John Coltrane Talks About the Sacred Meaning of Music in the Human Experience: Listen to One of His Final Interviews (1966)

A few years ago, the ani­mat­ed series Blank on Blank released a video with five min­utes from one of John Coltrane’s last inter­views in 1966, eight months before his death from liv­er can­cer at age 40. In the excerpts, Coltrane tells inter­view­er Frank Kof­sky, a Paci­fi­ca Reporter, about his intu­itive approach to prac­tic­ing, his switch to sopra­no sax, and his desire to “be a force for real good.” As juicy as these tid­bits are for Coltrane fans, the full inter­view, above, is even better—an hour-long encounter with the jazz saint, who opens up to Kof­sky in his relaxed, yet guard­ed way.

Coltrane choos­es his words care­ful­ly. His refusal to elab­o­rate is often its own sub­tle form of expres­sion. Dur­ing their open­ing ban­ter, Kof­sky asks him about see­ing Mal­colm X speak just before the latter’s death. Coltrane calls Mal­colm “impres­sive” and leaves it at that. Kof­sky then asks his first point­ed ques­tion: “Some musi­cians have said that there’s a rela­tion­ship between some of Malcom’s ideas and music, espe­cial­ly the new music. You think there’s any­thing in there?”

Kof­sky had his own rea­sons for push­ing this line. Just a few years lat­er, he pub­lished Black Nation­al­ism and the Rev­o­lu­tion in Music in 1971. The book was reprint­ed with the more spe­cif­ic, less threat­en­ing, title John Coltrane and the Jazz Rev­o­lu­tion of the 1960s. Both ver­sions promi­nent­ly fea­ture Coltrane on the cov­er. “Ded­i­cat­ed to both John Coltrane and Mal­colm X,” notes Soul Jazz Records, the book “places the rev­o­lu­tion­ary ‘new thing’ music and ideas of Coltrane, Albert Ayler and oth­ers in a wider con­text of 60’s rad­i­cal­ism, African Amer­i­can pol­i­tics and his­to­ry.”

An his­to­ri­an and aca­d­e­m­ic who pub­lished sev­er­al books on jazz, Kof­sky isn’t sub­tle about his agen­da, but Coltrane is unwill­ing to be pushed into a polit­i­cal cor­ner, as fans have point­ed out in dis­cus­sions of this inter­view. He wants to embrace every­thing. “I think that music, being an expres­sion of the human heart, or the human being itself,” he says, “does express just what is hap­pen­ing. It express­es the whole thing.” He con­sis­tent­ly refus­es to get drawn into a dis­cus­sion of racial pol­i­tics with Kof­sky.

When they final­ly move on to talk­ing about per­for­mance, the unflap­pable Coltrane stops demur­ring and opens up. We hear him describe his expe­ri­ence of being on stage at one con­cert as “too busy” to know what was hap­pen­ing in the audi­ence, but the right audi­ence can also be, he says, a par­tic­i­pat­ing mem­ber of the group. When Kof­sky again push­es Coltrane on the rela­tion­ship between his music and black nation­al­ism, Coltrane cool­ly replies, “I have con­scious­ly made an attempt to change what I’ve found. In oth­er words, I’ve tried to say, ‘this could be bet­ter, in my opin­ion, so I will try to do this to make it bet­ter.”

Coltrane’s knack for cut­ting to the heart of his purpose—to add to the world with his play­ing, with­out a need to con­trol what hap­pens afterwards—comes through in the entire hour-long inter­view. His ret­i­cence to engage with Kofsky’s analy­sis might have some­thing to do with who was ask­ing the ques­tions, but in any case, there’s no doubt that Coltrane was inte­gral to the fierce, uncom­pro­mis­ing Black Arts poet­ry of the 1970s, and many oth­er polit­i­cal­ly informed move­ments. He was influ­en­tial, how­ev­er, not as the rep­re­sen­ta­tive of an ide­ol­o­gy, but as the inventor—or the ves­sel, he might say—of an entire­ly new form of cre­ative expres­sion.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

An Ani­mat­ed John Coltrane Explains His True Rea­son for Being: “I Want to Be a Force for Real Good”

John Coltrane Per­forms A Love Supreme and Oth­er Clas­sics in Antibes (July 1965)

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Comments (7)
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  • scitu says:

    A clas­sic. One of the great­est

  • Margretta K Williams says:

    As a wood­wind musi­cian, I under­stand Coltrane’s mind­set a bit regard­ing being typed or cat­e­go­rized vis á vis cul­tur­al and polit­i­cal move­ments through his music. When we play our ener­gy is pure and unbi­ased. I real­ly feel this when I lis­ten to John Coltrane. Per­son­al­ly, if I play a par­tic­u­lar known melody, I want the lis­ten­er to be able to have it per­me­ate them in that moment. I want them to savor how the musi­cal ele­ments ‑tem­po, har­mo­ny, melody, rhythm, dynam­ics, range and even the silence between the notes…I want all of that to inform their expe­ri­ence of the music: They will make it their own, in the opti­mal lis­ten­ing sit­u­a­tion…
    Thank you for this inter­view. I am hum­bled by the breadth of infor­ma­tion and thought it imparts.

  • Anthony Marin says:

    Who is this John Coltrane ?
    What makes him so spe­cial ?
    God , Jesus , Moham­mad , Bud­dha Big­b­less him ! ❤
    I lis­ten to his music , and many oth­er Jazz musi­cians .
    Love Don­ald Byrd’s 🎶 music .
    Horace Sil­ver ,
    Paul Cham­bers ,
    Max Roach ,
    Many oth­er Sax­o­phone artist , as
    Dex­ter Gor­don — Hank Moblyn -
    Col­man Hawkins — Can­non­ball Adder­ly — Son­ny Rollins — Harold Land -
    But Coltrane is who I real­ly like the most 🎶 ❤ 🎶 >.-)

  • Jacob says:

    Is there a tran­script of this any­where?

  • Michael Green Sr says:

    Art 🖌️👁️& Music 🎵 come from the ❤️ Heart and Soul of the Human Spir­it, John Coltrane’s Musi­cal expe­ri­ence is a Les­son in Time.. Just 👂🏾Lis­ten

  • Tsietsi says:

    There is some­thing about the music of John Coltrane that can­not be described in words but that con­veys deep mes­sages that are equal­ly elu­sive. I love his music pre­cise­ly because of this chal­lenge and the more I lis­ten to him it is the more I alo try and dis­cern what he is try­ing to com­mu­ni­cate. When I lis­ten to him I go into a spir­i­tu­al search for a mean­ing of many things about life. This search remains illu­sive but chal­leng­ing and urges me to con­tin­ue to find the mean­ing. I mow real­ize that this mean­ing is not a des­ti­na­tion but dis­cov­er­ies along the end­less jour­ney. I short some­times I get him and some­times I don’t and that is the excite­ment to car­ry on search­ing for the mean­ing.

  • E Charles Murray says:

    My top 5 sax­o­phon­ist are 1) Coltrane 2) Bird 3)Wynton Felder 4)Dexter Gor­don 5) Stan­ley Tur­ren­tine. Hey, I can’t pick em’ all. I left some of the best off, like Can­non­ball, and GW Junior. Still, Trane’s my favorite. It’s pos­si­ble, all those years play­ing with McCoy Tyn­er-he was the ‘real deal,’ before Holy­field, Miles, and Monk, put him out of reach. Just when you thought Can­non­ball ‘got wit’ him,’ on ‘Kind of Blue,’ he changes his style to a more bluesy swag­ger method of play­ing, which no doubt, Miles knew would hap­pen. It’s inter­est­ing, a lot has to do with, who’s on piano too. Back to ‘Kind of Blue. On that date, Miles used two fan­tas­tic pianist.
    The deaf in one ear Jamaican, Wyn­ton Kel­ly. And the Harley Davi­son of Jazz trios, Bill Evans. Please, go back and lis­ten to HOW, Trane’ plays, and then Can­non­ball. By the way, Can­non­ball ain’t no joke. On this date, Can­non­ball can’t be beat. But only matched. And you know by who.

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