Monday, March 13, 2017

Listening to Prestige 251: John Coltrane

This was the moment that changed my life. It was late winter or early spring of 1958. I was a freshman at Bard, and I was living in the Barracks. The barracks were really exactly that. From a 1954 article in the Harvard Crimson:
The girls' dormitories and one of the boys dormitories are excellent, both roomy and comfortable. Most of the men, however, live in barracks--wooden structures put up temporarily after the war and never replaced. 
I liked the Barracks. I probably would have liked them less if I were an actual World War II vet, but I wasn't. I was a kid away from home. Not for the first time, but these were not the boarding school dormitories that I'd hated. They were ramshackle and casual and casually named, and they were my first home away from home, and I could come in whenever I wanted to, including, this particular night, sometime after midnight.

I would have been just barely 18, the legal drinking age in those days, and would probably have been drinking, something I'd just learned to do. For sure, I was passionately in love with rhythm and blues. I was of the first rock and roll generation, raised on the Hound from WKBW in Buffalo, and, when I could get him (WINS' signal didn't travel well to upstate) Alan Freed, and when, even more rarely (WOV's signal was even more unlikely), I could get Jocko, your ace from outer space. Rock and roll made me passionate about music, and I learned quickly that I wanted the real thing. I wanted what Alan Freed played, the original records, the Chords' version of "Sh-Boom" and not the Crew-Cuts, LaVern Baker and not Georgia Gibbs singing "Tweedle Dee" (finding out about Red Garland's version came later). I discovered that the names in tiny letters below the titles of songs meant the person or persons who had written them, and "Lieber-Stoller" became my new heroes. And I discovered that, with the exception of Elvis and a few others (most of whom recorded on Sun Records), the music I loved was made by black people.

I lived in a Bohemian environment of artists and political leftists, so I discovered the folk music of the 50s, and a new writing role model to put alongside Lieber and Stoller -- Lead Belly. And then the other blues singers who had crossed over to that audience of leftists and other folk music enthusiasts -- Big Bill Broonzy, Josh White, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.

Then somehow--I can't remember how, and I can't even imagine how, a white teenager in upstate New York--I discovered that there was a whole different kind of music out there, that was being made by black people and listened to by black people, and it was called rhythm and blues. Some of the rhythm and blues artists, like Larry Williams and Smiley Lewis, got some airplay on the hipper rock 'n roll stations. Some, like Magic Sam and Lightnin' Hopkins and even Muddy Waters, you just had to find. Some like Roy Brown and Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup were covered by Elvis.

So in that spring of 1958, away at college, I was already passionate about music as only a seeker can be. My kind of music. Rhythm and blues, and the R&B artists like Little Richard who had made their mark in rock 'n roll. I didn't know anything about jazz. I had one Louis Armstrong record, Satch Plays Fats. I knew that jazz fans thought they were better than rock 'n roll fans, and maybe they were--if you were a rock 'n roller and traveled in intellectual bohemian circles, you always felt a little self-conscious. And neither the jazzers nor the rock 'n rollers knew much about rhythm and blues.

But sometimes you could find it on all-night radio, and that's what I was doing in those wee hours of the morning in my dorm room in the Barracks. Twisting the dial of my AM radio, looking for some far-off station that might be playing Varetta Dillard or Joe Turner or the Harptones.

And then I stopped. I didn't touch the dial of the radio again. And I couldn't even look away. I stopped and stared at the radio. I was suddenly and instantly under the spell of a music I had never heard before.

I remember everything about that moment in time. The station was CKLW in Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, and the disc jockey was Speed Anderson. Except I seem to remember it wrong. Ezra "Speed" Anderson was a late night jazz DJ in Boston. Maybe I might still be right. For a short time his program was syndicated nationally. Anyway, the place was the Barracks, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. The disc jockey was Speed Anderson. And the music was John Coltrane and the Red Garland Trio.

I was struck by lightning as sure as Michael Corleone in Sicily in The Godfather, Part II.

Speed Anderson went on to become the most beloved hot dog vendor in Boston. John Coltrane went on to become one of the greatest jazzmen of his generation. And I went on to love jazz for the rest of my life.

The album, which I bought as soon as I could find it, was John Coltrane with the Red Garland Trio. It had that red-on-black Abstract Expressionist cover. It was my first jazz record.

I was not hip enough, or experienced enough, to listen to the complex and subtle interactions of the instruments. Certainly not over a little dorm room AM radio. It was Coltrane that got to me.

And still does. To me, the five tracks, even though only two of the tunes were written by Coltrane, have always felt like an extended suite to me, to be listened to all the way through. So I'm listening and responding in the order they appear on the record, not, as I usually do, in the order they were recorded in the studio.

The suite begins with Red Garland, doing a nearly five-minute intro/solo on "Traneing In," the longest individual cut, after which Coltrane enters, and as great as the other musicians are, it's his voice that you hear the rest of the way.

Funny...I said this album has always felt to me like a suite, and the next track, "Slow Dance," actually was part of a suite: Manhattan Monodrama, written by contemporary composer Alonzo Levister for a group that included Teddy Charles. It was released on Charles Mingus's Debut label.

"Slow Dance" actually is kinda slow, but the climactic piece, "Soft Lights and Sweet Music," is anything but soft and sweet. It's an Irving Berlin tune, and though I often imagine the great American composers of popular song listening to modern jazz interpretations and approving, I'm not sure Coltrane's approach is exactly what Berlin had in mind. The tune, as recorded by singers like Lee Wiley and Barbara Lea, and swingers like Benny Goodman, is more sprightly than dreamy, but as Ira Gitler noted in his liner notes, this is more like the soft headlights of an express train roaring down the track.

Unlike most of Coltrane's work for Prestige, this wasn't held back for a more opportune time. It was released in early 1958, in time for Speed Anderson to play it and for a young rhythm and blues-loving college freshman to have his life changed irrevocably.


 Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 here.


Noah Vale said...

In fact, the pieces on the 'B' side of the Debut Lp are not part of the Manhattan Monodrama Suite; they are separate free standing pieces, and "Slow Dance" is one of them; "Black Swan" a tribute to Miles Davis, is another. There is no written in- or out-chorus melody for "Slow Dance". On the Debut version, it is my understanding that Levister wrote out the solos for all the players except for Teddy Charles, who, I assume, was left to his own very capable devices. I met Levister a number of years ago and asked him what he thought of Coltrane's version. He was non-commital. I got the chord changes to "Slow Dance" from a friend many years ago, and I have long enjoyed playing my own choruses on it.

Tad Richards said...

Good to know.