On John Coltrane and “Burning Out”

Coltrane on soprano sax, Eric Dolphy on bass clarinet.

Coltrane on soprano sax, Eric Dolphy on bass clarinet.

John Coltrane -“India” from The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings (1997)

John Coltrane – “Jupiter” from Interstellar Space (1972)

I’ve wanted to do a post on John Coltrane for a while now, and given our recent discussions of “Burning out vs. fading away,” I figured now was as good a time as any (Coltrane died at age 40 of liver cancer). I’ll start by talking about Coltrane’s music.

The first track is “India,” recorded in 1961 at New York City’s Village Vanguard jazz club. I love the instrumentation here — Coltrane on soprano sax, Eric Dolphy (another premature death, 1964 at age 36) on bass clarinet, McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison and Reggie Workman on bass, Elvin Jones on drums, Ahmed Abdul-Malik on oud, and Gavin Bushnell on oboe. Now, until hearing Dolphy’s bass clarinet solo here, I thought bass clarinet was the domain of unpopular girls in high school bands, but I now know better. The liner notes to The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings say that the oud is providing the drone heard throughout the piece, but I don’t know much about the oud, and don’t know how it can create a drone (the liner notes also mention that there is indeed some confusion as to exactly what instrument is being played here). Any string players care to enlighten me? Also I have a hard time telling the soprano sax and oboe apart, but I think the first solo is Coltrane, and the third is Bushnell, but I’m not sure. Both sound equally squeaky to me. They both could be Coltrane. The second solo is the bass clarinet.

This music was revolutionary in 1961, a mere two years after Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue (which featured Coltrane) was released. Compared to this, Kind of Blue, which is a great bop album, sounds relentlessly structured. These Vanguard concerts, recorded over four nights in November of 1961, showed Coltrane already moving away from the hard bop style and into the free jazz exhibited on his later albums.

The second track is “Jupiter,” from Interstellar Space. This is a particularly interesting album, as it consists entirely of duets between Coltrane on tenor sax (and sleigh bells, as heard at the beginning and end of this track) and Rashied Ali on drums. This was the result of one of Coltrane’s final studio sessions, recorded in February 1967 (he died in August of that year). The album was released posthumously. I like this album quite a bit. It is as “free” as Coltrane ever got in his soloing, and yet it is never overwhelming like Ascension (Coltrane’s msot famous and most ambitious free jazz album) can sometimes be with its eleven musicians.

The Coltrane myth, as most every early-death-of-a-musician-myth does, centers on the question of what he would have done had he not died when he did. And the answer, plain and simple,  is that we will never know.

Now, on the question of burning out versus fading away, which Jordy’s recent post raised. I have been thinking about it in terms of why we tend to give artists who die prematurely more notoriety than those whose lives are not cut short. Glenn mentioned in a comment to Jordy’s post that premature death is good for the myth of an artist. I think that is true, but I’d like to take the discussion a bit further. The reason artists (not just musicians) oftentimes get more attention if they die prematurely is due to our society’s attitudes about death. We are afraid of death, in part because it is the great unknown. I think that we look to the work of artists who have died prematurely for insight into the big black hole of death. We think that maybe, because they died “before their time” (whatever that means), their art holds they key to understanding the one thing that no living person can truly understand. Of course, when these artists were alive they were just as clueless as we are, but we listen to their music or study their books or paintings in hopes that they will have some kind of  insight into this whole death thing.

I’m speaking entirely about Western traditions here — I know next to nothing about Eastern traditions regarding these matters. Can anyone out there shed some light on how these things are viewed in the non-Western world?

Buy the Trane

Posted by Adam

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4 Comments

Filed under 1960s, Americana, Experimental, Instrumental, Jazz, Live

4 responses to “On John Coltrane and “Burning Out”

  1. Pingback: Robert Johnson, Rolling Stones, and burning out « So Well Remembered

  2. I think that Interstellar Space is not to far away from african or asian music concepts where western harmonies and their ‘rules’ don’t apply. Instead rhythm and coincidence in time are centers of attraction. I’ve posted some videos with John Coltrane at my blog, feel free to visit.

  3. Not that I’m impressed a lot, but this is more than I expected for when I found a link on Digg telling that the info here is quite decent. Thanks.

  4. quintaldo

    all that for that? lol
    he died early because he had given that early all he had to give, simple isnt it?
    why linger it out till sickness death and suffering do us part?
    the good die early.
    that’s not a coincidence
    they didnt waste their time
    and i wouldnt call that a burnout in the case of the JC of jazz
    he was in great health, physically and spiritually.
    wrap your mind around equating deadly cancer to great physical health if you can:)
    if you want a clue : gerd hamer

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