81: A Birthday Letter to John Coltrane

To John,

Today would’ve been your 81st birthday. It’s actually beautiful out: sunny, 81 degrees, blue skies around. The warmth hasn’t prevented the leaves from starting to turn, falling gently onto the pavement with every gust of wind. Those first few notes of “A Love Supreme” perfectly sum up the air out there. It would’ve been a good day for you to celebrate, lots of candles for you to blow out…with your sax.

You weren’t even 40 when liver cancer took you. You had to be on the brink of SOMETHING. I listen to what you were doing. I try and put myself back then, mind blown by something powerful, sounds so extreme they were simultaneously pummeling tradition AND fracturing the sound scaffold. Even forty-two years after Ascension exploded into the jazz scene, it’s still captivating. It’s still pure. It still begs discussion and consideration whenever ears come in contact with it.

What were you trying to do? How far would you have gone had you not died so early?

I always found it remarkable, listening to your records, that one man could so easily define an era with a saxophone. Certain moments have made me emotional while others have made me close my eyes so I can better hear them. I’ve smiled at some moments and been frustrated with others. Every journey you took is so readily available for all to hear, so mystifyingly translated. Some performers lose something in a studio. That didn’t seem to happen with you, though I will admit that I might think differently had I ever seen you perform live.



The turbulence of the 60s was not only conveyed through the generation’s music, but also through your vision. You gave us the Civil Rights struggle, the disillusionment of people, the anger backing Vietnam protest and disenchantment. But, you also gave us the hope that fueled the struggle and opened cognitive and creative doors for all to explore. It’s the type of artistic accomplishment that I’ve always wanted to bring about myself, but I never owned that THING that makes it possible. I envy you for having had it, but admire you for making your own music on your terms. It would’ve probably been easy to keep on writing A Love Supreme, but you had faith that people would understand.

For me personally, the following is why I’m thankful to you:

• Your live and studio performances with Thelonious Monk
• Your solo during Miles Davis’s classic, “So What”
Giant Steps (“Syeeda’s Song Flute”)
The Classic Quartet, most notably Coltrane, Crescent (“Lonnie’s Lament”), Live At Birdland and of course, A Love Supreme
Ascension and Live At The Village Vanguard Again!

I’m convinced, at least from an American perspective, that “beauty” would have never existed if you hadn’t known what it was supposed to sound like. I’m glad, for our sake, that someone was around to press record when you wanted to give us an idea.

Happy Birthday to you.

Sincerely,
Letters From A Tapehead
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