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Marking the Death of John Coltrane, Through the Poetry of Amiri Baraka

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CHUCK STEWART
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COURTESY OF THE SMITHSONIAN'S NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AMERICAN HISTORY
John Coltrane at the April 1966 recording for the album 'Cosmic Music.'

John Coltrane died 50 years ago today, at the tragic age of 40. The shock of his death was seismic, for a jazz community still growing accustomed to the hurtling evolution of his music.

Coltrane was more than an era-defining saxophonist, composer and bandleader, and his sudden absence left the jazz-world equivalent of a rift in the fabric of the universe, for years to come. 

The jazz drummer and scholar Kevin Laskey recently published a worthwhile essay about the meaningful musical gestures made at Coltrane’s funeral, by his fellow saxophonists Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman. My own thoughts turned this morning to the poet Amiri Baraka, and the Coltrane dedication in what might be his most celebrated poem, “AM/TRAK.”

Over the last week or so, we’ve been commemorating another 50th anniversary, of the Newark rebellion. Baraka, formerly LeRoi Jones, was born and raised in Newark, and arrested and jailed during the uprising. Baraka continues to be a part of that story, even though he died in 2014 — months before his son, Ras J. Baraka, became Newark’s current Mayor.

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John Coltrane with Amiri Baraka

AM/TRAK,” an intoxicating poem that appears to uncoil on the page, is an elegy for Coltrane that also smolders with the tumult of the rebellion. It isn’t until the end of the poem — after Baraka has colorfully traced the saxophonist’s history (“Begin on by a Philly night club / Or the basement of a cullut chuhch”), and claimed him as a totem (“Trane was the spirit of the 60’s / He was Malcolm X in New Super Bop Fire”) — that he clarifies this context.

He does so in a parenthetical that opens but never closes:

Meditations, Expressions A Love Supreme (I lay in solitary confinement, July 67 Tanks rolling thru Newark & whistled all I knew of Trane my knowledge heartbeat & he was dead they said.

The raw pain of this loss feels like a totality: in Coltrane, the poet has lost his North Star, and in Newark, he has lost his home, or some semblance thereof. You can hear the undiminished pathos in Baraka’s delivery even 15 years later, performing with the band Air at WDR Studios in Cologne, Germany. Listen for how Henry Threadgill’s flute cycles through familiar melodic motifs — not only by Coltrane but also Thelonious Monk and others. (If you’re unfamiliar with Baraka’s work, just be forewarned: this clip contains profanity.)

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For more on Amiri Baraka, consult this tribute on NPR's All Things Considered. Also on All Things Considered, Jazz Night in America's Christian McBride reflects on the 50th anniversary of A Love Supreme.