Holy spirit of the saxophone

By JON GARELICK  |  September 12, 2007

This idea of Coltrane’s sound — including that spiritual element — isn’t lost on Leonard Brown, a 61-year-old saxophonist and professor of Music and African-American Studies at Northeastern, where he teaches a course on Coltrane. In July 1977, he and a group of fellow musicians who regularly convened at the Friends of Great Black Music Loft in Chinatown created the John Coltrane Memorial Concert, which celebrates its 30th anniversary next week. (See sidebar.) Brown was born and raised in segregated Lexington, Kentucky, and from the beginning of his career he identified jazz as part of the civil-rights struggle, as a force for social change. His ’60s outfit in Lexington was the Afro-American Ensemble, and its musical and social agendas were conjoined. When he got to Boston, he worked on desegregation in South Boston’s schools, introducing multicultural arts programs.

Brown is in the midst of editing a book for Oxford University Press, John Coltrane and Black America’s Quest for Freedom: Spirituality and the Music. Sitting in his office, I ask him about Coltrane’s continuing influence, and before I can even prompt him, he’s on the same page with Ratliff. “I see a real parallel between John and Marian Anderson, because ultimately it’s the sound. What touches us is the sound. The reason I’m teaching the course on Coltrane — like I told my kids in class today, ‘Why are we in this room at this time? It’s Trane’s sound.’ ”

What gives Coltrane’s sound its moral weight for Brown is its rootedness in black culture. “He grew up in these black churches in North Carolina during segregation — you can believe that by the time he was five he knew where he had to be so he didn’t have to worry about being lynched. It went with the territory! I know that from my own experience! Who knows what he heard in those black churches? But I guarantee he heard the real deal!”

Coltrane, Brown says, was able to grasp the specificity of African-American experience — in church music, spirituals, American blues, and African roots — and distill it into a form that communicates universally. And here he and Ratliff again are on the same page: as specific — as black — as Coltrane’s music was, it was inclusive in its compassion. Brown: “It’s the whole role of sound in black American culture. It’s a way to express my humanism, because you’ve reduced me to being non-human. John understands that, but the sound he manifests pulls us together as human beings and transcends racism, so that’s why people love him all around the world. It transcends race category.” Brown invokes the relative Coltrane named a song for. “Cousin Mary said, ‘John’s sound is for everybody.’ ”

Still, the concept of sound (as distinct from the particulars of rhythm, pitch, melody, or harmony) is fairly abstract. Ratliff describes Coltrane’s saxophone sound as “large and dry, slightly undercooked, and urgent.” Putting the timbre of that horn in a larger context, The Story of a Sound is like a Key to All Mythologies for the post-Coltrane generation. Rather than a biography, it’s a book-length critical essay, building on previous biographies, especially Lewis Porter’s John Coltrane: A Biography, and supplemented with extensive original research including interviews with a couple score of musicians, everyone from Ornette Coleman and McCoy Tyner to George Garzone and Mike Watt.

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