The image of John Coltrane will loom large over the Playboy Jazz Festival this weekend at the Hollywood Bowl. The impact of his airy sound and dense improvisational style has made him, arguably, the most influential musician of the last four decades. But it has taken the approaching 75th anniversary of his birth (Sept. 23) to trigger some long overdue acknowledgment of his vital importance to jazz.
"You think saxophone for the 20th century and the two principal names that come to mind are Charlie Parker and John Coltrane," says Michael Brecker, who performs on Saturday at the festival in the "Love Supreme Suite" with the Carnegie Hall Orchestra. Few musicians would disagree. But the relatively low visibility accorded Coltrane, and most post-'60s jazz for that matter (with the exception of Wynton Marsalis), in the Ken Burns "Jazz" documentary series has been further diminished by this year's celebration of Miles Davis' 75th birthday.
But with Brecker performing at the festival along with Wayne Shorter and Charles Lloyd--three of the jazz world's most authoritative saxophonists, all impacted by Coltrane's art--the 23rd Playboy Jazz Festival has been invested with the qualities of a Coltrane celebration.
No one is more aware of Coltrane's importance than Brecker, Shorter and Lloyd. Each has created his own powerful individual musical persona, but each is also quick to acknowledge the continuing presence of the colorful palette of Coltrane's influence.
Brecker, 52, vividly recalls his first encounter with that palette.
"It was a recording," he says, "'Live at Birdland.' I was still a teenager, and I hadn't heard anything like that before. I didn't understand his sound, which was harsh to me, and the drums were really crashy. I actually had a friend who bought a Dizzy Gillespie album at the same time, and I liked that one better. But I continued listening to the Coltrane record, and I finally started being able to hear it. I got past what initially sounded harsh to me and starting hearing the beauty in it. It took me a while to be able to understand and appreciate his music, but once that door swung open, it swung wide open."
Lloyd, like Coltrane, started out as an alto saxophonist before switching to the larger, deeper-toned tenor saxophone. Perhaps because of the similarity of that instrumental experience, he found it easy to make an early linkage.
"When I switched from alto to tenor as a kid," says Lloyd, 63, "the two choices of direction were with Trane or with Sonny Rollins. But Trane somehow touched me with the spirituality of his sound, with his seeking. He had this deep spiritual quest and yet he brought the whole of the tradition along with it. And that always moved me about him."
Brecker makes a similar comment regarding the motivating force underlying his selection of Coltrane, rather than Rollins, as a model.
"I loved Sonny Rollins," he says. "I loved his playing--I still--I loved his approach to the tenor, his time, the notes, everything. But there was something transcending that with Coltrane that somehow spoke to me. The only way I can really describe it is to say that it just propelled me."
Shorter, on the other hand, had a more direct contact with Coltrane at a relatively early stage in his career, shortly after he was discharged from his Army service in 1958. It turned out to be an instantly illuminating experience.
"When I met Coltrane," says Shorter, 67, "the first thing he said to me was, 'You're doing some of that other stuff. That funny stuff.' And I knew in my head right away that I didn't have the right horn, I didn't have the right mouthpiece, I didn't have the right reed. That process of melding with your instrument wasn't happening.
"We went over to his place, and Coltrane showed me one of his old horns and said, 'If you have the stuff in your instrument that links up with you as a person, you don't have to fight it.' That was an important insight for me."
Coltrane was only 40 when he died in 1967 of liver cancer. But each of the three major stages in his career--his early work with Davis, his performances with his own classic quartet (pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones) and the transcendent, spiritually driven playing of his final years--produced music that would affect, in differing ways, players of succeeding generations.
This diversity of styles within a single artist--the warm romanticism of his ballad playing, the relentlessly exploratory soloing with his quartet, the communal musical collectivity of his recordings with his wife, pianist Alice Coltrane--has produced a body of work still overflowing with unexamined lodes of rich creativity.
Yet Coltrane was rarely satisfied with his work, even when his efforts astonished everyone within listening range.