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From “Alabama” to A Love Supreme: The evolution of the John Coltrane poem

The Southern Review; 3/22/1996; Feinstein, Sascha

On SEPTEMBER 15, 1963, in Birmingham, Alabama, a Klansman known as “Dynamite Bob” detonated several sticks of dynamite in a local church. The explosion wounded several parishioners and killed four girls. Three of them were fourteen years old, the fourth only eleven. In response to this tragedy, the tenor saxophonist John Coltrane composed “Alabama” and recorded it on November 18, just two months after the bombing. According to biographers, Coltrane incorporated not only his emotional response but the rhythms in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s eulogy for the girls. While this tune might be considered overtly political, Coltrane throughout his career made no direct statements about his association with the Civil Rights Movement. Nevertheless, outspoken African-American poets of the 1960s adopted Coltrane’s sound as the musical embodiment of black nationalism in the United States.

Born in North Carolina in 1926, Coltrane spent his life in a relentless exploration of musical ideas and sounds. His career is often separated, roughly, into three periods: from the ’50s through 1960, from 1960 to 1965, and from 1965 to his death in 1967–each a step in Coltrane’s development toward the freest forms of jazz and, on a personal level, the most spiritual forms of expression. He began as a sideman for bebop pioneers, recording with Dizzy Gillespie’s orchestra as early as 1949. In the mid-’50s Coltrane became a member of the Miles Davis quintet, and in 1957 he worked closely with Thelonious Monk, whose compositions and unexpected musical transitions (often improvised during performances) extended Coltrane’s understanding of harmonics and alternative chordal progressions. Shortly thereafter Coltrane began recording as a leader. His first major breakthrough came in 1960, when he began to shape and control with maturity his driving, intimidatingly rapid musical phrases. At this time he established what became known as the “classic quartet”: Coltrane on tenor and soprano saxophones, McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, and the explosive Elvin Jones on drums. From 1960 to 1965, this quartet recorded many albums, three of which have become primary sources for poetic inspiration: My Favorite Things (1960), Coltrane “Live” at Birdland (1964), and A Love Supreme (1964), a virtual anthem for poets such as Michael Harper.

The new sound of the quartet featured an unmatched percussive pulse generated in part by Jones’s unfailing energy. Coltrane enhanced and countered the almost overpowering rhythm section with his elastic and dexterous use of harmonics. In 1963, Amiri Baraka (then known as LeRoi Jones) wrote, “They, the notes, came so fast and with so many overtones and undertones, that they had the effect of a piano player striking chords rapidly but somehow articulating separately each note in the chord and its vibrating sub-tones.” From 1965 until his death, Coltrane became a pioneering figure in free jazz in his search, as John Litweiler put it, for a still greater “release from rhythmic and harmonic constraints.”

Kimberly W. Benston’s essay “Late Coltrane: A Re-Membering of Orpheus” points out that “The ‘Coltrane poem’ has, in fact, become an unmistakable genre in black poetry,” and this is certainly supported by Stephen Henderson’s Understanding the New Black Poetry (1972), which includes a number of Coltrane-related poems. In “Baraka’s ‘AM/TRAK’: Everybody’s Coltrane Poem,” Henry Lacey goes so far as to say that “the poem in homage to John Coltrane became

in the ’60s

an expected piece in the repertoire of the Black poet,” and this attitude prompted Sam Greenlee to write rather bitterly in his “Memorial for Trane” (1971): “Yeah, man,/ I’ll help out/ with the/ memorial for/ Trane./ But, I wonder/ how come/ a people/ who dig life/ so much/ spend/ so much/ time/ praising the dead?”

Coltrane was forty when he died of liver cancer, and most of the early Coltrane poems appeared between 1967 and 1969, as posthumous reflections. His premature death immediately became identified with the losses of other African-American leaders, most notably Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. Frank Kofsky’s Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music (1970) compares Coltrane and Malcolm X time and time again in their depth of influence on African-American culture and, more important, as men who shared a desire to revolt against racial and social oppression. Kofsky spends much time discussing “Malcolm’s great symbolic significance for the new generation of black musicians and his own evident identification with the black jazz artist.” Yet when Kobky interviewed the musician he “worshipped as a saint or even a god” in 1966, Coltrane focused on his music and the creative act, resisting Kofsky’s tendentiously political questions.

Whatever uncertainty may linger regarding Coltrane’s political views, there is none about the association, as seen in the poetry of that decade, between his music (particularly from the mid-’60s) and the black revolution as led by Malcolm X. Ebon’s Revolution: A Poem (1968), for example, begins with “Legacy: In Memory of ‘Trane,” and Amiri Baraka’s “AM/TRAK” makes the analogy in no uncertain terms: “Trane was the spirit of the 60’s/He was Malcolm X in New Super Bop Fire.” In the liner notes for Coltrane “Live” at Birdland, Baraka makes ironic, sweeping generalizations about the U.S. in the early ’60s: “One of the most bafffing things about America is that despite its essentially vile profile, so much beauty continues to exist here.” Baraka interprets Coltrane’s music in this light, linking the direct, aggressive sound of Coltrane’s tenor with the political temperament of the time.

Baraka’s most ambitious Coltrane poem is “AM/TRAK,” which Lacey explains “is on one level a concise biography of John Coltrane…and traces the musician’s apprenticeships in various bands, influences on his musical development, his battles with drugs and alcohol, the hostility of critics, and, finally, the triumphant achievement of the great John Coltrane Quartet.” Presented in five sections, “AM/TRAK” first introduces Coltrane’s legacy with enormous yet intense generalities: “Scream History Love/ Trane.” The second section sketches his early career, with emphasis on the demoralizing gigs in which he had to “walk the bars” at nightclubs while spouting honky-tonk licks, and his earliest musical heroes, “Rabbit, Cleanhead, Diz.” There is also a brief mention of alcohol abuse, all leading to his association with Davis’s quintet: “Oh/ scream-Miles/ comes.” This is the link to section three, near the beginning of which we find, “Miles would stand back and negative check/ oh, he dug him–Trane.” The passage also includes one of many hostile reactions to Coltrane’s innovative style: “Trane you blows too long.” Section four presents what Baraka calls “Coltrane’s College”: the shortlived, astonishing collaborations with Thelonious Monk.

But it is in the fifth and final section, by far the longest, that the poem really opens up. Like Coltrane’s musical explorations, which evolved with stunning rapidity after 1960, this passage in “AM/TRAK” begins with the establishment of the classic quartet (“the inimitable 4”) and presents Coltrane as the sound of the times, a “black blower of the now.” For Baraka, as for many contemporary African-American poets, Coltrane articulated the passion of a decade remembered for extreme expressions of and attacks against racism. Having described these credentials, Baraka then summarizes Coltrane’s career (the Philly bars, the years with Miles and Monk) and mentions important recordings (“Mediations,” “Expressions,” “A Love supreme”) before turning to his death in 1967, during the summer of the Newark riots, when Baraka was in jail: “I lay in solitary confinement.” The poem does not conclude, however, with this sense of isolation, mistreatment, and loss. Instead, Coltrane becomes a martyr, an ever-present inspiration to whom Baraka turns while in jail, and, by implication, throughout his life:

And yet last night I played Meditations

it told me what to do

Live, you crazy mother

fucker]

Live]

In The Jazz Aesthetic: The Poetry and Poetics of Amiri Baraka, William Harris argues that jazz influenced Baraka’s poetics, that his fractured lineation is analogous to Coltrane’s restructuring of musical sensibilities. Harris begins by discussing Coltrane’s version of “Nature Boy” from The John Coltrane Quartet Plays (1965):

Coltrane takes a weak Western form, a popular song, and murders it; that is, he mutilates and disembowels this shallow but bouncy tune by using discordant and aggressive sounds to attack and destroy the melody line. The angry black music devours and vomits up the fragments of the white corpse.

Harris then compares Coltrane’s method with the poet’s:

Baraka also wants to take weak Western forms, rip them asunder, and create something new out of rubble. He transposes Coltrane’s musical ideas to poetry using them to turn white poetic forms backwards and upside down. This murderous impulse is behind all the forms of Baraka’s aesthetic and art.

Baraka’s influence, in his approach to “murdering” the Western forms of poetry and in his passion for jazz, can be seen in scores of African-American writers, including A, B. Spellman, who has also made contributions as a jazz critic and scholar, Spellman’s poem “did john’s music kill him?” first appeared in Stephen Henderson’s essay “Survival Motion,” from The Militant Black Writer in Africa and the United States (1969), In the first stanza, Spellman sketches the members of Coltrane’s quintet–Garrison, Tyner, Jones, and Eric Dolphy on reeds–as a dramatic introduction for the poem’s subject: “then john, little old lady/ had a nasey mouth. summertime/ when the war is. africa ululating.” The song title trace back to Coltrane’s first transition period–“Little Old Lady” from Coltrane Jazz (1960), “Summertime” from My Favorite Things (1960), and “Africa” from African Brass (1961)–and the poem maintains the stance that Coltrane unfailingly confronted the horrors of daily life and transformed them into haunting music, Like Baraka’s “AM/TRAK,” the poem concludes with a gesture of spiritual rebirth: “o john death will/ not contain you.”

Using Spellman’s poem as an entree to his subject, Henderson writes, “What Coltrane signifies for black people because of the breadth of his vision and the incredible energy behind his spiritual quest, Malcolm X signifies in another way–not as musician, but simply and profoundly as black man, as Black Experience, and that experience in process of discovering itself, of celebrating itself.” He then compares Malcolm X to Martin Luther King–“Nonviolence was not natural, Selfdefense was”–and, with persuasive examples, shows how King’s philosophy made him seem, at times, put of touch with the general black populace, “The abstractions of brotherhood and universal love,” Henderson writes, “were difficult to believe in after a day with the Man, or after a night with the blues.” Like Malcolm X’s unflinching views on oppression, Coltrane’s music represented an unsentimental look at humanity, and popular songs of the time (“My Favorite Things,” “Summertime,” “Nature Boy”) became vehicles for his musical explorations.

In “Homage to John Coltrane” (This Is Our Music, 1969), the white poet John Sinclair referred to Coltrane’s “SCREAM/ for the time,” and certainly one cannot deny that the ’60s was a decade of anxiety for all races, But in the Coltrane poetry, the “scream” is most often not for “the time”; it is, instead, the angry expression of African-American demands for justice, for equality of opportunity, The bold verse of the late ’60s–unlike the understated poems of so many black predecessors underscored the new forthrightness, the new militancy, of the Civil Rights cause, Coltrane’s sound was frequently described as a scream, and the scream became, in some cases, a way to vent outrage at the white establishment, as in Sonia Sancz’s “a/coltrane/poem” from We a BaddDDD People (1970), The poem begins with a relatively quiet voice, invoking the lullaby “are u sleepen/ are u sleepen/ brotha john/ brotha john,” which Sanchez notes in the margin is “to be sung softly.” But in “the quiet/ aftermath of assassinations” and “the massacre/ of all blk/ musicians,” Sanchez attempts to create a phonetic equivalent to the explosive sound of Coltrane’s sax: “scrEEEccCHHHHH screeeeEEECHHHHHHH/ sCReeeEEECHHHHHH SCREEEECCCCHHHH/ SCREEEEEEEECCCVIHHHHHHHHHH/ a lovesuprernealovesupremealovesupreme for our blk/ people.” This is followed by an expression of political fury:

BRING IN THE WITE/MOTHA/fuckas

ALL THE MILLIONAIRES/BANKERS/ol

MAIN /LINE/ASS/RISTOCRATS (ALL

THEM SO-CALLED BEAUTIFUL

PEOPLE)

WHO HAVE KILLED

WILL CONTINUE TO

KILL US WITH

THEY CAPITALISM/18% OWNERSHIP

OF THE WORLD.

The dramatic tonal shift in “a/coltrane/poem” is not atypical for Coltrane poems from the ’60s, and in some ways the form mimics the sound of Coltrane, who often began with a simply stated melodic line and then charged into his solos. Larry Neal’s “Orishas” (Black Boogaloo, 1969), for example, begins almost serenely: “Is the eternal voice, Coltrane is.” Yet the poem goes on to express revolutionary rage and aggression: “kill. kill. kill./ …ancestral demons swhirl in the noise: swear in blood, accept nothing less than the death/ of your enemies.” Donald L. Graham (also known as Dante) begins his poem “soul” with condescension and anger for white musicians who, drawn to Coltrane’s innovations, tried to appropriate a sound, even a culture, about which they knew nothing:

coltrane must understand how

i feel when i hear

some un-sunned-be-bop-j azz-man

try

to find the cause of a man’s hurt

The second half of Graham’s “Poem for Eric Dolphy” again broadcasts its radically antiwhite stance, at the same time interpreting the “scream” of Dolphy’s (and Coltrane’s) horn:

you sang for black babies in apartment

buildings, drunks pissing in the halls

and black chicks doing back-bends for

pink men with slimy lips

i didn’t know, i didn’t know you or malcolm

or patrice or trane or me

had i known

i would have said

you’re a bad muthafucka

Graham’s empathy for lower-class African-Americans might be compared to Carolyn Rodgers’s in “5 Winos” (Songs of a Black Bird, 1969), which concludes: “a bottle screams on the concrete,/ scattering their mouths and juggling/ their music into the most carefully/ constructed a-melodic coln-ane psalm….” In “Me, In Kulu Se, & Karma,” Rodgers once again invokes Coltrane’s sound, this time in a first-person narrative: “it’s me and my/ ears forgetting how to listen and just feeling oh/ yeah me i am screammmmming into the box.”

Perhaps the best-known poem that equates Coltrane’s sound with vocal outcries is the title poem to Haki Madhubuti’s Don’t Cry, Scream (published in 1969 under the name Don L. Lee). Subtitled “(for John Coltrane/ from a black poet/ in a basement apt. crying dry tears of ‘you ain’t gone’),” the poem begins with Coltrane’s emergence (“into the sixties/ a trane/ came”), followed by expressions of pain and oppression (“music that ached/ murdered our minds (we reborn)/ born into

neoteric aberration”). Like Sanchez, Madhubuti takes his cue from Coltrane’s music (in this case the album Ascension, from the freest period of his career) and interprets the sound as a rebellious holler:

the blues exhibited illusions of manhood.

destroyed by you. Ascension into:

scream-eeeeeeeeeeeeee-ing sing

SCREAM-EEEeeeeeeeeeeeing loud

SC REAM-EEEEEEEEEEEEEE-ing long with

feeling

Similarly, Askia Muhammad Toure’s poem “Extension,” written in honor of Malcolm X, ends with free jazz–performed by Sun Ra, Pharoah Sanders, Coltrane, and Milford Graves–as the catalyst for statemenes of freedom: “Let the Black Nation Rise]” Amid violence and assassinations, the age demanded a renewed sense of pride suggested in Baraka’s “AM/TRAK” and expressed still mare clearly in Jayne Cortez’s “How Long Has Trane Been Gone?”:

Rip those dead white people off

your walls Black People

black people whose walls

should be a hall

A Black Hall Of Fame

so our children will know

will know & be proud

Proud to say I’m from Parker City–Coltrane City–Omette City

Pharoah City living on Holiday street next to

James Brown park in the State of Malcolm

Baraka, Cortez, Sanchez, Madhubuti, and Spellman continue to publish, but while their most recent poetry may be no less angry, it is no longer as shocking or as revolutionary. In many respects, the volatile and outspoken Coltrane poems of the ’60s allowed subsequent writers to be less overtly political; at the very least, they allowed the poets who followed to concentrate on the rich legacy of jazz rather than the static intensities of rage.

Michael S. Harpers the ultimate example of a poet who embraced the drive behind the earlier Coltrane poems, but presented these sensibilities in a more controlled poetic voice. It’s fair to say that Harper–who since the publication in 1970 of his first book,. Dear John, Dear Coltrane, has often been referred to as “the Coltrane poet”–became the dominant figure in jazz poetry of the ’70s. Even now, twenty-five years later, Harper’s greatest inspiration remains the music and presence of John Coltrane.

Like the work of his mentor, Sterling Brown, Harper’s poetry is often political without being governed by an agenda (the way, for example, “AM/TRAK” tries to manipulate Coltrane into a proponent of Marxism). Harper’s use of jazz requires an intimate knowledge of the music’s history, and his references to musicians or songs demand complex and well-informed associative responses. “Ode to Tenochtitlan,” from Dear John, Dear Coltrane, typifies this collagelike structure. Harper dedicates the poem to and describes the daring actions of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who during medal ceremonies in the 1968 Summer Oympics shocked the world by raising triumphant fists gloved in black. Harper pays these men his greatest compliment: “they stand before Coltrane.”

The title poem from that book begins with the epigraph “a love supreme, a love supreme.” Though not recorded until 1964, A Love Supreme germinated from Coltrane’s spiritual and physical cleansing in 1957. It was a pivotal year: he left the Davis quintet and performed and recorded with Monk. He also quit his three vices–smoking, drinking, and heroin–a life-threatening achievement for which, in his liner notes for A Love Supreme, he praised the strength of God. Coltrane divided his composition into four sections–“Acknowledgement,” “Resolution,” “Pursuance,” and “Psalm”–and near the end of the first movement the musicians begin to sing “a love supreme, a love supreme.”

On tape and at readings, Harper chants those precise pitches and rhythms, evoking the song’s vitality; and like the ostinato bass line in the song, the phrase “a love supreme” recurs throughout “Dear John, Dear Coltrane,” first as an epigraph and finally as a coda. The poem begins with the fractured images of “Sex fingers toes” and then introduces Coltrane’s childhood: his home in North Carolina, his father’s church. Yet the fragments in the first line might suggest a larger, more universal African-American history that Coltrane shares and, for Narper, represents. “The appendages in the marketplace,” explains Robert Stepto, “in all their suggestiveness of barter and sale as well as of unrealized craftsmanship and art-making, may be Coltrane’s, but most certainly they are, in the historical continuum, the fingers, toes, and sex of slaves in the pen and on the block.” As Harper states in his liner notes to a reissued collection of Coltrane’s music, “The poem begins with a catalogue of sexual trophies, for whites, a lesson to blacks not to assert their manhood, and that black men are suspect because they are potent.” For Coltrane, repressed sexuality has its outlet in jazz. “There is no substitute for pain,” Marper says, and from that pain, “by river through swamps,” emerges a chant, a song of hope if not salvation, a pulse: “a love supreme, a love supreme.”

If the first stanza of “Dear John, Dear Coltrane” acknowledges pain, the second describes relief through art. Yet the poem presents an engaging oxymoron: if the jazz musician expends sexuality in performance, then the player becomes spent, impotent; yet it is this new, odd variant on sublimation that revitalizes the performer. The reference to Coltrane’s “genitals gone or going,/ seed burned out” suggests that the self purification “that makes you clean” results from a devouring of one’s fertility. Coltrane energizes his sound from the raw resources of his soul; “genitals and sweat” nourish “the tenor sax cannibal/ heart.” If, as Harper implies, Coltrane cannot assert his manhood because he is so potent, then the artist must use “impotence” to “fuel” his music.

The third stanza, all in italics, acts as a song within the poem. It is vocal. “The antiphonal, call-response/ retort stanza,” Harper explains, “simulates the black church, and gives the answer to renewal to any question–’cause I am.'” In part, Harper refers to Coltrane’s father’s church, yet “cause I am” is more than a rhythmic pattern; it is an expansive answer, with the “I” encompassing “all.” If only momentarily, the stanza releases the tension in the poem.

But in the final stanza, Harper shifts from the abstract to the specific–to the end of Coltrane’s life, when his cancerous liver became increasingly painful and debilitating. The opening lines of this stanza–“So sick/ you couldn’t play Naima”–are particularly poignant, for “Naima” remained a favorite composition, one Coltrane wrote to express his love for his first wife. Coltrane continued to use the song as a source of development.

The poem repeatedly asserts that “there is no substitute for pain,” for out of pain arises purity. The “tenor sax cannibal/ heart” from the second stanza is transformed in the fourth into “the inflated heart,” “the tenor kiss.” The poem concludes in “tenor love,” “a love supreme.” The four sections of “Dear John, Dear Coltrane” create, then, a significant progression: a recognition of disease and pain; the hope that one can become “clean” through impotence; a vocal repetition that strives to answer all questions; and, finally, praise for the purity that results from pain, a prayerful affirmation of spirituality. Indeed, the poem is structured like A Love supreme–in four parts that, as a whole, strive for a supreme love: Acknowledgement, Resolution, Pursuance, Psalm.

In “Here Where Coltrane Is,” from Harper’s second book (History Is Your Own Heartbet, 1971), the poet again juxtaposes dissimilar and evocative imagery while maintaining a strong narrative. Like so many of Harper’s works, this poem presents pain–a speaker who, suffering from the cold of winter and, worse, from witnessing the death of a relative, turns to Coltrane’s music for solace:

I play “Alabama”

on a warped record player

skipping the scratches

on your faces over the fibrous

conical hairs of plastic

under the wooden floors.

The musical elegy enables the speaker to face his own tragedy, and the poem concludes with a reference to Coltrane in the process of composing:

Dreaming on a train from New York

to Philly, you hand out six

notes which become an anthem

to our memories of you:

oak, birch, maple,

apple, cocoa, rubber.

For this reason Martin is dead;

for this reason Malcolm is dead;

for this reason Coltrane is dead;

in the eyes of my first son are the browns

of these men and their music.

The ending suggests these men have died because of their race. But it is also a testimony to those who expend themselves for issues broader and more significant than any individual life. For this reason if no other they need to be recognized, to be welcomed.

Indeed, Harper’s “Welcome,” from Dear John, Dear Coltrane, invokes Coltrane indirectly–“Now tenor kiss/ ‘Welcome’/ tenor love”–and reads like a plea for jazz to be embraced. Fortunately, in the last fifteen years there has been a radical shift in acceptance; even the tiny subgenre of “the Coltrane poem” has an international audience. Like African-American poets rebelling against racism, other minority cultures have turned to Coltrane as a musical, if not spiritual, leader. In “Glass,” from Black + Blues (1976), for example, the West Indian poet Edward Kamau Brathwaite offers a political observation that makes the ’60s sound like a dream deferred:

i hear them screaming

REVOLUTION

as the world revolves round

marcus malcolm mississippi memphis

but there aint no vein of revolution

only the blues

and coltrane’s gospel pain

In 1969, John Taggart edited Maps #3: Poems for John Coltrane, which includes poems by eighteen writers. Three of he works appear in Spanish as well as in translation: Fernando Arbelaez’s “Aire de Blue Para Coltrane,” J. G. Cobo-Borda’s “Coltrane,” and Jaime Ferran’s “Coltrane Blues.” In Japan, Kazuko Shiraishi remains the best-known poet writing about jazz, and Seasons of Sacred Lust (1978) includes her lengthy tribute, “Dedicated to the Late John Coltrane,” in which the musician’s magnificence makes him seem a part of nature: “Coltrane almost became a sky.” Asian-Americans have also turned to Coltrane for inspiration, as seen in Garrett Hongo’s “Roots” (Yellow Light, 1982), in which the speaker, who at one point says, “So now I study spells in Sanskrit/ and memorize a tenor sax lick,” later unites the seemingly disparate impulses: “my sutra comes around midnight,/ and I chant it to the tune of ‘A Love Supreme.’ ” In 1990 Joy Harjo, one of the strongest contemporary Native American poets, published In Mad Love and War, which includes “Healing Animal,” where Coltrane’s music becomes “the collected heartbeat” of a Papago tribe.

The tone of the Coltrane poem has become noticeably less antiwhite, and not so visually aggressive on the page, but the politics of the ’60s have not been abandoned by more recent poets, nor has the church bombing from 1963 been forgotten. Tom Dent’s “Coltrane’s Alabama” (Blue Lights and River Songs, 1982) begins somewhat obviously (“yes, Coltrane/ it is a woeful song/ you sing”) but departs from the biographical elements and sustains a metaphor of mud and flood: “it is raintime/ woetime/ & the flood cannot/ wash/ the blood/ away.” In Jan Selving’s “Dancing to Ellington” (The Jazz Poetry Anthology, 1991), the speaker describes her father, a doctor “who years later/ would tell me he couldn’t bear/ to have supper with us/ after seeing a 17-year-old/ patient with his skull caved in.” Ellington’s “Fleurette Africaine” inspires the father’s release of tension, but it is Coltrane’s “Alabama” that allows the speaker to “remember those nights/ I followed the sound of jazz/ to the place I could watch/ my father dance.”

What these varied poems share is the desire to give this musical genius a still wider audience. In This Is Our Music (1965), John Sinclair published his “Homage to John Coltrane,” one of the few tributes to appear during the musician’s lifetime. The poet implores Coltrane to “teach us to stand/ like men/ in the face of the most devas-/tating insensi-/ tivity.” For a quarter of a century, more poets have responded to Coltrane’s music than to that of any other jazz figure. Beyond politics, beyond race or gender, there exists a profound admiration for this musician, which is why so many of these poems plead with their readers to acknowledge the spirituality he sought to attain in works such as A Love Sureme. This plea takes many forms in the history of the Coltrane poem, from the conclusion of Sanchez’s “a/coltrane/poem”–“a love supreme./ for each/ other/ if we just/ lissssssSSSTEN”–to the persistent rhythms in Michael Stillman’s “In Memoriam John Coltrane” (The Jazz Poetry Anthology, 1991):

Listen to the coal

rolling, rolling through the cold

steady rain, wheel on

wheel, listen to the

turning of the wheels this night

black as coal dust, steel

on steel, listen to

these cars carry coal, listen

to the coal train roll.

2 comments

  1. Great work.
    Do you know where I might secure a copy of Baraka’s AM/TRAK set to music. I’ve heard it but only because a musician friend of mine shared it with me years ago.

    Thanks.

    J.B.


  2. […] out this great post for tons more info.  It’s where I found these great poems, and the history behind it so […]



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