BY KAREN PHILLIPS
Coltrane began his career as a drug addict. That’s the first thing I learned.
I didn’t know too much about John Coltrane, other than that he was a jazz musician from High Point. Phyllis Bridges, owner of Yalik’s Modern Art gallery in High Point and co-creator of the John Coltrane vs. the Jazz Critics: 1961-1966 documentary exhibit along with David Tengell, explained the set-up, where to start and where to end, and how to use my smart phone to listen to sound clips of Coltrane’s music as well as a couple recorded interviews. All I had to do is text “Trane” to this number and I got a return text with a link to access a podcast website listing audio samples that I could listen to on my phone while I looked at the corresponding art.
Impressively high-tech. Starting in the left-hand corner, I took a tumultuous trek through Coltrane’s darkest hour and spiritual awakening, and emerging on the other side with an understanding of the immensity of emotion and experience he put into the music he created.
Coltrane started his career playing with jazz legend Miles Davis. But in April 1957, Davis kicked Coltrane out of his band because he was “strung out on heroin” and “drinking a lot.” Within three weeks, with the help of his mother Alice and his wife Naima, he was able to wean himself off of drugs and alcohol.
Coltrane found God during this time. He became very religious and his faith would continue to show throughout his music. About a month later, he recorded his first self-titled album.
In 1961, DownBeat magazine critics and readers rewarded John Coltrane with wins in both the International Critics Poll and the Readers Poll for best tenor sax player and miscellaneous instrument – the soprano sax.
During a politically unstable time, many jazz musicians, including Coltrane, began advocating for more expressive freedom. They didn’t believe that musicians should have to be confined to the parameters of traditional music. Many began abandoning standard rules and guidelines and called it “improvisation.” Coltrane found he could access deeper emotions this way, and explore the significance behind his musical ideas. White jazz critics disregarded this new music, claiming that their musicians didn’t know how to play their instruments.
The same critics who found Coltrane worthy of accolade at the beginning of his career found him worthy of ridicule at the height of his talents. In November 1961, DownBeat magazine Associate Editor John Tynan was the first of many white jazz critics to publish his outrage against Coltrane’s new musical influence. Tynan called his music “antijazz” and “gobbledgook,” and said that Coltrane’s music sounded like “musical nonsense” to his ears.
Lighter critics rebutted that while some might not like Coltrane’s latest musical decisions, they should at least appreciate his sincerity and passion. Leonard Feather, a DownBeat magazine critic, responded, “The answer to this, of course, is an analogy that holds good: Hitler was sincere.”
DownBeat Editor Don DeMichael, along with many other jazz critics, feared that black jazz groups would refuse to hire white jazz musicians, and they would therefore be victimized by reverse discrimination. Ira Gitler and Pete Welding, also DownBeat critics, refused to give Coltrane praise for his recent musical transformations.
But by 1965, DownBeat readers and critics awarded John Coltrane album of the year, but this time he did not win by a wide margin, as in 1961. While some critics’ minds were changed, like DeMichael, Tynan, Gitler, Feather and Welding refused to recognize Coltrane’s accomplishments.
A critic’s job is to reveal his true judgment and sentiment of a work. A critic’s job is to be a leader in a given field. Did all of DownBeat’s critics really lead? Or did they go along with the sentiment of the mainstream and political masses? Did they really give their true assessment of Coltrane’s work, and others like him? Or did they let fear and discrimination get in the way because they were too afraid of the unknown.
DownBeat’s critics were nervous to change their minds after they made such outlandish remarks earlier in Coltrane’s career, and instead decided to stick with what was socially acceptable at the time.
Coltrane died of liver cancer in 1966. When people remember Trane, they remember who he was, where he was from and the cultural transformations both he and his music went through; they don’t reminisce about his critics. Trane’s memory and his music live on in spite of DownBeat magazine, not because of it.
John Coltrane vs. the Jazz Critics: 1961-1966 documentary exhibit will be on display at Yalik’s Modern Art gallery, 710 East Washington Street, High Point, 27260 Thursdays through Sundays until September 16. There will be a visual exhibit of John Coltrane, “Also Known as Trane,” by Raleigh artist Eric McRay on display beginning on September 19 through October 21. Visit www.yaliksmodernart.com for more information.