My oldest brother first introduced me to John Coltrane. He had a portable record player in his bedroom, the first of its kind in our working-class row house in South Philly. It was a lazy hot summer afternoon. He had just returned from Third Street Jazz, the city’s only jazz music outlet.
My brother was a connoisseur of jazz. He had tried to turn me on to it before, but with little success. I was strictly a Beatles and Stones kind of guy. My fantasy was to buy a guitar someday and sing protest songs. It was many a poor boy’s dream back in those days. My brother pulled his latest purchase from its brown paper bag. He tore off the plastic and carefully slid the vinyl album out of its paper sleeve. He blew on it to remove any dust. My brother cherished his Lps. Scratches and fingerprints were not allowed.
I was sitting on the edge of his bed when the music began to play. He assured me it was going to blow me away. It did. Not right away. But as “My Favorite Things” progressed, I was struck first by McCoy Tyner’s amazing piano work and then by John Coltrane’s sax. Having only heard sax in rock’n’roll songs, I never realized what the instrument could do. I was hearing a sax for the first time in my life.
In the next few weeks, I listened to every Coltrane record my brother owned. Over and over again until I knew them by heart. “On Green Dolphin Street” (with Miles) made me happy, “Spiritual” and “A Love Supreme” led me to wonder about the meaning of life. Every mood was reflected in Coltrane’s music. I didn’t abandon John, Paul, George and Ringo. Coltrane led me somewhere they couldn’t take me. Especially late at night, lying in the dark and letting the room fill with the magic that Coltrane wove. When I came home stoned from a friend’s, Coltrane elevated me to another plane altogether.
John Coltrane died in 1967. I graduated high school and got a job working at a record store. I expanded my jazz collection to include Miles Davis, Louie Armstrong, Herbie Hancock, and others. Vocalists Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Nine Simone, Sarah Vaughn, Abby Lincoln, etc. occupied a special place in my heart. All of the joys and pains of my adolescent years were reflected in their songs. When I was in love, I played Sarah’s “Misty” over and over again. When I ached with rage at the injustices in the world, it was Nina’s “Mississippi Goddamn” and “Pirate Jenny.” When I yearned for love, it was just about anything by Billie.
At the record store one day, an incredible Lp arrived by John Coltrane’s wife, Alice. Blending jazz, gospel, Indian instrumentation and strings, it quickly became one of my favorites. Unfortunately, the pianist/harpist wasn’t as prolific as her husband. She eventually stopped recording altogether and dedicated her life to her spiritual quest. She founded the Vedantic Center in the Santa Monica mountains. She took a vow of celibacy. She never abandoned the music but there weren’t many releases.
Alice Coltrane died recently of respiratory failure. She was 69. Another legend gone. It struck me, as it does sometimes, that there are no more John and Alice Coltranes. Jazz has lost popularity (in this country at least). Musicians can’t explore the way John and Alice did and expect to have any sort of career in music today. It’s all about the latest trend.
I didn’t know Alice, but somehow when I read her obit, I felt as if I had lost an old friend.
Tommi Avicolli Mecca is a radical, southern Italian, working-class queer performer, writer and activist whose work can be seen at www.avicollimecca.com.Filed under: Archive