'What would Coltrane do?'

The Daily Pennsylvanian
April 10, 2008

Saxophone musicians today still try to emulate one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time - John Coltrane.

Yesterday at Kelly Writers House, jazz critic and Philadelphia native Francis Davis discussed Coltrane's life and music in a review of his upcoming book, Sheets of Sound. The book focuses on Coltrane's early years growing up in High Point, N.C. and his contributions to the Philadelphia jazz scene.

"He created music of which the likes have never been heard before," said Davis, a former Penn professor of Jazz.

"Jazz was facing irrelevance in the '60s. There was a revolution going on in the streets and many people thought it was literal. There was also a musical revolution happening, in which jazz was at the forefront," Davis said. He added that the turbulence of the times contributed to Coltrane's sound evolving and becoming "blacker."

Davis also spoke about the rampant drug culture Coltrane and many of his contemporaries indulged in during the '60s, a culture that he eventually abandoned.

"I wonder if he was trying to live down the stereotype surrounding musicians that they were all drug abusers," said Davis, who added that Coltrane's addiction to heroin was common at that time.

"As much as you don't want to dwell on this, you have to talk about heroin when you talk about that era," he said.

Coltrane, who played the saxophone, died of liver cancer in 1967 at age 40. The tone of his music is one of yearning and reflection, and after he discovered a more spiritual side, it took on an increasingly religious overtone. Some of the great performers Coltrane played with include Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins and Thelonious Monk.

College junior Sean Breslin took away valuable insight on Coltrane from the lecture.

"Davis' talk added another dimension to Coltrane's albums, making them seem even more deliberate," he said. "He provided a valuable context to Coltrane's work."

Philadelphia resident Stephen Buono, in attendance because of his love for Coltrane, talked about the musician as a holy figure who, while sacred, was not without flaws.

"He wasn't perfect," said Buono, a self-professed Coltrane junkie. "But you know how some people have those 'What would Jesus do' stickers? Well when I'm in a bind I think, 'What would Coltrane do?"

While Coltrane's legacy continues to grow, Davis offered this perspective on his life as a person and a performer.

"With Coltrane, people's opinion[s] of him are usually either intensely pro or intensely con," he said.