Pain Relief Beyond Belief





From Blakey to Brown, Como to Costa, Eckstine to Eldridge, Galbraith to Garner, Harris to Hines, Horne to Hyman, Jamal to Jefferson, Kelly to Klook; Mancini to Marmarosa, May to Mitchell, Negri to Nestico, Parlan to Ponder, Reed to Ruther, Strayhorn to Sullivan, Turk to Turrentine, Wade to Williams… the forthcoming publication Treasury of Pittsburgh Jazz Connections by Dr. Nelson Harrison and Dr. Ralph Proctor, Jr. will document the legacy of one of the world’s greatest jazz capitals.


Do you want to know who Dizzy Gillespie  idolized? Did you ever wonder who inspired Kenny Clarke and Art Blakey? Who was the pianist that mentored Monk, Bud Powell, Tad Dameron, Elmo Hope, Sarah Vaughan and Mel Torme? Who was Art Tatum’s idol and Nat Cole’s mentor? What musical quartet pioneered the concept adopted later by the Modern Jazz Quartet? Were you ever curious to know who taught saxophone to Stanley Turrentine or who taught piano to Ahmad Jamal? What community music school trained Robert McFerrin, Sr. for his history-making debut with the Metropolitan Opera? What virtually unknown pianist was a significant influence on young John Coltrane, Shirley Scott, McCoy Tyner, Bobby Timmons and Ray Bryant when he moved to Philadelphia from Pittsburgh in the 1940s?  Would you be surprised to know that Erroll Garner attended classes at the Julliard School of Music in New York and was at the top of his class in writing and arranging proficiency?


Some answers  can be gleaned from the postings on the Pittsburgh Jazz Network.


For almost 100 years the Pittsburgh region has been a metacenter of jazz originality that is second to no other in the history of jazz.  One of the best kept secrets in jazz folklore, the Pittsburgh Jazz Legacy has heretofore remained mythical.  We have dubbed it “the greatest story never told” since it has not been represented in writing before now in such a way as to be accessible to anyone seeking to know more about it.  When it was happening, little did we know how priceless the memories would become when the times were gone.


Today jazz is still king in Pittsburgh, with events, performances and activities happening all the time. The Pittsburgh Jazz Network is dedicated to celebrating and showcasing the places, artists and fans that carry on the legacy of Pittsburgh's jazz heritage.






Duke Ellington is first African-American and the first musician to solo on U.S. circulating coin



       In Her Own Words

Highest Trane: John Coltrane’s World-Building Ascension

Highest Trane: John Coltrane’s World-Building Ascension

Climbing aloft with a controversial, "difficult" masterwork

Cover of John Coltrane's Ascension Cover of John Coltrane album Ascension

Conventional wisdom—and many people’s understanding of jazz history—asserts that John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme is the saxophonist’s masterpiece. Recorded in a single session with his indomitable Quartet on December 9, 1964, it almost makes sense as a variety of Christmas disc, an offering from the mind and soul of the true artist to a power beyond. It’s numinous but not preachy, and simultaneously as secular as cutting through an alley to get to the bar faster.

The turnaround from studio to factory to shelves was swift. By January of the new year—which proved to be Trane’s fieriest annum—A Love Supreme was in record stores. Even though Coltrane had already been many places jazz musicians had not previously, something about the album felt different. Like the apex, the high-water mark. But we must be careful not to confuse a high-water mark with an end, or a crowning. Its creator saw but a door—and a new direction—instead. A challenge to extend and advance and even, dare I say, improve upon a recording that many will tout as a medium’s finest. That was the Coltrane way: out with the new, in with the new new.

The Quartet itself was starting to crack as a going venture circa Christmastime 1964; not because it was running out of things to say, but rather because of Coltrane’s imperishable credo that he was finding new ways to speak. A Love Supreme has the air of a group performing at its own funeral—or, if not the actual service, then a rehearsal for one, testifying, in their own musical words, to what made them so special. It’s only art that lives forever, not bands.

Often when we say, “This is [enter greater superlative] than that,” one thinks the latter work has been run down in some fashion. There’s no running down of A Love Supreme; its sublimity is unimpeachable, as much a law of the universe as boiled water turning into gas. But what I would suggest is that John Coltrane never made rawer, realer, rip-your-face-off-and-pull-out-who-you-really-are art than his infamous Ascension date from June 28, 1965. In its tonal ferocity, it’s merciless and yet, paradoxically, laden with that self-same quality that is the balm for all human suffering: mercy sprung from the well of compassion, understanding, and intimate communal byplay.

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We could say that A Love Supreme is akin to Coltrane’s version of a painting from Picasso’s Blue Period, whereas Ascension is the foray into synthetic cubism in auditory form, a dance of fractals and ghost-shapes whose exact identities elude us at first but come clearer in time. The music of the latter harrows. Puts us on edge. It can appear as though it is asking us to participate in the making of its own identity by listening in a certain way that reaches out for the notes themselves as the music lays its hands on us. There is nothing like it in jazz, nor is there anyone else who could have made it save this artist who’d long before embarked on a journey that had taken him to A Love Supreme, and now he was continuing to search, because a searcher is what he ultimately was more than anything else.

Many jazz records, of course, are made at a single session. The band comes in, the members likely having studied some head charts in advance; warmups and rehearsals are taken, the board is turned on, and takes are tried, realized to satisfaction, and released.

Coltrane, though, was the master of the epic session that tilts history—the date that, when we look back on it later, leaves us incredulous that something so seismic could have occurred in the space of a human afternoon. The diurnal has gone epochal. The Quartet is cleaving in the spring of 1965, but in that fracturing, room is created for the ingress of other forces—that is, players to augment a protean core and restock it with ingenious new blood. Coltrane didn’t sit around and wait for inspiration to hit. The superior artists never do. They go out and find what they wish to make, and then make it by taking it.

The Quartet had one of the last gatherings of the original tribe in May 1965 when they fleshed out The John Coltrane Quartet Plays—the title a pointed, summarizing statement of truth—whose initial sessions dated back to February. The album is akin to a deep breath before the deeper plunge, with “Nature Boy” a cooling factor and “Song of Praise” a post-Love Supreme glory-giving. And then, it was time to take some heads off.

Coltrane could do no critical wrong after A Love Supreme, so leave it to him to create Ascension. Trane was a Dantean artist, and as with the Italian poet’s Divine Comedy, the jazz master understood the importance and immediacy of procession and progress. His finest works are self-contained, but they also register like they’re forever unfolding in real time. The best fiction writers compel their characters to make decisions, and the reader chooses along with them. Coltrane’s visionary music functions the same way—listeners feel as if they’re complicit in the vital decisions of a life well-lived. Or one that could be. 

The music was to be a volatile, modernistic variant on the big-band days of yore, and oriented around dialogue, the very root of jazz.

His musicians forgather at the Van Gelder Studio in Englewood, New Jersey on June 28. Four days later, Coltrane is to appear at Newport, but the music cut here will not be making the journey to Rhode Island. The moment is everything, as a moment of artistic creation needs to be if the art is to last.

The stalwart men of the Quartet are present and ready to go, some more than others: Elvin Jones on drums, McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison with his bass. The new recruits are all younger than Trane. Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders, Marion Brown, and John Tchicai are primed to heat-blister the walls of the studio on their tenor and alto saxophones; Art Davis—who knew a thing or two about sticking his nose in with vanguard composers—complements Garrison on bass; and Dewey Johnson and Freddie Hubbard perform trumpet duties, an instrument that’s gone missing from Coltrane sessions since the Miles Davis days.

Drummer Rashied Ali is asked to perform but declines, and comes to regret it forevermore. Tenor saxophonist Frank Wright is also extended an invite, but reportedly says “no más” before getting started, thinking his playing wasn’t up to the technical demands Trane was imposing on his guys.

Coltrane definitely had an idea of what he wanted, though he was still working it out, adapting on the fly at the session. Each musician was given lead sheets and some marching orders for the unrehearsed date: The music was to be a volatile, modernistic variant on the big-band days of yore, and oriented around dialogue, the very root of jazz. Soloist and ensemble would engage in conversation, the soloist playing his line, the group riffing off of it, with sections of crescendi and decrescendi bookending each individualistic flight.

This is the loudest acoustic jazz, for my money, there has ever been. It’s shockingly loud. What’s more, it never lets up. To listen to the two takes of Ascension that this unit recorded is to be tasked physically as you sit in your chair. Those Basie and Ellington big bands that Coltrane is building off of would tucker out the dancers who’d come to see them, but we’re dancing cerebrally with Ascension. There are no slow dances, and we’re not allowed breathers.

Marion Brown reportedly said later that the musicians were actually screaming as they played, and he couldn’t understand how those screams didn’t appear on the tape, as if a skillful engineer had sliced away the evidence. Perhaps the recollection is apocryphal, but it tracks: Ascension is music to bellow to, part Munch’s The Scream figure via postmodern big band, part Whitman’s barbaric yawp amplified to a pitch that could strip the soil from the earth and the epipelagic zone off the sea.

The idea of controlled, elegant cacophony is central to Ascension. Elvin Jones will lose his shit at the conclusion of the second take, throwing his snare at the wall in frustration. Brown cited “ecstasy and emotion,” and as in music, as in life—both can get the better of us, work our nerves, break us and remake us.


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Comment by Dr. Nelson Harrison on August 17, 2021 at 3:49am

Highest Trane: John Coltrane’s World-Building Ascension

Climbing aloft with a controversial, "difficult" masterwork

Freddie Hubbard April 1965 Ascension’s skeleton key: Freddie Hubbard in April 1965 (photo © Francis Wolff/Mosaic Images LLC)

The last time anyone had attempted anything like Ascension in jazz was five years prior: Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz session, which also featured Freddie Hubbard, whom it is time to celebrate. What I think happens with Hubbard is that people treat him as a virtuoso, but one in the hard-bop mode. He’s not fêted as a blazer of paths, and his chops are viewed as mainstream-ish. He’s a Jimmy Smith, a Hank Mobley, a Curtis Fuller, a Miles Davis lite, without the Davis-ian talent to shape bands in his image of the moment.

This is one of the biggest misconceptions in jazz. Listen to Ascension and behold Freddie Hubbard, I humbly ask of you. Coltrane isn’t stretched thin on the date, but he’s tasked himself with a lot; he’s the conductor via his playing. Look at him like a player/manager in early 19th-century baseball. Sure, you can turn the mid-innings double play at shortstop, but maybe later, in the bottom of the eighth, you’re less likely to try and steal third base. Freddie Hubbard does the real heavy lifting as a player at this session, and Coltrane rides him hard and counts on him a lot. Like Eric Dolphy, Hubbard had a penchant for showing up precisely at those times when the history of jazz changed. It’s not coincidence when you’re a huge part of the reason.

Hubbard’s solos are as daedal as spider webs, but they spit flames. I think of them as capable of melting mountainsides, and no one plays better than Hubbard on this day. Coltrane doesn’t quite hit his level. In all of jazz, this is one of the most impressive afternoons any musician has ever had. Ascension is intimidating, and a listener can fret that they need some kind of clavis, a skeleton key to help in processing it, as one does with James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, but Hubbard himself is that unlocker of mysteries. Trane is Dantean, yes, and Hubbard is trumpet-Virgil.

He helps humanize Ascension, which has the process of humanization built into those very charts that Coltrane handed out. A Love Supreme was a confession of faith, and one might assume at its close that ascendancy—that act of rising above what one had been—is a done deal, a simple ceremony. Less journey, more arrival. The clapping of hands and tipping of halos.

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Coltrane was smarter than this, though. Nowhere is the fight for transformation and self-knowledge more dramatic or dogged than in its final phase, which is also a transitional phase to a new start. Ascension simply makes the gnomic feel writ large and universal. The face-melting volume is a boon. One listens and feels as if doing so from inside of an engine, but for this day in the early summer of 1965, that engine is the human soul. And what a roar of humanness this is.

The rotation of the soloists was determined by what you primarily were. That is, the sound-blasters and painters were balanced out by the guys who worked from organized chords and motivic structure. Think of it as representational artists following non-representational artists, or organizing a batting order to unfurl lefty-righty-lefty-righty, and so forth.

The juxtaposition accounts for a certain amount of musical realism. Life, after all, is a series of balancing acts, of stylized blending and making incongruity into something workable. Anyone who’s ever had a family can connect with that. The music is both demotic and democratic; every musician appears to have equal voice to the extent of his capabilities. That Ascension resounds as bigger than big-band speaks to the potency of those voices, and of the ensemble passages in particular.

We have a form of call and response, but the latter is freighted with extemporization. Again, this is how we talk. We respond to what’s presented to us and add what we add: a statement, a question, a tone, a certain inflection. On Ascension, Coltrane gives us community, but community whose abiding strength is the voice of the individual, which is another reason—that push-pull contrast and the attempt at harmony—for the record’s funicular resonance. The tension is tense, but the tension, one feels in one’s bones, is worth it. In short, Ascension is the record that, more than any other, says, “This is why we are here.”

Elvin Jones December 1964
The communal soloist: Elvin Jones in December 1964 (photo © Francis Wolff/Mosaic Images LLC)

Coltrane didn’t sit around and wait for inspiration to hit. The superior artists never do.

Ah, but what take of Ascension would be there for listeners? The take that was called Edition I appeared on the initial release in February 1966, and was swapped out not long after for Edition II. You can headhunt differences for a lifetime the way people pick out the various treasures in the warehouse at the end of Citizen Kane. One key difference is that Edition II lacks an Elvin Jones solo, but don’t be fooled or disappointed by this, because his playing within the context of what everyone else was doing is a solo itself. A communal solo, in which the blending of contrasts is everything. A tense Elvin Jones was also an efficacious Elvin Jones; he brings what we call big energy. That he’s pissed isn’t exactly awful.

A month later, at the end of July, the Coltrane Quartet was in the midst of a one-week string of gigs in Europe, when they tried out, for the only time, small-band versions of Ascension (titled “Blue Valse”) in Antibes and Paris. Jones has calmed himself—I suspect because he’s ascended, after a fashion, to appreciating what had been realized a few weeks prior.

The scaled-back Ascension is a clear blues, a limpid piece of work that always sounds to me as if a few participants in a dynamic conversation have repaired to some café afterwards to have a chat about all they’d just witnessed and heard.

These are friends with differences, some of which won’t be silted over. The old gang has said what needed saying, and the challenge now is to find the best ways of imparting what needs to be heard. Cue another round of the perpetual search for the new mission statement that itself will in turn be built from and upon, a key contributor in a process of ascendancy.

You might call it forever building to Ascension. We go there, and then we go again, differently, for such is the Coltrane way.

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