The late 50s and early 60s were a turbulent time in both American history, and in the history of jazz. Much of the established culture was being subverted by civil rights activism, and the world at large was turning its attention to the birth of rock & roll.
Here’s a crash course in ’50’s Civil Rights if you want to get a sense of those times before we continue on.
In the year 1955, jazz lost bebop pioneer Charlie “Bird” Parker at the age of 34 to heroin and substance abuse. In the same year, 14-year-old Emmet Till was kidnapped, beaten, and murdered by two white men after flirting with a white woman. Following the abrasive photographs and mournful epitaphs that flooded the news, and of no small consequence, 42-year-old Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama. Amidst so many other race tensions and conflicts, the United States was in desperate need of change.
The year 1956 saw Martin Luther King Jr. leading a 385-day boycott of the Montgomery bus system, while Elvis Presley recorded his first commercial hits in Nashville, Tennessee. The two men were in adjacent states, experiencing radically different Americas. Martin Luther King Jr.’s house was bombed during the boycott. Presley was making live television appearances following record-breaking success.
Jazz In The 1950’s
And what was the jazz community up to at this point in history? For a community of predominantly black musicians struggling through night clubs and demanding gigs, jazz was finding itself relegated to dimly lit spaces of escape and quiet suffering. Still, musicians were finding new and innovative ways to power through creative boundaries.
Coltrane And Davis Split
At the fore of these creative efforts were—among others—Miles Davis, and John Coltrane. Their respective sagas are in some opinions the greatest culminations of musical expression in the history of music. This story begins at a break in their paths, where the supremely talented Coltrane had fallen into deep substance abuse on Davis’ dollar.
After Coltrane showed up strung out and late to a live performance, probably not for the first time, Davis decided that he had finally had enough of Coltrane’s unreliable, drugged-out lifestyle. In a burst of anger, Davis slapped, then gut-punched Coltrane, who was too high to notice. Davis fired Coltrane from the band and kicked him out onto the streets, where somewhere far away, Coltrane must have felt the weight of what his drug addiction had cost him.
Healing and A Love Supreme
More than one jazz critic has chosen the word “angry” to represent Coltrane’s signature sound. For a young black man in the United States, there was a lot to be angry about. It is impossible to ignore the brutality and the violence of civil rights era America, and for Coltrane, being kicked out of his musical community and must have been terrifying.
In short, he sobered up. But Coltrane’s sobering up was probably not the primary contributing factor to the new direction that his music took. What we hear in A Love Supreme—Coltrane’s 1965 masterpiece and exploration of modal jazz—is a deeply introspective and guided sound. In a culture of improvisation and response to the surrounding world, A Love Supreme is noticeably absent of the angry external world, and of the angry improvisational jazz that Coltrane belted out during the Davis years.
The central motif of the album is a verbal chant which reappears throughout the album in a sometimes haunting, sometimes longing, sometimes desperate, and sometimes peaceful way. Many have pointed out that the motif appears in all 12 keys towards the end of the first movement, a feat which is not so much improvised as it is coordinated. There is an inescapable, tangible feeling of spirit throughout the album. And not the energetic, lively state that the word “spirited” often evokes.
What A Love Supreme ultimately evokes is a paradoxical state of both external struggle, and internal surrender. It is a state of supreme peace within a state of extreme conflict. The album has been explored many times over the past few decades, but in every context, it retains an unconquerable spirit that is almost too subtle to be identified.
Perhaps we can learn to apply Coltrane’s resolutions to this age of conflict and civil unrest.