Interview by Frank Kofsky
One afternoon in November 1966, Frank Kofsky took the train out to Long Island. He was about to spend a day with John Coltrane. This interview comes from the Pacifica Radio Archives.
The Animated Transcript
Frank Kofsky was an author, scholar, jazz critic, and professor of history at California State University at Sacramento.
Do you live far outside of… wherever we are now?
Well I guess I’m about four or five miles down the road (laughs).
You really sound like Farmer John (laughs).
Yeah man, when I come up here, I have to do all… to get everything I want to get—You know, I got to the store and do all that because I don’t want to come back up here.
Where do you play at home?
Anywhere. There’s a room over the garage out there that I’m getting fixed now to… I think it’s going to be my practice room. You know sometimes you build a room and it ends up you can still go in the toilet, so I don’t know, I hope I like it but… I keep a horn on the piano and I have a horn in my bedroom. The flute’s usually back there because when I go down tired, I lay down and practice and…
About how many hours a day do you play, would you say?
Not too much at this time. I find that it’s only when something is trying to come through you know that I really practice and then it’s just, I don’t know how many hours, it’s just all day.
I did a foolish thing, I got dissatisfied with my mouth piece (laughs). I had some work done on this thing and instead of making it better, it ruined it. It really discouraged me, you know, a little bit because they were certain aspects of that playing that certain fast thing that I was reaching for that I couldn’t push because I had damaged this thing… so I just had to curtail it (laughs). But at that moment, it was so vivid in my mind, the difference in what I was getting on the horn, as soon as I put that horn in my mouth, I could hear it. I could feel it and I just stopped, I just went into other things. In fact, soprano’s one of the reasons I started (laughs) getting dissatisfied with that tenor mouthpiece, see? Because the sound of that soprano was actually so much closer to me in my ear.
I didn’t want admit this damn thing because I said well the tenor’s my horn, this is my baby but the soprano, there’s still something there, just the voice of it that I can’t… It’s just really beautiful. I really like it.
The people I was staying with have a friend, a young lady and she was downtown at one Malcolm X’s speeches and, lo and behold, who should plop down in the seat next to her but John Coltrane (laughs).
Were you impressed with him?
Definitely, definitely. I felt I had to see the man. I was quite impressed.
Some musicians have said there’s a relationship between some of Malcolm’s ideas and the music.
Well, I think that music, being expression of the human heart or the human being itself, does express just what is happening. The whole of human experience at that particular time is being expressed. In any situation that we find in our lives, when there’s something we feel should be better, we must exert effort to try and make it better.
So it’s the same socially, musically, politically, in any department of your life. I think music is an instrument. It can create the initial thought pattern that can create a change, you see, in the thinking of the people.
I mean I want to be a force for real good. In other words, I know that there are bad forces. I know that there are forces out here that bring suffering to others and misery to the world, but I want to be the opposite force. I want to be the force which is truly for good.
What were you looking for John, do you want some cigarettes or…?
No, I’m just sitting up because my back is wet and I just need to get off the chair.
I don’t have any more of my prepared questions to ask you, or my improvised questions (laughs) to ask you. I don’t know when I’ll ever get the chance to sit you down with a tape recorder again (laughs). Do you have anything else to get on here?
I think you man, well you just about covered it, I believe…just about covered it.
Kofsky turned on his tape recorder when he got into Coltrane’s car. The two men drove through town and made a few stops along the way. Coltrane had moved to Huntington, New York with his wife Alice and their children in 1964. They lived in a modest house on a quiet, tree-lined street. It was a home to raise a family. Coltrane had just turned 40. He would die from liver cancer less than a year later.
Hear the full conversation
Coltrane on Malcolm X
“I was living downtown, I was in the hotel and I saw the posters and realized he was going to be over there. So I just said, ‘well I’m going over there and see this cat because I’d never seen him.’ I was quite impressed.
“I believe with brotherhood there would be no poverty, and also with brotherhood there would be no war.”
“I only hope whoever’s out there listening, I hope they enjoying it. If they’re not enjoying it, then I’d rather not be there. I like an audience that does show what they feel and responds.”
Adding A Sax Player
“It helps me stay alive sometimes because I find that physically, man, the pace I’ve been leading, it’s so hard. I’ve gained so much weight. It’s just been a little hard physically, and I feel that I like to have somebody there in case I just can’t get that strength”
“I’ve got to grow through certain phases of this to other understandings and more consciousness and awareness of just what it is that I’m supposed to understand about it, and I’m sure all this will be part of the music”
“If there’s something you don’t understand, you have to go humbly to it. You don’t go to school and sit down and say I know what you’re getting ready to teach me, you know? You sit there and you learn. You open your mind. you absorb. You’ve got to be quiet, you’ve got to be still to do this.”
The Church of Coltrane
Trane and Miles Davis
Miles Davis and John Coltrane had a complicated relationship. Coltrane got his start as part of Davis’ band but by the end of the 1950’s he was well on his way to making a name for himself and split to go his own way. Both possessed of large personalities, they respected each others’ musicianship but were also highly competitive – a dynamic that probably pushed both towards the groundbreaking work each would produce in the years following.
I was going with a girl who was an antique dealer in France. She gave this soprano sax to me and I gave it to Coltrane. I gave that thing to Trane, man, and it’s probably still in his hand. He probably died with it in his mouth! – Miles Davis
Some of Coltrane’s most influential recording were made while he was signed to Impulse! Records, from 1961 – 1965. For these albums, the world got to hear a magical quartet: Coltrane on saxophone, McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums.
The group recorded the legendary A Love Supreme at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey in December 1964.
Amazingly, the group only played A Love Supreme live once, during a performance in France in 1965. Watch it here.
By that same year, the quartet was starting to break up and Coltrane was moving towards a more abstract style.
Coltrane had three saxophones: an alto, a tenor, and a soprano. The tenor pictured above was donated to the National Museum of American History by Coltrane’s son, Ravi.
It’s a Mark VI tenor made in 1965 – the same year A Love Supreme was released – by Henry Selmer Paris, a manufacturer of high-end instruments. More on Coltrane at the Smithsonian.
“In a Sentimental Mood”
“My Favorite Things”
Simon Thorpe (PRS), John Donaldson (BMI)
Jean Gobinet (SACEM)
“I Was Born Here”
Colin Towns (PRS)
Michele Generale (SIAE), Femi Olasehinde (PRS), Paolo Porta (SIAE)
Dutch National Archives
Impulse Records / Charles Stewart