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An Interview with John Coltrane—May 2, 1961

Ralph J. Gleason—

Ralph J. Gleason: I was fascinated by the article that you did in Downbeat last year with Don DeMicheal. I read it again last night and I wanted to ask you, have you gotten back further than Sidney Bechet?

John Coltrane: No, I haven’t. Since then I haven’t had that much time because the band has kept me so busy, busier than I thought I could be. I haven’t had much time for listening, not since then. I’m going to find time soon because I’ve almost got my personnel like I want it. You know I had that difficulty in getting the right men last year, that’s almost settled now so I’ll have more time.

RJG: Did you intend to go back and study the whole . . .

JC: I’ve got to. Because there’s so many things that I think I want to do that possibly have been done already. I know it. I know this because I find it happening. Every once in a while something pops up and I say, oh, man, that’s just what I’m looking for and somebody did it. I notice a whole lot more back there so I might as well get it. If I had all those records that you were talking about, I could probably find a hundred things that I could work out something on, apply with the songs that we have today. It’s just the thing that I got to do. I’ve looked into a lot of folk music and stuff like that, and also a few classical things, just to see whether they could adapt to jazz. There can’t be no better source than just to go right back in jazz itself and get something.

RJG: As much as you’ve already gone back, have you found similarities in the problems and approaches and ideas?

JC: I haven’t delved that much yet in what I’ve looked into to really compare it, not yet. I haven’t gone far, I haven’t done enough of this yet. When I got my soprano I went out and bought some of Bechet’s things and that was the main reason I did that, to try to find out what he’d done on that instrument and see what kind of sound he was getting on it.

RJG: Do you find that your own group is a greater responsibility in the sense that you’re the only horn or does this really give you more freedom?

JC: Well, it’s the thing I like because I like to play long. I don’t feel it too much. The only thing is I feel there might be a need now to have more musical statements going on in the band and I might need another horn. We went into the Apollo and the guy says, “Man, you play too long, you got to play twenty minutes.” So now sometimes we play a song and I get up and play a solo maybe 30 minutes, or at least 20 minutes, we can look forward to a song being no less than twenty minutes long. How we going to do this? And, man, we ended up the third time we did it playing three songs in twenty minutes and I played all the highlights of the solos that I had been playing in hours in that length of time. So I think about it, what have I been doing all this time? What the heck have I been doing? It has made me think, if I’m going to take an hour to say something I can say in 10 minutes, maybe I’d better say it in 10 minutes and then have another horn there and get something else. I’m also planning to have some parts in there where we can have these interludes or bring in some other aspect of musical expression, which is what I wanted to find out when I got the group together. I wanted to expand myself musically because I’ve been soloing for years and that’s about all and I feel a need to learn more about production of music and expression and how to do things musically. I feel a need for another horn forthat reason, to kind of offer more. I could really go on just playing just like I am now, I mean I enjoy playing that long, it does me a lot of good to play until I don’t feel like playing anymore. Though I’ve found out I don’t say that much more.

RJG: On “My Favorite Things,” which runs 14 minutes . . .

JC: Thirteen minutes.

RJG: Do you always play that about the same length?

JC: Just about. Sometimes a little longer. Incidentally, that’s one of the things we played in this thing. I think we played that about seven minutes long; cut it right in half.

RJG: When you play this sometimes a couple of times a night and certainly almost every night, does your solo on that follow a general pattern?

JC: Just about. This is something I didn’t want it to do, but it does it. It has been following a general pattern. I don’t want it to be that way. The free part in there I wanted it to be just something where we could improvise on just the minor chord and improvise on the major chord. But I don’t know, it seems like it gets harder and harder to find something different on it. I’ve got several landmarks there that I know I’m going to get to so I try to play something in between there that’s different and keep hoping I hear something different on it. But it usually goes almost the same way every night, every time.

From Conversations in Jazz by Ralph J. Gleason. Originally published by Yale University Press in 2020. Reproduced with permission.

Ralph J. Gleason (1917–1975) was cofounder of Rolling Stone magazine and the author of numerous articles and three highly regarded books on music and musicians.

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