Someone somewhere famously said that jazz is the quintessentially American music. It seems appropriate, then, to have listened to some jazz over the July 4th weekend. The question becomes, of course, what kind of jazz music would be appropriate for the quintessential midsummer holiday.
I listened to two albums this weekend that feel to me as American as anything in my regular rotation and provided an excellent backdrop to summertime reading.
The first two come as a pair: John Coltrane’s “Live” at the Village Vanguard (1962) and Coltrane Live at the Village Vanguard Again! (1966).
The former is a classic early-1960s John Coltrane album featuring McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, and Elvin Jones (and Eric Dolphy and Reggie Workman on “Spiritual” and Workman on “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise”). Critics and historians often regard this album as charting Coltrane’s new direction featuring sheets of sound and wild improvisations nevertheless anchored in certain recognizable rhythmic and (apparently) chordal and harmonic structures. I find myself trusting the critics with their musical assessment of Coltrane’s 1960s outputs. For a lay-listener, “Chasin’ the Trane” is nothing short of a spiritual encounter which would define Coltrane’s sonic directions for the rest of his life.
The second album from the Village Vanguard presents Coltrane’s “new sound” in its mid-1960s maturity. It features Pharoah Sanders, Alice Coltrane, Jimmy Garrison, and Rashied Ali who had played with Coltrane on Meditations and were coalescing into a new quintet deeply committed to Coltrane’s sound and vision. The interplay between Sanders and Coltrane is remarkable with their distinctive tones and approaches to a kind of vibrant, meditative jazz. Jimmy Garrison’s long introduction to “My Favorite Things” gave me a chance to appreciate his style as well. The album is not chill, but maybe July 4th isn’t so much a chill holiday but a kind of call to action with one foot in the past (note Coltrane plays “Naima” and “Favorite Things”) and one foot stepping into the future.
These two albums offer a window into the sound of one of America’s greatest musicians and seem to be a perfect place to spend July 4th musically. The tension, the excitement, and, above all, the deeply spiritual impulse behind this music embodies so much of the American experience in ways that, say, conventional history or holiday rituals cannot. At a time where America’s promise feels at particular risk or feels particularly uneven in its distribution, this kind of music offers both a reminder that the struggle continues and that it both relies upon and feeds a kind of spirituality that offers an opportunity for transcendence.