Vanguard LP, was his most radical performance to date because of what was considered its extraordinary length and intensity, and the fact that Coltrane was accompanied by only bass and drums. But, there are other versions of this same idea, a blues played with just bass and drums that goes all the way back to a piece he recorded in 1957 for Traneing In with Paul Chambers called “Bass Blues,” although that’s a more straight ahead tune. Something that took me a while to realize is that “Blues To You” on Coltrane Plays The Blues, which he recorded in 1960, is also a trio blues that basically has the same approach to the structure. The blues was a very natural form for Coltrane, which must have grown out of his work with rhythm and blues bands in the early period of his professional life. Like most musicians looking for a chance to play and earn some money, Coltrane played with various rhythm and blues bands almost as soon as he was discharged from the Navy, where he went to study. That was an approach that my generation of musicians and that a generation before me, took in England, too. There was John Stevens, the drummer, Paul Rutherford, trombone player, Trevor Watts, saxophone player, Chris Pyne, very good trombone player. Some of these people are no longer alive, some are still active, but they all got their musical training by joining the military. In the case of the English guys it was usually the Royal Air Force. Coltrane went to Honolulu with the Navy and was based there. Some of the very earliest recordings of Coltrane playing were made there in 1946, when he was still playing alto. These recordings include performances of “Ko-Ko” and “Now’s The Time,” so it natural that you hear very much the influence of Charlie Parker in his playing. Obviously, Charlie Parker was still alive at that point -- more than still alive, I mean, he’s right in the middle of his musical life. When he got back from Honolulu, Coltrane started to do these rhythm and blues bands and that must be where he developed that profound relationship with the structure called the blues, the 12 bar form, which is stretched very far in “Chasin’ the Trane.” It’s a collision between a very simple form, or the integration of a very simple form, with a very sophisticated saxophone technique.
I will now risk digressing, first by talking about the slave trade. There’s a book – The slave trade : the story of the Atlantic slave trade, 1440-1870 by Hugh Thomas – where I found this: “By 1730 we find 6,000 slaves in North Carolina.” That’s where Coltrane was born.”Though most of them were probably not shipped, but carried in as a result of purchase in Virginia. The colonists mostly paid by barter.” The colony complained since it had no direct deliveries from Africa. Here’s a quote from a local politician of the time “they received the refuse, the refractory and distempered Negroes, bought from other governments, other states.’’ This is one of many 18th and 19th Century documents collected by an American academic, Elizabeth Donnan, which are now housed at Yale University. I’m not even sure what the words “refuse,” “refractory” and “distempered” exactly mean in this context, but I guess it means they were hard to handle, they weren’t wanted in Virginia, and so they were sold in North Carolina. It’s very interesting to think of Coltrane as being a descendent of these slaves.
Some more quotes: “After changes in the tax laws concerning shipping slaves, Bristol entered the trade as a port in 1712. Between then and 1807, more than 2,000 separate slave trade voyages were made out of Bristol.” That’s particularly interesting to me since I was born in Bristol, England. Here’s another: “Lisbon is a center for Portuguese dealings with Africa in general and the slave trade in particular.” This will be better known to you than to me. But in that same book I was astonished to discover that at least 100,000 slaves were removed from Africa already in the 15th and 16th centuries. We’re talking about history that ties us all together in ways that we sometimes try to forget, but I think it doesn’t do any good to forget. The great work that Mandela is doing at the moment is based on ideas of truth and reconciliation; we’ll come back to that a little later on. There’s another quote: “African Muslim slaves were more difficult to control, for, as the Brazilians found in the 1830’s, in particular, some of them were at least as cultivated as their masters and capable of mounting formidable rebellions.”
This reminded me of the question that Frank Kofsky, a Marxist critic who did one of the best interviews with Coltrane, in my opinion, asked Coltrane about Malcolm X. “Were you impressed by him?”, Kofsky asked him. Coltrane said “Quite impressed.” Now talking from my own position, I heard Malcolm X speak in Birmingham University in England I think it was in the summer of 1964. By that time he was no longer connected with Elijah Mohammed and was an independent force in Black politics in America. He was actively concerned with the development of a Pan-African social and political sensibility. Everything he said made perfect sense to me. He was not a man of violence, as he was often portrayed, but a speaker of awkward and unwelcome truth. I found out also that when Kofsky was a student at Berkley University, he asked Coltrane to play a concert to raise money for an organization for improving the situation for Black students in the University system there. Coltrane was agreeable to that idea but the University then forbade the organization to exist. This is as recently as 1961, so it’s important to remember and to keep our eye on what people are telling us we can’t have today. Two million people on the streets of London saying they didn’t want a war, but one man and his friend in America decided it was a good idea, and now we have to live with the consequences of that for the rest of our lives. Coltrane spoke to the Vietnam War in the same interview: “This music is an expression of higher ideals to me, so therefore, brotherhood is there. I believe with brotherhood there would be no poverty, and with brotherhood there would be no war.” So Coltrane is no longer a jobbing musician at this point, he’s feeling the weight of responsibility that comes with his position, his new position as being considered one of the leading voices in the music and he’s using that situation to speak up.
The weight of responsibility Coltrane felt in large part stemmed from his sprituality, which was awakened after Miles Davis sacked him because he was drunk and drug addicted and unreliable. For Coltrane, being fired by Davis must have come as a very profound shock, as well as he was playing, because he always played very well. But clearly he felt something had to be done about this and so the famous story of him going to a room in his auntie’s house and shutting the door and staying there until he had broken his addiction to heroin. I suppose that’s what he’s referring to when he said: “During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life.” At this point Coltrane was clearly moving towards a sense of his own destiny and perhaps even a sub-conscience intimation that his life would not be a long one. An urgent sense of purpose begins to motivate all of his playing. And I think at this point we also hear that he’s moving away from the conventions of the day.
During that first period, up to ‘61, Coltrane’s approach to improvisation was mostly playing over predetermined chord sequences. So you could characterize that music as problem-solving. The improvisation was constrained by a particular series of note choices which would fit; some things would fit, some things wouldn’t fit. Coltrane was always looking for new elements in that language – how to play over harmonic sequences and how to add to what’s already there, a whole system of superimposing chord on chord. But again, it’s all basically problem solving, which reaches its highest point of development with the “Giant Steps” type of approach, where the complexity of the chord sequence is such that, if the chords are going to be marked clearly in the course of the improvisation then there’s very little freedom to move. If you compare the various takes of “Giant Steps” you’ll hear the same patterns recurring at the same points in each chorus and even recordings of the tune which are done more or less a year apart you’ll hear those same patterns. So although the precise nature of the solo is improvised, it’s based on a very well studied set of materials, and memorized. As far as I know there are no live versions of Coltrane playing “Giant Steps.” “Giant Steps” epitomizes the idea of etude and the idea of studio. These were etudes for the studio.
I think that there’s a very clear sense that he’s gone as far as he can possibly go in that direction towards the end of the period of his recording for Atlantic. This was a period where Coltrane was effectively a leader, but before he could go out on the road with his own band. Recording for Atlantic, he could function as a bandleader, hire musicians of his choice, play his tunes, choose material when they played standards, and used his altered versions of the chord sequences, especially using that formula, the “Giant Steps” formula in the place of other standard harmonic formulas. I think that there’s a very clear sense that he had gone as far as he could possibly go in that direction because the sense of improvisation is canceled by the complex nature of the problems within which the improvisation has to take place, namely the chord sequences, those chord sequences.
For me maybe the final statement on the Atlantic period is the B side of My Favorite Things, the LP, where he plays “But Not For Me” and “Summertime” and there’s a looseness; he’s still using that “Giant Steps” formula for substitute chord elements, but with a looseness, a degree of working informality almost, and it’s working toward the next phase. So there’s never any clear, sharp lines in Coltrane’s development. If I seem to give you the feeling that I think there are hard markers in this story, I don’t. It’s one continuous story and we’re backtracking; the way time works, the way memory works, the way we think of the future, the way we remember the past. All of that is there and it is decipherable in the music if you listen and if it means enough to you and if you get taken by the story that Coltrane’s whole life has to tell, then you will gradually learn to interpret anticipations, repetition, moments where he’s seeing ahead, moments where he’s thinking backwards – all of that is moving along a timeline dynamically and that timeline itself is very short. From the point of view of a 62-year-old man – I’m already 20 years older than Coltrane was when he died – I can’t imagine how somebody could fit so much into such a short space of time.
But there does seem to be a sense of, which I referred to before, a sense of how long you’ve got. If you think about musicians like Clifford Brown or Booker Little or Scott La Faro, all of these people died absolutely tragically young - but somehow they did enough in the time that they had, so that we still talk about them and still revere what they did. I believe the same thing is true of Dolphy and Coltrane – that they were aware of, at some level, of the time that they had available to them. So, the last record for Atlantic was Olé with the quartet plus Eric Dolphy – who is called George Lane for presumably contractual reasons. There’s a great record shop in London called Ray’s and for many years there was a postcard on the wall and it said “Why George Lane?” Previously, Charlie Parker had called himself Charlie Chan and Art Pepper called himself Art Salt and so on. So, usually there was a way of figuring out who it really was. Everyone who listened to Olé knew it was really Eric Dolphy but nobody could work out why George Lane? That record is, in a way - could equally well have been the first Impulse record. It’s quite different from all the other Atlantic recordings for me.
Olé is already moving towards the feeling of some of the tracks from the Village Vanguard, with Dolphy there, two bass players. But, something more important is happening. The emphasis on improvisation as problem solving is being left behind, and Coltrane is moving toward the use of improvisation as a test – the testing of the predetermined structures to their limit, to their destruction. It is a dialogue between the activity of improvisation and the structure upon which the improvisation was nominally based. That really characterizes the shift in Coltrane’s music for me at that point, more than anything to do with sheets of sound. Somebody asked me about sheets of sound yesterday and as far as I understand, that was a very specific period, probably best documented on the early recordings with Miles and his own recordings for Prestige. It was a particular phase that he was working on, especially with this stacking of chords on chords, so you ended up with very long arpeggio forms, and very hard to fit into regular 8th note groupings. When you see Andrew White’s transcriptions of these things – long brackets over groups of 7, 11 notes, 15 notes – it’s very hard to notate because he’s not really thinking in terms of 8th notes in that way but just “How can I fit all these notes into this bar before the next downbeat?” And that really only occupied him for a certain period. By the time you get post 1961, you’re really not dealing with “sheets of sound”, in that sense, anymore.