During the month of September 2012, the IASPM-US website will feature essays on the topic of “The First Time I Ever Heard…” Each of our authors for this series will explore that magical moment most of us are so familiar with, when a song or artist or genre first entered our sound universe and knocked everything off its axis, if only for a moment.
The saxophone player who was two years my senior and a technical wizard on his instrument had given me a Grateful Dead mixtape. “Casey Jones” was track 1,[1. This seems a bit unconventional to me, but I also think it was a pretty inspired choice.] and I was seriously confused. I wasn’t allowed to listen to Grateful Dead, so my only real sense of the group was the lightning bolt skull logo that suggested to me a certain loudness and aggression that was absent from the aural reality. I liked it, perhaps because the Dead is terrific, but probably because I would’ve liked anything an older, more talented marching band mate gifted me.
The Honda Civic pumped that Dead tape until the stereo wheezed its last, at which point I lashed some portable speakers to the driver’s seat headrest, connected them to the Discman my cousin had sold me ($40—a real deal!), and delivered Domino’s pies accompanied by the GD CDs I’d acquired in the interim.
Not just Grateful Dead, but Phish, Blues Traveler, Dave Matthews Band (this was before the neo-hippies conceded the group to the frats), and anything else that smelled faintly of jam.[2. Not Widespread Panic. I have standards.] I lived in a world where the absolute coolest people I knew played snare drum and euphonium and took great pride in how high their toes came off the ground when they marched. I wanted to fit in (I think I eventually mostly did), so I liked what they liked – DCI and jam bands – and got some pretty jacked tibialis anteriors along the way.
I wound my way through the jam band menu: String Cheese Incident, Leftover Salmon, The Disco Biscuits. Somehow, jazz hadn’t entered the equation, though. I was a saxophonist, but I was playing twentieth-century solo literature by Alexander Glazunov, Paul Creston, Karel Husa; jazz wasn’t much of a thing at my high school. I had heard some Louis Armstrong and Glen Miller, but nothing really sat well, and I didn’t have anyone around to point me to the more expansive recordings that would’ve satiated a guy who scarfed 20-minute solos on the regular.
Eventually, I came to the Allman Brothers Band, and in Duane Allman I stumbled onto my first jazz Sherpa. Allman (and, I later found, everyone else ever) pointed to Kind of Blue as a seminal moment in his musical development. So I got Kind of Blue, and I loved it. Catchy hooks, long solos—it was challenging and familiar all at once. I put all these guys on my watch list: Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderly, John Coltrane, Bill Evans.
And one day it hit. I was perusing the used bin at Compact Discovery when I found a Coltrane solo album I knew nothing about, A Love Supreme. The screening at the 5-disc changer in the store was a formality; I already knew I would like Trane because I was into Kind of Blue, but as most music-lovers would attest, buying CDs is a sacred process, and it would’ve felt wrong to pay for something without listening first.
The album was a complete mess. I was familiar with chaotic, arrhythmic introductions that led to a stable tune, so I tried to be patient. But a minute went by, then two, then three, and I wasn’t sure if this Coltrane fellow had gotten the whole “stable tune” memo. Plus his tone was kind of reedy. Every now and then something like a melody would cut through, but if the drummer didn’t ruin it, the pianist did. Just drips of sound and some hapless pounding. I gave it five more minutes just to make sure this was as lousy as I thought.
Nope, A Love Supreme was not for me, I decided, as I ejected it from the player and returned it to its case. Whatever Coltrane did well on Kind of Blue, he didn’t really have it on this album, I thought to myself as I paid the cashier $7 and headed to my car, flipping through the liner notes to find out who that awful drummer was. As the second track played through my tinny headrest speakers, I became even surer of my judgment, realizing that Miles Davis would have to be my jazz guy, since Coltrane had let me down.
It was all still a big disappointment as I finished the album on my home stereo and cued up the beginning for another go-round.
I took it with me everywhere and played it for a handful of friends. “It’s terrible, right? I mean, it’s just a—shhhh, listen to this part,” I’d say dreamily. I knew it backward and forward; I had slipped across that reed-thin edge, falling from hate into love. I was fooling around with music that was too mature for me, kindling a secret passion that I only shared with my closest confidants.
A Love Supreme remained a mystery to me, a music that demanded my full attention, my respect, things I only barely knew how to give. I turned to others for help: Mahavishnu Orchestra and On the Corner came next. A few weeks later, Interstellar Space arrived from BMG. Then Ornette Coleman and Pharaoh Sanders. “Rated X” became my favorite headache.
John Coltrane gifted me to something wonderful, but I didn’t know what I was doing, and it was all haphazard at best. I had listened to the bulk of Trane’s discography before I knew who Lester Young was. I had heard Eric Dolphy’s version of “God Bless the Child” but not Billie Holliday’s. I had no clue that the guy who played “Watermelon Man” was also responsible for perhaps the greatest hip hop anthem of all time. Trane was the conduit through which flowed the whole of jazz history, coming as a torrid commotion of shrieks and shouts swimming through my head.
The world of free jazz and fusion—vibrant and unpredictable—proved exhilarating, even a logical extension of my increasingly waning jam band interests. But the joy of discovery of everything else was always only a shadow of those first mystifying, vertiginous weeks spent trying to decipher Trane. A Love Supreme, as it turns out, is fairly tame relative to the rest of what I found, but it remains essentially elusive, an album that transports me each time to those early days when I first started to chart my own musical path, tracking an album I could barely comprehend but would never forsake.
Justin D Burton is Assistant Professor of Music at Rider University, where he works in the school’s Popular Music Culture program. He also serves on the executive committee of IASPM-US as editor of this website.