Alabama - John Coltrane
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Uploaded on May 21, 2008
Coltrane wrote the song 'Alabama' in response to the bombing. He patterned his saxophone playing on Martin Luther King's funeral speech. Midway through the song, mirroring the point where King transforms his mourning into a statement of renewed determination for the struggle against racism, Elvin Jones's drumming rises from a whisper to a pounding rage. He wanted this crescendo to signify the rising of the civil rights movement.
Coltrane had already revolutionised jazz twice--the sheets of sound and his 'classic quartet' sound. He changed direction again with the recording of Ascension. He threw himself into the free jazz movement which was coalescing around a new generation of young musicians--Ornette Coleman, Archie Shepp and Albert Ayler. The music was pure improvisation. Coltrane was now playing two hour long solos. The music was free from constraints and barriers. Coltrane began to introduce percussionists, harp players and African vocalists. He was creating a world music 25 years before the term was even coined. For some in the free jazz movement the musical revolution was purely artistic, but for many that aesthetic revolution was linked to the explosion sweeping the Northern cities. Coltrane's drummer, Rashid Ali, said as much:
'Those were trying times in the 1960s. We had the civil rights thing going on, we had King, we had Malcolm, we had the Panthers. There was so much diversity happening. People were screaming for their rights and wanting to be equal, be free. And naturally, the music reflects the whole period... I think that that's where really free form came into it... I'm sure that the music came out of the whole thing.'
As one club manager noted, 'Whenever Coltrane played we seemed to attract the most politically advanced blacks. He'd take a long solo, probably close to an hour, and these guys would be shouting, "Freedom Now!"' King and the other leaders of the civil rights movement were left floundering as a new generation of leaders such as Malcolm X and the Black Panthers began to articulate the growing radicalisation of the movement. Coltrane heard Malcolm X speak in 1964.
Despite all their attempts, Coltrane and the free jazz musicians failed to become the musical voice of the movement. It was the sound of the Beatles and Motown that the youth bought into. Soul and rock expressed in a much more direct and dynamic way the spirit of the times. While jazz musicians codified their message, James Brown sang 'Say it Loud--I'm Black and I'm Proud' and Aretha Franklin demanded 'Respect'.
That criticism is not in itself a reason to write off free jazz. It is an incredibly complex music, and the lack of melody can make it difficult to follow. But for any art form to move on it has to shock and it has to experiment. As is the case with much art that is regarded as avant garde, years later it becomes understood and familiar, and swiftly moves into the mainstream. Many of Coltrane's musical ideas that shocked the music critics have today been incorporated into the jazz canon. Just listen to the music of Joshua Redman, Courtney Pine and Kenny Garret.
Sadly Coltrane died on 16 July 1967 aged 40 from the effects of liver cancer. So what does Coltrane offer us today? During his life the US was waging war against Vietnam. When he was asked for his opinion on the war, he replied, 'Well I dislike war--period. So therefore, as far as I'm concerned it should stop, it should have already stopped. And any other war.' Oh yes, and of course there is his wonderful life affirming music.
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