What was John Coltrane searching for with his music?

Late Coltrane mystifies a lot of people. It seems like he got farther and farther “out” towards the end of his life and left many of his listeners behind. Even seasoned jazz musicians either love or hate it. So what was he trying to do with his music during this time period?

When I was in college I asked one of my teachers, Hale Smith, about this. Hale had actually taught one of Coltrane’s collaborators, Eric Dolphy, and know a lot about this music. (In case you’re interested, Hale taught Dolphy from Paul Hindemith’s Elementary Training For Musician’s book.)

One morning I entered Hale’s office and eagerly asked him what he thought about Coltrane’s late music (link). Hale had a unique and view on most everything and I wanted some help in relating to Coltrane’s extended, avant-garde improvisations. As usual, Hale’s answer both surprised and enlightened me. He said, “Just remember that Coltrane and Dolphy were searching for something. They still hadn’t found it when they died so young.”

This made perfect sense to me. Coltrane himself gave some insight into what he was looking for when he explained why he took such long solos (45 minutes wouldn’t be unusual). He said he wanted to play something fresh that he had never played before, and that it took him that long to exhaust all his usual stuff. So he was looking for something! But this doesn’t mean his listeners were looking for the same thing.

A listeners, we sometimes look at an artist’s music as a finished product. We might not necessarily enjoy late Coltrane (at least not on a daily basis) but we assume that this is the way he would’ve continued playing had he lived longer. But in fact Coltrane’s music always changed every few years. Seen in this light, it’s clear that he had been searching for many years and doubtless would have kept on searching, changing, and experimenting as his own personal and spiritual search evolved.

It’s fascinating to contemplate what his music may have sounded like 10 years down the road, had he lived!

Here’s one of his “late” recordings, “Jupiter.”

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