Tuesday, April 20, 2021

A Night with John Coltrane

“If you could go back in time and have dinner with anyone you choose, who would it be?” 


This popular interview question is always thought-provoking. Should anyone ever ask me, I might mention Charles Dickens or Joseph Campbell or Martin Luther King, but after last night’s Jazz History class, my time-machine moment is clear. 


I want to be in the front row at the Village Vanguard listening to the John Coltrane Quartet play A Love Supreme. At midnight. 


Mind you, they never did play that extended composition there, but hey, this is my fantasy so I can arrange it however I want. And then after playing some other tunes— perhaps Giant Steps or Bessie’s Blues, Johnny Hartmann would come on stage at 2am in the morning and sing They Say It’s Wonderful while I slow danced with the love of my life. And indeed, I can’t imagine anything more wonderful.


But since fantasy is fantasy, I did the next best thing. Played Pursuance from  A Love Supreme for my Jazz Class and even with the wimpy computer sound (and hey, tech people, with all your innovations, don’t you think you could have turned the sound up on these damn machines?!), Coltrane’s horn entering at four minutes and sixteen seconds penetrated straight to the heart and yet deeper to the soul and took me (and hopefully the class) for a wild ride that expressed everything at once—grief, joy, rage, beauty, the heart-wrenching sadness and euphoria of simply being alive inextricably mixed and dancing together in his extraordinary solo. All the stormy turbulence and turmoil of the daily news gathered up in a whirling frenzy of tones and given a voice that brings shape and meaning to it all. If you’re listening—really listening—all the petty emotions of your small life are washed away in a tidal wave of intensity that grows you larger than you ever thought possible. 


And then as you emerge from it all in a daze, on comes Johnny Hartmann to comfort and soothe and hold you close and let you settle into the sweetness of a love much larger than you’ve ever been able to give, much larger than you’ve ever been able to receive. When class is over, you get up from your chair a different person than when you sat down and that is what great art can do to you, what a good class can do for you. Rilke said:


If only we would let ourselves be dominated as things do

by some immense storm we would become strong too… 

When we win, it’s with small things and the winning itself makes us small.  


Coltrane is the storm that gives us strength beyond our imagination and yet we’re content to just tap our toe to the pop pablum served daily. Well, as I said, this is my fantasy not yours. But may I suggest you take time one day to lie down on the floor between two speakers or with your phone and high-quality headphones and immerse yourself wholly in A Love Supreme? Or Bach’s Mass in B Minor, Mozart’s Requiem, Beethoven’s 9thSymphony, Ravi Shankar playing sitar, Keith Jarrett’s Kohn Concert? Treat yourself to a wrestling match with great art and let yourself be thrown down, kneaded and shaped to a new and greater self. 


Whoever was beaten by this Angel …went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand, that kneaded him as if to change his shape. 
Winning does not tempt that man. 
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively, 
by constantly greater beings.



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