The New Thing

David Grundy on A Love Supreme: Live in Seattle

John Coltrane circa 1965. Photo: Photo by K. Abe/Shinko Music/Getty Images.

JOHN COLTRANE IS OFTEN HELD UP as a sui generis figure, A Love Supreme his magnum opus. Yet overemphasizing the Coltrane’s individual aura obscures the true force behind his music. The release last week of a previously lost live version of A Love Supreme, recorded at the Penthouse Club in Seattle in October 1965, provides an opportunity to redress the balance, locating the saxophonist within a collective history still not often told.

Throughout the history of jazz, its musicians have been subject to systematically exploitative labor conditions. At the time the Seattle recordings were made, organizations like the Jazz Composers Guild, the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), the Black Artists’ Group (BAG), and the Union of God’s Musicians and Artists Ascension (UGMAA) sought to find alternatives to corrupt clubs and record contracts while challenging the music’s waning place in Black communities, a decline attributable to the rise of rock ’n’ roll—a white usurpation of Black music—urban “regeneration” projects, and the beginnings of the war on drugs. These groups produced and distributed records, published newsletters, and engaged in education and community programs. Coltrane himself discussed setting up a cultural center with Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji and multi-instrumentalist Yusef Lateef shortly before his death in 1967. In addition, by increasingly featuring younger musicians in expanded versions of his basic group, he was, as A.B. Spellman wrote, “introducing some of the best of the New Jazz musicians to the World of the Living Wage.”

Influenced by these musicians—in particular Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders, and Albert Ayler—Coltrane began to turn toward free jazz. In June 1965, he recorded the “big band” album Ascension, a work of extraordinary power that draws on the ethos behind the collective improvisations of the music’s New Orleans roots while utterly transforming its contents. That September, Coltrane embarked on a tour of the West Coast and asked Sanders to join the band, expanding the “classic quartet”—pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and drummer Elvin Jones—and pushing it to its limits. For Coltrane, compositions and chord changes were the necessary jumping-off base for improvisation but also what the improvisation sought to exceed at every moment. The music seems constantly to reach beyond itself, seeking the forms of things unknown. It’s the sound of a collective history always secreted within Black art, breaking through in new and alien timbres: in the words of poet Nathaniel Mackey, “doubling the voice, splitting the voice, breaking the voice, tearing it.”

Such doubling is also reflected in the music’s instrumentation. Shepp had played on alternate takes to A Love Supreme in 1964, tossing around the famous riff like shards of glass, and on this live version we hear two additional horn players—Sanders and a guest spot from Seattle-based, Panamanian-born alto player Carlos Ward—along with Donald Rafael Garrett and Jimmy Garrison’s twin basses soaring beyond conventional jazz timbre or tempo. Ward would later develop into a singularly lyrical player, but on “Resolution,” his sound is busy and scrabbling; as soon as one run’s finished, the next begins. Sanders’s sound, meanwhile—heard to particular effect on “Pursuance”—hits as sheer force. With its heavy use of harmonics, smears, and atonal note combinations, it manifests a practice of self-overcoming, exploding beyond the confines of individual identity, instrument, historical moment—beyond the common sense of what’s possible to hear or think or feel.

The cover of A Love Supreme: Live in Seattle (Impulse! Records, 2021).

Tyner’s solo provides a fascinating contrast. While Sanders plays entirely outside the changes, Tyner provides a radically simplified version of them, his left hand like the tolling of a gigantic bell, while Elvin Jones’s polyrhythms sound like several drummers at once. Following Garrison’s jaunty yet meditative solo, Coltrane is the sole horn on the closing “Psalm.” His tone is one of mourning as much as celebration, and the ringing sound heard in the background at once resembles the accoutrements of a church service and the faint yet insistent sounding of a fire alarm.

That August, the Watts Rebellion had erupted after the police murdered taxi driver Leonard Deadwyler. It was out of the ashes of Watts that cultural initiatives such as Horace Tapscott’s UGMAA, the Watts Writers Workshop—its headquarters ultimately burned down by an FBI informer—and Jayne Cortez’s Watts Repertory Company developed. Likewise, though Seattle was “one of the whitest cities in America,” activists were engaged in struggles against de facto segregated housing and schooling. In June, after an off-duty cop shot Robert L. Reese, local volunteers began what they called “walking civilian review boards” or “freedom patrols” to monitor police activity, anticipating the Black Panthers’ armed “copwatching” in Oakland two years later. (A school boycott would follow in 1966.)

Almost none of this is directly referenced on this recording or the commentary surrounding it. Instead, feelings, politics, and musical techniques become inextricably commingled. It’s a spiritual music, as Adam Shatz points out, but one forged by the material world. Watts cannot help but be present, and, listening in 2021, we might hear Ferguson and Minneapolis and too many other cities to name. What’s prophetic in the music resides not only in the change it anticipates—whether those terms are political or spiritual—but in how much has not changed. As Ron Welburn put it in 1966: “There is nothing else in this world or any other world that can force open [the music]. . .All of these singular forces speaking together as one massive energy of strength; hoping, moving through the heavy air.” The music creates the world that does not exist within the world that does. That remains its supreme dialectical force, its unfathomable meaning, its beautiful and terrible burden.