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.
(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.
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.
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
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