THE THEORY AND PRACTICE OF JOHN COLTRANE

by Ralph Dumain

On: Schott, John. "'We Are Revealing a Hand That Will Later Reveal Us': Notes on Form and Harmony in Coltrane's Work", in: Arcana: Musicians on Music, edited by John Zorn (New York: Granary Books/Hips Road, 2000), pp. 345-366.

How deep do you have to delve to analyze the music of John Coltrane? What profound philosophical issues lie waiting for us in those depths? A number of years ago, on the occasion of the release of the video The Coltrane Legacy, I attended a seminar on John Coltrane at the University of the District of Columbia, featuring musician and Coltrane transcriber Andrew White, Howard University Professor Reppard Stone, critic Stanley Crouch, and a saxophonist whose name I can't recall (no offense). There remains a huge story to tell about this event, but here I will only focus on a very few details. The musicological analysis of Coltrane, even more so than that of other improvised music, is the most daunting of enterprises. The saxophonist, who knew music first-hand, only ventured to claim that Coltrane was a very spiritual player. Others tried a more analytical approach. Dr. Stone offered a musical analysis of the composition Giant Steps that was itself breathtaking in its mathematical beauty. Andrew White offered up his own theory of Coltrane's use of harmonic structure which he called "polydiatonicity". Coltrane didn't call it that. Though steeped in music theory, Coltrane, referred to it, according to White, as "that funny thing." At another point, White said that Coltrane thought through his horn. At that moment, I grasped for the very first time the implications of the philosophical concept of praxis.

Though I claim no competence whatever in music theory, I do claim that John Schott's article is rich in philosophical implications stemming out of his musicological analysis of Coltrane. Schott begins by reviewing previous efforts to analyze Coltrane, which tie in with Coltrane's becoming the paradigmatic musician for formal jazz education. Schott objects to "the dumbing-down of Coltrane's work", a musically revolutionary legacy that should not be adumbrated through misrepresentation.

According to Schott, Coltrane's development has much in common with Shoenberg's liberation of dissonance, but atonal theory does not yield an adequate approach to Coltrane. Jazz is not based on a fixed text. Not everything is "accounted for" as in classical music. Existing notational systems and analytical vocabulary are inadequate for describing performed music.

Schott launches into an analysis of two approaches to chromaticism in Coltrane's early work, using Moment's Notice as an example. I must skip over the detailed musicological treatment to pause at some philosophically interesting statements.

Not only have other writers and teachers got Coltrane wrong, but Coltrane himself in a 1960 Down Beat interview with Don DeMichael describes a chord-stacking approach that is not borne out on his actual recordings. The relationship between Coltrane's mental model "and its specific realization . . . becomes highly problematic." To account for this discrepancy, Schott says: "The death of a style is often the beginning of a theoretical understanding of it. . . . The most interesting and relevant improvised music of our time has little to do with chord changes. . . . The function of chord changes, or rather functions . . . is the least understood element of classic jazz." [p. 351]

Schott continues with a detailed analysis of Sid's Ahead and Impressions. Coltrane's actual long solo lines refer to the underlying harmony only at strategic points. Impressions could be considered as free jazz. "The agitated fragments struggling to define themselves against a motionless, chromatic background builds a hypnotic tension that was fundamentally new to jazz." [p. 354]

In this period Coltrane studied Nicolas Slonimsky's "Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns, but he did not merely copy these patterns as others have done since. Giant Steps is examined, with the following conclusion:

In a sense, Coltrane destroyed tonality by using it against itself. Employing the most basic feature of the American popular song, the II-V-I chord progression, he sped up the rate as well as the degree of modulation to an unprecedented extent, creating a context for improvisation that allowed for coherent complete chromatic circulation. That Coltrane 'signified' on popular songs like My Favorite Things has been commented upon; less well-known is how his harmonic research signifies on the elemental assumptions of Western music theory." [p. 355]

Following this remarkable statement is a discussion of a diagram that Coltrane drew in 1960 and gave to Yusef Lateef. Schott's treatment raises such an unprecedented philosophical issue, I must defer my analysis of it until the second part of this essay.

From here he proceeds through Coltrane's developing use of harmonic structures (chromaticism, 12-tone organization), focusing on Miles' Mode and the Acknowledgement section of A Love Supreme, concluding:

What is remarkable in these examples and throughout Coltrane's career is the shunning of any conspicuous display of these effects. Our attention is rarely called to matters of compositional (or instrumental) technique, as it was in many of his contemporaries; Coltrane's self-imposed doctrine of purification and humility all but precluded the dissertations of the mid-sixties Miles Davis Quintet, or the elaborate counterpoint and labyrinthian forms of Charles Mingus. His art became increasingly one of renunciation and self-censorship, the discipline of the music reflecting Coltrane's search for an order that could encompass the disorder of his times. [pp. 357-358]

Coltrane's later works come under scrutiny, of which Schott singles out A Love Supreme, Ascension, and Meditations. Again, I must leave out pages of detail to focus on summary statements such as this:

The tonal relationships that govern these pieces are no longer characterized by symmetric harmonic plans or methodical chromatic circulation. Those procedures depended on a rhythmic and formal clarity that had steadily eroded. The dialectics that had previously delineated the music's form — composition/improvisation, consonance/dissonance, pulse/syncopation — collapse into themselves during 1965, as if overwhelmed by Coltrane's obsessive desire to transcend the (musical) material world. [pp. 358-359]
At the end of his life, Coltrane takes the unprecedented step of reintroducing standard tonal chord changes and quasi-tonal melodies, as reflected in the album released around the time of his death, Expression. Finally, from Schott's summation:
From 1958, the year of his musical maturity, to his last recordings in 1967, Coltrane's work was marked by extremes: distant harmonic relationships, marathon solos, the sheer volume of Elvin Jones's drumming, the reaching into impossible registers of the saxophone. The fierce concentration and superhuman effort summoned by the musicians to control a musical language on the brink of dissolution becomes in some measure the subject of the music itself. In this respect Coltrane's position is akin to Beethoven more than to any of his own contemporaries. Both were terminal figures of their eras, masters of a language that had become outdated in their lifetimes; indeed, their very mastery had made that obsolescence inevitable. The drama inherent in that position invests their music with a power that is at once heroic and isolated. In their most radical experiments they found consolation and structure in the resources of the past . . . . [p. 365]
Coltrane rode tonality to the end of the line, exhausting it, exploding it, piling meaning upon meaning, to the point where the very proliferation of meanings undermined its ability to mean anything, in the conventional (that is, tonal) sense. The tonality of his late music is "tonality"; a memory, a quotation, of an irrecoverable past. [p. 366]

You will have to digest the themes of this essay on your own time: the implications of a praxis imperfectly characterized by theory, even via the mental models of a composer/musician himself, theoretical oversimplifications and mischaracterizations perpetuated via scholarship and pedagogy, the subtleties of a performance-based art refracted through text-based analysis, the struggles of tonality and atonality, the transmusical aspects of art such as purification, the struggle to transcend the constraints of the material world, reflective commentary on a methodology at the terminus of its development, even the African-American cultural practice of 'signifying'.

PART TWO

But now I must return to that diagram that Coltrane drew in 1960 that comes down to us via Yusef Lateef. The diagram consists of two nested circles with myriad lines connecting opposite points on the circles, designating relationships between the tones laid out on these circles. The figure of a pentagram appears within this configuration of lines inside the circles. Schott gives a better explanation than I can of this diagram (along with the diagram itself) and Coltrane's exploitation of its implicit musical possibilities. But then Schott says something very important:

Finally, the appearance of the pentagram opens the discourse beyond the strictly musical, and this is of course entirely characteristic of Coltrane's predilection for metaphysical arcana. Though beyond the boundaries of this paper, the relationship between Coltrane's musical-theoretical research and his voracious reading in religion, history, and the occult is in need of comprehensive study. [p. 356]

And in a footnote Schott makes a remark of sheer brilliance:

Such a study might contextualize Coltrane's development in the blossoming Afrocentric movement of the 1950s-60s, show the bebop musicians — Coltrane's artistic mentors — to be on the cutting edge of that movement, and to explore the interdependent use of science (sometimes decidedly idiosyncratic science) and mysticism in Afrocentric thought. [p. 356, note 159]

The genius of this suggestion lies not in the anachronistic use of the word "Afrocentric" but in the postulation of the social significance of the nexus of science and mysticism in mathematical patterns. I did not know that anyone but me thought of this phenomenon as an intellectual problem.

I recall a question-and-answer session that Anthony Braxton did following a concert he gave in Buffalo circa 1978, in which he cryptically discussed the esoteric significance of the quasi-mathematical diagrams he uses to title his compositions. The audience was inquisitive but I sensed a degree of puzzlement. Yet this experience was different from the tone of the give-and-take Sun Ra had with his audience in a session in this same room at about the same date. Sun Ra's audience was heavily populated by cultists, including a sizable contingent of black males bearing skullcaps suggesting an adherence to orthodox Islam. This audience responded uncritically to Sun Ra's dogmatic and sometimes incoherent blather. I can testify that Sun Ra's presence was literally hypnotic, but even the spell he cast could not quell my critical judgment. Braxton's aura was far less dogmatic, but he was definitely absorbed in esoterism.

Why do I adduce this personal anecdote? Excuse me if I remain coy about this. Some truths are too terrible to tell all at once. Instead, let me approach this in a roundabout way. The academic music establishment, as all art criticism at that time, was strictly formalist, concentrating on purely formal, technical descriptions. Serious analysis of art in other terms — not to mention arcane occult theories home-made by avant-garde black musicians — would have been meaningless to people trained in such thinking. Let us guard against anachronistic projection here: the terms in which I am discussing this subject now were not commonly available in the 1970s. This was an era in the USA rich in cultural practice but poor in cultural theory, just the opposite of the situation today. The countercultures of the 60s had not yet been assimilated and destroyed. What were the alternatives to a merely technocratic conception of the arts — of the world itself? One does not immediately supplant naivete with sophistication; usually one has to hopscotch from one form of naivete to another, in this case the recourse to mysticism. Though I sensed there was a problem here, I was incapable of formulating it in the terms that I do now. But this is the point: it was in terms of mysticism that African-American musicians, more so than other demographic groups, were positioned to conceptualize their orientation. American gullibility and anti-intellectualism being what it is, few camp-followers bothered to delve into this prodigious phenomenon, just accepting it at face value until the postmodernists came along to muck things up even worse. It is a puzzle wrapped inside a riddle wrapped inside an enigma just lying there unattended. (Recent treatments of Braxton and Sun Ra have broached this area, but Caucasian gullibility requires much harsher solvents.)

Plumbing the hidden meanings of cultural expressions in more "scientific" terms is not a novelty among black intellectuals — the great pioneers include W.E.B. Du Bois, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison. Though having nothing in common with black Americans, the West Indian C.L.R. James was one of the pioneers in conceptualizing the nature of modernity among the black diaspora, and this theme was recovered by black Briton Paul Gilroy after being lost for a generation. (James's unpublished three-page manuscript on a Negro spiritual is unique, remarkable, and virtually unknown.) Yet who has bothered to examine the dynamics of uneven development that ought to shout out for attention: what does it mean, for example, for black Americans born in obscure, tiny towns in the Jim Crow deep South — such as Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie — to migrate to Northern metropolises and propel themselves into the most vanguard forms of artistic expression?

Here is where Schott provides a valuable link, not only in posing the general question, but in specifically linking science to mysticism, which both meet in structural, mathematical patterns, appealing to an undifferentiated, fundamental psychological hunger for comprehensiveness and depth. We are not obliged to conceptualize this linkage in the same way as the historical actors themselves did; if anything, we are morally obligated to think differently as well as to recognize the historical and social distance separating us from them.

For those who are unhappy with the dichotomy that has been bequeathed to us--technocracy on the one hand, occultism on the other--is there another way to go? Can we be more specific than to ascribe everything for which we don't have a ready answer to "spirituality" with a shrug of the shoulders? Can such an attitude do justice to the real content — as opposed to all the know-nothing tomfoolery — to be found within the nonce word "spirituality"? Is it possible to decode the intensively condensed complex of cultural information, attitudes, and ideologies that form under particular social circumstances but whose inner essence remains mute as a sphinx? Signifying on Hegel, W.E.B. Du Bois bridged the dichotomy in The Souls of Black Folk. In-depth analysis of this dimension of Du Bois is scarcely more than a decade old. Whereas Du Bois approached the enigma of the spirituals, similar efforts have yet to surface to bring us up to date. When my colleague Greg Harrison wrote his unprecedented dissertation The Dialectics and Aesthetics of Freedom: Hegel, Slavery, and African American Music (Dept. of Art History, University of Sydney, March 1999, iv + 463 pp.), he received no support or even understanding from the academic world. Does this suggest something about just how little the Cultural Studies boom has actually accomplished?

The subject matter of philosophy lies everywhere, not just in the standard texts but in performance. Sometimes you have to step outside something to get into it, or dive into it to get out of it. Sometimes the inadequacy of words drives us to raise our voices in song; sometimes the undeciphered language of pure sensual form cries out for words to give it a voice for the mind.

10 March 2001

©2001 Ralph Dumain
All rights reserved


John Coltrane on Black Music and Affirmative Philosophy

Upon the First Snow-Storm of the Season: Blake & Coltrane in Esperanto

The Dialectics and Aesthetics of Freedom: Hegel, Slavery and 19th Century African American Music

Black Studies, Music, America vs Europe

On C.L.R. James's 'On the Spiritual'


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