Impressions

John Coltrane Impressions, March 19, 1965

BOOTLEG: something bootlegged (hidden inside of tall boots), such as moonshine (illegally distilled corn whiskey) or an unauthorized audio or video recording

Throughout the 1970s-80s, duplicated cassettes of this performance were circulated amongst “the cats in the know”; Kenny Kirkland laid one on me and said, “This…is the real McCoy…” Truly, it was a profoundly and intensely heated solo by McCoy Tyner, rarely documented during that period because microphones weren’t always connected to recording equipment during live performances. There’s nothing like it “live”; I loathe the process of making records, but it’s a necessary component to my economic survival as an artist. Mingus felt the same way; the real music is best captured “live”. In the studio, while you have the benefit of higher quality sound than you would from a small recording device hidden in someone’s jacket, the environment is too sterile, every single sound is micro-processed, there’s too much room for “another take” of trying to reignite the fire and creativity of the first take, when all the real essence and soul is in that take – mistakes and all. Thelonious Monk knew that. The *industry* cultivated a field by where art should only be presented in its most *perfect* form – and now, the audience demands it. Even “live”! “Commercialism”; not a wholly evil word, but it’s fairly insidious and a rather bland, flavorless concept. It’s kind of like eating fish right off the bone versus having it served deboned – closer to the bone is where the flavor is!

Closer to the source. Stay close.

The “bootleg recording” is the bane of the record industry (until they can get a hold of it), but the holy grail of all thriving artists and genuine appreciators of the music. Would John Coltrane have wanted this recording to be released commercially? We have no way of knowing. Am I glad it finally made its way to the general public? Most definitely! Principles and integrity notwithstanding, when a record company owns the master tapes, its theirs to do with what they wish – much to the chagrin of the artist. (Read before you sign, player.) A couple of years ago, the world was blessed with Unheard Bird: The Unissued Takes of Charlie Parker. They were never intended for commercial release, but *the industry* changed all of that. No disrespect to Bird – I’m oh, so glad they surfaced. I love Charlie Parker – mistakes and all! Hearing Miles Davis’ clams from the outtakes of Round About Midnight or Miles Ahead remind us that these brilliant souls are still human souls. We’re also privy to their processes. It’s crucial to be reminded that the talented, the famous, the powerful – are merely human, therefore, fragile, and in need of care and concern. (Good night, Kate Spade, Anthony Bourdain.) It’s difficult to remember that John Coltrane was only human. I mean, it’s biological – we know it, but there were not a hundred other John Coltranes, you dig?

1960s. The height of the civil rights movement. This performance is a social and artistic time capsule as messaged by this edition of the John Coltrane Quartet (1961-1966): McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones, and Jimmy Garrison – each man darker than the other, expressing the kind of unapologetic, explicit blackness that makes the fearful feel threatened, but compels the enlightened to feel joy. McCoy has effectively and joyfully set the tone for praise, celebration, worship, honor, love, and rejoicing. This hypnotic, intoxicating vortex of sound coming from these young Black men, from the tiny stage inside of the Half Note club in lower Manhattan’s West Village neighborhood (now Sprouts Deli) was a striking contrast to the soundtrack of the rest of the nation outside of it and the powers that had been trying to silence the voices and still the joy within.

To no avail, you devils. You can’t keep me down. We are human beings expressing from within; not expressing hate, but responding to it.

The wicked SHALL cease from troubling.

We must continue to force white America to face its demons and its past. Persistently insist on holding up the mirror to white America’s original intentions – which never included anything aside from the hope that being white was and would remain a defining attribute of participating in American life.” (Richard Klayman)

Well, you shouldn’t have brought me here. This is not your country. You stole it! Now, acknowledge, make whatever amends can be proffered, and move…over.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k_AQeXp1-i0

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Integrity

“Mulgrew [Miller] always played with integrity.” ~Russell Malone
“There are no rewards for disciplinarians – only consequences.” ~Ahmad Jamal

Sadly, the word “integrity” doesn’t generally inspire excellence these days. We are living in a time when words like “nobility”, “genuine” and “righteous” are associated with individuals touted as fanatical conservatives who oppress and judge. The inverse is some overly liberal, carefree existence where there are no rules, no definitions and no parameters. Even parenting has taken on an anarchic edge, as many parents are virtually letting their children raise themselves and select their own choice of consequences for bad behavior (or no immediate consequences at all.) We are rapidly deviating from any moral compass, devoid of the responsibility of making choices that require integrity.

Integrity costs. I watched a brilliant pianist like Mulgrew Miller get brushed aside for some 30 years. Essentially, Mulgrew was a quiet but warm individual, not controversial or outspoken and really not concerned for his own glory, but for the edification of others and their musical and personal wellbeing. One could say that he was largely ignored because he didn’t put himself out there; industry-wise, one could be right. But, Jazz (or any other art of this nature) is supposed to soar above the fray of greedy/thieving promoters, surly club owners, incompetent managers, jealous and mediocre musicians, publicity hounds and ignorant record executives that make up the crux of the “music industry.” We can take some solace in the fact that this venomous listing does not include every individual in the aforementioned factions, for there are a number of “angels” who serve the Jazz community well, of which Mulgrew Miller was certainly one.

Arts institutions do not exist in a Utopian vacuum; everyone has a fiscal bottom line. But, what of the artistic bottom line? Essentially, since we are the ones creating the music, the onus of integrity in the music is upon the artist, more so than anyone else. Once artists acknowledge that notion and subsequently function with this in mind, external entities would have no choice but to respond accordingly. We have to stop accepting whatever is tossed at us because our charge and mission are greater than that.

Look – nobody wants to be a “struggling artist”; we’ve spent many years eschewing the personal paths of Van Gogh, Mozart and Bird. But, in mentioning those geniuses in particular, I am moved and even terrified by the mere listing of their names beside each other; the amount of work they produced in their tragically short lives (not one of them reached age 40) – one could almost believe the myth that you have to suffer the worst of hardships and be self-destructive in order to pursue a higher artistic consciousness. We know this to be false, but we do know that there is definitely a struggle involved.

Part of the struggle includes making sacrifices that most of us are simply not willing to make. Though there is a high price to pay for excellence, these sacrifices don’t have to cost us our lives. Yes, an individual can excel artistically and take care of himself and his family – but, it’s by no means an easy road. What we have to accept is that most of us probably won’t be awarded the highest honors or “a little pin from the pope,” but look at Mulgrew Miller: quietly, he terrorized Jazz pianists with his abilities and was a beautiful human being – this is his legacy of integrity. I’m willing to follow that example.

“If the mountain was smooth, you wouldn’t be able to climb it.” ~Unknown