Everyone knows that John Coltrane was a major influence in jazz, but he died 46 years ago (this week, in fact), so in a music that prides itself on being innovative and up-to-date – if not leading the pack – does Trane still matter?
The answer is a resounding YES! He matters because of his great artistry and he matters because this artistry is expressed in and through improvisation.
Improvisation matters because we literally improvise our way through life. Our speech, our actions, even our thoughts, are in a very real way improvised. It’s not overstating it to say that the kind of life we end up having will depend very much on just how skilfully we can improvise our way through it. So an art form that foregrounds improvisation has the potential to resonate with us in a very special way; a way that other art forms cannot. While Beethoven’s notated compositions – the symphonies, say – are high-order models of planning and structure, they represent life as an ideal, life as it could be, life to be imagined. Improvised music, on the other hand, represents life as it’s actually lived.
This is why improvisation is jazz’s most enduring gift to us, and within it why Trane remains an inspiring model of the heights that improvised music can reach.
An artist is (I’m stealing from Benjamin here) both an inventor and a conserver. But sometimes the dual obligations of being true to the unique moment and of being the custodian of artistic tradition don’t sit together well. This is especially true in a music like jazz, in which the desire to “make it new” often accelerates a kind of forgetting or making redundant of its past.
But it doesn’t have to be like this. Conserving the tradition of Trane’s (and many others’) artistry means much more than simply playing his tunes, his arrangements, his lines in yet another season of gigs; it means we hear in this music not only something to imitate but something to stimulate innovation of our own. That’s how the best of the generation after Trane responded to him. And it was the innovations that this generation produced that expanded in two key directions both saxophone improvisation itself and jazz improvisation generally. Clearly outlined in the 1970s, these directions remain central to the art of jazz improvisation today.
Trane still matters because his example can still help us “make it new”. Artists like Trane are gifts that keep on giving; we don’t have to forget them.