Liner Notes: LeRoi Jones on John Coltrane’s Live at Birdland

January 31st, 2014

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LeRoi Jones, 1964

(He later changed his name to Amiri Baraka)

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Political, fiery, critical, poetic, inspirational…All of this shows up in Amiri Baraka’s brilliant liner notes to the 1963 recording of John Coltrane’s Live at Birdland. At the time known as LeRoi Jones, Baraka’s liner notes to this album were the first time the jazz writer Stanley Crouch “had seen that kind of poetic sensibility brought to the discussion of jazz. It was as new to me as the way Coltrane and his band were reinventing the 4/4 swing, blues, ballads, and Afro-Hispanic rhythms that are the four elements essential to jazz…His was the first Negro voice that sailed to the center of my taste by combining the spunk and the raw horrors of the sidewalk with the library, for an elegant manhandling of the form.”

These notes were written at the time of Jones’ 1963 Down Beat essay “Jazz and the White Critic,” which, in the words of Blowin’ Hot and Cool: Jazz and its Critics author John Gennari, was a “challenge to jazz writers of all backgrounds to reckon with the lived experience of black Americans and to consider how this experience had been embedded in the notes, tones, and rhythms of the music.”   Keep that in mind when reading these notes…

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One of the most baffling things about America is that despite its essentially vile profile, so much beauty continues to exist here. Perhaps it’s as so many thinkers have said, that it is because of the vileness, or call it adversity, that such beauty does exist. (As balance?).

Thinking along these lines, even the title of this album can be rendered “symbolic” and more directly meaningful. John Coltrane Live At Birdland. To me, Birdland is only America in microcosm, and we know how high the mortality rate is for artists in this instant tomb. Yet, the title tells us that John Coltrane is there live. In this tiny America where the most delirious happiness can only be caused by the dollar, a man continues to make daring reference to some other kind of thought. Impossible? Listen to I Want To Talk About You.

Coltrane apparently doesn’t need an ivory tower. Now that he is a master, and the slightest sound from his instrument is valuable, he is able, literally, to make his statements anywhere. Birdland included. It does not seem to matter to him (nor should it) that hovering in the background are people and artifacts that have no more to do with his music than silence.

But now I forget why I went off into this direction. Nightclubs are, finally, nightclubs. And their value is that even though they are raised or opened strictly for gain (and not the musician’s) if we go to them and are able to sit, as I was for this session, and hold on, if it is a master we are listening to, we are very likely to be moved beyond the pettiness and stupidity of our beautiful enemies. John Coltrane can do this for us. He has done it for me many times, and his music is one of the reasons suicide seems so boring.

There are three numbers on the album that were recorded Live at Birdland, Afro-Blue, I Want To Talk About You, and The Promise. And while some of the non-musical hysteria has vanished from the recording, that is, after riding a subway through New York’s bowels, and that subway full of all the things any man should expect to find in some thing’s bowels, and then coming up stairs, to the street, and walking slowly, head down, through the traffic and failure that does shape the area, and then entering “The Jazz Corner Of The World” (a temple erected in praise of what God?), and then finally amidst that noise and glare to hear a man destroy all of it, completely, like Sodom, with just the first few notes from his horn, your “critical” sense can be erased completely, and that experience can place you somewhere a long way off from anything ugly. Still, what was of musical value that I heard that night does remain, and the emotions … some of them completely new … that I experience at each “objective” rehearing of this music are as valuable as anything else I know about. And all of this is on this record, and the studio pieces, Alabama and Your Lady, are among the strongest efforts on the album.

But since records, recorded “Live” or otherwise, are artifacts, that is the way they should be talked about. The few people who were at Birdland the night of October 8 who really beard what Coltrane, Jones, Tyner and Garrison were doing will probably tell you, if you ever run into them, just “exactly” what went on, and how we all reacted. I wish I had a list of all those people so that interested parties could call them and get the whole story, but then, almost anyone who’s heard John and the others at a nightclub or some kind of live performance has got stories of their own. I know I’ve got a lot of them.

But in terms of the artifact, what you’re holding in your hand now, I would say first of all, if you can hear, you’re going to be moved. Afro-Blue, the long tune of the album, is in the tradition of all the African-Indian-Latin flavored pieces Trane has done on soprano, since picking up that horn and reclaiming it as a jazz instrument. (In this sense The Promise is in that same genre.) Even though the head-melody is simple and song-like, it is a song given by making what feels to me like an almost unintelligible lyricism suddenly marvelously intelligible. McCoy Tyner too, who is the polished formalist of the group, makes his less cautious lyrical statements on this, but driven, almost harassed, as Trane is too, by the mad ritual drama that Elvin Jones taunts them with. There is no way to “describe” Elvin’s playing, or, I would suppose, Elvin himself. The long tag of Afro-Blue, with Elvin thrashing and cursing beneath Trane’s line, is unbelievable. Beautiful has nothing to do with it, but it is. (I got up and danced while writing these notes, screaming at Elvin to cool it.) You feel when this is finished, amidst the crashing cymbals, bombarded tomtoms, and above it all Coltrane’s soprano singing like any song you can remember, that it really did not have to end at all, that this music could have gone on and on like the wild pulse of all living.

Trane did Billy Eckstine’s I Want To Talk About You some years ago, but I don’t think it’s any news that his style has changed a great deal since then, and so this Talk is something completely different. It is now a virtuoso tenor piece (and the tenor is still Trane’s “real” instrument) and instead of the simplistic though touching note-for-note replay of the ballad’s line, on this performance each note is tested given a slight tremolo or emotional vibrato (note to chord to scale reference), which makes it seem as if each one of the notes is given the possibility of “infinite” qualification, i.e., scalar or chordal, expansion, “threatening” us with those “sheets of sound,” but also proving that the ballad as it was written was only the beginning of the story. The tag on this is an unaccompanied solo of Trane’s that is a tenor lesson-performance that seems to get more precisely stated with each rehearing.

If you have heard Slow Dance or After The Rain, then you might be prepared for the kind of feeling that Alabama carries. I didn’t realize until now what a beautiful word Alabama is. That is one function of art, to reveal beauty, common or uncommon, uncommonly. And that’s what Trane does. Bob Thiele asked Trane if the title “had any significance to today’s problems.” I suppose he meant literally. Coltrane answered, “It represents, musically, something that I saw down there translated into music from inside me.” Which is to say, Listen. And what we’re given is a slow delicate introspective sadness, almost hopelessness, except for Elvin, rising in the background like something out of nature … a fattening thunder, storm clouds or jungle war clouds. The whole is a frightening emotional portrait of some place, in these musicians’ feelings. If that “real” Alabama was the catalyst, more power to it, and may it be this beautiful, even in its destruction.

Your Lady is the sweetest song in the album. And it is pure song, say, as an accompaniment for some very elegant uptown song and dance man. Elvin Jones’ heavy tingling parallel counterpoint sweeps the line along, and the way he is able to solo constantly beneath Trane’s flights, commenting, extending, or just going off on his own, is a very important part of the total sound and effect of this Coltrane group. Jimmy Garrison’s constancy and power, which must be fantastic to support, stimulate and push this group of powerful (and diverse) personalities, is already almost legendary. On tunes like Lady or Afro-Blue Garrison’s bass booms so symmetrically and steadily and emotionally, and again, with such strength, that one wild guess that he must be able to tear safes open with his fingers.
All the music on this album is Live, whether it was recorded above drinking and talk at Birdland, in the studio. There is a daringly human quality to John Coltrane’s music that makes itself felt, wherever he records. If you can hear, this music will make you think of a lot of weird and wonderful things. You might even become one of them.

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“Afro Blue,” as recorded on the album Live at Birdland

A filmed performance of “Afro Blue”

Baraka reads “Heathens and Devils”

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