John Coltrane: All That Jazz

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Martin Smith explores jazz, racism and resistance through the life of a legend.

John Coltrane was one of the most important musicians of the 20th century. His saxophone playing revolutionised jazz music not once, not twice, but three times. Today, 35 years after his death, Coltrane remains more popular than he was when he was alive. Almost every modern jazz player has fallen under his spell. Yet his creative spirit reaches beyond the world of jazz. Rock band Audioslave cite Coltrane as a major influence. Hip-hop artists like Mos Def and Talib Kwali, and drum & bass DJs, have borrowed heavily from the Coltrane back catalogue.

Coltrane‘s artistic creativity was in large part a product of his own musical genius, but he was clearly aided and abetted by a coterie of young musicians. But the Coltrane ’sound‘ was also shaped consciously and subconsciously by the growing civil rights movement that was sweeping the US in the late 1950s and 1960s.

Coltrane was born in Hamlet, North Carolina, in 1926. By 1943 Coltrane‘s family found themselves in Philadelphia. Like millions of other black families they had sought work in the expanding war industries. From the end of the Second World War until the early 1970s the US witnessed a sustained economic boom, which is exemplified in the Hollywood musicals and feelgood films of the 1950s.

But US society was also haunted by racism. In the South, from the cradle to the grave, black and white people were legally segregated under a system called Jim Crow - it was like apartheid South Africa. This vile racism was backed up by organisations like the Ku Klux Klan. In the Northern states there was formal equality. But still society was riddled with institutional racism. In Philadelphia unemployment for black youths aged between 16 and 28 remained at 70 percent during these boom years.

Despite and sometimes because of their talents, jazz musicians couldn‘t escape the indignities of racism. Coltrane‘s best friend was beaten to death by the police. One of the great free jazz drummers, Sonny Murray, lost his finger in a racist attack. The poet Langston Hughes summed up the growing resentment when he wrote:

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore - and then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over - like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

And explode it did. On 1 December 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, a black woman, Rosa Parks, refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white woman. Her arrest sparked off the year-long Montgomery bus boycott. The protest forced the bus companies to desegregate the buses. The victory sparked off a wave of sit-ins and boycotts against segregation all over the country. Martin Luther King led that movement.


The civil rights movement had a massive impact on jazz. But first, a couple of general points about the relationship between mass movements and art. Just because art or music is political it doesn‘t necessarily make it good. Art should be judged on its own terms - does it move us, make us think? The music critic and author Leroi Jones stated, ’The most expressive black music of any given period will portray black people at that particular time.‘ Who could deny that hip-hop is a reflection of ghetto life in the US?

There is not a crude relationship between art and mass movements. For example, the attitude, the dress and the musical style of bebop artists like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk predated the civil rights struggles by at least 12 years, whereas the Specials song ’Ghost Town‘ was of the moment - it encapsulated the despair of unemployment as riots rocked our inner cities in 1980. Today, despite the massive anti-war and anti-capitalist movements, no such radical transformation in musical styles has taken place.

The mid-1950s saw a new school of jazz called hard bop, also known as soul jazz and funky jazz. Hard bop tried to breathe new life into the mus