Jazz musician John Coltrane performs in New York City in 1961. (Photo by Herb Snitzer/Getty Images)
Jazz musician John Coltrane performs in New York City in 1961. (Herb Snitzer/Getty Images)

John Coltrane and the essence of 1961

The legendary saxophonist and his performances at the Village Vanguard represented the many possibilities of what lay ahead

Last month the John Coltrane section in your streaming libraries acquired a new item: a recording of “A Love Supreme,” the entire suite, from Seattle’s Penthouse jazz club in 1965. Superb and imposing, it satisfies an understandable desire to see Coltrane, and that particular work, as a kind of monument or icon. It has the ring of the last word. It presides; it has authority; it moves slowly and heavily and comes to a stately ending.

So much of American culture for so long has been based on great works. Maybe it’s a question of standards or simply a measure of saving time. The questions often come down to: Who owns the crown? (One of the posthumous Coltrane reissue projects, from the 1990s, was titled “The Heavyweight Champion.”) Or: Tell me why John Coltrane matters, fast. Give me one work, or one record! Don’t overwhelm me!

But the tradition called jazz doesn’t comply with these demands. Deep down it resists the great-works model. It keeps looking beyond the givens of the star, the leader and the copyrightable, promotable, performed-as-written hit. Its strength comes from bands and collectives and traditions, from a will to loop backward and jump forward and revise as one goes. Jazz — I am generalizing — is basically crownless, not particularly icon-oriented, uninterested in a monument. It doesn’t stop and bask; at its best it is always going somewhere in real time, working through something. It doesn’t necessary proclaim authority; it sometimes even resists the notion of the “author.” It distrusts ownership and the authority of the givens, because in they end they won’t do much for us. Our own time now is a time for doing the same. I wouldn’t diminish “A Love Supreme,” and don’t want to, but I have been thinking about a different part of Coltrane’s music: his run of performances at the Village Vanguard in the fall of 1961.

Sixty years ago at this time, for two weeks with Mondays off, from Oct. 24 to Nov. 5, 1961, John Coltrane’s group — Coltrane on tenor and soprano saxophone, McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, Elvin Jones on drums — played at the Village Vanguard, a jazz club that still exists in the same spot on Seventh Avenue South in Manhattan. (Coltrane’s son Ravi led a band there last week.) Four nights in November were recorded by Impulse, Coltrane’s then-new record label. A culling from those nights was released as a single LP in February 1962, with only three tracks. They were the serious and easeful “Spiritual,” which later helped define a sort of music lately called “spiritual jazz”; his version of the standard “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise,” which (via this recording) helped define the straight-ahead jazz mainstream; and, for all of side B, the volatile 12-bar blues in F called “Chasin’ the Trane,” which starts abruptly, as if from a tape splice, and flies forward in lunges, defining nothing and beholden to nothing. It ends when it ends and it could conceivably go on much longer. It doesn’t know the meaning of “sufficient.” Sometimes it gets unbearably exciting. It can make the listener think: What exactly is going on here?

In 1997 Impulse released all the tapes from those four nights on a CD box set called “The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings.” That’s how I listen to it, and I tend to do it by streaming, a kind of listening in which there are no rules about length and we never know quite what we’re listening to, conditions which suit the music rather well. Other than the tracks described above, the set includes “India,” a drone piece with an oud played by Ahmed Abdul-Malik; several versions of the folk song “Greensleeves,” which Coltrane had reinvented in waltz time; and several versions of his theme “Impressions” that move like jet fighters.

The performances also feature long stretches with two bass players and, aside from Coltrane’s saxophones, there are musicians bringing in the unusual-for-jazz timbres of the oboe, bass clarinet and contrabassoon. A Middle Eastern instrument, a baroque one, a 16th-century English song — these were the possibilities open to American musicians, who weren’t being very theoretical yet about how to delimit their options. (Coltrane was also listening closely to the Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji. Olatunji’s music, within that same period, would similarly inspire Nina Simone, gigging in downtown nightclubs, and the soon-to-be Velvet Underground drummer Maureen Tucker, attending high school in Long Island.)

Take those 4½ hours of music as a whole, and what have you got? It is work by a band in which process obliterates product and the power of the ensemble eclipses that of the leader. That disposition described a lot of other music in 1961.

Assigning any kind of essential quality to a calendar year is a little suspect. (Even more so to a decade.) I distrust the practice as I engage in it. But I’m referring generally to a short period of time, and “1961” seems accurate enough. From my standpoint — I wasn’t born until seven years later — the culture of that period seems marked by tension, diffusion, doubt, repetition, foreboding, lengthiness, savviness, taut aggression, wary knowledge, inspired dread, disciplined joy. The music sounds post-heroic and pre-cynical; interestingly free from grandiosity; full of room for the listener to find a place within it and make up their own mind. I want to live in it — not necessarily in its material evidence (I am looking forward to the next Playboi Carti record, just like you), but in its sensitivity, its skepticism and refusals. I think I can.

Coltrane had something like a hit record in November 1961: his quartet’s version of the recent Broadway tune “My Favorite Things.” He played it in performance a lot, before and after the Vanguard dates. He may have performed no other song as many times in his life. But if he played “My Favorite Things” at all during the Vanguard weeks, it wasn’t recorded, because he had since signed to a new record company, and whatever recordings Impulse might issue from the live dates could not be songs he had cut for other labels.

Is there anything from those four recorded nights that might be called its “hit”? For its bravado and the way it defined him in that time, probably “Chasin’ the Trane.” What is “Chasin’ the Trane”? Neither a hit nor (perhaps) a song: a blues with a headlong, uncertain theme; a piece by a quintet that was, here, in fact a trio: Coltrane, Garrison, Jones. Except sometimes it wasn’t Jimmy Garrison on bass but Reggie Workman. And in a B-flat variant called “Chasin’ Another Trane,” sometimes it wasn’t Elvin Jones on drums but Roy Haynes. Five other musicians not part of the core Coltrane quartet were on hand during those weeks, to varying degrees of involvement. (Eric Dolphy’s participation basically made it a quintet.)

At that moment, Coltrane was adding, subtracting, redefining and un-defining, making the group bigger and smaller, keeping much in flux. He continued to: The Seattle “Love Supreme” recording presents the quartet joined by the saxophonists Pharoah Sanders and Carlos Ward, and the bassist Donald Rafael Garrett. I wonder, had this event happened in 2021, if the group might have been billed as “The John Coltrane Collective.”

The recorded versions of “Chasin’ the Trane” are around 10 to 16 minutes long. In the preceding year and a half or so, that kind of length had started to become normal for Coltrane. People started remarking on this, as people would, because it was unusual. Five months earlier, in June 1961, a writer for this newspaper, Tony Gieske — reviewing a Coltrane gig at Abart’s Internationale on 9th Street NW — timed out Coltrane’s version of Kenny Dorham’s “Shifting Down” at 50 minutes. He remarked on it. Fifty minutes, one song. (If it was a song.) What was going on here?

Of course Coltrane has been enshrined and sacralized and institutionalized — at a certain point after his death his sound became almost a universal norm in jazz — but if you try to look at his music of 1961 as if for the first time, it can seem unresolved from top to bottom.

A historian would ask: What was going on in the world in 1961?

A lot of eeriness, a lot of confused, threatened, concealed or failed aggression, a lot of what Frantz Fanon (in “The Wretched of the Earth,” published that year in France) called “that violence which is just under the skin.” The American commencement of secret operations against the Viet Cong, and the American Bay of Pigs invasion. The psychotic reprisals against the Freedom Riders in Alabama, somewhat shown on national television. The construction of the Berlin Wall, hopelessness in concrete. The quelling and murdering of several hundred Algerian demonstrators by Parisian police on one night in October, followed by denials and an underplaying in the press. The assassination of Patrice Lumumba, prime minister of the Congolese Republic, seven months after Congo’s independence from Belgium. The trial of the Nazi functionary Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, who — as Hannah Arendt would later describe — tended toward lighthearted cliches in speaking about the organized killing of millions. The thesis of Stanley Milgram’s experiments on American males from the area around New Haven, Conn., however flawed, suggesting that Eichmann’s brutality in the name of compliance may not be unusual.

Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” released in the summer of 1960, gave rise to similar films in 1961 — William Castle’s “Homicidal,” Boris Petroff’s “Anatomy of a Psycho” and Seth Holt’s “Scream of Fear.” There were common portents of the terrible and unseen, less like the outline of a dangerous creature beneath the water than like the threat of the given.

1961 could be mistaken for a lull, or a dry run, or a void to move past. After the breakthroughs, before the breakdowns. Historians have often enjoyed marking when, exactly, “the Sixties” actually started. The late performance-studies scholar Sally Banes once wrote this sentence: “In 1963 what we now call the Sixties began.” (It is the first sentence of her book “Greenwich Village 1963.”) The English social historian David Kynaston, in his new book “On the Cusp,” argues that the Sixties began on Oct. 5, 1962, the release date of the Beatles’ “Love Me Do” and the first James Bond film.

Fair enough. But I’m looking for the unmarked door. In music history 1961 can represent a kind of free zone, a space still open to interpretation — partly because rock, the attention guzzler, had temporarily died. (Elvis Presley, out of the Army, turned to corny prefabs. Little Richard was making unconvincing gospel records. Eddie Cochran and Buddy Holly had expired in tour crashes.)

The transformative heroism associated with the Sixties’ recognized beginnings — peak Motown, Warhol’s soup cans, uprisings in the major cities, “The Feminine Mystique,” the Beatles, “A Love Supreme,” the Judson Dance Theater, Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” — was still gonna come. First came major questioning. Very little that looked like “resolution,” but instead strong moves of resistance against the cliches. Suspicion around the idea of theory and authority, going along with the program, making things too obvious, too cut-and-dried. Unusual forms and lengths, destabilization of accepted formats. Much of it happened in downtown Manhattan.

Earlier that year, Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones) had published a dramatic-dialogue portion of what would turn out to be a strange novel, “The System of Dante’s Hell.” He was cultivating a new kind of tension within himself, doing what he needed to do as opposed to following the script that had been written for him, the voices of authority that could even be heard in downtown Bohemia. “It was as if I wanted to shake off the stylistic shackles of the gang I’d hung with and styled myself after,” he wrote much later in his autobiography. “I consciously wrote as deeply into my psyche as I could go. I didn’t even want the words to ‘make sense.’ … I wanted to play endless variations. Each section had its own dynamic and pain. … I would focus on my theme, and then write whatever came into my mind as a result of that focus. I called them (later) association complexes.”

The dialogue appeared in a newsletter-magazine he had founded with the poet Diane di Prima, the Floating Bear. It portrays two male characters in a kind of metaphorical army camp having sex and discussing class signifiers — cliches, to put it another way. On Oct. 18, a week before Coltrane opened at the Vanguard, Baraka was arrested by a U.S. Marshal and an FBI agent in his East 14th Street apartment for sending obscenity through the mail. On Nov. 2, the night Roy Haynes sat in at the Vanguard for the 15 minutes that would later be titled “Chasin’ Another Trane,” the play was presented at the Off-Bowery Theater on East 10th Street, eight blocks away from the Village Vanguard. A critic from the Village Voice, Sandra Schmidt, complimented the play as “intensely gripping — not primarily because [it’s] obscene” and noted the rudeness of the audience: “many members of the audience had obviously come only to see Mr. Jones’ obscenity.”

A month before that, in October, Random House published Jane Jacobs’s “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” a critique of city planning, which in its own way was arguing against the idea of authority and masterpieces. Jacobs, who lived three blocks away from the Village Vanguard, held to the notion that normal people are the best city planners; the desire paths made by working people using their communities according to their real needs will always be worth more than the redistricting made by an authority’s theory.

A month before that, in September, Samuel Beckett’s play “Happy Days” had its first performances at the Cherry Lane Theater in New York’s West Village, five blocks away from Jane Jacobs’s building — a play in which two married characters, or really one (the other is mostly mute), talk in self-soothing cliches and half-remembered songs in a sort of post-apocalyptic landscape. The one who talks is buried up to her waist in Act 1 and up to her neck in Act 2. It is a vision of life after the authorities did their business.

A few months before that, in July, Yoko Ono, who lived further south, about 25 blocks away from Jane Jacobs’s building, cut up a roll of canvas from an Army surplus store, intending to create works of art for her first solo exhibition at AG Gallery on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. As she worked she realized that stretching a canvas into an accepted shape for a painting had been done quite a lot in the past, and so she used a discarded scrap from cutting, laid it on the floor, and titled it “Painting To Be Stepped On.”

And a month before that in June, the young mathematician and composer Henry Flynt — a regular and participant at the musical and artistic events in Ono’s loft — created a conceptual piece called “Work Such That No One Knows What’s Going On.” The instructions are: “One just has to guess whether this work exists and if it does what is it like.” No one knows what’s going on.

So here was a tendency: self-immersions, burials, entrapments, irritating provocations, projects with a built-in self-destruct button, all in the name of asking a better question. But whenever one proclaims a tendency in culture, one had better be prepared to find the opposite tendency at the same time. Sure enough, one could: plenty of joyous, communal, repetitive music, but similarly intense, and similarly resisting the concept of a leader, or a hero.

1961 might represent the peak of the dance-craze moment — the Twist, the Watusi, the Mashed Potato, the Pony — in which it barely mattered who sang the songs; the point was repetition in mass motion, ways for the individual listener to join the collective. (It was a bit like Jane Jacobs’s logic: The apartment-dweller knows more about cities than the city-planner; the anonymous dancer has more authority than the pop star.) American dance crazes through the century had often been Afro-Latin, and in 1961 Latin music looked poised to become the reigning force in pop around the world.

Pachanga, a trucking-sliding-hopping couples dance that doubled as the name of a driving new Latin sound, had been formalized in the Tritons on Southern Boulevard in the South Bronx, a small, second-floor social club. Soon the word became code for a sound and a rhythm. It was a harder, faster version of mambo, coming from the violin-and-flute-led style of charanga and danced in four-four steps. In 1961 the word rang out of hundreds of record jackets: “Charanga and Pachanga!” “Pachanga Differente!” “Pachanga With Barretto,” “Pachanga Con Puente,” “Pachanga, Anyone?” “Pachanga at the Caravana Club.” Some of these records (by Hector Rivera, Ray Barretto, Charlie Palmieri) were full of elegance and integrity. Many were ersatz crap. Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference even when you listen to the record. Sometimes records of crap and integrity were made on different days by the same people.

The year’s eeriness also resulted in major pop records of loss, breakdown, anxiety and disappearance — typified by Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces,” Del Shannon’s “Runaway,” Roy Orbison’s “Crying” and “Running Scared,” the Shirelles’ “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” and the Fleetwoods’ “Tragedy.” But jazz singers had the monopoly on these moods, and 1961 represented one of the final years of the female jazz singer in excelsis. So many younger ones were in ascendance — Etta Jones, Shirley Horn, Betty Carter, Abbey Lincoln, Jeanne Lee, Pat Thomas, Nancy Harrow. So many slightly older ones were transcending their early promise: Ella Fitzgerald, Anita O’Day and Sarah Vaughan, whose record “After Hours” abstracted her virtuosity into a backdrop of emptiness, accompanied by only one or two quiet players at a time.

Jazz musicians, to come back to where we started, carried this news of ambivalent possibility better than almost anyone else. In 1961 some of the music’s major figures — Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington — were catching a breath. A space opened. It wasn’t clear where the music was headed, but certain musicians knew this situation constituted a presence, not an absence. Ornette Coleman hardly represents an authority figure in his record “Free Jazz,” released in September 1961. He is only one voice of an ecstatic eight-way tangle, playing an improvisation that lasts 37 minutes, a great example of near-leaderlessness, duration and abjuring of cliche. In “Eric Dolphy at the Five Spot,” recorded in July, Dolphy’s group used more stable roles and more song material than Coleman’s, but within the recording there is leaping, surging, doubting, crying, elaborating, for 75 patrons (at capacity) in a bar on Cooper Square. It is structured but extraordinary, another ideal of getting beyond the sufficient.

The spirit of Coltrane at the Vanguard in 1961 rises even above the music. This may be merely an opportune time to recognize a record, but I think of its essence every time I walk past the club.