Is John Coltrane the "pioneer" of modern American music? In this text he is. Why? Well by my way of hearing things, throughout his musical career Mr. Coltrane gradually exhausted the tonal resources as provided by equal temper and the blues, the two essential systems of tonality we have traditionally combined to create the palette of American musical colors. As we chronologically examine the recordings of his career, we find a gradual evolution or ascension from tonic centered music towards the polytonal and atonal musical environments, while along the way encounter compositional elements within his original scores that not only increase the existing level of challenge in the music but organically "expand the sense of tonal center."
So, modern American music spans between earthy one chord modal blues vamps to the outer limits of atonality thanks to Mr. Coltrane's energy? In this text it does. That no other American player covered so much tonal ground so rapidly, in both improvised performance and written composition, makes pour moi Mr. Coltrane the "father of modern American music." The neat thing about this is that the compositions that clearly contain these new "challenges" are simply cool tunes for all of us to learn and play and will oftentimes take the breath away of the impassioned listener of American jazz, with their beauty of melodic line, balance of musical form and overall emotional energy and artistic effect.
Expanding the tonal center. I used this phrase in the last paragraph and feel I need to expound on this idea a bit. In this text "expanding the tonal center" implies how an artist will gradually develop the ability to musically include more and more pitches of the chromatic scale and still make musical sense and "sound convincing" within music that has a strong sense of there being a tonic center. Well, when all of the 12 pitches are "exhausted" within one key and the artist is sensing that their statement is still incomplete, that there is more to say or just has the need and energy to continue to search, what's the next level of challenge? Maybe 2 key centers simultaneously, i.e., polytonality? Perhaps a more advanced harmonic cycle than existing chord progressions? Or perhaps to simplify things back to just a pedal point or drone, from which all the musical colors can emerge and return without the constraint of there being a consistent tonic pitch or sense of tonal center?
If we examine the European classical music library, we see the evolution from modal tonality up through and into atonality throughout a span of time nearly exceeding 1000 years. That American music covered this same tonal ground in roughly 100 years is a testament to the drive and pace of American ingenuity. That Mr. Coltrane covered all of this same ground in 25 years or so is a rather amazing feat. Of course, the times are way different when comparing centuries. The restraints of past centuries have been removed and replaced by an energy of encouragement to explore. But the intellect and drive of one artist to evolve through the entire range of our perceived sense of existing tonality is, no matter how we shake it down, a truly remarkable feat of human ability.
Is the evolution of theoretical complexity in this text based on how I perceive Mr. Coltrane's artistic evolution as based on his own compositions? Tis is. The cool thing is that this perspective of the theory also creates an excellent curriculum for the advancing jazz artist. How so? Well, following Mr. Coltrane's own recording of his compositions as the years passed by, we find that many of his initial efforts were blues based. The record titled "Blue Train" from September 1957 being among his first as a leader. Interesting that on this record we also find the 2nd level of challenge in the double Two / Five harmonic motion of the composition "Moments Notice" and hints of the 3rd, a more complex cadential cycle of chords in the composition "Lazybird." This "new" harmony, termed postbop, set a new level of challenge for the jazz artist.
About post bop harmony. Post bop harmony, as the name implies, is found historically after the "bebop" era of the late 40's into the 50's, as defined by artists such as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. With the bebop sound often based in rapidly modulating key centers with blistering melodies, Mr. Coltrane eliminated some of the conventional passing chords and simply moved rapidly between key centers using dominant chords to point out the direction and half note rhythms for the melody. In his historic writing and recording of "Giant Steps" in 1959, we see a looping key scheme based on pitches that would create an augmented major triad, which simply stacks major thirds. With so much of the writing at that time still following the timeless chordal motion of perfect fourths and fifths, Mr. Coltrane's advancement of the harmony was simply revolutionary and completely his own.
A "Coltrane" curriculum for the emerging jazz artist, i.e., "in Trane - ing."
1) With the blues at the core of the American sound, these colors are often essential on the jazz artist's palette of colors. With the basic harmonic motion being One to Four, time spent learning and internalizing the emotional potential of these pitches is time well spent for the aspiring American artist. Pay some dues / play some blues.
2) Next, playing through the songbook of American jazz between the turn of the 20th century and say 1950, the Two / Five / One chord progression is so often at the core of the harmonic and cadential motion of choice of composers when modulating between key centers.
3) Once familiar with using this 2 / 5 cycle through the 12 major and 12 minor tonal centers, a player might want to "double up" the potential of their lines by using the double Two / Five as found within Mr. Coltrane's "Moments Notice." This approach begins to blur the tonality or sense of tonal center and creates the challenge of having to modulate our melodic ideas by half step "in flight" so to speak. Way easier said then done.
4) Moving from the double Two / Five to the symmetry of postbop motion is, even with being cool and fluid with the double 2 / 5, oftentimes a very real challenge for the advancing artist. The thought process involved in creating improvised musical dialogue at this level is an incredibly beautiful thing. Even scratching the surface of this vista is an exciting challenge, let alone running this level through the 12 major keys. I wonder if there could be "post bop" motions in the minor tonality? Maybe using the diminished triad as a basis?
5) The fifth level, or should we say the 5th dimension, ( yes, "up, up and away".... ) at least in this text, is simply based on an extended arpeggio / symmetrical cycle of intervals. The difference here perhaps is that in this "extended arpeggio" the 11th is # 11, which is fairly common, but the 15th is # 15. Cool? As K.B. would say, here's the lick. Example 1.
So, what kind of music do we create with these pitches? Well, there is a perfect cycle of major 3rd / minor 3rd sequence to the pitches eh? But the starting pitch or root, and the last pitch, are simply not the same ( C to C# ). Not only that, there is no blue 7th for creating the V 7chord. What no tritone? Wow, that's a big change from our usual palettes eh? No tritone for the dominant 7th chord... So, is this where Mr. Coltrane was heading theoretically when he decided to change planets? Could be. His last recordings are very, very impassioned and enlightening in so many ways. So, if your curious, click to go to a more in-depth discussion of the above ideas, which in this text are called the "colortone series experiments."
For those so inclined, who feel the need to tread down and explore the path that Mr. Coltrane discovered, the excitement of playing this music is perhaps the most intellectually complex of all of the American sounds. One cool thing about playing at these levels is that playing anything else in the American library becomes almost backpocket. Many legendary players of the American sounds do not aspire to this level of performance yet make gorgeous American music. It simply comes down to where an artist aspires to go. It also helps to know what's possible, which is kinda what this text is all about. Potentials. Cool with this?
With this in mind... Is it possible to discern a composers evolution of understanding of music theory by examining their compositions in historical sequence, looking for theoretical trends that would show new insights into the theory as they were discovered by the composer? For example, the later string quartets of Beethoven are way advanced tonally from his earlier efforts with this grouping of instruments. These later efforts actually termed "unplayable" in his day, much to the composers humor ( and possible frustration ) no doubt, so the story is said to go. So, by studying his compositions in chronological order, could we get into Beethoven's mind and get a sense of how he discovered and understood the gradual ascension of theoretical complexity that we so enjoy in his music? Can we do the same theoretical evolutionary profile with Mr. Coltrane's compositions? Ahh..., is this idea yet another Ph.D project to get at when time permits eh? Any future doctors out there?
Interested in more about Mr. Coltrane's life and career? Chasin' The Trane by J.C. Thomas is an exciting and inspirational biography for the evolving artist of the American sounds.
Selected discography of Mr. Coltrane. These four albums are simply a place to start for the student of American jazz music. On two of these records, Blue Train and Giant Steps, Mr. Coltrane is the leader. Trumpeter Miles Davis led the other two.
Blue Train. 1957
Kind of Blue. 1959
Giant Steps. 1959
Need a dedicated on line source for jazz recordings? Maybe check out www.doubletimerecords.com as time permits.
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A road to a friend's home is never long. Danish proverb.