Moments Notice Coltrane Analysis Essay

I was introduced to Trane later in life. Eight years ago in fact.

He was the new, part-time doorman in our low-key uptown apartment building. He was barely nineteen. Outfitted in a spare uniform, some two sizes too big and cinched at his waist, he looked a good deal younger, like a boy cosplaying a man who signed for packages and, if he remembered, held the door.

“I’m Trane,” he said by way of introduction. “But most people think it’s Train.”

“Trane, Like Coltrane? I asked. He burst into a smile and then we were friends.

Trane’s story was like so many young, black men with extremely limited means but high hopes. He was the next generation after the Great Migration, and he liked to tell stories about the times when things got sideways, he’d get sent down to stay with his Southern cousins, where they’d fish for crappies using Skittles as bait. The village that was raising him also included a blur of pastors, some teachers, social workers, street corner philosophers, government uplift programs and now, a bunch of random renters on Manhattan’s Upper West.

But tough as things may have been at times, he had a mother who so believed in the transcendent power of John Coltrane, that she named not one but two of her sons after him. Cole, Trane’s minutes-older brother, was his identical twin. I was transfixed by the notion. What was this black boy magic?

Meeting Trane triggered in me an eight-year quest to understand all things Coltrane, a satisfying if incomplete journey into the life of a man who was rarely interviewed or filmed, but who had come to represent a type of black intellectual and artistic excellence that inspires people to this day.

I listened to his music obsessively. I collected first-hand accounts. I watched every documentary I could find. I made a spiritual pilgrimage to his home in Dix Hills, Long Island. I even developed a nerd-level interest in the mouthpieces he used and tinkered with to change his sound.

So, naturally, I was drawn to Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary, which premiered this week on PBS. It’s definitely worth your time.

While true jazz insiders will undoubtedly find flaws somewhere in the thesis, it gave me what I was looking for. The filmmakers rely largely on Coltrane’s own words, read by Denzel Washington, to help explain his development as an artist, and tap people who knew him and loved him — like jazz great Sonny Rollins, Cornell West, and Coltrane’s own children — to help put the artist’s work into a broader context. Their love for him is a gift.

Coltrane himself was a miracle. He was a sensitive child of the Jim Crow South, who lost most of his immediate family before he was twelve. He was a late bloomer, musically, and he white-knuckled his way out of a crippling addiction into a spiritual awakening that transformed the way he played. He was nurtured by and then outgrew Miles Davis, and through ascetic dedication and intellectual honesty, developed into an artist who made music the world had never heard before. He died of liver cancer at the peak of his career, and yet his records can still makes you feel … something real.

But the true thrill of the film is the previously unreleased photos and video, showing Trane as a shy and gentle man, living his life and loving his family and friends. While he may be best known for his seminal work, A Love Supreme – a musical declaration that his sound was now a fully spiritual expression, completely intertwined with God – the revelation of Chasing Trane is of a man capable of deep love of a personal variety, fully present, untempted by fame or other childish things. Something anyone could be or want.

It was then that I finally saw the complete picture of the Coltrane magic that compelled a troubled new mother to lay his name upon her twin sons.

My first Trane has since moved on, and his Facebook has gone quiet, which makes me worry from time to time. He is on a short list of souls I think specifically about when I hear of a police shooting or other incident involving a young black man. And I often wonder what the original Trane would think of the world as it feels lately, supremely unloving in ways both familiar and strange.

I think John Coltrane would say to pray, do your serious work, and stay positive. “You know, I know that there are forces out here that bring suffering to others and misery to the world,” he once said. “But I want to be the opposite force. I want to be the force which is truly for good.”

I want to believe that his name will be enough to protect sweet Trane and his brother, I really do. But being a small part of a greater opposite force seems like the only hope. It may not always feel like magic, but it keeps me doing the work.

This thesis by Scott Anderson was completed as an independent research project for the Honors in Music History and Literature program at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, Minnesota, Spring 1996.

It was presented at the Tenth National Conference on Undergraduate Research, April 1996, University of North Carolina—Asheville and at the Pi Kappa Lambda Spring Banquet, May 1996, Gustavus Adolphus College.


“I’ve found you’ve got to look back at the old things and see them in a new light.”
— John Coltrane, 1960, Down Beat magazine

In the 1960s, many jazz musicians, such as Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra, Charles Mingus, and Eric Dolphy, expanded the parameters of their music with respect to form, melody, harmony, rhythm, and texture. They broke down traditional techniques and incorporated previously unheard scales, harmonic progressions, and compositional structures. They also brought improvisation to new levels of intensity and complexity, taking greater liberties with respect to the duration, content, and structure of solos, and delving into an unprecedented amount of group improvisation. The resulting music was given many names: free jazz, avant garde, the “new thing.” As the decade ended, however, this style of jazz was largely abandoned in favor of more “psychedelic” electronic sounds and jazz-rock fusion.

Today, many people of a younger generation, musicians and non-musicians alike, are looking for what Michael Bruce McDonald calls “an experience of the sacred” (275). In this search they are rediscovering avant garde jazz for the numinous properties with which it was often consciously imbued by its greatest purveyors, notably Sun Ra (who claimed to hail from the planet Saturn and sought to produce music that corroborated his claim) and John Coltrane (whose fascination with “outer space” themes manifested itself more in mystical and spiritual explorations than in science-fiction fantasies).

Interestingly, one of Coltrane’s favorite vehicles for his combos’ sonic explorations was the Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II tune “My Favorite Things” from the musical The Sound of Music. Coltrane first recorded this piece in 1960 in an innovative interpretation that already sounded radically different from the original, catching Coltrane in the formative stages of his new, modally-based, “avant garde” sound. In the ensuing seven years, until his death in 1967, Coltrane made “My Favorite Things” a regular part of his concert repertoire. At least eighteen of these performances have been released on recording (Cole 228-248). The preponderance of recordings of this single piece, spanning the full development of Coltrane’s work in the avant garde, makes it uniquely suited to careful comparison and analysis, a useful tool for the examination of his stylistic development.

This project will use “My Favorite Things” as just such a tool. Following an introductory exploration of both Coltrane’s musical career prior to 1960 and the “standard” form of “My Favorite Things,” the paper will compare and contrast four of Coltrane’s recordings of the piece: his 1960 studio recording, a more extended performance at the 1963 Newport Jazz Festival, the last recording of the piece by his “classic quartet” at the 1965 Newport Jazz Festival, and a radically evolved 57-minute performance from 1966 in Tokyo by his new quintet. These examinations will reveal the evolution of both Coltrane’s own playing and the dynamics of his group’s interplay. They will also reflect the influence of African, Indian, and Western art music upon Coltrane and the modal and free styles of jazz in the 1960s. Finally, a discussion of the motivations behind Coltrane’s musical “quest” (as characterized by Eric Nisenson) will further illuminate his stylistic development.

John Coltrane before “My Favorite Things”

John William Coltrane was born on 23 September 1926 in Hamlet, North Carolina. Both of his parents were musicians: his mother was a church pianist and his father played violin (Hardy and Laing 161). Both of his grandfathers were ordained ministers in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. From the very earliest moments of his life, Coltrane was exposed to music both in his home and in the participatory religious experience of the southern African-American church.

The significant presence of religion in Coltrane’s childhood foreshadowed the turn his career would take in the 1960s, when, for both Coltrane himself and for listeners who accepted his new direction, the music became more than just music; it was a religious experience — a means of attaining mystical transcendence. Norman C. Weinstein, in A Night in Tunisia: Imaginings of Africa in Jazz (61), notes the parallel between the southern African-American church and Coltrane’s music. This parallel is vividly revealed in Robert Palmer’s video The World According to John Coltrane, which mingles films of members of these churches entering trance-like states with excerpts of similarly hypnotic performances by Coltrane’s mid-1960s quartet. Most striking are the saxophone’s close mimicking of the wailing of human voices in the church and the correlation between the religious trances in the church and Coltrane’s own self-induced musical hypnosis. Coltrane, in his manners and actions, seems detached from his surroundings and “transported” to a different world, much like the participants in the church ritual. Likewise, in listening to a performance of such intensity and duration, audience members may become similarly entranced. Eric Nisenson, in a personal recollection of a Coltrane performance, explains:

It was probably no more than a single hour, but time seemed to stop or at least become irrelevant; I could sense that the rest of the audience, too, was in the grip of this astonishing performance…. Here was a performance where once could no longer objectively judge aesthetics; the feelings it engendered were closer to the awe one felt for a volcano or a mind-boggling religious revelation. (xvii)

The role of religion in Coltrane’s musical vision will be discussed at greater length later in this paper.

Coltrane’s musical career prior to 1957 is well-documented in numerous biographies, especially Coltrane by C. O. Simpkins and Bill Cole’s John Coltrane. These resources detail Coltrane’s early career, a discussion of which is superfluous in this context. However, a critical turning point occurred in 1957 when Coltrane, a well-respected but as-yet unheralded 30-year-old saxophonist underwent a profound personal religious transformation inspired by his introduction to the beliefs and discipline of Islam by his first wife, Naima (Budds 136). This experience led Coltrane into a temporary retirement during which he overcame his addictions to alcohol and heroin and practiced fervently.

Refreshed and sober, with greater virtuosity, and inspired by his religious awakening, Coltrane returned to the jazz world in late 1957 and produced much of his greatest work. In addition to ceaseless performance and recording, Coltrane began a personal search via the religions of the world, especially those of Africa and India, for what Michael Budds describes as “a universal concept unifying all faiths” (136). As he explains in the liner notes to his 1965 album Meditations, Coltrane sought “to uplift people, as much as I can. To inspire them to realize more and more of their capacities for living meaningful lives. Because there certainly is meaning to life.” Coltrane’s spiritual growth and his quest to express that growth through his music led to the rapid evolution of his music through the 1960s, as will be traced in this paper.

“My Favorite Things” before John Coltrane

Because of its scope, this project cannot explore in great detail any aspects of “My Favorite Things” other than the evolution of the Coltrane quartet’s interpretation of the piece. Nonetheless, some background will be beneficial as a point of departure in examining this evolution.

The Sound of Music was arguably Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most popular musical (Hardy 680). It opened on Broadway in 1959 and was made into a well-known film starring Julie Andrews in 1965. The Sound of Music produced several extremely well-known songs, including “Do-Re-Mi,” “Edelweiss,” “The Sound of Music,” and “My Favorite Things.”

“My Favorite Things” is a relaxed, yet lilting waltz in e minor. Its “standard” structure, transcribed by Jamey Aebersold (8) and shown in Figure 1, is based on a 40-bar bipartite form. The first part of this form is a 16-bar A section which is repeated once, and then performed a third time with a somewhat altered chord progression. Next, a 24-bar B section concludes the form. With a vamp used at the beginning and end as both an introduction and a coda (shown only at the end in the figure below), the overall form is as follows: Introduction – A – A – A’ – B – Coda.

“My Favorite Things”: Coltrane’s interpretation

As transcribed by Andrew White (10) and shown in Figure 2, the structure which Coltrane uses as a basis for his performances of “My Favorite Things” contains several notable divergences from the standard form: its chord progression is significantly altered; the overall structure of the form is different, both incorporating new materials and using material from the original form in new ways; and the tempo is brisker and “bouncier,” justifying White’s notation of the time signature as 6/8 rather than 3/4. An understanding of the differences in Coltrane’s interpretation from the standard form will be beneficial for later explanations of Coltrane’s handling of thematic and structural material in the various performances examined in this paper.

Coltrane’s version is in 6/8, halving the number of measures of the standard form. Despite this, the measure groupings still do not match; Coltrane’s verse form, instead of being eight bars long, is ten bars long, with a two-measure turnaround added at the end. The e-minor vamp measure that follows it (referred to in this paper as the Interlude) may be used in several ways: as an introduction, a short pause between verses, or an extensive improvisational passage, often several minutes long. Its e-minor tonality is stretched via modal alterations in McCoy Tyner’s piano harmonies.

Counting the next repeated measure as two, the ten-bar section in E major (labeled for the purpose of this paper as the Bridge) is a significant modification of the A’ of the standard form. The original melody is abandoned; the section instead is used for further improvisation. It may be lengthened, often to several minutes, by vamping the first measure and extending its harmonies modally. The remaining nine measures may be used as a lead-in for the return of the A section, though A also may return without formal preparation.

Finally, Coltrane’s form concludes with a harmonically modified version of the original B section of the piece. However, while the B section was originally used as a regular part of the repeated form, Coltrane consistently plays it only at the conclusion of a performance, as a Coda rather than a section of the form.

The overall structure of Coltrane’s performances of “My Favorite Things” may vary greatly. An introductory riff is often used and may be followed either by an extended introduction based on the Interlude or by the A section directly. The main body of the piece consists of extended solos on the Interlude and Bridge, spaced by several returns at indistinct intervals to A in order to keep the piece from drifting too far off course. The approaching conclusion is signaled by the appearance of the B (Coda) section. This is followed by a free, cadenza-like section to end the piece.

Analyses of four Coltrane performances of “My Favorite Things”

I. 21 October 1960, Atlantic Studios, New York, NY

This was Coltrane’s first recorded performance of “My Favorite Things” and his only studio recording of it. It was made during a time of transition for Coltrane. While under contract with Atlantic Records (1959-1961), he underwent his “sheets of sound” phase, documented most extensively on his 1959 album Giant Steps. Within a year, when the recording of “My Favorite Things” was made, the influence of Miles Davis’ modal explorations (of which Coltrane was a part, chiefly on the Kind of Blue album) was clearly audible in Coltrane’s style (World).

Coltrane’s combo personnel was also in flux at this time. While Giant Steps had enlisted the services of several different musicians, My Favorite Things was recorded by a single quartet: Coltrane on saxophones, McCoy Tyner on piano, Steve Davis on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums. With the arrival of Jimmy Garrison as Davis’ permanent replacement on bass a year later, Coltrane’s “classic quartet” was established. Often this quartet would be supplemented by alto-saxophonist/bass-clarinetist/flutist Eric Dolphy, and occasionally substitutes would sit in for Garrison or Jones (usually Reggie Workman and Roy Haynes, respectively), but generally, this combo remained intact from 1960 until its demise in late 1965. This quartet is renowned for its precision and sensitive, dynamic group interaction. In fact, as Mark Gridley notes, “The Coltrane quartet was one of the most important groups in jazz history, and some historians consider it to have been the most influential of all jazz combos” (257).

Already in this early session from 1960, the group’s dynamics are apparent, especially in the interaction between Coltrane and Jones. Later works by the group included extended drum-and-saxophone duet passages which would eventually inspire an entire album of such duets (Interstellar Space) recorded in early 1967 by Coltrane with Jones’ replacement, Rashied Ali.

McCoy Tyner’s role in both prodding Coltrane’s impressive solos and shaping the Coltrane Quartet’s sound was also pivotal. As Gridley states:

His was one of the most easily recognizable styles in all of jazz, and he was a prime force in jazz piano of the 1960s and 1970s…. Tyner’s extensive use of chords voiced in fourths was widely adopted. His extremely percussive, ringing style of comping became a model for pianists…. His fast solo lines also inspired numerous pianists, though few could match his imagination…. His originality and influence were so extensive that he even affected well-established pianists. (260)

Table 1 shows a time-based, descriptive analysis of the October 1960 Coltrane recording of “My Favorite Things.”

Table 1

Date and Location: 21 October 1960, Atlantic Studios, New York, NY
Personnel: John Coltrane (soprano sax), McCoy Tyner (piano), Steve Davis (bass), Elvin Jones (drums)
CD Information: My Favorite Things, Atlantic 1361-2, track 1, timing 13:41

0:00Introduction. Rhythm section plays an opening riff.
0:096/8 time feel is established.
0:18A (e minor). Coltrane plays melody, accompanied by a piano ostinato pattern and an E pedal tone in the bass, which establishes the rhythm section’s feel throughout the piece.
0:35Interlude (e minor). Later appearances of the Interlude may be extended greatly.
0:44A. Second statement of the melody by Coltrane, slightly embellished.
1:01Bridge (E major). First statement of the bridge, by Coltrane.
1:27A. Further embellishment of theme.
1:44A. Chord pattern remains consistent while Coltrane improvises modally.
2:01Interlude. Coltrane solos.
2:18A. Tyner plays melody, Coltrane lays out.
2:35Interlude. Tyner continues, with the Interlude serving as a basis for modal harmonization
3:09A. Tyner returns to basic structure of melody.
3:25Bridge. Tyner continues solo.
5:56Tyner moves into A section, first improvising, then gravitating to the melody.
6:13Bridge. Tyner continues, with great repetition of harmonic motives.
6:45A. Tyner returns close to original melody.
7:02Interlude. Coltrane returns.
7:10A. Coltrane restatement of melody.
7:27Interlude. Coltrane solos on rapid, cascading modal scale patterns.
9:43A. Coltrane plays.
10:00Bridge. Coltrane solos , using raga-like scalar runs and polyphonic style.
12:16A. Coltrane plays with further slight embellishments.
12:33B/Coda (e minor). Coltrane plays melody.
13:22“Free” cadenza-like closing section.

The form here is notable, as mentioned earlier, because of the extended improvisations upon the Interlude and Bridge sections, returning to a relatively unembellished A section (recognizable as the main theme) as necessary in order to retain the “feel” of the piece. In total, the A section is performed eleven times, spaced by the Interlude and Bridge sections, in which the majority of improvisation takes place. These sections contain little structured harmonic activity and rely instead upon modal exploration of a single chord or a simple, alternating chord pattern. They last anywhere from nine seconds to as much as two minutes and 31 seconds. Coltrane and Tyner each take extended solos, as will become their standard practice in later performances of this work, and each extends the harmonic structure not through altered chords, but rather through extensions revealed as part of the practice of modal improvisation. These extensions are restrained on this first recording, never venturing very far from the original; still they do hint at a desire to drift freely into unexplored musical areas.

Coltrane’s solo is distinguished by rapid, cascading runs in scalar patterns (as shown in Figure 3), almost like an Indian raga — most likely the influence of his friend, Indian sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar (World). A raga is similar to a mode or scale in Western music, though it is more complex, involving repeated or out-of-sequence notes. Different ragas are associated with different themes and moods. In performance, the raga is used as a basis for improvisation, which often evolves into a flurry of notes and conveys a great emotional or psychological impact (Reck 232, 255-263).

Coltrane also reflects the influence of Indian music in his use of E and B — tonic and dominant — as pedal points, creating a tonic-dominant drone effect similar to that used in Indian classical music as background support for the melodic movement of the solo instrument (Reck 231). Additionally, Coltrane’s use of pedal tones often creates a sort of polyphony (demonstrated in Figure 4) reminiscent of Bach’s solo partitas and suites for violin or cello, wherein distinctly different melodic lines, or melody with accompaniment, can be heard simultaneously through well-placed interval leaps. (See J. S. Bach, Minuet II from Suite No. 1 in G major for Violoncello Solo [Burkhart 99].)

II. 7 July 1963, Newport Jazz Festival, Newport, RI

By the time of this recording, Coltrane had firmly established his modal style; however, his music had yet to reach the level of experimentation that would begin to alienate his audience within two years. Perhaps the changes in his personal style are best reflected in his lengthy, cadenza-like unaccompanied solo on “I Want to Talk About You,” another piece from this 1963 festival concert and the first track on the compact disc Newport ’63. As demonstrated here, Coltrane could play for great lengths of time, improvising long passages of up-and-down scalar runs, a vestige of his “sheets of sound” phase transferred from the harmonic progressions of that era to the modal structures of his current period. He developed this style in part through the influence of saxophonist John Gilmore, who worked frequently with Sun Ra. Gilmore’s improvisational technique included “repeating the same rhythm with different pitches, changing the notes without changing the rhythm… placing the same rhythm at different spots in the measure, or… inverting a phrase” (Gridley 256). At this time, Coltrane also practiced frequently from Nicolas Slonimsky’s Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns (New York: Coleman-Ross, 1947), a book of nearly 1000 scales described by its author as a “reference book for composers in search of new materials” (Budds 50).

The result of these influences upon Coltrane’s already evolving modal style was to solidify his improvisational tools. His “sheets of sound” improvisations (as demonstrated on the title track of the Giant Steps album) often involved racing to keep up with a rapid succession of chord progressions, resulting in solos composed of little more than arpeggiated chords. Coltrane now faced only simple changes or static modal forms, and he approached them with a much more sophisticated and logical system of scale patterns and tone substitutions, which allowed for an almost endless array of possible solo lines.

Table 2 shows an analysis of Coltrane’s 1963 Newport recording of “My Favorite Things.”

Table 2

Date and Location: 7 July 1963, Newport Jazz Festival, Newport, RI
Personnel: John Coltrane (soprano sax), McCoy Tyner (piano), Jimmy Garrison (bass), Roy Haynes (drums)
CD Information: Newport ’63, Impulse! GRD-128, track 2, timing 17:24

0:00New Coltrane intro on soprano.
0:11Extended intro on Interlude, Coltrane solos modally.
0:57A. Coltrane plays melody.
1:28A. Coltrane plays.
1:43Bridge. Coltrane solos more angularly than original version.
2:28A. Coltrane plays.
2:44A repeated, trails into solo.
2:59Interlude. Coltrane plays, quoting segments of his 1960 solo at this section.
3:14A. Tyner plays melody, using alternate changes from first recording.
3:29Interlude. Tyner solos. Incessant piano chording sounds almost like a second player under right hand piano solo. Haynes plays accompanimental counter-rhythms. Garrison’s playing is much more forceful and less static than Davis’.
5:50A. Tyner plays. Group polyrhythms are more apparent than on earlier recordings.
6:05Bridge. Tyner solos. Around 6:50 Tyner’s use of pedals/polyphony is similar to Coltrane’s.
7:25A progression in Tyner style.
7:40Tyner continues on Interlude. This segment is more harmonically “far out.”
9:15A. Tyner plays.
9:25Coltrane returns for second half of A section.
9:30Interlude. Coltrane solos with extensive use of trills.
9:44A. Coltrane plays.
10:00Interlude. Coltrane solos with angular, large interval leaps and occasionally wailing tone. Great use of repetitive rapid scalar figures.
12:44A. Coltrane plays.
12:59Bridge. Coltrane solos with effervescent tremolos.
~14:00Tyner adds some new harmonic flavor to accompaniment. Haynes’ busy drumming is energetic but seems less focused into group sound than Jones’.
15:50A. Coltrane plays. Coltrane’s sweeping scales at the end are longer and more intense than in the 1960 recording.
16:06B/Coda. Similar to earlier recordings, but with more trills and longer than before.
16:52Free ending, Haynes extends duration of free closing section.

In addition to more extensive solo sections, this performance displays Coltrane’s advancement in improvisational construction and mode-based chord substitution in the harmonic structure of his solo lines. While his solos are more harmonically complex and variable than they were in the 1960 recording, they are still far more restricted and logically-based than they would be in the future, reflecting as they do the recent influence of Slonimsky’s scale book. The use of non-traditional saxophone sounds is almost nonexistent on this recording. The A section occurs eleven times in this recording, and solos again last no more than two to three minutes. In fact, there is little in this recording that appears strikingly different than the 1960 recording. Aside from some minor melodic embellishments and slightly more colorful chord choices by Tyner and Coltrane, there is little in this recording to suggest the direction Coltrane’s quartet would soon take.

The appearance of Roy Haynes on this recording as a substitute for Elvin Jones is due to Jones’ struggle with drug addiction. According to Francis Davis’ liner notes to the album, at the time of the performance Jones was undergoing mandatory rehabilitation (5). As suggested in the analysis in Table 2, Haynes’ style presents a notable contrast to that of Jones, but lengthy discussion of these differences is not especially pertinent in this context due to Haynes’ status as a temporary member of the group.

III. 2 July 1965, Newport Jazz Festival, Newport, RI

Much had happened to Coltrane’s style in the time between his first recording of “My Favorite Things” and this, the final recorded performance of the piece by the “classic” Coltrane Quartet. Significant changes had occurred even since the 1963 Newport Jazz Festival performance. Coltrane experienced a year of great transition in 1965: beginning with A Love Supreme, recorded in December 1964 and generally regarded as his greatest work (Wynn 169), and ending with Meditations, a similarly conceptualized but radically freer work, Coltrane accelerated his advance into the jazz avant garde. In the context of this rapid movement into free forms, Coltrane’s classic quartet performed for the last time at the Newport Jazz Festival (though his new group would play there again the following year). Amidst his ground-breaking new works like “Ascension” and “Om,” which were lengthy, free-form, often dissonant improvisational excursions, “My Favorite Things” seems oddly placed. Indeed, this performance is reminiscent of the Coltrane of old. Nonetheless, the elements of change in his style are evident. In fact, they are made even more striking than in other works from this time period in that the melody of “My Favorite Things” arises relatively unfettered at almost unpredictable intervals from the relentless barrage of group improvisation. The form of this performance is outlined in Table 3 below.

Table 3

Date and Location: 2 July 1965, Newport Jazz Festival, Newport, RI
Personnel: John Coltrane (soprano sax), McCoy Tyner (piano), Jimmy Garrison (bass), Elvin Jones (drums)
CD Information: New Thing at Newport, Impulse! GRD-105, track 3, timing 14:44

0:08Interlude. Coltrane enters.
0:24A. Coltrane plays melody.
0:40Interlude. Coltrane rapidly begins trills and scalar flurries.
0:55A. Coltrane plays.
1:12Bridge. Coltrane solos, using “false tones” and squeaks, and playing gradually descending tremolos and angular melodies.
2:16A. Coltrane plays.
2:33A repeated with trills and rapid scalar runs ornamenting the melody.
2:50Coltrane solos; Tyner breaks free from original harmonic structures.
3:07Abrupt return to A section with Tyner playing melody.
3:24Interlude. Tyner solos; greater extension of harmonic structure and more group freedom. Garrison’s bass is melodic throughout solo; Jones is somewhat reserved. Tyner plays fast rolling melodies with his usual left hand rhythms, but harmonically freer.
5:20Brief movement into foreign harmony which is reflected throughout the rest of the solo. Tyner alternates frequently between more relaxed harmonies of earlier versions and more agitated, freer harmonies.
7:27A. Tyner plays. This return is preceded by gradual decrescendo and harmonic simplification.
7:40Coltrane returns on last line of melody.
7:45Coltrane solos on Interlude with extended harmony (multiple modes) and crashing crescendi.
8:04Abrupt return to A with Coltrane playing melody.
8:22Interlude. Coltrane returns to frenzied exploration. Coltrane’s use of high, scratchy-sounding tones is reminiscent of human wails and moans; solo becomes increasingly disjunct melodically but never lightens rhythmically.
10:02A. Played by Coltrane.
10:20Bridge. Clearly major, but Jones and Coltrane battle furiously above Tyner’s more settled piano.
~11:30Traces of Coltrane’s original bridge melody can be heard through greater free playing. The group gradually builds up again in intensity, particularly Jones.
~12:20Coltrane’s use of vibrato is greater than earlier years.
12:37A. Coltrane plays. This return is signaled by long pickup note.
12:55B/Coda. Rolling and rumbling drums, calm piano, Coltrane relaxes.
13:52Free conclusion similar to previous recordings, but Coltrane extends cadenza more than before.

The basic concept behind the form Coltrane uses in this recording is not drastically different from his first. The differences that do exist lie in the extension of free exploration of modes, rhythms, and aural qualities. In this version, the A section occurs nine times and still plays its anchor role, but less convincingly; the free explorations push further and recurrences of the A material become slightly less common. When A does appear, it does so abruptly. It may be partially masked, only becoming apparent in the middle, or it may more often rise unexpectedly from amidst a torrent of sound, and, upon its conclusion, lead instantaneously back into dizzying group explorations. This happens most notably at 8:04 in this recording, where Coltrane’s solo suddenly ends and Tyner immediately picks up with the A section.

Once again, the greatest change that has taken place lies in the content of improvised sections rather than in radical formal alterations. Coltrane and Tyner use many of the same tools they had in the past — Tyner relying upon his chiming right hand melodies and large block chords based in fourths and Coltrane playing blindingly fast passages of odd-metered, scalar runs in various modes — but now they both use these tools much more extensively, more brazenly, and in a much more sophisticated and complex manner. Coltrane has shaken the mechanical limitations of his work with the Slonimsky scales in favor of freer movement, mindful of Slonimsky but not bound to it. Also, his use of non-traditional saxophone sounds, including multiphonics and altissimo, is greatly increased. Tyner’s harmonic evolution parallels that of Coltrane. Although his approach to improvisation is essentially unchanged, the harmonic palette he applies to his solos is far broader, utilizing greater flexibility in chord substitutions.

IV. 22 July 1966, Sankei Hall, Tokyo, Japan

This recording is radically different from the earlier Coltrane recordings of “My Favorite Things” discussed herein. By this time Coltrane’s personnel had fully shifted: McCoy Tyner was replaced by Coltrane’s wife Alice, Elvin Jones was replaced by Rashied Ali, and Pharoah Sanders was added as a second saxophonist. Jimmy Garrison was the only member of the “classic” quartet to remain in Coltrane’s new ensemble. A decisive change in style was inevitable.

While Alice Coltrane was admittedly influenced by Tyner (as were most jazz pianists at the time) in her use of fourth-based chords, she played with a lighter, smoother touch than did Tyner; she also selected notes mainly for tone color, rather than any particular harmonic function. Her playing here and throughout her work with Coltrane was marked by light, rolling melodic lines that stretch over extended periods and by her Tyner-esque, but gentler and less functionally grounded, left-hand chording.

Rashied Ali’s style also represented a striking change for Coltrane’s sound. Whereas Elvin Jones played with immense force and presented the listener with endless permutations of polyrhythms, Rashied Ali played with a style better described as panrhythmic. Ali, with his constant percussive percolation, seldom sought to play the traditional drummer’s role. Instead, his style, like Alice’s, worked mainly for the sake of adding color to the total sonic mix of the group. Often he did not care to establish a clear sense of time, but simply to create a churning, forward-moving, expressive percussion line. Ali’s style can be heard most distinctly on the Coltrane-Ali duet album, Interstellar Space, but it is also apparent in this 1966 recording of “My Favorite Things”: although there is usually some rhythmic pulse, that pulse may change freely or occasionally disappear altogether. The music, in a sense, becomes timeless; while it certainly occurs through time, as music always must, there is no clear delineation of time to give the listener a foothold in the wash of sound. Even after the form becomes apparent, rhythmic pulse is provided more by Alice’s piano than Ali’s drumming.

Pharoah Sanders, especially in his time with the Coltrane group, played with a uniquely unorthodox sound. Rather than following strict chord progressions or even established modes, Sanders played freely with tones, often “out of tune” by Western 12-tone standards. He also incorporated non-traditional saxophone sounds. His “sputtering phrases that build, ineluctably, to the usual cacophony of screams, howls, and shrieks” (Nisenson 208) are easily distinguished from Coltrane’s style in any context in which the two performed together. Even as Coltrane began to explore a more unorthodox saxophone style himself, there was an identifiable difference between the two players’ techniques.

Jimmy Garrison, the lone hold-out from Coltrane’s earlier quartet, played in a style that seems, much more than Tyner’s or Jones’, well-suited to Coltrane’s new direction. Though infrequently mentioned in liner notes, books, articles, or scholarly works about Coltrane, Garrison played an important role. In the words of McCoy Tyner, “I’ll say this about Jimmy, his time and choice of notes was the best of all the bass players John had used” (Thomas 149). His level of recognition may be low due to the high regard in which his bandmates were held by the music press and the public. Also, the inadequate recording technology of the 1960s left his parts almost inaudible on many Coltrane recordings. Of course, this may have been intentional: Tyner continues, “He stayed more in the background, and that was what John really wanted.” Yet the clear differences between his style (as presented at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1965) and Steve Davis’ style (on the original 1960 Coltrane recording of “My Favorite Things”) make clear his role as a force for change in the direction Coltrane had taken by mid-1966.

Though, as mentioned above, Garrison sometimes cannot be heard in a group context, he is quite audible during his 14-minute-plus unaccompanied bass solo that comprises the opening quarter of this 1966 recording of “My Favorite Things.” Here he demonstrates many of his personal stylistic traits, designed “to free the bass from the straitjacket of strict timekeeping” (Nisenson 128-129). These include free movement in the bass, treating it more as a melodic instrument than as support (which is natural in a bass solo, of course, but Garrison carries it into his group playing); relying heavily on the low end of the instrument; and a Garrison trademark (Gridley 261): chordal strumming similar to a guitar (a technique which he uses at 7:30 in this recording).

Table 4 below shows a brief outline of the structure of this recording of “My Favorite Things.” Coltrane’s handling of the piece in this setting is similar to that of his landmark recording of 28 June 1965, “Ascension” (now available on the CD set The Major Works of John Coltrane) and even reflective of Miles Davis’ concepts on Kind of Blue: Each soloist has a chance to play for as long as he or she likes — there is no strict form to limit the length of the solos.

Table 4

Date and Location: 22 July 1966, Sankei Hall, Tokyo, Japan
Personnel: John Coltrane (alto and soprano sax), Alice Coltrane (piano), Jimmy Garrison (bass), Rashied Ali (drums), Pharoah Sanders (alto sax, percussion)
CD Information: Live in Japan, Impulse! GRD-4-102, disc 4, track 1, timing 57:19

0:00Bass solo. Garrison.
14:49Band enters, Coltrane on alto sax, solos with typical fast scale runs, but with heavy vibrato not found on earlier recordings, and beginning to use altissimo notes and rapid alternation between altissimo and low register. 4/4 time established at beginning of this section dissipates into less strict rhythm.
18:24A. Coltrane plays melody, with little perceptible change in rhythm section accompaniment.
18:39Coltrane solos. Based loosely on Interlude. Solo becomes fast and wailing.
~21:00Coltrane begins to use pedal point technique as in earlier recordings but with free harmony.
22:25A. Coltrane plays.
22:40Bridge. Coltrane solos, using violently rapid runs, false tones, and altissimo.
25:29A. Coltrane plays.
25:44A. Coltrane repeats with greater embellishment.
25:58Interlude. Coltrane.
26:12After applause, Sanders solos on alto sax. Form of “My Favorite Things” completely disappears. Alice Coltrane becomes more forceful and dissonant in her accompaniment, Ali moves further from regular timekeeping, Garrison moves freely. Sanders’s style is distinguished by abrupt changes in direction, a slightly “rougher” sound than Coltrane, ripping glissandi, flutter tongue, and occasional abandonment of Western 12-tone intonation.
30:53Sanders quotes a small segment of A, not in original key; quickly returns to free solo. Sanders continues to quote segments freely through next part of solo.
~34:00Sanders seems about to return to A but does not. Alice Coltrane’s accompaniment changes to reflect indications of A harmonic structure.
~34:30Sanders continues, underlying movement hints at Bridge but still moves freely, nonetheless,a shift in direction occurs.
38:14A. After some hinting, Sanders plays the melody, but moves away mid-phrase to further improvisation, returns to segments of melody periodically.
39:37A. Sanders makes first complete statement of melody at conclusion of solo, plays last note 1/2 step low.
~40:00After applause, Alice Coltrane begins to solo. Sounds much like a freer McCoy Tyner. Frequently alternating chords in left hand accompany rapid flourishes in right hand. Basically modal with frequent borrowed tones.
~42:50After a repetitive left-hand pattern on piano, Ali establishes a steadier rhythm, simplifying the group sound for a short time before building again around 44:00.
~45:30Alice Coltrane plays repeated rumbling chord in left hand with rolling descending patterns in right hand, leading to A.
45:58A. Alice Coltrane begins a drastically harmonically altered version of A, continues permutations of A for next several minutes.
47:48Coltrane enters on soprano, trilling.
48:02A. Coltrane on soprano.
48:16Interlude. Coltrane solos. Sanders plays a prominently audible tambourine. This Interlude continues slightly more true to earlier versions, but still with greater movement in bass and piano. As solo continues, moves further “out.”
51:34Bridge. Sudden shift to major tonality brings the music to more “familiar” territory, both with melodic material in Coltrane’s soprano sax and with relative harmonic stability in Alice Coltrane’s piano.
54:35Coltrane’s repetitive flurries of notes build to a maniacally driven intensity.
55:20A. Coltrane’s statement is moderately embellished with scalar runs.
55:34B/Coda. With this statement, the piece returns to a form similar to earlier versions. Coltrane extends vamp before free closing section longer than in earlier recordings.
56:29“Free” closing section, now over thirty seconds in length.

The A section occurs in varying degrees of recognizability nine times in this recording — the same number of times as in the 1965 Newport recording, which was 1/4 the length of this performance. The Interludes and Bridges do not act as strict bases for solos but simply as starting points, allowing the soloists and the entire group to move freely in any direction they see fit. Where solos in earlier versions may last for two to five minutes (already quite long when compared to the 16- or 32-bar solos musicians took in the big band and early bebop eras), now, as with Garrison and Sanders on this recording, they may extend as long as fourteen minutes — longer than entire earlier performances of the piece!

When the A section does occur, particularly during Sanders’ and Alice Coltrane’s solos, it may be only a small segment, or it may be so highly altered that careful attention is required even to notice its presence. Throughout the performance, Coltrane’s own playing is often the most traditional and true to the original form of the piece, though his playing, too, is much freer than it was even one year earlier. Sanders, in particular, almost entirely disregards the original form.

Ironically, after Coltrane’s death, both Sanders and Alice Coltrane would go on to record far more conventional-sounding works. (Some of these can be heard on the Impulse! compilation Red Hot on Impulse.)

By the time of this recording, Coltrane’s own presence on these performances has become noticeably less dominant than it had been in years past. This is mostly due to his declining health. The liver ailment that would take his life one year later was already having an impact upon his stamina. He had gained a significant amount of weight (Cole 195) and had less endurance in performance. This decline was partially responsible for Coltrane’s decision to include Sanders in his new band. Coltrane’s own comments elucidate the matter:

Pharoah is a man of large spiritual reservoir. He’s always trying to reach out to truth. He’s trying to allow his spiritual self be his guide. He’s dealing among other things, in energy, in integrity, in essences. I so much like the strength of his playing. Furthermore, he is one of the innovators, and it’s been my pleasure and privilege that he’s been willing to help me, that he is part of the group…. What I like about him is the strength of his playing, the conviction with which he plays. He has will and spirit and those are the qualities I like most in a man. (Simpkins 194)

Coltrane’s emphasis of Sanders’ spiritual character as cause for his membership in the quintet is significant, reflecting upon Sanders’ compatibility with his musical directions as well as Coltrane’s own personal motivations in his music. This matter will be discussed at greater length in the next section.

Despite his diminishing presence, the playing Coltrane does contribute on this recording is characteristically profound. The steady evolution of Coltrane’s modal extensions has led to what may be its logical conclusion — a polytonality that Eric Nisenson suggests is a direct attempt to apply the work of Igor Stravinsky to jazz improvisation (208). Interestingly, Coltrane is not the first prominent jazz saxophonist to incorporate Stravinsky’s style in his solos: as Coltrane’s early bandmate Jimmy Heath notes in the video The World According to John Coltrane, Charlie Parker was known to carry a copy of the score of Stravinsky’s Firebird suite, from which he borrowed liberally in his solos. This presents a fascinating parallel: Charlie Parker, the leading saxophonist in the bebop movement of the 1940s, drew upon techniques from the music of Stravinsky’s early career while Coltrane, the leading saxophonist in 1960s jazz, implemented Stravinsky’s later compositional tools.


John Coltrane was a greatly admired musician. Those who knew him used words like “visionary,” “prophet” and “saint” to describe him (Works). Eric Nisenson, in the preface to his book Ascension: John Coltrane and his Quest, describes why he so greatly admires Coltrane: “I find Coltrane’s music not only beautiful but also genuinely uplifting to the spirit” (xii).

The title of Nisenson’s book uses an interesting word — quest — to describe Coltrane’s musical development, which indeed appears analogous to a musical search for something profound. Nisenson continues: “(Coltrane’s) quest was very real for him; it was the center of his life and his art. Coltrane did not intend to produce obscure art — he wanted to reach all of us at the deepest center of our beings, to uplift us and even change us” (xiii). Nisenson later discusses the beauty of Coltrane’s music, but suggests that we may need to redefine “beauty.” Bill Cole’s observations help to explain this:

(Coltrane’s music) dealt with human problems in human terms for human beings in a human world. If there is ‘turmoil’ in his music, it includes the turmoil in the hearts and minds of ordinary men and women. It includes the turmoil and violence of the times through which Trane lived. But the magic in Trane’s music also must derive from the ‘peace which passeth all understanding’ that was in this man’s heart. (11)

Coltrane’s art at times may have been difficult to appreciate, but it was reflective of an unpleasant world. Yet there was always hope in Coltrane’s music. He never stopped searching, and he always revealed what he had found through his music. Coltrane pursued his goal of helping people to live meaningful lives by revealing the meaning he had found in music, through music.

Of course, his music is often difficult to listen to, as well as to appreciate. Writer Martin Williams presents a solid argument against the validity of Coltrane’s musical vision, quoting an audience member describing a particular Coltrane performance as “forty-five minutes of C-minor ninth chords.” Williams asserts, “And forty-five minutes on C-minor ninth chords, it became increasingly clear, could not lead to musical freedom” (232). Williams’ strongest argument is against Coltrane’s rapid musical development through the mid-1960s:

The changes in his work may, of course, have been signs of growth, and if they were, few important jazz improvisers have grown and developed as much as Coltrane did in so short a time. But, on the other hand, the changes may have been naive. Or they may have been signs of personal indecision or frustration. (235)

Williams admits that Coltrane’s confusing and perhaps confused path was an understandable reflection of the turmoil of the 1960s. Nonetheless, he suggests, true Coltrane believers may be too eager to jump wholeheartedly into accepting whatever sounds Coltrane may throw their way. Coltrane did falter occasionally, he reminds us and, as per Cole’s description, Coltrane’s uniquely human creations must necessarily be tainted by human flaws just as they are informed by human strengths. The conflict presented here may serve to make Williams’ argument superfluous, however: certainly, Coltrane’s work was not perfect, but it need not be to be effective.

Nonetheless, Williams’ opinions carry too much clout to be dismissed so easily by Coltrane aficionados. As Nisenson notes, Williams was in charge of the compilation of The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz. On that multi-disc set, Coltrane’s playing appears only on two tracks: “So What” from Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue album and Coltrane’s own “Alabama.” Williams’ blatant exclusion of even Coltrane’s least-controversial, most highly-regarded works like “Giant Steps” or “A Love Supreme” (or, of course, the 1960 recording “My Favorite Things”) is, in Nisenson’s words, a “devastating blow” to Coltrane’s musical legacy (220). The reason that this exclusion is so devastating is that the Smithsonian set is widely used for jazz education in schools and colleges, and its contents thus largely define jazz history to younger generations.

In an interesting turn on this issue, Nisenson quotes critic Francis Davis: “Williams correctly perceived that Coltrane impersonators were leading jazz toward a cul-de-sac, with their know-nothing mysticism, droning modality, and opportunistic black nationalism” (221). This poignant observation suggests that Coltrane might justifiably be underrepresented, as it is all too easy for inadequately knowledgeable musicians to misinterpret Coltrane’s music as “no-holds-barred,” aimless honking and to use Coltrane’s position as a respected musical innovator as justification for their own questionable musical experiments.

Ultimately, however, this kind of safeguard against future musical aberrations is not adequate justification for a hasty dismissal of Coltrane’s legacy. Though some critics may view Coltrane’s music from one extreme or the other — Williams reluctantly admitting that “the future must acknowledge that he has been with us” (235) versus Nisenson charging that the “neoclassicists” in 1980s and ’90s jazz, led by Wynton Marsalis, “seem to have no understanding of Coltrane’s creative spirit” (259) — few if any have the courage to deny that Coltrane’s presence was real. In fact, with the recent remastering and rerelease of many of his recordings by Atlantic and Impulse! and the use of Coltrane’s music in such films as Mo’ Better Blues and The Doors, Coltrane’s presence in American culture today seems to be growing. Michael Bruce McDonald suggests that “Coltrane’s art is especially important for the present era, precisely to the extent that our age is fraught with longing for something akin to sacred experience” (276).

If mass awareness of Coltrane’s music is truly growing, as it appears to be on the basis of the aforementioned examples, and if it truly offers the meaning McDonald claims is so important (Nisenson believes it does), then understanding becomes necessary. Williams’ near outright dismissal notwithstanding, Francis Davis’ positive take on modern ignorance of Coltrane is not an acceptable means of handling the issue of Coltrane’s music and its influence upon our musical landscape. To reiterate the Gridley quote earlier of this paper, “The Coltrane quartet was one of the most important groups in jazz history, and some historians consider it to have been the most influential of all jazz combos” (italics mine). Coltrane’s music remains a part of our society and a moving force in our musical and cultural history. If we are to handle it responsibly, we must acknowledge it and study it in order to navigate its nuances of meaning. Because just as Coltrane believes that “there certainly is meaning to life,” I believe there certainly is meaning to Coltrane’s music.


Regardless of the arguments about the motivations behind, or the value of, Coltrane’s musical development in the 1960s, this development remains a fascinating study. Two pieces, “Naima” and “My Favorite Things,” which Coltrane first performed in 1959 and 1960, respectively, remained in his groups’ repertoire for the remainder of his career (Jost 101). While the rest of his repertoire changed, the constant presence and equally constant evolution of these pieces allow for their use in analytical observation of the changes that occurred in Coltrane’s style.

“My Favorite Things,” as demonstrated here, is especially fascinating to study, for it reveals the advancement Coltrane had already made by the time of his initial performance of it. The traditions of Indian classical music, as well as Western art music, had already impacted Coltrane’s musical style. African polyrhythms were a fundamental force in Elvin Jones’ highly regarded drumming style. With the additional influence of Miles Davis’ modal period of the late 1950s, John Coltrane created his interpretation of “My Favorite Things.”

Further pursuance of his musical goal of spiritual fulfillment, as well as the influences of younger musicians, especially those who played with his group — Eric Dolphy, Alice Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, and Rashied Ali — led Coltrane farther into free-form work, and the jazz avant garde. One can only wonder what sorts of sounds Coltrane might have explored beyond 17 July 1967 when, after a year of failing health, liver cancer took his life at the age of 40, at his home in New York. Despite his untimely death, his music lives on in the plethora of recordings made during his intense career, and in the music of those who worked with him or were inspired by him.

“I hope whoever is out there listening, they enjoy it.”
— John Coltrane, 1966, to interviewer Frank Kofsky

Postscript: Personal reflections on a jazz experience

McCoy Tyner in concert, 21 February 1996, St. Paul, Minnesota

I live in a generation that owes what slight knowledge of jazz it possesses primarily to recordings and books, not to experiences of live jazz. This situation makes for a rather sterile and mechanical approach to jazz music, especially for someone doing scholarly research on the subject. I had thus succumbed to the notion that “jazz is dead.” Perhaps not exactly dead, but it is no exaggeration to say that I basically thought the evolution and “life” of jazz had ended with the 1960s, and arguably with the death of John Coltrane. Surely, other forms of jazz endured and developed, but the essential lineage of jazz seemed to terminate on that day in July 1967.

Something to keep in mind, particularly when examining recordings of Coltrane’s music as was done in this paper, is that jazz is primarily a live performance art, and recordings capture only a pale shadow of the essential spirit and energy present in a live performance.

Never was this point made clearer to me than in my first and, as yet, only encounter with the legacy of the famous John Coltrane Quartet so thoroughly examined herein. On 21 February 1996, I was fortunate enough to hear the phenomenal McCoy Tyner Trio perform at the Dakota Bar and Grill in St. Paul, Minnesota. My experience paralleled that described by Eric Nisenson in the introduction to Ascension (xv-xix).

It has often been said that for Coltrane, jazz was more than music. His work was a spiritual quest — a religious experience. The tradition of jazz is inextricably linked to the Negro spiritual of the 19th century, and to the percussion ensembles of Africa, whose music serves an essential and very real role in the spiritual lives of its practitioners and their communities.

I have observed that this religious transcendence is somewhat alien to the “Western” mode of thought. Even more alien is the idea that this music carries real power to move its listeners. I have heard about certain brilliant pieces of Western classical music as being “moving,” but never have I experienced music so physically moving, so visceral, so real.

As I watched the musicians performing on stage, I realized that there was more to what they were doing than just the sounds they were producing. Aaron Scott, the drummer, engaged in a dance of fluid grace upon the drum kit. Bassist Avery Sharpe became so intimately engaged with his upright that for a moment I was embarrassed to watch, until I realized that this was something I was meant to witness and to experience. McCoy Tyner played the piano in such a way that I felt his very being transported through its keys and into the strings from which it resonated in the room, pure and exposed.

As I observed others in the audience, I knew I was not alone. People around me were bobbing their heads, rolling and shaking as if in a state of religious ecstasy or hypnotically linked to some supernatural world. This was something real — something organic and present in the room.

This was live jazz.

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