HIGH POINT ROOTS, FAMILY, SHAPED JOHN COLTRANE’S FUTURE
By Daniel Schere
While High Point today may be the home of one of the nation’s largest furniture markets, it can also claim partial responsibility for raising one of the nation’s most esteemed jazz musicians. John Coltrane was born in Hamlet, North Carolina in 1926 before his family quickly moved to High Point.
Although his formal training did not begin until he moved to Philadelphia at the age of 17, Coltrane began playing the alto saxophone and clarinet in high school, according to Penn-Griffin office worker Linda Willard. Penn-Grffin has the distinction of being one of the sites Coltrane graced with his presence and the music building is named in his honor. This attracted the attention of High Point native Willard.
“When we became an arts magnet school in 2003 is when I really started learning more about John Coltrane because he is a very famous alumni of what was William Penn High School,” she said.
The school is one of the few reminders of Coltrane’s past that is left in High Point. Others include St. Stephen AME Zion Church on Leonard Avenue where his grandfather was a reverend, and a commemorative statue at the corner of Commerce and Hamilton Streets, where visitors can read about Coltrane’s life and listen to jazz samples. The house he grew up in at 118 Underhill Street looks like it has not been lived in for several years, and Leonard Street School where he spent his early years of education is no more.
Perhaps more surprising is the fact that the most passionate Coltrane historians do not reside in High Point.
David Tegnell, an author and researcher at UNC, has dug deep into Coltrane’s life growing up and thinks a great deal of his success can be attributed to his grandfather, Rev. William Wilson Blair.
Blair was born a slave and grew up during Reconstruction in Chowan County. He was a schoolteacher before becoming head of the Republican Party there. Blair was elected County Commissioner in 1896, although Tegnell writes in a 2007 article in Jazz Perspectives that his political success was due mainly to the large African American Community in Edenton which had the vote. He goes on to mention how Blair was exiled in 1900 after North Carolina passed a law that disfranchised most African Americans. The family then moved several places before settling in Hamlet.
Tegnell said when Blair became a pastor at 45, he became actively involved in the community in High Point, advocating for the construction of Leonard Street School and building the family home himself. He added that Blair was one of the most well-paid members of the black community in High Point, making as much as school principals.
“Reverend Blair is considered the black mayor although unelected,” Tegnell said. “That street (Underhill) is atypical for a black neighborhood at that time. It was described in the High Point Enterprise as one of the worst slums in the country prior to being renovated.”
Tegnell said Coltrane’s family, grandparents, and his cousin Mary’s family all lived in the house.
“Mary was a year younger than John and she was there intermittently, but they kind of grew up as siblings,” he said.
Tegnell said Coltrane would often attend his grandfather’s services, where choirs were brought in from places like Shaw University in Raleigh and NC A&T in Greensboro. The choirs would sing a mix of arranged spirituals and classical hymns. Tegnell said this contributed to Coltrane’s early interest in music and sparked his interest in playing alto saxophone.
“It’s not easy to learn an instrument and they were starting from scratch and I think what happened was that Coltrane, because he was fanatic about practicing, outstripped everyone,” he said.
Things changed in the winter of 1938 when Coltrane’s grandfather and father died just weeks apart.
“Once Reverend Blair died and then John’s father died they had no income,” Tegnell said. “The family was devastated financially. All they had was the house, and Reverend Blair had several siblings. They all temporarily waived their interest in that house in order to allow John and his mother to remain there.”
It was after then that Coltrane’s mother became a maid at Emerywood Country Club while he began playing and rehearsing with jazz musician Charlie Haygood. Haygood was a tailor and restaurant owner who worked on Washington Street. Tegnell said he thinks that this, combined with Coltrane’s disaffection with the school band, is what ultimately got him into jazz.
Tegnell said Blair’s leadership within the segregated south provided a role model for Coltrane which ultimately shaped him.
“I don’t think he’d be the person he was without his grandfather,” Tegnell said. “By example and also what he was able to provide for him. I think his grandfather sort of passes the torch to John. His grandfather was part of a political movement and that it was all suppressed by segregation and disfranchisement. And then Coltrane comes to maturity in the Civil Rights era and I can’t help but think that he had his grandfather in his head.”
Tegnell added that many of Coltrane’s song titles relate to Africa and the Civil Rights Movement.
“It’s not like he was protesting all the time but I think he was very conscious of his role, particularly in the black arts movement,” he said. “He was imagining who he could be in this new integrated world. Coltrane was the first jazz musician to talk about religion. He took what was hidden in the black community and threw it out into the secular white world.”
You won’t find many locals who have as much knowledge as Tegnell, and Coltrane has no known living relatives in High Point. There are historical societies in Philadelphia and Long Island, where Coltrane made a name for himself. There is also an exhibit in the High Point Museum that features a piano and several of his sheets of music that have been preserved. Willard says she hopes the city eventually begins to embrace a piece of history that she feels has been lost, despite the annual festival.
“Overall I think the city has really neglected to cash in on what we have,” she said. “I think if you have someone as famous as John Coltrane, as talented as he was, we really should do more at promoting that and promoting the arts.” !
COLTRANE FESTIVAL PREVIEW
By Whitney Kenerly
For the fourth year in a row the sounds of jazz will float over the lake by Oak Hollow Festival Park in High Point. The John Coltrane International Jazz Festival will welcome newcomers and legends to the Triad to celebrate a genre of music that was defined, in part, by Coltrane himself.
Joe Williams is one of the founding members of the Friends of John Coltrane, the non-profit organization that birthed the music festival, and the lead organizer for the event. For him the festival is about honoring a legacy.
“It’s about acknowledging such a fantastic legend who grew up in the area and had such a strong and long-lasting influence on music,” said Williams.
Williams says that he expects more attendees to this year’s festival than ever before, estimating that 4,000 jazz lovers will come to High Point from all over the country.
“The phone has been ringing consistently for the last 30 days,” said Williams. “I’ve gotten calls from Richmond to Atlanta.”
One of this year’s festival headliners is 10-time Grammy Award winner, George Benson. As a child playing on the street corners of Pittsburgh, Benson was hailed as a prodigy. He later went on to record the original version of “The Greatest Love of All” for the 1977 film depicting the like of Muhammad Ali, The Greatest. Benson later teamed up with Quincy Jones and dabbled in R&B flavors of jazz.
Williams is especially excited about some of the newcomers to the festival, including Morgan James and Andreas Varady.
At just 16 years old, Varady has already made his mark on jazz as a guitarist. He recorded his first album in 2010 and started headlining shows in Europe at age 13.
“At his age to have accomplished what he has – that’s impressive,” said Williams. “You kind of get that new blood to be that next great jazz person. We’re getting a chance to see him in his infancy, live in High Point.”
When Williams saw Morgan James perform at a club in New York City, he knew that he wanted to bring her style of jazz to High Point as well.
“I was impressed with the soulfulness of her vocals,” said Williams. “Not a lot of people are able to sing with that kind of emotion an expressions.”
James has received critical acclaim from The New York Times for her debut album, “Morgan James Live – A Celebration of Nina Simone”. James embraces the passion and sultriness of the classic jazz sirens. “Often, I think I’m from another time,” said James. “I just want to bring back the power of the singular legacy voice.”
Another festival artist who enjoys revisiting the past is Latimore, the Tennessee soul icon. Like Coltrane himself, Latimore got his start singing and playing in churches. He has been a fixture for classic blues since the 1970s, never straying from his roots, and he can still be spotted on late night TV programs.
“He’s a legend in his own right,” said Williams. “His style of music is kind of making a comeback.”
Rounding out the pack is saxophonist Boney James, who has been nominated for a Grammy four times. He has amassed a devoted fan base through the 14 albums he has released since 1992.
The festival will also welcome budding jazz musicians through student concerts. Williams says that the student concerts have encouraged families to attend with their young children. Winners of a student essay contest will be presented with new instruments.
“A lot of parents want to expose their kids to different elements of music,” said Williams.
Williams says that both the artists and attendees have commented on the beauty of the Oak Hollow Festival Park, and that he has noticed a lot of repeat visitors. According to Williams the artists love looking out onto the lake and enjoying the breeze during their performance. Other headliners have expressed an appreciated for the festival’s laid-back vibe.
“It’s becoming a truly international jazz and blues festival,” said Williams. “It brings a diverse group of people to High Point who explore the area and decide to come back.”
The Triad has embraced the festival, and local musicians will perform in the NC Coltrane All Star Band.
“We’re honoring a great jazz musician and people are respecting it and looking forward and asking me what we’re going to do next year already,” said Williams. !