In Praise of John Coltrane's Smile
If smiles are open parentheticals John Coltrane’s is where I’d like to travel—a borderless crescent slivering with ecstatic grief and troubled abandon. There is truth in the way his lips part, the truth of reluctance and the truth of martyrs. The truth of ardor and the truth of ennui. After years of kissing brass to make it thrash and thrill, I imagine it hurt to show his teeth to the delicate petals, to see if they could match his bloom, unfolding as he unfolds like an unfurled fist turning to a wave, hello. I know his teeth might have been hurting, his jaw throbbing maybe, his search for home remedies not quick enough but him and Pharoah Sanders would discuss juice and herbs and healing and redemption on Harlem street corners. Pharoah would donate blood to the local blood bank when earnings were scarce. Blood money would feed him. John’s inflamed gums could be mistaken for the stamens of flowers when spring was scarce, pulsing the sound-energy of new birth. I’d like to go to where he goes when he bows and grins, to meet the sharp modesty of his tone turning to babble and collapsing into the body’s wisdom: bow at the waist, swivel one hand, arrow, the other, hold the flower like it might fray at the slope of praying to open, straight as the idea growing into a rhythm— vertically and just and up, then out, then plucked.
Stoicism and seriousness are popular in music photography and videography, and in all spheres of the arts, but especially in jazz. An excess of enthusiasm is a liability for jazzmen. Mingus is too gregarious to place in a museum, for example, he’s exiled to parties with Timothy Leary and asylums and workshops and woodsheds. His serious moments, like when he’s smoking a cigar or shooting a gun, are famous. His laughter is mistaken for rage or indecency. Miles always looks mad, tuff. Ornette looks goofy and restless, too humble. We know the uncles who weep alone at night for their showmanship that eats them alive and sustains them, all forgiven, all Louis Armstrong and Diz and army band and tormented and we love them. Billie appears as if stricken by her own glamor. Abbey is blue. Max’s jawline is as strong as his fist. Alice Coltrane, John’s wife, has a gripping mysticism about her in photographs and filmed footage, it seems to steady her and give her method and direction. Sometimes it’s difficult to watch someone so deliberate, we know she won’t break out into a dance mid-sentence, we know there will be total command and consideration and we’ll have to be better than we are to observe her, actors, not just idle spectators.
Back to John on the lamb, discovering that there’s refuge in broken character and deciding to smile for the camera like a child who just caught his first butterfly. In later years it looks as if it’s painful for him to be incarnated, like nothing carnal matters to his soul but sound keeps him on earth a little longer, and love, demanding that he make more of it, most of it, so he begins to scream his way out of that captivity. Once you start screaming it’s very hard to stop. Crying is that way too. Smiling is not. A noose knot of seriousness untied by mirth, either a grand joke or nothing will do the unknotting. I love John Coltrane’s impossible smile because it suggests that we have not completely failed him, as listeners, that he has gloat and glee left in him, and leisure and forgetting, that he did not play himself ragged, that his addiction to sound freedom was not in vain. One of my favorite songs on my favorite Coltrane album is “The Drum Thing” on Crescent (1964). I love it because Elvin Jones screams for John, so that he can play us something smooth as his smile. Jones takes on the tension and Coltrane relaxes into ballad and hangs there dazzling the space not occupied by pain. The drums are frenetic and embattled, they are war drums, calls to arms, and Trane's tone is full of ease and comfort, as if he’s right there and somewhere else at the same time, striding up to the front lines to say that all that trouble might fade to bliss if we keep going. Their duet is full of so much mutual understanding and respect and love, it makes you wonder why we use words when we have tones for confession, why do we speak at all?
John Coltrane’s playing does what the best of any art form does, it leaves us speechless, with nothing left to say or avenge or redeem. This is why he is seen as christ-like, as one who really did die for our sins, and give us music meaningful enough to make us want to atone, if only so we can make better music. I don’t think having a thousand pictures of ‘Trane’s honest smile is as important as having a handful of them. In that way the photographers got it right. The early ones show teeth. Later, his teeth in pain, he smiles with his lips closed around them like armor. Once, he smiles while strumming a harp, foreshadowing the one he would gift his prodigal wife and muse, Alice, right before he died. It’s as if he knows his sound will continue through her mastery of this gorgeous instrument. People called his search for the truest tone indulgent or insinuated that they thought he was descending into sonic madness when he played those last few dates in 1967. And what if he was? All gods are crazy. What if audiences were indulgent for behaving like spectators and not actors in the presence of that sound? Music like his is not meant to be watched idly. Smiles like his are not posed. His duet with the flower of life is endless and as rumor has it even flowers scream protest songs when handled like bricks or brass.