With a single night’s recording session and a 1965 album, “Trane” pointed the way toward a new consciousness not just in music but in all things. Jazz historian Ashley Kahn tells us how and why…
Mention the word “jazz” in a roomful of rock & rollers and you might start a brawl or, more likely, a mass exodus from the premises. That’s for a good, simple reason: jazz and rock & roll are two separate, but equal, domains and most attempts to blend the two feels either phony or desperate.
Need I offer a litany of the offenders in this regard?
Blood Sweat & Tears–Anything after the first album, with Al Kooper, is just hard to bear. Chicago–Good lord, these treacly cats are still cranking out this crap? What are they up to now Chicago XLCVIII? The Flock, Chase, Chuck Mangione, George Benson—elevator music all. And don’t get me started on the mellow grooves of the 1970s and 1980s—Grover Washington, Earl Klugh and the like. Or the coke-fueled express train to nowhere of the jazz fusion crowd.
So, at grave risk of bodily harm, I come not to bury jazz but to praise it—at least one of its practitioners, John Coltrane, supreme master of the saxophone.
In particular, I submit A Love Supreme for your consideration. This recording—made in one history-defining session by Coltrane, pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and drummer Elvin Jones, on December 9-10, 1964 and released in February 1965—is NOT jazz, per se. It goes beyond that categorization. It is, yes, a work of art but, more to Coltrane’s motive, it was his “gift to the Divine.”
In his book-length paean A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album (Penguin), Ashley Kahn writes that the album was “heard in college dorms and ghetto apartments, on Harlem and Haight-Ashbury street corners: a unifying album boosted by good timing.”
A Love Supreme (and Coltrane) has been cited by a small army of rock & rollers as having deeply impacted their lives and music, including Patti Smith, the MC 5, Grateful Dead, Peter Buck, Steely Dan, Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana, Joni Mitchell, and Henry Kaiser. It may, in fact, have been the opening clarion call to the Age of Aquarius, the new consciousness, two years before any rock & rollers turned to Eastern gurus to get their heads together, man. Coltrane named his son Ravi, after Ravi Shankar, for crying out loud!
Kahn quotes Miles Davis, in whose quintet Coltrane played, most famously, on Kind of Blue, the subject of another book by Kahn: “A Love Supreme reached out and influenced those people who were into peace…Hippies and people like that.” As saxophonist and Coltrane friend Archie Shepp said, “In the 1960s, we were in the age of Eastern religions, new spirituality and Hare Krishna, and that was Trane’s matrix…he fit right in.”
Miles Davis may have lifted John Coltrane from obscurity in 1955 but by 1960, his protege was tired of being a sideman. By then John Coltrane was a musical force that could not be contained or confined by a repetitive role as a second fiddle, so to speak. It was not unlike when Hendrix left Curtis Knight’s soul band to form his Experience trio.
We recently spoke to Ashley Kahn about Coltrane and A Love Supreme:
PKM: It strikes me, having listened to A Love Supreme repeatedly over the past few days, that this was the clarion call to the New Age, new consciousness, in music. How do you see that the album might have impacted the future of rock music?
Ashley Kahn: A Love Supreme predicted more than influenced rock music. It was opening ways of thinking beyond what’s immediately here. Every aspect of postwar Americana was being questioned in the mid-1960s. John Coltrane predicted the opening up to other spiritual realms, pushing open the doors of perception to find infinite worlds, as William Blake put it way back in the 1700s. That’s what Coltrane was saying: Infinite worlds exist out there. They could be discovered by drugs, spiritual sensibility, music, lifestyle shifts. This message is found in the poem that Coltrane included in the back cover of the album: We are all connected.
PKM: Elvin Jones was just a stunning percussionist. It wasn’t so much the sheer explosive speed of his drumming, but the inventiveness of it. I can’t imagine, for example, John Densmore of the Doors playing those fills on “The End” or any of the other extended tracks that the band played without having absorbed the lessons of Elvin Jones.
Ashley Kahn: Not just John Densmore, but Mitch Mitchell too, with the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Carlos Santana loved to talk about the “bubbling effect” of drummers like Elvin Jones, and the impact he had on a generation of drummers. He elevated the music through polyrhythms, and triplets. If you are a soloist, like Coltrane, you have a lot of places to land with a drummer like Elvin Jones. It was also very Latin based. He matched that rhythmic approach with his minor key, moody, meditative sound. Look at every Coltrane album before A Love Supreme going back to 1961, and there was at least one track that employed this pattern that was later fully explored on A Love Supreme. On Coltrane, his first quartet album, he does “Out of This World”, which is a standard. But the way he plays it makes it feels like it’s his own original composition.
PKM: What struck me in reading your book about Kind of Blue by Miles Davis is that, for all of these musicians who created that masterpiece, it was just another session. They were all—Coltrane, Davis, Bill Evans, Cannonball Adderley, Paul Chambers, Jimmy Cobb—working musicians with gigs all over the place. They came in one day and began recording and, for whatever reason, the stars were aligned properly or something, a masterpiece was born.
Ashley Kahn: No one plans to create a masterpiece. There is no way of knowing what recording will impact people on that level and then sustain that impact over the years.
PKM: I was amused by the story in your book on A Love Supreme about how you came to acquire a copy of the album. You were buying rock albums as a teenager at a record shop in Cincinnati, right?
Ashley Kahn: Yes, I was raised in Cincinnati. When I was 14 and 15, I was still building my musical foundation. I was deciding what rabbit hole I would fall down inside. You know, as you do at that age. For example, you’re listening to David Bowie and hear him sing something about “All the Young Dudes” but then you learn about it being done by another band. Wait a second. What a weird name for a band, Mott the Hoople. Maybe there’s an older friend with a bunch of old Rolling Stone magazines hidden away in a closet that has something in one of them about this band, like “All the Way to Memphis.” So I would read and explore in that same way, and the next Saturday when I went down to the college area where all the vinyl shops were I would pick up another Mott the Hoople album. It was during one of these visits that some enterprising clerk recommended that I add John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme to my stack. I’ve been in touch with these same clerks and music lovers over the years and they were not jazz nuts. Why they would recommend John Coltrane and A Love Supreme to me is still a mystery.
So, anyway, on a whim, I bought the album and took it home. I was so proud to have this album by Coltrane. I put it on the turntable and listened to it once all the way through and I couldn’t understand a thing! It didn’t fit into my world! So I kept the album but didn’t listen to it again until two years later when I was at college. At that time, it was practically superglued to my turntable. My ability to listen had grown. Another album that I was given around that same time was Black Pearls, Coltrane’s first album on Prestige [recorded in 1958 but not released until 1964]. It had only three tracks on it, at least the vinyl version. Same thing. It was really challenging music. And then, years later, I was hired to write the liner notes for the reissue of Black Pearls. It seems that every Coltrane album introduced you to a different John Coltrane
PKM: What rock & roll artists or albums kind of prodded you in the direction of Coltrane, or any of the other “way out” jazz people like Sun Ra or Moondog?
Ashley Kahn: At the same time, people were turning me on to Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band’s Trout Mask Replica, which had some jazz elements of improvisation and poetry and noise. And I was always a fan of the Velvet Underground, especially tunes like “Lady Godiva’s Operation” where two voices are speaking at the same time, which I found really mesmerizing.
PKM: I’ve never found the attempts to blend “jazz” with “rock” to be appealing. The results always either sound phony or just tedious. My theory is that this is because they are two separate but equal musical kingdoms. Do you have any thoughts along those lines?
Ashley Kahn: The sort of stylistic collisions now and again happen regardless. In the 1990s, there was the overlap with new soul. And, more recently, with jazz and hip hop. I just taught a class at NYU along with Q-Tip on jazz and hip hop.
It’s like trying to follow the wave on an ocean, it could be here or there, and then other waves collide with it and unexpected surprises occur. We have a mindset about music that it’s either this or that but seldom this AND that, whether it’s acoustic and electric, or traditionally played and machine-made, for lack of a better term. When those opposites meet, you can sometimes find real treasure. Is it always great? No. It sometimes feels forced, like a pastiche. But then in other cases it creates a kind of sub-genre.
PKM: While you were saying that, I immediately thought of the time when Bob Dylan “went electric” at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964.
Ashley Kahn: The idea of “folk” and “rock” were based on rigidly opposite intentions. Folk was all about anti-commercialism and authenticity and rock was about making tunes that will be Top 40 hits. It was seemingly forbidden to combine them. And yet, what later became known as folk rock proved to be an amazingly fertile subgenre, some of the best music of its time. But look at the fistfights that broke out at Newport when Dylan got up there on stage with some of the members of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. That’s how these waves collide sometimes.
PKM: Why should PKM readers rush out and purchase A Love Supreme. How will it improve their lives?
Ashley Kahn: Google Patti Smith and A Love Supreme. She talks about how that album opened her up. It’s like she’s saying, “Go and open your goddamn ears and mind!” Patti Smith first used words to express herself but then words with music has a way of digging into you that words alone don’t have. Push those doors open. Certain artists were just able to do that.
John Coltrane’s Psalm A Love Supreme with lyrics and music.