Coltrane’s High Point

by Brian Clarey

Before John Coltrane became a legend, before he was canonized, before his time with Dizzy and Miles and Thelonius, before My Favorite Things and Live at Birdland and A Love Supreme, before Coltrane took everything we thought we knew about jazz and liberated it into sheets of sound, he was one of us.

That is to say, he lived here in the Piedmont Triad, High Point to be exact, where he stayed from the time he was 2 years old until he was 16, when his path led to Philadelphia, then to the US Navy and then to that fateful night in June 1945 when he saw Charlie Parker perform and everything changed.

The story is fairly well known around these parts: Coltrane got here in 1926, still a baby. His grandfather was an alder of the AME Zion Church. He picked up the horn at William Penn School, and when his father and grandfather died within weeks of each other in 1940, his mother went to work at Emerywood Country Club to support the family. He left in 1943, at age 16, and as the story goes, he never came back. Not once.

John Coltrane’s High Point was one ruled by Jim Crow, and his existence was more or less relegated to the strip of East Washington Street that ran alongside the Southern Railway. The Washington Street neighborhood is where black folk lived, a community of homes, apartments and businesses in the shadow of the furniture showrooms and factories that were already beginning to make their mark on the city just a few blocks away.

The house he grew up in still stands on Underhill Avenue, a two-story colonial with twin concrete planters on either side of the front steps, but it was fairly new when Coltrane moved in, built in 1929 by his maternal grandfather, the Rev. William Wilson Blair, elder of St. Stephen’s AME Zion Church, which stood down the road a piece.

On the corner of Underhill and Washington, Hoover’s Funeral Home still stands, with a generous parking lot, but it relocated here in 1932, when Coltrane was a young boy. Hoover’s was the black funeral home, the only game in town for people of color, because in John Coltrane’s High Point, segregation carried on until the grave.

Down the road a piece stood the Kilby Hotel, one of the few lodgings in the area available to black people, with a billiard hall on the first floor. That’s where Duke Ellington stayed when he was in town. And over behind William Penn High School, the Adams Mills Plant No. 3 was the only hosiery mill in town that employed blacks.

But things were changing in Coltrane’s High Point.

That same year, 1932, was handed over to the city of High Point by the Quakers who founded it as a school for blacks. The first black-owned and -operated drug store in the city, Patterson’s, was up and running on Washington Street, as well as the black dentist Dr. JC Morgan’s offices. While a young Coltrane prowled Washington Street between 1930 and 1943, the city saw its first black female principal of a public school, Mytrolene Gray, while Sam Burford, who would eventually become the city’s first black city council member, was presiding at Penn. Poet Pauline Robeson became the city’s first black woman to publish a book, 1930’s Memories of Meditation. Fred Lander, Coltrane’s Underhill Street neighbor, became the city’s first black architect. And the year Coltrane left for Philadelphia, 1943, the city hired its first black police officers.

Surely these developments did not go unnoticed by the Washington Street commentariat.

Coltrane left High Point at 16, after a series of deaths in the family that included his father and grandfather. When his mother went up North, he followed. It’s easy to look back upon the decision and call it one of the best of his life, because that’s where things really started to happen — his time in the Navy band, meeting Dizzy and Miles, the honing of chops that would bring him world acclaim.

But with the exception of a few studio sessions and gigs, Coltrane never came back to

the South, and not to High Point, where his father and grandfather are buried, where he in death is now regarded as a favorite son.

Today Coltrane would likely have recognized Washington Street, though engineering both social and civil has had its way with the district. Kivett Drive cuts across the tracks by Gaylord Street, driving traffic away from the thoroughfare, undermining what prosperity it once held. There are still African-Americanowned businesses and residents here, and the Kilby Hotel still stands — or, at least, what’s left of it: a cluster of buildings and ramshackle storefronts with historic status and little else to recommend it. William Penn high School is still here, too, on the corner of Gaylord Court, now the Penn-Griffin School of the Arts, sporting the John Coltrane Hall of Music and Dance, added in 2001.

The house he grew up in, recently bought by the city and in the process of being vacated, is still here too.

The High Point Museum holds a few Coltrane artifacts in a corner display: some leaves of handwritten sheet music, the plaque awarded him in 1961 after winning Best New Star by the Jazz Critics Poll, the old upright piano from 118 Underhill St. Most telling, perhaps, is a scrapbook he made for a 5 th grade project at the Leonard Street School in 1937 titled “Negro History.” In it he’d pasted cutout photos from influential African- Americans of the day: Booker T. Washington, Charlotte Hawkins Brown, Langston Hughes. Most telling is his transcription of a poem by James Weldon Johnson, “O Southland,” copied in his belabored cursive on lined notebook paper, which gives a clue to the sentiment he felt even then to the place.

O Southland, fair Southland! Then why do you still cling To an idle age and a musty page, To a dead and useless thing? The spirit of Coltrane returns to High Point this weekend with the first annual John Coltrane International Jazz and Blues Festival, Sept. 3 at Oak Hollow Festival Park. With it comes a sense of closure as the city recognizes its most famous son. And also it brings a sense of renewal. Coltrane is back in town. Hopefully this time he’s here to stay.

The John Coltrane International Jazz & Blues Festival schedule

Youth Coltrane Band 1:45 to 2:15

Calvin Edwards 2:30 to 3:00

Zac Harmon and Sue Ann Carwell 3:15 to 4:45

Ravi Coltrane Quartet 5:00 to 5:45

Perspectives (L. Smith, T. Browne, & R. Laws) 6:00 to 7:15

Kirk Whalum and Barbara Weathers 7:30 to 8:45

Patti Austin 9:05 to 10:20

Patti Austin Ms. Patti Austin has been a recording artist since the 1960s. She has had over 20 hit singles and has released over 15 albums. She has also recorded duets with the likes of Michael Jackson and Luther Vandross. She has been nominated for a Grammy on multiple occasions. She won a Grammy in 2008 for Best Jazz Vocal for her Avant Gershwin CD. Her latest CD, “Sound Advice”, will be released in May.

Kirk Whalum Mr. Kirk Whalum began his career in the 1980s. He subsequently recorded several successful albums with jazz pianist Bob James. He has also recorded with Barbra Streisand, Whitney Houston, and Quincy Jones. He won a Grammy for Best Gospel Song for “It’s What I Do” with Lalah Hathaway. His current releases are “The Gospel According to Jazz, Chapter 3” and “Everything is Everything-the Music of Donny Hathaway”.

Ronnie Laws Mr. Ronnie Laws first came to prominence in the 1970s as a member of Earth, Wind, & Fire. He subsequently began a very successful solo career. Thus far, he has recorded over 15 solo albums, including gold albums such as “Pressure Sensitive”, “Fever”, and “Friends and Strangers”. Mr. Laws’ latest CD is “Voices in the Water”. For more information, please go to Mr. Law’s

Lonnie Liston Smith Mr. Lonnie Liston Smith has experienced a successful jazz career for over 40 years. He has recorded with such jazz luminaries as Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Pharaoh Sanders, and Miles Davis. He released his first solo album in 1974 and has subsequently released over 15 albums. His most recent CD, “Transformation”, was released in 1998.

Tom Browne Mr. Tom Browne began his career as a sideman for jazz luminaries, Weldon Irvine and Sonny Fortune. After beginning his solo career in the late 1970s, he earned gold records with his “Love Approach” and “Magic” releases. His most recent CD, “S’ Up”, was released in August, 2010.

Ravi Coltrane A Grammy-nominated artist, the Ravi Coltrane Quartet, which features the son of High Pointnative John Coltrane, recently signed to Blue Note Records. This transition follows the successful 2009 release, “Blending Times”. A recent Chicago Tribune review called Ravi and his quartet a “formidable presence.” The group has toured the world extensively, including recent performances in Europe.

Zac Harmon Mr. Zac Harmon got his start in the music business gigging with Z.Z. Hill amongst others before becoming a much soughtafter session guitarist and songwriter. He returned to the blues in the 1990s. He won the Blues Music Award for “Best New Artist Debut” in 2006. His most current release is “From the Root”.

Sue Ann Carwell In her music career that spans more than 30 years, Ms. Sue Ann Carwell has sung with the likes of James Brown, Patti LaBelle, and Prince. Her recording career began in the early 1980s and she has appeared on many releases. In 2010, she released her latest CD, “Blues in My Sunshine”.

Barbara Weathers A Greensboro native, Ms. Barbara Weathers rose to prominence with Atlantic Starr, singing on two of their greatest hits, “Always” and “Secret Lovers”. She then embarked on a successful solo career that has seen her tour the world. Most recently she has been performing with Kirk Whalum.

Calvin Edwards Mr. Calvin Edwards began his career playing with the Five Blind Boys of Alabama. This stint was followed up with his performing with his brother in the Jett Edwards Band. His first solo release was “So What/Don’t Forget”. His most recent release is 2004’s “That’s It”.

Advance General Admission Tickets: $45.00 VIP Tickets: $100 (limited number). Includes VIP parking, VIP seating in front of the stage, and access to the VIP tent which will have light refreshments. General Admission Ticket at Door: $55 Advanced General Admission Group tickets (20 or more): $35

Tickets are available online through Etix or in-person at the High Point Theatre (220 E. Commerce Ave., 336.887.3001), the Community Arts Café in Winston-Salem (411 W. 4 th St., 336.793.8000), and the International Civil Rights Center and Museum in Greensboro (301 N. Elm St., 336.274.9199).