Praying with saxophone

Karl Lippegaus on the work of John Coltrane

With his commendable biography of John Coltrane, Karl Lippegaus successfully attempts to integrate the artistic career of the legendary jazz saxophonist into the contemporary events of the 1950s and 1960s with their social and cultural upheavals. A conversation with the media journalist.

Mr. Lippegaus, what is your favorite piece by John Coltrane and why??
Karl Lippegaus: I have no favorite pieces – neither by Coltrane nor by other artists. I am interested in the whole work and how it has developed. Coltrane recorded very different things, picking out one or the other would not do it justice. What distinguishes John Coltrane’s music from that of other jazz musicians??
Karl Lippegaus: Critics are always said to suffer from the chronic disease of comparing everything with each other. In this respect, this question is a dead end, because every jazz musician is first of all someone who follows his own instincts, asks himself his own questions and hopes to arrive at personal solutions. The fact that Johnny Hodges played completely differently from Ornette Coleman did not prevent Coltrane from appreciating both of them very much. It is worth reflecting on this and, following on from this, perhaps finding an attitude as a consumer to open up to these different styles. Was Coltrane’s music "more spiritual" than that of James Brown? The question leads to a dead end.

"The term ‘spatwerk’ is basically questionable"

John Coltrane took the music of jazz and other music, broke it up, isolated it, abstracted it into components and recombined it, put it together again. In his short life, did John Coltrane ever get around to re-synthesizing what he had previously chopped into pieces??
Karl Lippegaus: Where did you get that from? At least not from my biography. Coltrane was neither a collage artist nor a deconstructivist. He didn’t play anything broken and he wasn’t a tinkerer who built clay sculptures out of recycled material in his hobby room. What I am trying to show is how organically things developed for him. Like a plant that grows and eventually bleeds. For her to grow something has to happen, that’s why he has been working with incredible energy and perseverance. Completely missing the point is the picture that he has "into pieces" – apart from the fact that it is personally alien to me to think in such images in connection with Trane. Certainly there are people like Peter Brotzmann (who, by the way, prefers Rollins and especially Coleman Hawkins, but who praised my book very much) who destroyed musical things around ’68 in order to create something new out of them, or even to clear the way for it in the first place. I’ve always been interested in that too, already during the time when I was hoarding a lot of Coltrane (early seventies). But Coltrane came to free improvisation in a completely different way than Albert Ayler or Peter Brotzmann. Today, I even wonder whether he should be counted among the free jazzers without further ado, even if his (little-noticed) spatwerk provides some evidence for this, for example "Interstellar Space" or "Live in Seattle" indsoweiter. Coltrane’s work rubbed off suddenly in 1967, it was in a constant transitional phase, although there are indications that with "Stellar Regions" and so on, that he had perhaps ventured too far ahead. So the term "Spatwerk" (see Steve Lake’s foreword in my book) is basically also questionable. How much John Coltrane’s musical development is conditioned from within, by his artistic predispositions and the general development of jazz music in his time, and how much from outside, by circumstances of the time, social and societal upheavals, which had an inhibiting or demanding effect on his creative work?
Karl Lippegaus: This is a very complex question that I cannot answer here in a few sentences. The answers can be found in the 320 pages of my book, which is also a compilation of all the voices I have found on these topics. What is the role of jazz in the Civil Rights Movement and what is the place of John Coltrane’s music in particular?? Which developmental thrusts of the black communities are musically processed in Coltrane’s work??
Karl Lippegaus: That played a stronger role than many people think. (Someone who has also written a book about him is said to have said that there is not much to tell about him. Then why write a book about him? I see it completely differently.) To your question I refer to my book, in which there are detailed answers to it. Only this much: Coltrane was a musician, not a politician, he played instrumental music. With instrumental music, one cannot, as in rock music, as with Dylan, read political or socio-cultural comments along the lyrics and interpret them ad infinitum in all conceivable ways. The artist Coltrane "in his time" was a central concern for me. I always try to show what was happening in the USA and the world when he recorded this or that work. Stanley Crouch has said that the sixties were probably the most turbulent period in the history of the USA. So it’s not hard to imagine that a very prominent African-American artist like Coltrane, who spent over ten years constantly touring the U.S. And the Western world, would have a lot of these as you say "development thrusts" which, in turn, brought his oeuvre forward in leaps and bounds. Just read the chapter about the club "Half Note", where the Black Panthers met, that was one of his favorite places to play.

"I always recommend listening to his records as MUSIC"

To illustrate Coltrane’s pieces, you often draw comparisons to fine artists such as Pablo Picasso and Diego Rivera. What do the works of these artists have in common?
Karl Lippegaus: Quite a lot. It’s important not to look at things in isolation, but to try to understand that artists arrive at similar results in different ways and in different artistic fields. Hence the many quotations from literature; for example, I was struck by how much his thinking resembled that of the novelist James Baldwin, about whom virtually no one talks in Germany today. The Eisler quote is often quoted, but rarely internalized: "He who understands only what of music, understands nothing of it either." The influence of African masks on Picasso’s work ("Les Demoiselles d’Avignon" and so on) is well known. Coltrane was not the first African-American who was interested in African music and chose masks as covers. For example, I pay attention to which painters were in his and Monk’s and Ornette’s concerts in the "Five Spot" came. It’s always the media that pigeonholes everything. Coltrane did not see himself as a jazz musician, but as a musician. Point. I always recommend to try to listen to his records not as JAZZ and IMPROVISATION, but as MUSIC. You yourself have compared the development of jazz towards free jazz with the paintings of Jackson Pollock, but you also wrote "that the search for freedom in Coltrane’s music always had a special meaning and did not mean arbitrariness and anything goes." Can you explain this to us in more detail?
Karl Lippegaus: Free Jazz as "anything goes" was from the very beginning a misunderstanding, perhaps also a deliberately created misconception, in order to deprive the thing of its credibility. What is Coltrane’s view of the world and of mankind and how is this reflected in his music?? What kind of social utopia characterizes the work of John Coltrane??
Karl Lippegaus: The Ideals of the French Revolution: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. Or – as Miles Davis used to say – music has no skin color. Coltrane thought in cosmic dimensions, he was already a good deal further ahead than many of his contemporaries and many today, he may have grasped this more instinctively and spoken little about it. In a recently surfaced interview he was heard to say that it was important "to play the truth" and "to lead the good life".

"Everyone who prays does it differently"

Is the transcendent, "the all-unifying power of life", which Coltrane always tried to grasp, is it really of a purely religious nature or can it also be interpreted in a sacred way??
Karl Lippegaus: I cannot answer that. "Purely religious nature – sacular". Who wants to take on the task of judging such things?. Coltrane played the saxophone, first in bars, even sliding back and forth on the bar, which he was later very embarrassed about – later in "A Love Supreme" with a direct line to the very highest, it seems. What I did was to listen to everything again, from beginning to end. Because I spurred that the decisive answers were to be taken directly from his music. And while doing so, I noticed that at some point he started talking, shouting, crying and, yes, I think: praying through his horn. A delicate subject, perhaps. But researchers like Gerhard Putschogl and Lewis Porter have recognized very clearly what many blacks around Coltrane may have sensed much earlier. Everyone who prays does it differently, it’s a very intimate story. And after all this, who am I to feel called upon to explain in an interview what about it is "purely religious" and what is "sacular" should be. No one can.

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