— 2017 — Jan 5

Unlikely Inspiration from Coltrane

by Anton Schwartz

Of all the jazz musicians who have been idolized as a genius… Art Tatum, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Michael Brecker… arguably none has been deified as much as John Coltrane. Both literally (there is the Saint John Coltrane Church in San Francisco) and figuratively, in the sense that his genius is treated as something superhuman, Godly.

Finding unlikely inspiration in a John Coltrane recording. #ThePowerOfPractice Click To Tweet

And it’s understandable why. His playing is spiritually uplifting, technically astounding, musically sublime and groundbreaking. (If you need a taste, have a listen here or here .)

It might be tempting to assume that he was born a musical genius. Fortunately, there’s a recording of a 19-year-old Coltrane that dispels that notion:

Coltrane plays “Hot House” at age 19.

This informal recording, cued up here to Coltrane’s solo, was made at a jam session with fellow Navy musicians while they were stationed in Hawaii in 1946. Coltrane is playing alto sax. As you can hear, his playing has almost none of the qualities of his later playing: his time is inconsistent, his tone is weak, his ideas aren’t fully developed, his lines don’t seem to know where they’re headed. At times he’s not even making the changes.

Certainly far from Coltrane’s finest hour. Who knows, maybe it was a particularly bad day for him or he was just learning the changes to the tune. But one thing is clear: he is stumbling in a way that we never remotely hear in any later recordings.

I’d have to be a total asshole to be sharing this, right? I mean, who wants to be judged on how they sounded as a teenager? (Certainly not me.)

Yep. Except that, of course, I have nothing but enormous reverence for the man and his music, and what the recording shows us is such an amazing testament to him. And such a valuable lesson for us too.

It shows us the huge extent to which Coltrane created himself. His practice habits were nothing short of legendary. There are many stories of him practicing all day, heading off to play a long gig, practicing in the back room during the breaks, and heading home to practice a couple more hours before bed.

A recording of Coltrane at age 19 dispels any idea that he was simply 'born with' his genius. Click To Tweet

This recording gives us proof that someone can sound like a struggling amateur at age nineteen (1946) and sound a few years later like the John Coltrane who was touring with Dizzy Gillespie (1949), and with the Miles Davis Quintet (1955). Holy shit.

Being “born” John Coltrane is nothing anyone can take credit for. Not even Coltrane. But transforming the player we hear in the recording into the John Coltrane whose music we know—now that’s an astounding accomplishment. That he could make it happen speaks to his discipline and dedication, and to his incredible love of the music.

If we love the music as much as he did, and practice as much, who is to say that we can’t have similar results?

Whenever I hear this track I find it inspiring. I hope it gives you some inspiration too.

3 Responses

  1. Saúl says:

    Hello Anton! i recently found your site while searching for approaches to sus chords improvising, and i have to say this article really inspired me, im often worried I don’t progress as much as i’d want to, but this is a life expierence i definitly enjoy!
    Loved your blog, cheers!

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Saúl – best wishes to you in your musical (and non-musical) pursuits!

  2. Joseph Cannavo says:

    I couldn’t disagree more. Listening to someone struggling in the early stages of their mastery of an instrument says little about innate musical ability. Musical genius involves extraordinary abilities to cognitively and perceptually assimilate and negotiate tonal space in its rhythmic, melodic, harmonic and idiomatic dimensions. Struggling to learn ones way around a horn, make a good embouchure, etc. is an acquired skill set that is quite apart from all this. In short take a Mozart level musical intellect who only plays piano, put a bassoon I their hand give them a few months and listen to what they sound like. You won’t hear much betraying their genius. Now Coltrane was surely playing a for few years here, but the point remains. The work Coltrane put into his horn in the years to follow allowed his genius to manifest. But pretending that he wasn’t bringing something very, very, very special to the table – above and and beyond the hours put into the horn – is an exercise in frank denial.

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