For decades, diehard fans of saxophonist John Coltrane copied and shared cassette tapes and compact discs of Trane and an 11-piece band trying to blow the roof off of Mitten Hall on the campus of Temple University on a November night in 1966. The audio quality was poor, but through the dropouts, distortions and uneven mixes, Trane’s intensity surges through like a beam from a lighthouse on a distant shore.
Seven months after the concert, Coltrane would succumb to liver cancer at the age of 40.
This week, the ballyhooed contraband receives a proper commercial release as John Coltrane: Offering, Live at Temple University on the non-profit Resonance Records, with a portion of the proceeds going to refurbish and maintain Coltrane’s family home near Dix Hills, New York. Although recorded with just one primary microphone, its audio is greatly enhanced by the discovery of two master tapes from the broadcast by Temple’s student-run radio station, WRTI, that evening. The clearer sound brings the pros and cons of this raw, impassioned concert into greater relief. As the writer Steve Greenlee has already opined, in Jazz Times, “No one is going to listen to this album on repeat. But from this point on, no one can claim to know Coltrane without hearing it.”
When Trane strode onstage that night of November 11, 1966, he was in the middle of a personal and cultural maelstrom. A war was raging in the world of jazz that, for many African-American musicians, was an extension of the struggle for civil rights and the burgeoning Black Power Movement. Strife, freedom and spirituality were bound together in the sustained saxophone shouts and honks that took the avant-garde stylings of Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor to a new sonic plane. At the vanguard of what was being dubbed as the “New Thing” were performances and recordings by Albert Ayler, Eric Dolphy, Coltrane protégés Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders and, most significantly, Coltrane himself.
Events were moving at warp speed. As recently as December of 1964, Coltrane had recorded what would become one of the most beloved and influential albums in mainstream jazz, A Love Supreme, with his classic quartet of pianist McCoy Tyner, drummer Elvin Jones and bassist Jimmy Garrison. But just six months later, Trane unfurled Ascension, a blast furnace of sound comprised of 11 musicians, including Shepp and Sanders, that was a turbo-charged escalation of Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz.
Not surprisingly, then, the 700 people who partially filled the cavernous, 1800-seat Mitten Hall at Temple arrived with different expectations and agendas. The renowned jazz author Francis Davis, then an undergraduate English major at Temple, remembers a contingent from the Revolutionary Action Movement, a radical black organization more popular than the Black Panthers in the city at the time, clustered down near the front of the stage. Others in the racially diverse crowd came to hear the Coltrane of Giant Steps, My Favorite Things, and A Love Supreme.
“Back then, reading the jazz magazines was like getting dispatches from the battle front,” says Davis, who is currently working on a Coltrane book entitled Sheets of Sound. “You’d see that Coltrane was playing with Ayler, that he’d added a second drummer, that his [classic quartet] wasn’t happy with what he was doing.” Still, Davis continues, “there were still many people who thought that Ascension was an aberration.”
Coltrane’s plunge into what many of his old fans regarded as sheer noise was more spiritual than political. Although the music grew increasingly dense, there is a lineage of surging motifs from A Love Supreme through Ascension and into Offering, Live at Temple University.
“I feel he was in search of a universal language and he was using sound as the generator of that language,” says Ravi Coltrane, who was 15 months old when he father played at Temple. Now a formidable saxophonist in his own right, Ravi has naturally poured a lot of thought and research into the legacy of John Coltrane. He believes this final phase was more than a decade in the making.
“Everything after 1955, you do get the sense of him trying to expand the dynamics of sound.” Ravi then recounts the harmonic advances his father made in the late ’50s, the more polyrhythmic, African drum sounds he developed with Elvin Jones in the classic quartet of the ’60s, and the “multidirectional rhythmic palette” he urged his last steady drummer, Rashied Ali, to pursue. “The last sonic expansion was to the sound itself,” Ravi stresses. “He was using split tones and overblowing…going for the highest register and lowest register to expand and communicate this new level of sound language.”
Events in and around the Offering concert at Temple, reinforce this theory. Coltrane, who still had family in the area, began dropping by a local church and jamming with a group of percussionists weeks before the gig, and joining them for a fundraising concert five days before the Temple engagement. He then invited four of them onstage at Temple, expanding a trend that would continue in the final months of his life. He also allowed a couple of nondescript local saxophonists to play, an open-door policy somewhat common to the “New Thing,” furthering the loose-limbed feel of the evening. Filling out the ensemble was his regular “post-classic” working ensemble, including Sanders, Ali, his wife Alice on keyboards, and, in place of Jimmy Garrison on bass, Sonny Johnson.
After blistering versions of “Naima” and “Crescent” that often bore little resemblance to his original renditions, Coltrane played a more recent tune, “Leo,” and that’s when the search for a universal language that Ravi cites went beyond the saxophone. About a quarter of the way through the 21-minute song, Coltrane lowered his soprano saxophone and began to sing in a manner approximating the sax phrases. He followed it up with similar phrasing on tenor saxophone, switched to flute, and then, obviously inspired by an incandescent six-minute drum workout by Rashied Ali, vocalized more boldly than ever, simultaneously pounding his chest to create a tremolo effect. He is back on saxophone in conjunction with the percussionists when the radio station reel abruptly ends 63 minutes into the recording.
Coltrane vocalizes a third time for about 30 seconds near the end of the final song, the crowd-pleasing “My Favorite Things.” But it is that second singing interlude during “Leo” that is most indelible, and questing.
Coltrane was as iconic in the jazz world as Bob Dylan was to singer-songwriters in the ’60s, and in the decades after the concert, the Temple gig became his Basement Tapes, a hallowed bootleg as much discussed as listened to before finally becoming commercially available.
“We had different reference tapes in our personal library and when Michael Brecker [a Coltrane acolyte whose memorable career as a jazz saxophonist was also tragically cut short by cancer, in 2007] mentioned to me that he was at the concert, I was excited to burn him a tape,” Ravi says. “Well, Michael made a copy for [saxophonist] Dave Liebman, and you know how it goes, especially before the internet, the sharing of tapes. Now, if one guy uploads it, everybody has it.”
And now they can have it in relatively good condition, an essential document in the Coltrane legacy. “This probably supplants The Olatunji Concert [from April 1967] as the most revealing glimpse of Coltrane toward the very end,” says Francis Davis. “You get more of a sense of the physical sound that was so forceful in the room. You really had the sense of being in the midst of a revolution in music and perhaps a revolution in America. Now we see it as near the end for Coltrane, but we didn’t know it at the time. It was ‘late’ Coltrane by default.”
And very much alive.