Jazz music is as American as apple pie and fireworks on the 4th of July. Its popularity has resulted in jazz festivals around the world . The festival in Berlin is among the most popular in the world. Some of the greatest musicians in history made their names famous through their talents of the wide range of instruments that gave us the many great songs that have been studied and imitated to decades. Among these legendary artist is the late John Coltrane, who performed with the all time greats such as Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and Charlie “Bird” Parker. Davis is still the best-selling artist in jazz history with his 1959 album Kind of Blue. And his influence on jazz continues decades after his death. However, true fans will be quick to remind you that while Davis is a legend in his own right, there were others who left a lasting legacy on jazz. While he had an unassuming presence, John Coltrane is always named among the top recording artists of his time and has influence a legion of musicians. But behind the saxophone, who was the real John Coltrane?
J.C. Thomas explores the life of Coltrane in this biography of the late star. The book does not follow a traditional biography format. What Thomas has done is to mix biographical data with recollections from those who knew Coltrane. The unusual approach makes the book even more enjoyable and helps the reader grasp the mystique of a legend. Coltrane did not leave an autobiography and tragically he died many years before he could complete one. His sudden passing on July 17, 1967 at the age of 40 caused the jazz world to reel in shock at the loss of a legend in the making. However, Thomas was able to examine his music and converse with those closest to him to give us the most complete picture of this short and incredible life that began in Hamlet, North Carolina and ended in Huntington, New York.
Music is a central theme in the book for obvious reasons, however we also learn about the many struggles that plagued Coltrane throughout his life and might have played a role in his gradual decline and eventual death. There are successes in the book that cause the reader to breathe a sigh of relief. But his tragic fate also causes us to wonder what if he had lived. His belief in faith and enthusiastic study of other religions placed him on a spiritual plane that was manifested in his songs which became more dynamic as he aged and matured. Thomas takes us on this ride with Coltrane as we learn about spirituality in a different way from which we are used to. The application of his newfound spiritual beliefs to his music enable him to be in a place resulted in his ascension as one of the true pioneers of his genre.
Reviewers of the book have given favorable ratings and one even said this was the cliff notes version of his life. While that statement is not far off the mark, the book was not intended to be the end all account of Coltrane’s life. In fact, I think the book serves him well and allows us to step inside the mind of the master himself. Personally, I enjoyed the anecdotes throughout the book. Some were downright hilarious and others interesting for they show the mystery that surrounded Coltrane and still does to this day. His widow Alice said that he did not speak often but when he did he said quite a lot. Methodical, controlled and visionary, Coltrane remains a musical icon. His albums A Love Supreme and Blue Train are ranked 27 and 28 on the list of best-selling jazz albums by the RIAA. His fans would undoubtedly rank them higher than that and I would hard pressed to argue against it. For those who want to know more about his fascinating and brief life, this is the place to start to learn about the man they called Trane.