There isn’t a person outside of my immediate family that has had more of an indelible influence on my life than John William Coltrane. Sounds weird, right? But it’s true. I never knew him personally…but I’ve known him spiritually since I’ve been alive. You see, my first memorable musical encounter (at about 18 months old) was hearing John Coltrane. In fact, my earliest memory at all is hearing John Coltrane. I remember the feeling I had when I first heard his music. My mother would play two Trane records the most: Ballads and Duke Ellington & John Coltrane. In fact, I am named “Angelika” after the tune of the same name (different spelling) on the latter mentioned record. I thought that she was doing something magical when those albums came on. As soon as the needle hit the record, and the sound would travel through our Bronx apartment, I was transported to another world. Sometimes the music would move me to tears. My family would come over, and they’d think I was sitting off to myself crying because I couldn’t have something I wanted, or because it was time to go to bed and I was objecting, when what it really was, was taking in how beautiful Trane played “It’s Easy to Remember”. I was a pretty different kind of toddler, to say the least, and I still marvel at how 2 minutes and 45 seconds can bring that much beauty into the world. But it didn’t end there…the music of John Coltrane would follow me throughout my life, and see me through every good and bad thing.
I guess some would call it an obsession. Maybe. But if I had to name it (which I’d rather not do) I would be more inclined to label it as a connection. I think in some way, we are all connected to something bigger than us…and that is not to say that John Coltrane, the man, was larger than life. I read that a man once compared him to God, and it really upset and disturbed Coltrane. He did not think of himself as above any man. But his art…that is what is larger than life. And that is what I fell in love with, and remain in love with.
When I was seventeen, I bought two albums: Ballads, and Stevie Wonder’s Music of My Mind. I had grown up hearing both of these, but now I was a senior in high school, and I could buy my own music. This was a big deal to me! Somehow, hearing Ballads on my own…it was a rediscovery of sorts. I felt more alone…more of myself…maybe I was just getting older. A huge Stevie Wonder fan, I remember laying out on my living room floor, listening to “Send One Your Love” from The Secret Life of Plants album, and flipping out when I heard the Coltrane influence in the song, known sometimes as “Trane Changes”. At around 19 years old, I was into Giant Steps BIG TIME, and I was obsessed with the changes, the legends upon legends of stories about how he came up with them, how long he worked at developing them, and all of the inflated but majestic stories about the recording, in between. At about 20 years old, I had this incredible full-circle moment.
I was working as a P.A. at the Essence awards, and Stevie Wonder was one of the artists slated to perform. I was determined to see his rehearsal, and did! So he’s warming up, right? All of a sudden, he segues into “Giant Steps”! I lost my head! Here was my favorite musician, playing the music of my favorite, FAVORITE musician…without an audience…stripped of any fanfare, or glamor. And I was there to witness it. Incredible.
From my late teens, and throughout my early-to-mid twenties, I listened to Coltrane religiously. New Prestige box set coming out? It’s mine. New book coming out? I’m all over it (until I get pissed at the author for saying some dumb shit. Thanks, Lewis Porter, for getting it right, though). I would listen to My Favorite Things on the train on the way to and from school ev-er-y day. I loved to listen to Mr. Day on the train also…the energy and pulse of that song used to make me feel invincible. I listened to and absorbed this music like my life depended on it…and I suppose in a way it did. It was my spiritual food. But then in 2004, I had a tremendous opportunity to give thanks for all that I had received.
I don’t remember exactly how I found out, but somehow I learned that Coltrane’s last home in the Dix Hills section of Long Island, NY, was in danger of facing demolition. There was a contact name and number to call and an email address for the public, if they wanted to get involved and help. I was working at a recording studio in Manhattan, and I remember sending that email at the first chance. This was the home that Coltrane and his family lived in from 1964, where he conceptualized A Love Supreme. This was a looming travesty that needed immediate attention. I corresponded via email, and then by phone with a gentleman named Steve Fulgoni, who was heading up the grass roots efforts to contact the town officials and make the case for the home to be deemed a historical landmark. Letters and support poured in, and I was overwhelmed to be getting involved. This was a big deal. I wrote my humble little letter, and thought that my contribution would end there. But when I was asked to read the letter in front of the Huntington Historical Preservation Commission… WHAT??? Well, you know I did. There was a wonderful showing of support, including that from Ravi Coltrane, and Matt Garrison (bassist Jimmy Garrison’s son). I got to meet Mr. Fulgoni, and his lovely wife, and most importantly witness when the board voted for the home to be saved and deemed a historical landmark.
You see, it’s kind of funny sometimes. I think the beauty of art is that it is not to be simply received, it’s to be shared. And that sharing can come by way of a lot of opportunities. I’m so grateful that even in some small way, I helped make a difference in the honor of someone who made all of the difference for me.
I think ultimately the biggest impact that Coltrane has had on me is how to be a dedicated person. When you listen to Trane, whether it is one song, or an entire anthology, you hear his unfailing dedication. And that is something that has come to me more and more as I get older. Coltrane’s life was very short, unfortunately, and because of that, it’s really easy to see how unbelievable he was. I think about what he was accomplishing at the age I am right now…he was only a few years from his death at my age. Yet, he was changing the world. If that’s not inspiration…
It’s beyond the ridiculously killingness (yep, that’s a word) of his talent and gifts. I think his sense of commitment is ultimately what makes Coltrane so incredible. On this day, John Coltrane’s 85th birthday, I’m really thankful. And still awe-inspired, like the little toddler sitting off in the corner.
This song is dedicated to the memory of Troy Davis.