The Music Blog: Miles and Coltrane

When I was fresh out of school, degree in hand and knowing the path I wanted to be on I changed jobs from a small group home to a large orphanage type place. I don’t know if it was really an orphanage since I have never worked in another, but that’s the easiest description I can make. Technically it was called a home but with about 50 children male and female very young to twelve years of age living there, all wards of the state, it felt more like an orphanage and less like a home. We, meaning the staff, did our utmost best to making that place as loving as possible. I remember going to the cafeteria where the cooks tried so hard to make meals that those kids would love and didn’t mind giving out some good portions. They would talk to the kids and the group leaders going through the line. I always tried to bring them something now and again, flowers to tell them I appreciated what they did. Almost all of the kids who lived there had a history of severe abuse from biological parents and then for most abuse from the foster parents that were supposed to take care of them. Many had failed adoptions, some more than one. They were scarred physically and emotionally. Reading their social histories and their medical histories it was easy to wonder why some of them were not dead. It was a wonder why any found anything to smile about or who could trust another adult. They had trouble forming relationships and maintaining them. Any transgression that went against their trust and you were done for because they didn’t give a lot of second chances. The children were divided up in small groups of 4 or 5 depending on age and I had the oldest group of boys. I was a group leader a fancy name for someone that had primary responsibility for a group of children. I was the primary group leader meaning I was there Monday through Friday. If the kids needed to go somewhere off campus I took them if they needed to spend some money from their state money which would accumulate then I took them and provided guidance while they shopped. It was a 40 hour a week job except that it took a lot more than 40 hours. Most of us worked double shifts or worked extra shifts on weekends. It was hard to keep staff and you ended up giving parts of your soul to that place. You almost felt compelled to pop in now and again just to check on your kids or say hello. I once stopped in the middle of a date. Every once in a while the kids would really revolt sometimes on the weekends and they would call people in. Nights were the worst these kids didn’t want to go to sleep and I didn’t want to know their dreams, their nightmares. Every night someone had trouble and every night at least one group leader would be in the hall charting and have a kid sleeping beside them. Some of us chose to chart after they were really asleep and would lay in the floor of the kids’ room so they knew that you were there and that they were safe. It was a sad place and a happy place.

We had a group leader that working there was her entire life. She set herself up as the Queen of the group leaders, worked as a relief supervisor. I don’t know how many hours she worked. She didn’t look healthy, pale, stringy hair that always looked unwashed and overweight that spoke volumes about what she ate and what she didn’t if you can understand that. I thought her hygiene questionable her devotion almost unhealthy. She was a favorite of the Director of Children’s Services and in hindsight I am sure she knew the girl and the girl’s family and her history and was watching over her. The supervisor who I was good friends with was pretty concerned and because she could not be everywhere I was her eyes on the floor. I taught all the classes on dealing with aggressive behaviors. I was sent and certified as an instructor, just a way to make extra money. This group leader had a tough group of kids 7 and 8 year olds and she demanded quiet and would get in the face of other group leaders. She tried to do this to me one time and I said no, don’t do that and walked away and she never did again. At night she would lay in her boys room and play Kenny G’s Songbird. I had been thinking of bringing some Mozart for bedtime but Kenny G seemed to work well. One day I arrived to work and there was a lot of activity because the girl, this group leader had shown up and had a complete mental breakdown. Her family was called and they took her for treatment and she never came back. I bought Kenny G the next day. It was my first jazz album.

There is a line from the movie Mr. Holland’s Opus. Mr. Holland comes home and he is frustrated because he doesn’t want to be a teacher he wants to write music, he wants to compose. His wife then tells him that she is pregnant and his reaction is less than joyful. Realizing he has screwed up he comes to her and she is so distressed. He says that when he was a kid he used to visit this record store and the guy who owned it thought he knew what he liked and so he gave him this record and said listen to this. It was John Coltrane. So he took the record home, listened to it and hated it. So he played it again and hated it. So he played it again and he played it again until he just didn’t want to stop playing it.

Now the scene is more about him learning of pending fatherhood but his description of Coltrane actually applies to a lot of jazz. My journey into jazz branched out rather quickly from Kenny G, to David Sanborn, to the Crusaders, to the Rippingtons, to the Yellow Jackets. I understood that the jazz of the 80’s and later the early 90’s was a trimmed down, sleek overproduced jazz. It wasn’t what I imagined. I liked the music but I knew that jazz had a lot more to offer but was I willing to go there. Quite honestly I thought it would be a lot like diving into the blues. Going back into the history of the blues and discovering Robert Johnson, or Charley Patton, Big Bill Broonzy and each time you pull from the well it makes you want to go back for more. Jazz is not like that. If I knew then, what I know now, I could have provided myself a little more guidance. Hey check out Art Blakey you will love him. I didn’t trust the advice of others mostly because to them jazz was all about that quiet storm music that was current. None of my friends who listened to jazz had ever heard a John Coltrane song. My first venture though struck gold with a compilation cassette called Miles and Coltrane. I was walking through the jazz section at sound warehouse and came across this gem. It gave me a little history on two of the greatest jazz performers to ever walk the planet, to ever grace us with a note.

A lot of people do not know that Coltrane played with Miles Davis. He actually played with him twice, early in his career and then later for one brilliant moment in time. Early in his career he began playing with Miles Davis first great band. Jazz was all about Miles Davis at this time, but Coltrane was literally a side man a support player, unspectacular except that he was so damn good. Coltrane was still making his way trying to decide which direction his own music might take. Davis was the big innovator in jazz in a time when innovation and that free playing style that always leads to great things was going full tilt. Coltrane though became addicted to heroin and left Miles Davis. They parted on good terms. Coltrane mostly disappeared although he played a bit with Thelonious Monk a kindred spirit in what came next. Monk and Coltrane were every bit as important for jazz as Davis and Coltrane. Monk helped lay the foundation for Coltrane for what came next and what came next set jazz on its ears or maybe a better description on its ass. When Coltrane returned he created a style that influenced everyone from Davis to Blakey to Monk to Adderley and a hundred other players.

Most critics and jazz lovers agree that Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue if not the greatest jazz album of all time is certainly one of them. Now to my 4 ½ readers you already know that I think Ornette Ceoleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come is the greatest jazz album of all time. Just so you know, critics are with me in believing that record is one of the greatest jazz albums of all time, most have it in the top ten so it’s not like I am coming from left field on this. As far as Miles Davis is concerned I have always loved Sketches of Spain more than Kind of Blue, and mostly because of all those Latin rhythms. No doubt Dizzy Gillespie also really enjoyed that album because his music is full of Latin influences. So before you get all squirrely on me and say I just want to be difficult Kind of Blue is just simply drop dead amazing. I get thrilled at this time in my music collection because in multiple genres some of my favorite artists reside right where I am at and Miles Davis is certainly one of those.

For the more casual jazz listener or someone who just loves Miles Davis and has yet to branch out Kind of Blue is as much if not more about John Coltrane than it is about Miles Davis. Take Coltrane from Davis’ band at that time and Kind of Blue probably doesn’t register as anything but another Miles Davis great album but it won’t be considered the greatest of all time, an album that has reverbing effects not only on jazz but on other genres. Coltrane was about to set the world on fire. Sometime in late 1958 or early 1959 John Coltrane returned from the dark and rejoined Miles Davis. He didn’t stay long just long enough. The work that he had done with Thelonious Monk had charged his mind on what could be done with jazz. Whatever he was before, John Coltrane was transformed when he returned to Miles Davis a completely different saxophonist.

Now Miles Davis is the master of the long note. One could even say that it was the signature style of Miles Davis. While others played around him in syncopated mastery Davis was always a minimalist when it came to how he played. He would hold notes for various time lengths and it’s beautiful to listen to. No one does it better or even the same. Compared to say Gillespie it’s almost like he isn’t playing at all and I don’t mean that as a slight, just the opposite. Different styles different influences make them two different trumpet players.

So while Davis holds these notes, these long notes on Kind of Blue, here comes Coltrane. Coltrane plays 25, 50 even a hundred notes while Davis plays one or two. Together they hit you with the most perfect syncopation you ever heard, like they invented a special language that only they could speak but by God everyone could understand. It is magical this wall of Coltrane musicality, the notes come at you so fast you don’t know what he is doing. It shreds your senses, leaves you raw. It’s amazing. Kind of Blue is every bit as much about Coltrane as it is about Davis.

Kind of Blue is the only album this new version of John Coltrane would play with Miles Davis. You cannot say he outgrew Davis but he found himself able to stand on his own equal in every way. He was ready to shine. Later on that year in 1959 John Coltrane went on to record another one of the greatest jazz albums of all time Giant Steps. It is an interesting album to listen to, no Miles Davis no Thelonious Monk just Coltrane in all of his glory. I have never understood why people don’t get him. While the story from Mr. Holland’s Opus I find true for a lot of jazz I have never needed to play Coltrane multiple times to like. I have loved him from the first. The quirkiness of my music collection prevents me from listening to Kind of Blue and then Giant Steps back to back. There have been times though when I will pull six or seven of my favorite jazz albums and listen to them. I did this for a girl I was dating. She wanted to learn jazz and while admittedly I am a crappy teacher because I just don’t know enough I can at least pull out some albums and play them. At the end of the day jazz doesn’t need more than that. Just listen to it and if you find yourself hating it, then stop trying to feel something or that you should like it and just listen. That’s all any music really requires, no deep analysis on what the hell the artist was trying to say or what he meant or what they were trying to convey, just listen.

Mike out

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