Ascension of an Icon

Marketing John Coltrane

Blazing a trail down Guadalupe, a pack of street kids who appear to be under the influence of Perry Farrell panhandle to support their alternative lifestyles. While passing on foot, the hope that these have-nots will find a positive outlet to direct their feelings of alienation and subsequent rebellion crosses my mind. Reaching my destination at the corner of 21st street, Sound Exchange, I enter the new/used record store, and am greeted by a giant poster of Kurt Cobain, and several more large images taken from the film Reservoir Dogs. It's disheartening. In 1996, misguided aggression makes for quite a fashion statement as addicts and gangsters are considered icons rather than criminals. Yet, in working my way through compact disc hell toward the rear of the store, I spot another huge poster which presents nothing but the determined face of John Coltrane. Thirty years after his untimely passing, how does such a model of discipline fit into our current environment of relentless adversity and decadence?

As the first generation of Americans destined to fail by the crumbling system of capitalism reaches maturity, transcendental jazz is as important today as it was when Coltrane poured 13 years of his short life into the encoding of revolutionary thought. After years of developing a unique voice on the saxophone (primarily tenor), Coltrane's recording picked up a full head of steam in 1955 with the Miles Davis Quintet and steadily evolved toward the sky until he died on June 21, 1967. Creating music during a time when the struggle for universal liberation had succeeded by breaking down several institutions of colonialism, his work captured the spirit of the slave resurrected as king.

In 1957, under the leadership of Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana became the first black African country to shed the shackles of European imperialism. Nkrumah's platform of pan-Africanism inspired a wave of independent nation-states to be constructed throughout the mother continent. Closer to home, in 1959, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara rallied the agrarian class of the Sierra Maestro to overthrow a military dictatorship in favor of a socialist Cuba. Stateside, the civil rights movement of the Sixties challenged the conventions of the world's most powerful slave-nation by taking the battle to the streets. While the tide of political revolution filled Coltrane with the desire to escape from Western tradition, it was the inner fortitude of Martin Luther King, Jr., that taught him the importance of spiritual brotherhood. Along with his desire to live the "truly religious life," these influences encouraged Coltrane to transform himself from an erratic substance abuser to a fountain of metaphysical expression.

As his world view progressed to a state of systematic re-evaluation, Coltrane's work represented an intellectual metamorphosis. Transcending the curriculum of hard bop, he absorbed the philosophies of Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman, and Sun Ra to help pioneer the genre of "Free Jazz." Rejecting the strict conventions of the dominant culture, Coltrane favored the practice of unfiltered emotional projection through the intensity of energetic playing. In his book, Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music, Frank Kofsky points out that "with his nondiatonic conception Coltrane created music that moved wholly away from the traditional canons of Western art." Collective improvisation became Coltrane's channel of fulfillment as it democratically blends the expressions of each participant into a dense reflection of a utopian manifesto. Complete with synergistic repercussions, collective improvisation was beautifully exemplified as an egoless brotherhood by Coltrane's double quartet in 1966. The resulting album, Ascension, has been described by critic Bill Mathieu as "possibly the most powerful human sound ever recorded." At the peak of Coltrane's spiritual enrichment his work demonstrated the essence of theophany as music that not only conveys the experiences of the sacred but actually becomes such an experience.

In the past year much of Coltrane's discography has been unleashed upon a public sincerely interested in what he had to say. Both Rhino Records and Impulse have released classic material ranging from his formative recordings as a bandleader to unheard manifestations produced and hidden away shortly before his death. Rhino's Heavyweight Champion: The Complete Atlantic Recordings is a seven-disc set that chronicles Coltrane's tenure with Atlantic Records during the late Fifties and early Sixties. Impulse, which originally supported Coltrane's most soulful work during the mid-Sixties, has in turn reissued a series of the sax giant's albums, including Ballads, John Coltrane/Johnny Hartman, A Love Supreme, and Stellar Regions. Both labels have engineered tremendous success marketing these collectible products within a jazz market that seems to expand by the minute.

Aside from the horizontal growth of the jazz market caused by new consumers overseas, a vertical stretch has been prompted by young listeners whose tastes have matured beyond the sterility of pop music. Rhino public relations executive David Dorn characterizes these emerging fans as "young urbanites who are seeking to learn about an important facet of America's cultural history." Record labels have responded to the increased attention to the genre by delivering large doses of jazz demigods. Because a select number of legends, including 'Trane, Miles, Monk, Diz, Bird, and Duke are force-fed by record distributors, they become entry-level artists for newcomers to jazz.

Their pictures symbolize what it is to be hip. Their stories illustrate determination and discipline as each musician had to fight for every inch of credit that they were more often than not denied during their lifetimes. And most importantly, their music draws the blueprint for a future that we can actually be excited about. Coltrane associate Archie Shepp once stated that jazz stands "for the liberation of all people... Why is that so? Because jazz is a music itself born out of oppression, born out of the enslavement of my people." When a curious person takes their first steps into the jazz universe, the feelings of upliftment are emitted from the music encouraging the expansion of the mind, body, and soul.

It's important for any serious fan of jazz to understand not only the origin of its traditions but also the depth of its evolution. Austin trumpeter Martin Banks exclaims that "there is no short cut to learning jazz. You gotta go all the way back to 1935 through people like Earl Bostic just to understand the context of Coltrane's innovations." While most are following the lead of marketers by jumping full throttle into the heady material of the jazz elite, a much more ambitious delving must be undertaken to expose such obscure pioneers as Fletcher Henderson, Art Tatum, and Albert Ayler. Another problem with such a concentration on the legends of the past arises as the living artist tends to be forgotten in the shadow of greatness. With so much money diverted to the sales of reissues, there is little room for active musicians to secure financial success.

Maybe the spread of classical jazz to the young will inspire a few cases of divine intervention. John Coltrane does indeed serve as an excellent role model for any downtrodden soul searching for a better life. With so much negativity surrounding us, we need to find such paths to enlightenment. n

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