On Spirituality in John Coltrane’s Ascension:
Comments by Contemporary Critics
American jazz saxophonist and composer John Coltrane was one of the most influential artists in jazz history. Coltrane’s music flowed from mainstream accessibility to the avant-garde, as heard in his more than fifty recordings as a leader, and as a sideman for, among others, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk.
Metronome, Vol. 78 No. 12 (December 1961): 34.
Over the course of his career, Coltrane’s music expressed a heightened spiritual dimension. Recorded in 1965 and released in 1966, the album Ascension represents a remarkable example of this spirituality, signaling a departure from more structured forms into an expanded, free jazz setting. The album is a continuous 40-minute uninterrupted performance with solo and ensemble passages. Ascension‘s eleven-piece ensemble was anchored by members of Coltrane’s “Classic Quartet”—McCoy Tyner (piano), Jimmy Garrison (bass), and Elvin Jones (drums)—alongside a roster of then mostly young, up-and-coming horn players, including Freddie Hubbard (trumpet), Pharoah Sanders and Archie Shepp (tenor saxophone).
In order to better capture the difference in Coltrane’s styles, compare this example, Blue Train, released in 1958, with Ascension, further below, recorded about seven years later.
Gripped by Ascension‘s artistry and spirituality, three writers attempted, in their own way, to encapsulate in words what Coltrane and his colleagues captured with sound. Their writings appeared in the avant-garde jazz journal Change, a product of the Detroit Artists’ Workshop.
Listen to Ascension as you read selected portions of these reviews.
Currently Professor at the College of Humanities and Fine Arts at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Ron Welburn was an active jazz critic (and poet) during the 1960s and 70s. He reviewed jazz recordings for JazzTimes and Down Beat, as well as founded his own jazz journal, The Grackle: Improvised Music in Transition, published in Brooklyn, New York from 1976 to 1979. He also coordinated the Jazz Oral History Project at the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University.
Change, Vol. 1 No. 2 (1966): 92.
Dave Sinclair is perhaps best known as the brother of John Sinclair, leader of the 1960s counterculture movement in Michigan, and an organizer of radical social and political ventures in the areas of music, poetry, graphic design, and community welfare projects. During the 1960s and 1970s John Sinclair founded or was active in a variety of political and cultural groups including the Artists’ Workshop in Detroit, which founded Change, and the White Panther Party. Dave Sinclair was also the manager of The UP, a proto-punk rock band founded in 1967 which, for a time, lived in John Sinclair’s commune.
Jerry (J. B.) Figi was a Chicago-based writer, poet, and jazz critic. In an obituary published in 1999, John Litweiler wrote, “He was not a prolific writer, but he certainly was an influential one. His work first began appearing in small magazines in the early 1960s. He also wrote for John and Leni Sinclair’s short-lived Change, which was devoted to the new jazz of the mid-’60s.” Figi would later serve as one of the directors for the Jazz Institute of Chicago, working on, amongst other things, the Chicago Jazz Festival.
John Coltrane was born on 23 September 1926 in Hamlet, North Carolina. He died on 17 July 1967 in Huntington, New York.
Happy Birthday, Mr. Coltrane, and thank you!
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RIPM is an international non-profit organization preserving and providing access to music periodicals published in more than twenty countries between approximately 1760 and 1966, from Bach to Bernstein. Functioning under the auspices of the International Musicological Society, and the International Association of Music Libraries, Archives, and Documentation Centres, RIPM produces four electronic publications: Retrospective Index to Music Periodicals, Retrospective Index to Music Periodicals with Full Text, European and North American Music Periodicals (Preservation Series), and RIPM Jazz Periodicals (Preservation Series, forthcoming).