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Rodney Clapp

The Saxophonist Who Would Be a Saint


By the time of his passing in 1967, just two months short of his forty-first birthday, the tenor (and sometime soprano) saxophonist John Coltrane had established himself as one of the very finest artists and composers in the history of jazz. With those accolades, I am restraining myself.

Before his death, some admirers pondered the possible significance that John Coltrane's initials were identical to those of Jesus Christ—blasphemous foolishness that shocked and dismayed a man who was by all accounts profoundly religious and genuinely humble. After his death, a church in San Francisco declared Coltrane its patron saint and retooled its liturgy around one of his chief achievements, the four-part suite A Love Supreme. Critics and historians, if not compelled to resort to such literally religious terms to comprehend Coltrane's greatness, nonetheless gravitate toward metaphorically religious language. Trane has quite soberly been declared a "jazz messiah" and, in Hegelian epochal terms, "the end of jazz history."

Indeed, to date Coltrane is arguably the last great innovator in jazz—a music that, rooted as it is in spontaneity and slaves' hope for a tomorrow brighter than yesterday or today, is innovative by definition. Coltrane's lifework ended in free jazz, an untethered form that ignored steady rhythm and encouraged instrumentalists to improvise together, all playing at once. His lifework began, professionally, in the bebop era towered over by alto saxophonist Charlie Parker. Partly because Parker so dominated the alto, Coltrane made the heavier, more insistent tenor saxophone his signature instrument.

If ever a musician mastered an instrument, John Coltrane mastered the tenor. As classical pianist Zita Carno wrote in 1959, in what remains one of the best technical studies of Coltrane's art, his range was a full three octaves up from the lowest note on the horn. Carno marveled at Coltrane's "equality of strength in all registers," his sound ringing ...

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