Before his time with Miles Davis, it is chronicled that John Coltrane dabbled with heroin in the 40′s. He didn’t become a full-fledged addict until the 50’s — when he worked for Miles and, around the middle part of the decade, appeared as a session man for many other artists and also started to strike out on his own. Although the usage of a drug like heroin is debilitating on many levels there are some that will argue, myself included, that the years he was using were some of the most fertile times of his career. Let me clarify that, Avid Reader, by saying that drug usage of any kind is horrible and yet people can claim an incredible spout of creativity, energy and driving force to produce something. This week we’ll be taking a look at the dark point in Trane’s life before his stunning rebirth and legacy.
Looking back on his work as a sideman, there were a few times when Miles let Trane perform his own material and on a rare occasion it would appear on a record – for example, “Trane’s Blues” off of Workin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet would give people a sample of what he was capable of if he lead an expert group. If there is one thing he must have picked up from Miles, it was to find players that could compliment your style and match your greatness. Trane would form several groups during this period from 1957-1965, yet there were some regulars: McCoy Tyner on piano, drummers Elvin Jones, Philly Joe Jones and Jimmy Cobb and bassist Paul Chambers with cameo appearances by other greats like Eric Dolphy. The groups he composed using the players I mentioned could match his timing and creativity and build his sound up more than he could imagine — so it is no wonder he would use these players so often.
This time frame is often called the “classic period” before Trane had a reawakening and struck out in a very different direction. For me, this is the time I turn back to when I need to relax or be taken away from my desk. The album Blue Train has saved my sanity on many occasions while My Favorite Things continues to amaze me every time I give it a listen. Nowadays finding most of the albums from this time on CD is not easy, and you’d do better at a store for used vinyl. The big sellers are out there but you should dig for the lesser popular ones if you can grab them.
Yet no matter how you listen to this music, you need to understand that the man creating it was struggling with something stronger than he knew. As he blasted out solos at breakneck pace the junk in his system would nag at him for years. Don’t worry though, folks; there is a bit of a reprise and then an ending.