WBGO Blog
  • Dr. Lewis Porter on John Coltrane: More Inspirations

    March 24, 2013. Posted by Tim Wilkins.

    This article, the last of three on saxophonist John Coltrane, is the latest in our regular series of blogs on jazz history, "You Don't Know Jazz! With Dr. Lewis Porter." To read previous installments, click on the links below.

    John-Coltrane-Impressions-541226

    Series Introduction

    Episode 1: A Blues Recording From the Congo -- In 1906!

    Episode 2: The Origins of the Word "Jazz"

    Episodes 3-5: Myths About Jazz -- Part One, Part Two, Part Three

    Episode Six: Putting Louis Armstrong in Context: Part One, Part Two

    Episode Seven: Myths About Early Jazz Drumming

    Episode Eight: Jazz On Film

    Episode Nine: Slap-Tonguing

    Episode Ten: The Legacy of Chick Webb

    Episode Eleven: Drummer Gene Krupa

    Episode Twelve: Bassist Walter Page

    Episode Thirteen: Pianist George Shearing

    Episode Fourteen: Coltrane's Impressions, Part One

    Episode Fifteen: Coltrane's Impressions, Part Two

    (PLEASE NOTE: If the reader uses any of the material from this series, no matter how brief, this article and its web address must be cited as the source. Thank you for respecting the intellectual property of Dr. Porter.)

    John Coltrane: More Inspirations

    In my last two blogs, I revealed sources John Coltrane used to create one of his most famous works, “Impressions.” Now I have a final reflection on that piece and another on Coltrane’s composition “Big Nick.”

    In my 1998 book John Coltrane: His Life and Music, I devoted a chapter to showing where the saxophonist found some of his inspirations. In the case of “Impressions,” these included a theme from composer Morton Gould’s “Pavanne,” the form of Miles Davis’s “So What,” and the repertoire of pianist Ahmad Jamal.

    At the time I wrote my book, I also believed that a second theme in “Impressions” might be drawn from a phrase by French composer Maurice Ravel. However, that turns out to be false, as I will show now.

    Let’s listen first to what Coltrane plays over the bridge of his most famous version of the piece, recorded live at the Village Vanguard in November of 1961:

    john-coltrane

    Now here’s the second theme from Ravel’s “Pavane pour une enfante defunte,” as played by Sviatoslav Richter:

    ravel

    This theme became well-known after it inspired a pop song called “The Lamp Is Low,” which was recorded by Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller and other popular bandleaders. Here it is, as sung by Mildred Bailey in April of 1939:

    Mildred+Bailey

    I no longer believe Ravel’s composition is a source for Coltrane’s ”Impressions,” for two reasons. The first is that while what Coltrane plays over the bridge in his most famous recording of this piece does vaguely resemble Ravel’s phrase, it is not identical to it; in the case of the theme he borrows from Gould’s “Pavanne,” it is.

    More importantly, I have listened to every recording of Coltrane playing “Impressions,” including bootlegs never released to the general public, and it's very clear to me now that in this case he's simply improvising over the bridge.

    About half of the times Coltrane performed “Impressions,” he did not play this theme over the bridge. Rather, he played the main or "A" theme, Gould's theme, over the bridge, but takes it up a half step to follow the harmonic movement of the piece.

    Other times, Coltrane plays improvised lines which are sometimes very close to what he plays on his most famous version of “Impressions,” but sometimes not.

    So I think it's very clear that Coltrane did not write a bridge for this piece, but rather he simply played what he felt, or played the A theme up a half step.

    Now let’s move on to “Big Nick,” which is a very cute but not well-known composition of Coltrane’s. I have learned from an Italian pianist, Carlo Morena, through my good friend, Italian jazz scholar Maurizio Franco, that this piece does have a source: it’s the “Impromptu no. 3” by French composer Francis Poulenc.

    FrancisPoulenc

    Now let’s listen to the beginning to Coltrane’s “Big Nick,” as recorded with Duke Ellington in September of 1962:

    ellingtoncoltrane1

    As we can hear, Poulenc’s first eight notes are identical to Coltrane's melody - and this is important, because it is a very unusual melody. Even more significant, the Coltrane piece is in the same key as the Poulenc one!

    The combination of these two elements makes it almost impossible that this is a coincidence. Coltrane's melody is very clever, and the rest of Coltrane's melody does not come from the Poulenc piece. But the beginning does, very clearly.

    This answers a big question for me, so a big thank you to Carlo and Maurizio! I have always wondered, "Why is this melody very different from all the other Coltrane melodies?" The answer is, it's inspired by Poulenc.

  • Dr. Lewis Porter on John Coltrane: Impressions, Part Two

    February 17, 2013. Posted by Tim Wilkins.

    This article, the second of three on saxophonist John Coltrane, is the latest in our regular series of blogs on jazz history, "You Don't Know Jazz! With Dr. Lewis Porter." To read previous installments, click on the links below.

    John-Coltrane-Impressions-541226

    Series Introduction

    Episode 1: A Blues Recording From the Congo -- In 1906!

    Episode 2: The Origins of the Word "Jazz"

    Episodes 3-5: Myths About Jazz -- Part One, Part Two, Part Three

    Episode Six: Putting Louis Armstrong in Context: Part One, Part Two

    Episode Seven: Myths About Early Jazz Drumming

    Episode Eight: Jazz On Film

    Episode Nine: Slap-Tonguing

    Episode Ten: The Legacy of Chick Webb

    Episode Eleven: Drummer Gene Krupa

    Episode Twelve: Bassist Walter Page

    Episode Thirteen: Pianist George Shearing

    Episode Fourteen: Coltrane's Impressions, Part One

    (PLEASE NOTE: If the reader uses any of the material from this series, no matter how brief, this article and its web address must be cited as the source. Thank you for respecting the intellectual property of Dr. Porter.)

    John Coltrane: Impressions, Part Two

    In our last blog, I explained how the direct source of saxophonist John Coltrane’s "Impressions" was composer Morton Gould’s "Pavanne," a well-known piece at the time Coltrane was coming into his own as a musician.

    But wait - there’s more to this story.

    In my 1998 book John Coltrane: His Life and Music, I devoted a chapter to showing where he found some of these themes. Since then, I have learned more about Coltrane's inspirations.

    What Coltrane did to create "Impressions" was take Gould's melody, the second theme of "Pavanne," and apply it to the AABA form of a composition he knew well - trumpeter Miles Davis’s "So What."

    Coltrane was a regular member of Davis’s groups in the late 1950s, and he recorded and performed "So What" several times with Davis in 1959 and 1960, most famously on the Columbia album Kind of Blue.

    kind-of-blue

    But why would Coltrane choose to combine "So What" with "Pavanne?"

    Davis frequently said, in interviews and again in his autobiography, that Chicago pianist Ahmad Jamal was an important influence on him in this period. While Coltrane in Davis's group, they regularly played staples from Jamal’s repertoire, such as “Just Squeeze Me,” and a few Jamal originals.

    jamalheadphones1

    In October of 1955 and again in January of 1960, the Ahmad Jamal Trio recorded Gould’s "Pavanne," playing both themes. This is very significant, for without a doubt, Coltrane was familiar with the Ahmad Jamal Trio’s versions of this piece.

    On the 1955 version, it’s guitarist Ray Crawford who plays "Pavanne’s" second theme:

    the-legendary-okeh-epic-recordings

    The 1960 version, in which Jamal plays the theme, brings us closer to what we hear Coltrane do with this material just months later:

    Happy_Moods

    Indeed, when Coltrane started to play Impressions in concert in 1960, "Pavanne" was part of the the Jamal Trio’s active repertoire.

    But when Coltrane first started to perform "Impressions," he didn’t know what to call it. Apparently at first he also called his version “So What,” and in November of 1961, when he played his famous, incredibly intense version at the Village Vanguard, which was later released as the title track of a 1963 album for Impulse! – he still did not have a name for it.

    In fact, even in June of 1962, when he recorded 2 short versions of this piece in the studio - these were never released on LP, but have since been released on CD - he was calling the piece “Excerpts.”

    This always makes my students laugh, because they say, "After all, his theme is an excerpt from Morton Gould!"

    john-coltrane

    Finally, you may be surprised to learn that Impressions was recorded on two albums by non-Coltrane bands, before Coltrane’s version was released in July of 1963.

    Both times, the tune was titled “Why Not?” and the composer was listed as the late drummer Pete “LaRoca” Sims!

    The first version is by saxophonist Rocky Boyd on his album Ease It, recorded with trumpeter Kenny Dorham and Sims on drums in February of 1961:

    boyd_rocky~_easeitint_102b

    A later release of the same album, under Dorham’s name as West 42nd Street, included a second take at a slightly slower tempo:

    West 42nd Street

    I asked LaRoca about this session, and he told me that of course he knew the piece, because he’d played it as a member of Coltrane’s quartet in the summer of 1960, before Elvin Jones took his place. LaRoca also said he also knew the theme wasn’t Coltrane’s, and it was by Gould.

    “I might have been in on the thought process, underlying naming and all the rest of that,” he told me, but he also acknowledged that he shouldn’t have been listed as composer and suggested that might have been Boyd’s idea.

    My friend, jazz photographer John Rogers, has also reminded me that the quartet of the terrific vibraphonist Dave Pike also recorded this theme, with Bill Evans on piano, in February 1962. LaRoca is not the drummer on this date, yet the piece is still credited to him.

    pikespeak3

    Why? I emailed Pike recently at his current residence in California, and it turns out that LaRoca was, once again, his source for this tune.
    Pike writes that he was performing with LaRoca at that time, “and he played it for me. I thought that either he wrote it, or it was just what we used to call a ‘riff’ behind somebody's solo.”

    In fact, on Pike’s version, Bill Evans solos on piano while the band plays the theme behind him.

    By the way, in “Why Not?” the bridge is the A theme played a half-step higher, as Coltrane himself sometimes performed it.

  • Dr. Lewis Porter on John Coltrane: Impressions, Part One

    January 16, 2013. Posted by Tim Wilkins.

    This article, the first of three on saxophonist John Coltrane, is the latest in our regular series of blogs on jazz history, "You Don't Know Jazz! With Dr. Lewis Porter." To read previous installments, click on the links below.

    John-Coltrane-Impressions-541226

    Series Introduction

    Episode 1: A Blues Recording From the Congo -- In 1906!

    Episode 2: The Origins of the Word "Jazz"

    Episodes 3-5: Myths About Jazz -- Part One, Part Two, Part Three

    Episode Six: Putting Louis Armstrong in Context: Part One, Part Two

    Episode Seven: Myths About Early Jazz Drumming

    Episode Eight: Jazz On Film

    Episode Nine: Slap-Tonguing

    Episode Ten: The Legacy of Chick Webb

    Episode Eleven: Drummer Gene Krupa

    Episode Twelve: Bassist Walter Page

    (PLEASE NOTE: If the reader uses any of the material from this series, no matter how brief, this article and its web address must be cited as the source. Thank you for respecting the intellectual property of Dr. Porter.)

    John Coltrane: Impressions, Part One

    Many jazz fans, and even musicians, are surprised to discover that saxophonist John Coltrane took ideas for some of his compositions from existing works. In some cases, he drew from folk songs, which are in the public domain, but in others he got themes directly from tunes composed by other people.

    In my 1998 book John Coltrane: His Life and Music, I devoted a chapter to showing where he found some of these themes. Since then, I have learned more about Coltrane’s inspirations, and will share these insights with you in the next few blogs.

    Let’s start with Impressions, one of Coltrane’s best-known works. It was one of his favorite tunes to perform live in the early 1960s, and one of these performances, at the Village Vanguard in 1961, is the title track on an album released by Impulse! in July of 1963.

    As I showed in my book, Coltrane's source for the main theme of Impressions is the second theme of Pavanne, which is part of a longer work, American Symphonette No. 2, written by American composer Morton Gould in 1939.

    ad-1947-colombia-morton-gould

    Gould was well-known to radio listeners in the 1940s, through nationwide broadcasts which mixed light classical and popular music.Gould himself recorded Pavanne on multiple occasions with different instrumentations, from solo piano to large groups, and it was also recorded by prominent big bands of the era, such as the one led by Jimmie Lunceford, which may have been the first big band Coltrane ever saw in person:

    It was also recorded by one of the Swing Era's most popular bandleaders, trombonist Glen Miller:

    The first, main theme of Pavanne was also quoted by saxophonist Wardell Gray in his solo on Little Pony, which he recorded with the Count Basie Band in 1949.

    Wardell+Gray+wardellgray

    Let's listen to the first theme of Gould’s Pavanne, as recorded by the composer with orchestra in 1942, so we can compare the two. Full-length versions of all of these clips can be found on YouTube, if you're curious to hear more.

    Because Wardell played it, Pavanne's first theme became a popular quote among other musicians as well, and Coltrane said that Wardell Gray was one of his favorite saxophonists around this time.

    So we know that several versions of Gould's Pavanne were well-known precisely during the time that Coltrane began playing music. But this, of course, is just circumstantial evidence. Let’s talk about the music.

    When we listen closely, it becomes obvious that Morton Gould’s Pavanne is the source for Coltrane's Impressions for several reasons:

    First, Gould’s theme is identical to what Coltrane plays - not similar. but exactly the same.

    Second, when Gould’s theme repeats, it moves up a minor third. In Impressions, Coltrane’s melody goes up a half step, so the movement between keys is not the same, but the idea of repeating the theme at a higher pitch is retained from Gould's original.

    I have listened to every recording of Coltrane playing Impressions, including bootlegs that have never been released to the general public. There is an unissued version of Coltrane playing Impressions in 1961 where he plays not only the theme, but also the repeating background riff that you can hear played behind the second theme in Gould’s original. This destroys any remaining doubt as to whether Coltrane was familiar with Gould’s piece!

    Still not convinced Coltrane took material from other composers? There’s more – about Coltrane’s relationship with trumpeter Miles Davis, and Impressions' links to Davis’s So What – but for that, you’ll have to wait for the next installment of our blog.

    See you then! Lewis