Tuesday, July 10, 2007

COLTRANE . . . A Few Kernals of Truth About Gifts and Genius . . .

A couple of nights ago, I started listening to John Coltrane Gold, a cd that showcases the music of jazz saxophonist, John Coltrane. Thanks to my Dad, I grew up listening to Coltrane and a number of other jazz greats. It's only been in recent years though that I've become genuinely interested in learning about the man and the artist behind the sax and the unique sound.

In the liner notes of John Coltrane Gold, the writer Ashley Kahn (author of several books on jazz, including The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records, 2006) lists three facts that might not be commonly known about John Coltrane. Embedded within the three statements, I think, are kernals of truth worthy of a deeper contemplation, especially by those of us who call ourselves "artists" as well as those who express a desire to one day do so. The following are Ashley Kahn's three points in reverse order and my own feelings and comments about them.

3)"Coltrane was (musically) a late bloomer."

I think it helps to know that Coltrane didn't jump out the box and immediately start blowing folks away with gems like, "Giant Steps" and "A Love Supreme." Not only did his ascent to greatness begin later in life than some, he suffered many a set back along the way--most notably a drug habit that led to his being kicked out of Miles Davis's band.

While we live in a society that prefers to herald the over-night sensations, and is currently tailored toward the "talents" of the young, blonde, dumb, rich and anorexic, it isn't uncommon for destinations like "genius" and "legend" and "phenomenon" to start later and further back on the long, winding road of life. Michael Jordan got cut from the basketball team as a sophomore in high school. Dr. Benjamin Carson was 36 (not 26) when he performed the first successful separation of Siamese Twins joined at the back of the head. Albert Einstein was 4 years olf before he learned to speak. Toni Morrison was 39 when her first novel, The Bluest Eye, was published and was 57 when she received the Pulitzer Prize. The list goes on . . .

2)"Coltrane was a tireless experimenter. But he was not one who discarded the old for the new."

In the world of jazz, there is a concept known as the "riff." A riff is a form of improvisation. It's when one musician borrows and builds upon the musical phraseology of another. It's about taking someing old and making it sound new. Jazz is all about the riff. Hip-Hop, with all of its borrowed and outright stolen samples ain't nothing but some riff mixed in with a whole lot of raff (LOL). In all seriousness, Ashley Kahn states in the Coltrane Gold liner notes that many of the techniques folks consider so avant-garde are things Trane picked put during his early days of playing the blues and frequenting the bars in Philly.

In order to buck a tradition, I think it helps to know it first. Coltrane not only acknowledged and respected what came before him, he incorporated much of it into his own style. Too many in today's world, artists and non-artist alike want to dismiss everything that came before them as old, outdated and therefore, useless. Mention something like the African Amercian "oral tradition" and a number of folks will assume you're talking about something sexual (LOL). That's unfortunate. A knowledge of history and culture and an appreciation for the achievements of one's predecessors (and contemporaries), can nourish, strengthen and empower one's work. Why cheat yourself of a foundation that is yours for the taking?

1)"Coltrane was not a musical prodigy. What he achieved, he did with a workman's sense of duty and an almost obsessive dedication."

I love that statement, if only because it suggests that Coltrane's "genius" grew out of his commitment to working on his craft and honing his skills. His wife Namia reportedly said that often times after coming home from a gig, "Trane would practice till he fell asleep with the horn in his mouth." (from Ashley Kahn's liner notes, John Coltrane Gold, 2006)

The level of intensity and commitment exemplified by Coltrane's behavior is, for all too many, a foreign concept. I've stopped counting the number of folks who insist they want to be published, but who subsequently excuse their apparent lack of discipline and productivity with some version of, "Well, you know, I can only write when I'm inspired."

Even when I don't come right out and say it, I'm generally thinking, "Honey, forget about being inspired. What you want to be . . . No, what you NEED to be is DRIVEN. You've got to want to do this thing so bad that there are no plausible excuses for not doing what you know, by right, you ought to be doing. A person who is DRIVEN will FIND the time. The man or woman who is truly DRIVEN will DISCIPLINE him or herself."

As far as gifts are concerned, while I do believe the "desire" to create is truly a gift from God. I also believe whether that gift flowers, flounders or simply fades away is entirely up to and contingent upon the efforts of the individual. More often than not, "genius" (unlike salvation and most certainly not to be confused with such) is a gift that is earned.

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Disclaimer: I try not to give too much advice about writing. First of all, I have no educational background or formal training in English/Lit. Matter of fact, I'm fairly hellbent on breaking as many of the "rules" as I possibly can, while still being somewhat coherent. Second, until I actually have a book or two on the shelves, I think it would be wise to refrain from instructing others on what it takes to achieve such (smile).

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