Deep Dive: The Presence of the Past in John Coltrane's Expressive and Searching Music
Saxophonist John Coltrane was born on Sept. 23, 1926. On what would have been his 93rd birthday, scholar and historian David Tegnell offers this guest installment of Deep Dive with Lewis Porter.
More than 50 years after John Coltrane's death, we have yet to fully unlock the meaning of his music of the 1960s, in part because we haven't adequately investigated the saxophonist's relationship to traditional African American religious practice.
I first came to this conclusion while conducting a field study on African American religious music in a Holiness church during the 1980s. There I noticed certain aesthetic correspondences between Holiness worship modes and Coltrane's improvisatory practices, and realized that several of his strategies, which I had previously assumed to be avant-garde, are in fact original to traditional worship.
In particular, Coltrane's free improvisations struck me as similar in manner and execution to religious testimony, wherein members of a congregation help to shape, in the moment, a worshiper's performed meditation. In the Coltrane group's soundscape, I also heard echoes of the incidental dissonance produced by congregations whose members simultaneously and individually pray aloud. And the celebratory codas of his solos seemed reminiscent of the eruptions of holy dancing in response to a congregant's heartfelt expressions.
Of course, John Coltrane grew up Methodist, not Holiness: specifically, African Methodist Episcopal Zion, one of several mainstream denominations to which the vast majority of freedmen flocked, following emancipation. These freedmen sought to take their rightful place in American society by embracing respectability as defined by the larger white Southern culture. In so doing, they kept at arm's length — for a time — the intensely expressive worship practices through which they and their ancestors had created a distinct identity and a culture of resistance.
But around the turn of the 20th century, traditional African American culture reasserted itself in the form of Pentecostal/Holiness worship, just as Southern states were stripping Negroes of their right to vote, thereby establishing a 60-year regime of white supremacy. This cultural eruption reflected a growing conflict over how African Americans might best respond to Jim Crow — resistance or accommodation? — that would persist into the post-World War II civil rights movement.
Further complicating the picture, commercial swing music and religious blues (gospel) extracted elements of traditional worship practice from its ritual nexus, thereby obscuring for white consumers the longstanding role and function of a much more pervasive African American religious culture.
So it came as a complete shock to white jazz fans and critics when in 1961, concurrent with African Americans' renewed demands for civil rights, Coltrane abandoned accepted methods for organizing jazz performances in favor of a freer, more emotionally charged presentation that drew upon not only the aesthetic and technical aspects of traditional religion, but also its spiritual purpose.
Protestant religious testimony (and attendant worship modes), as adapted and practiced by slaves during secret plantation services in the dead of night, allowed participants to express their feelings openly and fully and, through communion with others, to maintain their belief in God, even when they had suffered beatings or their family members were sold away.
This practice, which has continued to serve subsequent generations, is both spiritually edifying to the individual and formative of community. Those who testify receive immediate shouts of encouragement from the congregation, and so, often find themselves revealing thoughts they had suppressed. In this way, testimony is simultaneously an act of self-revelation and self-discovery that in turn encourages others. It is a collective act of love, an antidote to the mistreatment experienced at the hands of the larger society. Coltrane revealed that he understood the utility of this deceptively simple practice when he said that he wanted his own improvisations to make listeners “happy,” and for his music to “be a force for good.”
Holiness worshipers (and by extension their enslaved ancestors) invoke a God not only of love, but also of justice, capable of overturning the social order. Often, the congregation limns the presence of a powerful God through a sometimes-frightening cacophony of shouted and guttural praise, accompanied by handclaps, heels striking the floor, and the playing of percussive musical instruments. Church members, who refer to themselves as Saints, may become one with this God through a lengthy spiritual process of conversion, purification, and spirit-possession (“Saved, Sanctified, and Holy Ghost filled”). Consequently, during services, the Holy Ghost may descend to reveal truths through anyone at any time.
John Coltrane risked his career and reputation to bring this humble but powerful meditative practice into the secular marketplace, where he clothed it in learned technique, and offered it as a way forward in a post-integration America. Coltrane used his stunningly virtuosic improvisations to contest prevailing racial stereotypes, revealing the invisible man to be highly intellectual, scrupulously honest, and emotionally complex. And at the height of the civil rights movement, Coltrane called forth the spirit of his ancestors to render in music a ferocious judgment on centuries of racial justice.
What did John Coltrane know of slavery and segregation at the time he reimagined African American music? What may he have known of his family's experience with that long period of oppression? Over the past several years, I have sought to investigate these questions by researching the lives of his ancestors.
I previously published my findings with respect to Coltrane's maternal (Blair) family in the article “Hamlet: John Coltrane's Origins,” published in Jazz Perspectives, a journal founded by Lewis Porter and John Howland.
In this guest installment of Deep Dive with Lewis Porter, I present a new documentary study of John Coltrane's paternal ancestry, beginning with his oldest known enslaved relatives. This essay will outline the conditions of the Coltrane family's enslavement, and describe the circumstances of their life under freedom and segregation. Further, I speculate as to how prior unions, events, decisions and actions may have been consequential for the formation of Coltrane's character, and how Coltrane's knowledge of his ancestors' experience may have shaped his idea of slavery, segregation and traditional African American culture.
I conclude by relating the story of young John Coltrane's disenchantment with respectability and his nascent embrace of traditional culture — setting in motion a lifelong examination, appropriation, and synthesis of complex musical/cultural currents.
No Coltrane family letters, diaries, sermons or other writings from that period survive — and because official documents do not reveal family relationships, day-to-day activities, or belief systems, we can never know precisely how Coltrane's family practiced religion. Yet, the record makes clear their long and deep commitment to traditional worship.
Neither do we know how and when Coltrane came to understand the connection between traditional performed testimony and his own musical meditations. Perhaps his encounter with fellow saxophonist Albert Ayler, himself a Pentecostal, at a critical moment in his career, was decisive. Or, perhaps traditional worship concepts and practices are so deeply embedded in the culture and Coltrane's family experience as to be simply assumed. As the great music historian Sam Floyd once said to me, traditional worship “is never far away.”
The Presence of the Past
John Coltrane grew up in a household headed by his maternal grandparents, both born slaves — so for his family, slavery was a living memory, and segregation was of course a daily reality. In a 1962 letter to DownBeat editor Don DeMicheal, Coltrane provides some insight into his understanding of the relationship between African American music and slavery and segregation:
We are born with this feeling that just comes out, no matter what conditions exist. Otherwise, how could our founding fathers have produced this music, in the first place when they surely found themselves (as many of us do today) existing in hostile communities where there was everything to fear and damn few to trust. Any music which could grow and propagate itself as our music has, must have a hell of an affirmative belief inherent in it.
John Coltrane's improvisations of the 1960s were both timely and intensely personal. Coltrane allowed his listeners to eavesdrop while he struggled with the emerging existential reality of integration, the long-delayed encounter between two previously separate — and hostile — cultures. Coltrane's family history tells us something about what he brought to that table.
Invariably genealogists and historians are frustrated in their efforts to unearth the names of former slaves. Laws prohibited slaves from learning to read or write, so few of them could document their own lives; and before 1870, the census listed slaves not by name, but solely by age, gender and race. Only by a stroke of luck have we recently learned the identities of John Coltrane's great-grandparents on his father's side, where and by whom they were enslaved.
Coltrane Family Tree
Below, I provide an abridged family tree both to delineate the through-line from the earliest-known ancestors down to John Coltrane, and to provide a genealogical framework for the ensuing discussion. For the sake of clarity, I have indicated spouses and children only for John Coltrane's direct ancestors.
Please also note:
- The 1811 birth year indicated for John Coltrane's great-grandmother Mary Ann is that which is inscribed on her grave marker; but this date must be wrong — for she likely would not have birthed her last child at age 61. Other records suggest that Mary Ann was actually born between 1820 and 1830.
- Mary Ann Coltrane reported to the 1900 and 1910 census takers that she had given birth to 12 children (in 1900, she stated that all 12 were still alive; but in 1910, only four). I have been able to find (and list) just 10.
- John William Coltrane's father John Robert married twice, the first time to Beatrice Dockery.
Andrew and Mary Ann Coltrane
I first came across the names of John William Coltrane's great-grandparents, Andrew and Mary Ann Coltrane, on the 1925 death certificate of their son, William Henry (John William Coltrane's paternal grandfather). This discovery led me to Amos Grove, the African American cemetery just outside the small central North Carolina farming town of Liberty, in Randolph County. Here I found the marked graves of Andrew and Mary Ann Coltrane. No one had tended these graves for many years; the footstones have migrated under the force of periodic flood washes, and Andrew's gravestone had fallen over.
As I walked behind Mary Ann's marker, I was astonished to find on the reverse side an additional inscription: “Mary Ann was bought by Abner Coltrane in 1821.”
With this information, I was later able to confirm that Abner Coltrane (1800-1869) had indeed purchased Mary Ann at a young age, and kept her enslaved until emancipated in 1863.
Who placed Mary Ann's gravestone? Who wrote the inscription, and why? Did Mary Ann wish to exhort future generations never to forget her enslavement — or, did she perhaps want to express gratitude toward her former owner? Might Abner Coltrane's family have purchased the marker to thank Mary Ann for her years of service? If so, why did they not say so on the stone?
A Negro boy named “Handy”
So I already knew something of Andrew and Mary Ann when, unexpectedly, an envelope arrived from Lewis Porter containing photocopies of several documents sent to him by Bob Coltrane, a descendant of Abner, who now lives in Ohio.
At the top of the stack lay an 1828 bill of sale for a seven-year old “Negro Boy named Handy,” purchased for $200 in Fayetteville, N.C., by “Abner Coltrain” (I have not infrequently found the name Coltrane spelled variously in official documents and even on gravestones). Abner's Quaker father, Jacob, witnessed the transaction. Porter's envelope also held a plat map of Abner's farm, as well as other documents listing an adult slave identified alternately as Andrew and Handy.
Coltrane Family Reunion
A couple of years later, I learned that members of the African American Coltrane family gather annually for a reunion, usually held near Liberty, N.C. I contacted the organizers and asked if I might attend. Upon arrival, I was struck first by the size of the gathering, and second, by how many people resembled John Coltrane! I was also surprised to see most attendees wearing T-shirts that carried one of several variants of the Coltrane family tree. Each branch of the family traces its beginnings back to one of Andrew and Mary Ann's children — yet none of the T-shirts included the common root, Andrew and Mary Ann.
Also absent from the reunion was any representative of William Henry Coltrane's branch, i.e., John William Coltrane's grandfather, as all descendants had long since died or moved away. In fact, the organizers told me that only recently had they learned of the family's relationship to the famous saxophonist, and that they had then immediately invited John Coltrane's son Ravi to attend this very reunion. (Ravi did not.)
Abner Coltrane's Home
The Coltrane Family Reunion organizers seated me at a table next to a young white woman who introduced herself as a descendant of the Coltrane family — the very people who had enslaved the Reunion members' ancestors. During our conversation, the young woman showed me a photograph of a house identified as that of Abner Coltrane. While I possessed a plat map, I had thus far been unable to locate Abner's plantation, precisely. I asked for directions and set off to find the house. (I have since learned that Abner Coltrane's house was recently demolished, in Feb. 2019.)
The Conditions of Slavery
The archival record is meager, but nonetheless tells us something about the conditions Andrew and Mary Ann had to endure. Abner Coltrane bought the land on which he built his house in 1845, and steadily increased his holdings until 1860, when he owned 2,000 acres. Because North Carolina's central Piedmont is less fertile than the coastal plain, Abner's chief agricultural product was necessarily livestock — cattle, swine, and sheep — which required a much smaller labor force than if he had primarily grown crops. Seemingly, Abner's practice was to purchase boys who served as shepherds. Of his 21 slaves listed in the 1860 U.S. census, only five are female; most of the men are teen-aged or younger. Andrew “Handy” Coltrane may have been Abner's first shepherd.
Though unnamed in the census, the oldest of Abner's slaves are certainly Andrew and Mary Ann, aged 41 and 37, respectively. It is more than possible that Mary Ann served as Abner's cook and perhaps nanny to his three children by his first wife, Sarah Gardner (1809-1852): Stephen (1826-1896), James Madison (1833-1863), and Franklin (1837-1894). If so, Mary Ann and Andrew probably lived in the same dwelling as Abner Coltrane and his family and coped with the kind of strained intimacy typical of Southern planter households.
Andrew and Mary Ann began to cohabit in 1851 and Mary Ann gave birth to the first of their 10 children that same year. We can only wonder whether Abner Coltrane's newly constructed house was large enough to accommodate these two families.
Record of Cohabitation
At War's end, the newly constituted North Carolina State Legislature afforded freed slaves the opportunity to legalize their prior cohabitation. Andrew and Mary Ann did so in 1866 by reporting to the County Courthouse in Asheboro. Their names appear in a Record of Cohabitation for Randolph County, published in Barnetta McGhee White's 1995 book Somebody Knows My Name: Marriages of Freed People in North Carolina County By County. Given that Andrew and Mary Ann did not begin living together until relatively late in their lives (when they were 32 and 28, respectively), one might surmise that Abner opposed slave cohabitation — but an unexpected pregnancy within his household may have forced him to recognize his slaves' union as a practical matter.
A “Public Nuisance”
In the 18th century, a large contingent of Quakers settled in Randolph County and portions of two adjacent counties, Davidson and Guilford. The Quakers' opposition to slavery and emphasis on light industry rather than farming kept the number of slaves in this “Quaker Belt” below 13 percent of the (1860) population. Consequently, although Abner Coltrane owned only 21 slaves, he was the fifth-largest slaveholder in Randolph County.
Whereas slaves on the large plantations of fertile coastal North Carolina enjoyed some protections afforded by sheer numbers, slaves in the interior Piedmont, who typically worked in relative isolation on small family farms, were subject to owners' capricious acts of violence, fueled by the personal nature of the slave/farmer relationship. Superior Court records document one such violent outburst — by Abner Coltrane. During the 1861 Spring Term, on the eve of the Civil War, a panel of Superior Court jurors charged Abner with creating a “public nuisance” in the streets of the Randolph County Seat of Asheboro. The indictment reads:
The Jurors for the State upon their oath present, that Abner Coltrain, late of Randolph County, on the first day of January in the year of our Lord one thousand eight-hundred and sixty one, at and in the County aforesaid in certain public streets and highways there situate, and in the presence of divers persons there and there being, did, in an unusual, cruel, inhuman, barbarous and shocking manner, whip, beat, mistreat and abuse a slave named Alfred the property of the said Abner Coletrain, and did in the said public streets and highways and in the presence of the said divers persons, then and there, continue the whiping, beating, mistreatment and abuse of the said slave Alfred for a long space of time, to wit: for three hours, in the manner aforesaid [?] example of all others in like case offending; to the common nuisance of all the good citizens of the State and against the peace and dignity of the State.
After several years' delay, and despite the testimony of seven witnesses, a jury acquitted Abner Coltrane. The Court ordered Abner to pay its costs, which he ultimately did following the end of the War, with worthless Confederate currency. The slave he victimized, Alfred, whose name also appears in the cohabitation record, was unrelated to Andrew and Mary Ann. However, the couple must have been aware of the beating and probably nursed their fellow slave back to health.
It may be cold comfort, but there is no indication that Abner Coltrane engaged in the sexual predation that was all too common among slave owners. And he spared Andrew and Mary Ann's family the trauma of sale and separation. So the 1870 census indicates the race of Mary Ann's children as Black, not Mulatto, and lists eight of her nine offspring born to date living at home. At least, Andrew and Mary Ann did not have to spend precious time and resources at War's end looking for missing family members.
The period of chaos after the Civil War appears to have been difficult for Andrew and Mary Ann. Perhaps they were near starvation when in May 1867 they and two confederates stole a pig from a neighboring farm; the Sherriff immediately arrested all four and charged them with larceny. The Court ordered Andrew and Mary Ann to pay $100 each — an impossible sum for them to raise.
By 1869, Abner Coltrane was dead. His two surviving sons, Stephen and Franklin divided their father's estate with his widow (and second wife) Elizabeth. And so in 1870, census takers found Andrew and Mary Ann, flanked by Abner's heirs, living as tenants on land they had previously worked as slaves.
The Agricultural Schedule of the census indicates that Andrew was a more productive farmer than Franklin Coltrane — but, as tenant, Andrew had to turn over half his yield to Franklin. While the African American Coltrane family had yet to escape the clutches of their former owners, at least Mary Ann no longer served as their domestic. She now kept her own house, which included eight of her 10 children, one of whom, William Henry, here aged 10, would later become John Coltrane's paternal grandfather.
A Widow's Allowance
Andrew Coltrane died of tuberculosis on Dec. 4, 1879. Mary Ann immediately applied for a Widow's Allowance, and the Court awarded her $147, the difference between the $453 assessed value of her husband's estate and $600.
The requisite estate inventory provides us a glimpse into the Coltrane family's existence. Two mules, four cattle, a wagon, and crop yields account for more than two thirds of their net worth (although Andrew had yet to finish paying Franklin for the mules and wagon). Farming implements and household items (including, notably, a Bible) make up the rest.
Touchingly, Andrew kept a bedroll at the parsonage, suggesting he volunteered as a caretaker of the family (AME Zion) church, located 3-4 miles east of Abner Coltrane's plantation. Given his poor health at nearly age 70, Andrew may have preferred to spend the night at the church rather than walk the roundtrip in one day. The bedroll also speaks to Andrew's commitment to his church and its congregation who had helped him and his family survive.
Mary Ann, Alone
By the time census takers arrived in spring 1880, Mary Ann had moved her family, and entered into a new tenancy arrangement. Several of her children had left since the last enumeration, including William Henry, who earlier in the year had married Ellen (aka Helen) Forney. Perhaps pregnant, Ellen remained behind with her mother-in-law.
A year later, Mary Ann used $22 of her Widow's Allowance to purchase a nine-acre farm located one mile west of Liberty. She bought the land for less than its valuation from Leonard and Sarah Wright, members of Sandy Creek Baptist Church, neither of whom had previously owned slaves. For the rest of her life, Mary Ann resided on this farm, where she raised not only her remaining children but also several of her grandchildren — one of whom, John Robert, would later become John William Coltrane's father.
Mary Ann's Kettle
I asked around Liberty for the location of Mary Ann Coltrane's farmhouse, and was told that the abandoned structure had long since fallen to the ground. I found the site overgrown with thick foliage, through which I could see only a portion of the floor. My intrepid brother plunged his hand into the undergrowth below and pulled out this iron kettle. I like to think it belonged to Mary Ann, and that she used it to heat water over the fire in order to give young John Robert a bath on Saturday night. I keep the kettle above my collection of Coltrane recordings.
Rev. William Henry Coltrane
In 1895, William Henry Coltrane entered the ministry of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion church. His duties required him to shuttle between his district's churches so often as to make it impractical to bring his family with him. Consequently, his wife Ellen, two daughters and two sons continued to live with his mother Mary Ann on her farm in Liberty.
But sometime before 1910, Rev. W. H. Coltrane's family joined him; the census found the family living together in Franklinton — perhaps a centrally located home base within Rev. Coltrane's circuit. At 93, Mary Ann was now too old to care for her grandchildren; her youngest son Isaac managed the Liberty farm and looked after his aged mother until her death the following year. We do not know precisely when John Robert left Mary Ann's farm, but we can surmise that he enjoyed there a comparatively calm and stable rural childhood — while seemingly also attending elementary school, as the 1910 census indicates he could both read and write.
A Modest Career
Very few records survive documenting Rev. William Henry Coltrane's employment as an AME Zion minister, but we can safely say that he led a modest career and earned an average salary. Apparently, Rev. Coltrane spent much of his entire adult life working as a circuit rider, traveling by horseback or buggy among disparate rural churches, each too small to support a pastor.
By contrast, John Coltrane's maternal grandfather Rev. William Wilson Blair, also an AME Zion minister, served contemporaneously as a presiding elder (district supervisor), regularly attended the denomination's Quadrennial Conference where he chaired important committees, and commanded a salary comparable to that of High Point, North Carolina's African American school principals.
Yet Rev. Coltrane performed important work, ministering to the poorest and most exploited rural folk, who suffered profoundly under Jim Crow. He also facilitated the regular performance of congregation-centered religious rituals, which for decades had proved essential to the survival, emotional well-being, and identity of an entire group of oppressed people. Thus, John William Coltrane's family was deeply rooted in a Southern rural religious tradition that included lined hymn singing, testimony, shouting, and ecstatic praise. In 1958, John Coltrane said, “Both my grandfathers were ministers…I grew up in that.”
At right is a page from the Presiding Elder's annual report of the Fayetteville District, delivered at the Central North Carolina Conference, December 4, 1918. Rev. W. H. Coltrane had just completed a year ministering to the churches within the Mountain Grove Circuit. (See item No. 9.) He had earned a salary of $525, less than half that paid to John Coltrane's maternal grandfather, pastor of St. Stephen AME Zion Church, High Point, North Carolina in 1920.
John Robert Coltrane
John Robert Coltrane (or J.R., as he was mostly known, and as I will call him to avoid confusion with his son) remains an elusive, shadowy figure. From the decade before his son John William was born, we know little more than that in 1917 J. R. registered for the draft, and that in 1919, at age 24, he married 18-year-old Beatrice Dockery. J.R.'s Registration Card indicates that he was a resident of Hamlet at the time he registered, and that he had already established his pressing club (clothes washing business). J.R.'s marriage license notes that his parents were also living in Hamlet, that year. The following year, census takers found Rev. W. H. Coltrane still residing in Hamlet, but failed to enumerate J.R. and Beatrice Coltrane--so we do not know precisely where they were living.
There is much else that we do not know about J.R. from this period — where and when he acquired his skill in tailoring; when and how J.R. learned to play the violin; where his in-laws resided (the Dockerys also were not counted in 1920 or any other census year). And we know almost nothing of Beatrice Dockery, except that she and John Robert did not conceive a child.
Alice Gertrude Blair
John Robert Coltrane's marriage to Beatrice Dockery was short-lived. Sometime during 1924, J.R. met and became romantically involved with Alice Gertrude Blair. Alice Blair was the 26-year-old daughter of Rev. William Wilson Blair, newly appointed pastor of Hamlet's St. Stephens AME Zion church. Since 1921, Alice had been attending the residential high school program at Livingston College in Salisbury, North Carolina. Probably during Christmas break of her senior year, Alice became pregnant. For fear of being expelled from school, Alice kept this fact a secret until after she graduated in May 1925.
On Aug. 17, 1925, shortly before the expected birth, Alice and J.R. eloped across the South Carolina state line to nearby Bennettsville, where they married in a magistrate's office, returning by bus to Hamlet that day. No witnesses attended the wedding, family or friend. J.R. and Beatrice never officially divorced, so it would have been unthinkable for J.R. to wed Alice in the same church where he had married Beatrice only six years earlier. Besides, Rev. Blair would have been mortified to preside over the wedding of his daughter, obviously pregnant with an illegitimate child.
John William Coltrane's Sibling
Sadly, J. R. and Alice Coltrane's first child did not survive. We know this because Alice Coltrane indicated on John William's birth certificate (Sept. 23, 1926) that she had previously given birth to a child “born alive but now dead.”
Separation and Return
Following their return from South Carolina, J.R. and Alice Coltrane took up residence on the second floor of a rooming house in Hamlet, where a year later their son John William Coltrane was born.
Alice Blair Coltrane lived apart from her father only once in her life, prior to Rev. Blair's death in 1938: the approximately 15 months following her marriage to J.R. If this separation signaled a rift, father and daughter appear to have smoothed over their differences by Dec. 1926, perhaps facilitated by the birth of grandson John William Coltrane.
At year's end, after Rev. Blair completed his term as pastor of Hamlet's St. Stephens church, Alice and J.R. moved to High Point, N.C. with her parents, where the two families lived together at 113 Price St.
Rev. W. W. Blair, the “dominating cat of the family”
In Rev. Blair, J.R. encountered a formidable, learned, articulate man — accomplished and politically daring. Sixty years old in 1920 when he first moved to High Point, Blair brought with him a lifetime of experience in post-Reconstructions politics. For 25 years, i.e., from ages 20-45, he had headed the Republican Party in eastern North Carolina's Chowan County, where nearly half the electorate was Black. He had served as County Commissioner from 1896-1898, and had twice run for a seat in the State Legislature. He had thus gained considerable skill in contending with powerful white Southerners. Consequently, virtually upon arrival, High Point's African American community embraced Rev. Blair as their community leader. According to Betty Jackson, John William Coltrane's classmate and lifelong resident of High Point, “If you wanted something done, just ask Rev. Blair.”
John William Coltrane told interviewer August Blume in 1958 that Rev. Blair was “the dominating cat of the family. He was most well versed, active politically.” By comparison, he said his father (J.R.), “never seemed to say too much. He just went about his business — that was it.” The events of the preceding summer could not have endeared J.R. to Rev. Blair. J.R.'s infidelity and Alice's first pregnancy had tarnished the family's reputation, placing at risk Rev. Blair's employment and his standing with whites. Rev. Blair therefore may have felt it prudent to relocate from Hamlet to High Point, where few knew of the family's embarrassment. And perhaps, after moving in with his in-laws, J.R. decided it best to keep his head down.
118 Underhill Street
In 1928, Rev. Blair built a house in High Point at 118 Underhill St. in a new middle class development called Griffin Park (here photographed in 1986).
While modest by contemporaneous white standards, the houses of High Point's Griffin Park contrasted strikingly with the surrounding dwellings populated by recent rural immigrants fleeing tenancy (people from backgrounds similar to that of J.R.).
By 1940, these overcrowded slums were condemned, to be replaced by a housing project financed in part by WPA money. Although J.R. contributed regularly to the Blair family's income, he never shared in ownership of the Underhill house. He may have considered himself fortunate to live there.
The Pressing Club
It seems that J.R. often absented himself from home, spending long hours at his pressing club. Betty Jackson told me that she rarely saw John Robert. Funeral director and family friend Walter Hoover described for C. O. Simpkins the scene in J.R.'s pressing club, which was located next to Hoover's funeral parlor in 1934:
John [Robert]? …he's just a fella, he just lived to, to his family, that's about all. He liked his bottle, but he didn't take any active part in civic affairs, anything like that, you know. Now, he [John William] took his music from his daddy. His daddy was very musical. Played a uke. He played a violin. And I'm quite sure, that was where John picked up his head for music, was from his father...and John [Robert] — get him a drink...don't care how much dry cleanin' — well, along then, they didn't dry-clean; they'd put things in tubs and scrub ‘em—don't care how much work he had to do, he'd sit down there with that uke and—his favorite song was “[Sweetheart of] Sigma Chi.” …yeah, he liked takin' a drink. He didn't get out on the street, though, when he was drinkin', or anything like that. (pause) He was a good businessman — good business fellow. Everybody liked Coltrane.
Clearly, there was another reason why J.R. chose to stay away from the home of his pastor father-in-law, who supported Prohibition. Hoover's depiction suggests that J.R. may have been more social and fun-loving than his wife Alice, but the hint of substance abuse should not be discounted. Of Alice Coltrane, Hoover had this to say: “John's mother? Oh, she — just like an old shoe. She acted like she's about 75 years old, when she was young — be so quiet, and all. ‘Long then, preacher's children, and all, they, on account of their father, they didn't take part in social affairs.” While J.R. and Alice Coltrane certainly shared a love of music, one wonders about their essential compatibility. Perhaps in very personal ways, their son John William learned at an early age to navigate and reconcile disparate personalities.
According to John William Coltrane's cousin and sometime Underhill resident “Cousin Mary” Lyerly, who died recently at age 92, even when J.R. was at home he often closeted himself in his upstairs bedroom, where he improvised at length: “He did it to entertain himself within his own bedroom. I don't think Uncle John ever brought his violin or his ukulele outside of that bedroom.”
But John William Coltrane was listening, and said in 1961, “my father played the violin very well.” Unfortunately, other than “The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi,” we know nothing of his repertoire. Still, one has to wonder, why the violin? Growing up in the rural Piedmont of North Carolina, did J.R. hear or perform with country string bands? Did he play blues on his instrument? Did he sing?
In segregationist High Point, it was impossible for any African American to achieve economic parity with whites. The vast majority of Negroes were systematically excluded from all but the most menial employment, and the handful of professionals were paid less than their white counterparts. So the appearance of middle class prosperity along Underhill Street was illusory: nearly all homeowners required multiple incomes (whether from boarders or relatives) in order to meet mortgage payments. The Blairs were no exception; three families shared the house at 118 Underhill.
A few years ago, an interviewer asked “Cousin Mary” whether her family had been well off during the 1930s. She replied, wryly, “We looked the part.” The Blair / Coltrane family could “look the part” because they made their own clothing. Betty Jackson, a frequent visitor to the Underhill home, recalls that Rev. Blair “was always well dressed” — no doubt in suits designed by his son-in-law. John Coltrane, too, appears in his third-grade class photo better attired than his classmates, because he wore clothes sewn by his mother — a very good seamstress, according to Mrs. Jackson.
Rev. Blair and his professional colleagues, who shared leadership responsibilities for High Point's African American community, were obliged to wear the mask of respectability in interactions with white civic leaders. Deprived of the vote or any formal representation on the town council, these men were politically powerless, and had to rely on persuasion and reputation in their efforts to secure better schools and living conditions for the rural immigrants flooding into High Point's slums.
But in exchange for granting African Americans favors, white civic leaders expected Negro leaders to be social exemplars, distinguishing themselves from the rural newcomers in dress and behavior — in effect renouncing the culture of resistance their slave ancestors had devised in order to survive. Thus, under the constant scrutiny of whites, aspiring African Americans brought their personal lives, schools and worship services into conformity with white standards of respectability.
Newspaper accounts record that High Point's Negro leaders typically approached the town council with deference. But Rev. Blair did not — while observing the outward forms of respectability, he dared to speak truth to power. According to Walter Hoover:
Reverend Blair was a powerhouse. I'm tellin' you, he was somethin'. Yes, sir. The way other Negroes beat around the bush — you know, white folk — he didn't. He'd come right on out — spoke directly to the point. He'd tell ‘em what they wasn't doin' and how they was treatin' the Negro, and all like that. Yeah, but the white folks liked him, they all liked him.
Betty Jackson told me that Rev. Blair was Black High Point's most outspoken leader prior to the Civil Rights Movement.
High Point's Musical Milieu
Throughout most of his childhood, John Coltrane regularly heard or performed the music of respectability. At the William Penn High School auditorium, which served as a cultural hub for High Point's African American community, John often attended classical instrumental and choral concerts by local and regional performers. At St. Stephen AME Zion Church, he listened to the choir sing anthems, hymns, and oratorios in the British choral tradition; and occasionally, during evening meetings — away from the gaze of whites — he caught a church-club sponsored performance by a gospel quartet.
During the 1930s, members of the Coltrane family's social set waltzed to music provided by string trios. It was not until 1940 that live swing music was introduced to High Point, when small groups such as the Jumpettes performed for jitterbug dancers. Big bands almost never appeared in High Point, and only occasionally in nearby Greensboro or Winston Salem — but, regardless, John was too young to attend.
Betty Jackson recalls that for children in her (and John Coltrane's) social set, some music was off-limits — blues performed in vaudeville tents, and the gospel singing of Pentecostal congregations:
They had minstrel shows [in tents] sometimes over on Hoover Street. My mother put up some of the people in our house, but she wouldn't let me talk to them. I guess she thought they were a bad influence. And she just dared my sister and me to go over there. She said, “I dare you to go near there.” But I did get a look at Bessie Smith, one time. There were some [churches] we called holy churches. One down the street from us. They would have tambourines, and whooping and hollering. We never did go in, but we'd look in the window. And of course they closed the windows. Didn't want people outside looking at them do all that buck dancing or whatever they did.
Yet, during the 1930s, a new music insinuated itself into Coltrane's consciousness — that of the Harlem Renaissance. In 1937, John Coltrane submitted to a school contest a Negro History scrapbook, which reveals his keen interest in popular African American musicians and dancers. Several of his inclusions — Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, Fletcher Henderson, the Nicholas Brothers, territory band singer Anna Ray Moore, and the tenor Roland Hayes — came to his attention through radio broadcasts and films (which he watched from the colored balcony). This interest suggests that as early as age 12, John Coltrane was aware of the power of popularly disseminated Black music to transform racial attitudes among the larger society.
“My family was passionate about music”
John William Coltrane told an interviewer in 1961: “My family was passionate about music.” The Blair / Coltrane family embraced a more wide ranging musical taste than that of many of their High Point contemporaries. J.R. appears to have favored secular material for his improvisations, while John's mother Alice sang hymns at home in a deep contralto voice, accompanying herself on the family's newly acquired player piano. That piano today still contains a piano roll of Beethoven's “Moonlight” sonata. Coltrane's Aunt Bettie Lyerly also sang, and her daughter Mary performed interpretive solo dances both at May Day celebrations and during church services.
In 1934, Rev. Blair wrote a review for the High Point Enterprise of an opera singer who had performed at an AME Zion Annual Conference, thereby demonstrating his sophisticated knowledge of opera. We also know that Rev. Blair regularly lined out hymns at Conferences, and in church; John and Mary attended services at which their grandfather lined hymns before and after every sermon. And as district superintendent, Rev. Blair would have observed and participated in a variety of worship practices.
John William Coltrane's stepdaughter Saeeda told me that when she was a girl growing up in her grandmother's home in Philadelphia, Alice Coltrane would scoop Saeeda up into her arms and moan spirituals; one might reasonably assume she did the same with her son.
Departing from the Path
Throughout his grade school years in High Point, and under his mother's watchful eye, John Coltrane trod the designated path toward respectability; he graduated second in his class at Leonard Street [Elementary] School.
But after the deaths of his maternal grandparents and father in 1938/1939, John's attitude toward formal education changed. At the outset of his teenage years, Coltrane seems suddenly to have realized the futility of excelling at school when only low wage jobs awaited him. At the expense of his schoolwork, John then threw himself into mastering the clarinet.
Shortly after John turned 12, the family suffered three devastating financial blows. One after the other, the primary breadwinners died: first Rev. Blair in Dec. 1938, then J.R. Coltrane in Jan. 1939, and finally Goler Lyerly (“Cousin Mary's” father) in Oct. 1940. In the wake of these deaths, Alice and her sister Bettie desperately tried to make ends meet — first taking jobs as maids at the white country club, then renting out rooms to boarders, and ultimately migrating to the North in search of work, leaving John behind to finish school.
Now alone at home, without parental supervision, young John was free to depart from the expected path in other ways. Coltrane's childhood friend and classmate Franklin Brower told Simpkins (disapprovingly) that during this time, Coltrane began to socialize with a new set, attended parties where alcohol was present, and chased girls.
More importantly, around 1941, the teenaged Coltrane met and befriended 34-year-old Charlie Haygood, who had recently moved to High Point from Catawba County where he had worked as a farm laborer. Soon after arriving in town, Haygood opened a restaurant in the Black business district of Washington Street (just a few blocks from Underhill), where he played blues with a small group on weekends. Haygood lent Coltrane an alto saxophone and invited him to perform with the group. Lawrence Graves, a year younger than Coltrane, told me that he and other William Penn High School students walking home from school would press their faces against the cafe window to watch and listen. Graves said that on Friday and Saturday nights, patrons packed the house: “They were jammin', boy.”
From the little I have learned of Haygood, it seems unlikely that Coltrane's mother and grandfather would have approved of this friendship. Haygood was short, stout, had a wooden leg, operated an informal money-lending service on the side, and prior to moving to High Point, he had been arrested and convicted for selling bootleg liquor in Catawba County. In later years, Haygood billed his band, “The Vibrators.”
But through Haygood, John Coltrane now tasted the forbidden fruit — and took his first steps toward that grand synthesis of Western and non-Western, sacred and secular musics that would ultimately form his mature work.
David Tegnell moved from the Midwest to the South in 1983 to study Musicology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He intends that his research complement that of his friends and mentors, Drs. Lewis Porter and C. O. Simpkins. He currently advises the High Point North Carolina Preservation Commission's subcommittee on the restoration of Coltrane's childhood home.