Would Coltrane Feel Ambivalent About Music Hall?
The conventional wisdom says Sen. Katie Dorsett, D-Greensboro, will have a tough time getting the NC General Assembly to approve her request for $500,000 for the John Coltrane Music Hall in what is expected to be a tight budget year.
The funds would equip the music hall to accommodate musical rehearsals and performances. It would be housed in the Community Arts Center in High Point, where the legendary jazz saxophonist grew up and graduated from high school.
Considered the second most influential jazz saxophonist after Charlie Parker, Coltrane’s music was described by one critic as ‘“sheets of sound.’” He is credited with pushing the improvisational spirit of jazz in the 1960s and had a huge impact on the experimental flowering of rock music in that decade.
According to Lewis Porter, whose book John Coltrane: His Life and Music is considered the authoritative biography, Coltrane appears to have appreciated his North Carolina roots, but after migrating to Philadelphia showed little inclination to look back.
Coltrane was born in Hamlet in 1926, the grandson of preachers. His family soon moved to High Point, where his maternal grandfather William Blair got a job as pastor at AME Zion Church. In the early 1940s, his mother and siblings relocated to Philadelphia after several men in the family died of unrelated causes, including Coltrane’s father. Coltrane stayed on for a year by himself and finished high school in 1943 before leaving High Point for good and reuniting with his family in Philadelphia.
‘“Growing up there in the nineteen-twenties, it was a segregated environment,’” Porter said. ‘“He probably said, ‘This isn’t great, but it’s life.’ Even though Philadelphia had problems of its own, it felt a lot more free. He did a lot of playing with white musicians, which he couldn’t have done before. Let’s just say he became less nostalgic for North Carolina after that.’”
Porter said he interviewed eight or nine of Coltrane’s high school classmates. They reported that Coltrane had many friends. One of his classmates who still lives in High Point, Rosetta Haywood, told Porter she invited Coltrane to several high school reunions but he never came.
Yet Coltrane’s North Carolina roots seem to have played an important role in his creative life and his friendships.
The most obvious North Carolina reference in the Coltrane canon is his composition ‘“Goldsboro Express.’” He also wrote a song called ‘“Welcome,’” ‘—the name of a town in Davidson County.
Porter points out that virtually all Coltrane’s close friends had North Carolina roots. His closest musical collaborator and best friend, Thelonious Monk, came from Rocky Mount. Porter said fellow musician Jimmy Heath was born in Philadelphia but his family came from North Carolina. McCoy Tyner was from North Carolina. Coltrane’s first wife, Naima, whom he married in 1955, was also from North Carolina.
‘“These are actually all the musicians he was closest to,’” Porter said. ‘“I would say that he formed bonds easily with people who came from the same roots as he.’”