GETTING WITH THE FLOW: From Walt Whitman to John Coltrane — and beyond
Dateline West Hills, LI March 30 ‘22 — Let me give you whole lot of theory and a little bit of Whitman and Coltrane, presenting a few thoughts about improvisation, inspiration, grounding and discipline of craft in jazz and poetry.
It’s 7 miles by car from the Walt Whitman Birthplace to the John Coltrane home on the North Shore of Long Island. A fifteen minute drive. Google map didn’t want to tell me that at first, it thought that I was still in Philadelphia at AWP.
But of course the distance from Whitman to Coltrane is measured not in physical miles, or in years separating them or the experience of American socio-political culture.
It is about creative distance.
Answering the question of distances and closenesses we might find between Whitman and Coltrane, then, is a matter of using the right mapping tool.
Can you get there from here? What are the pathways (beyond the google-able roadways from Old Walt Whitman road to Candlewood Path — Wolf Hill Road, LIE Carll’s Straight Path), from door to door? What pathways may we establish between these two artistic giants of the American cultural landscape.
My contention in this examination is to show that the artistic connection between Whitman and Coltrane is a profound one, is mappable, and reveals to us a proximity between these two men as close as the physical closeness of their two homes in West Hills and Dix Hills.
While separated by 50-100 years and a wide socio-cultural divide, the two share marked similarities in their foundational concerns and devotion to combined discipline in craftsmanship, with a mind-bending love of freestyling and layering on of ideas and sounds.
What do Whitman and Coltrane share? A foundation in the progressive spirituality of their times. A devotion to craftmanship and disciplined technique. A go-ahead love of adding to their artistic palette vocabulary.
And perhaps most importantly, features that mark both these artistic giants as true exemplars of classic American values and beliefs; the power and dignity of the individual, the limitless drive of the optimistic and the curious, and the unshakeable confidence that comes from being heirs and inheritors to a combination of rich national wealth and religiosity.
Let us look first at the philosophical underpinnings of these two men.
Whitman was steeped in the hip thinking of his time — rooted in Quakerism, enlightenment Protestantism, but finding a home in Transcendentalism, an inclusive universalism that celebrated all manifestations of existence.
He drew inalterable connection between all things, and celebrated the harmonic resemblance between the self and the myriad manifestations of soul-existence in the material world.
So in his own way did Coltrane, raised in the religious environment of a North Carolina preacher’s home, and possessed of a 20th century eclectic drive to extend himself out into
the universe, enfolding a New Age pan-ecumenicalism into himself and into his music.
Everything, all items within the universe, everything connected through chains of correspondences. Nothing existing in isolation. Musical notes and phrases, musical ideas, poetic conceptions, words themselves, all turning in and around themselves, and through each other and beyond — and taking us with them.
Then consider the similarity in their respective modes of exploration, collection and organization of emotional/ intellectual/ spiritual facts.
Coltrane explores new modalities, employs rapidly changing chords, and engages in a complex exploration and extension of harmonic implications to every note in the chord scale.
Whitman, in his exhaustive cataloguing, similarly celebrates and declares himself one and the same with the particular and the universal, in a dizzying aggregation that defies reduction or even dissection.
Both Coltrane and Whitman adhere to Clark Coolidge’s dictum that in improvisation, one needs to be able to ‘jump in anywhere, tease the corps, and know when to land..’
go with the grain
go against the grain
go across the grain
go thru the grain
invent the grain
be the grain
So too, both are allusive in their compositional approach, harkening to the rich vocabulary at their command.
It is not unique to see allusion at work for many artists, of course — in fact Coltrane engages in pure contrafact in his tune Satellite, which superimposes a new tune over the chord progression to How High The Moon. So do Charlie Parker (Ornithology/ How High The Moon) and, in literature, Arthur Laurents (West Side Story/ Romeo and Juliet) or Tom Stoppard (Rosencrantz & Guildenstern/ Hamlet). More characteristically, and unsurprisingly, both Whitman and Coltrane are allusive, make casual and deliberate nods to other works, quote short passages, engage in quasi-homage or other forms of dialogue.
Whitman’s poems grow organically from the subject matter and the language he has employed, obeying a dictum stated by Emerson in 1842 which he had paid close attention to. The laying out across the page has a visual and an oratorical function and also sets the stage for the performative moment, which occurs during the actual composition of a poem.
For Whitman, the writing process is the performative moment whereas for the improvisational musician, that moment occurs on stage or in a recording studio. But in either case, the performance is not random, haphazard, or unschooled. These are artists who have woodshedded their craft.
Whitman worked and reworked his technique (and his individual poems) assiduously, basing his voice on bible language, social and political oratory, and the ‘gift of the gab’ he learned hanging with the Irish b’hoys in the Five Points, and throwing in a little creole and French flavor from his experiences in New Orleans.
When Whitman is at his best, the catalogues are not just expansive and exhilarating — stylistically, they are much more controlled and unified than they seem upon first encounter.
Despite their appearance as spontaneous outpourings, they are often connected by both logic and grammar. The catalogues relate one thing to another through a chain of associated thought.
Critics argue about whether Whitman’s poems are essentially oral or visual in quality. Certainly the sweeping, broad lines of the first edition emphasize the visual aspect of the poetry. One’s eyes sweep across the page. Skimming seems almost unavoidable because of their length, repetition, and parallelism.
But taking the time to slow down and examine the individual components, or groups of components, in a great Whitman poem yields a wealth of rewards and appreciation for the craftsmanship of a man who was one part journalist, one part visionary, one part ‘wood-joiner’.
Coltrane, well known for his workaholic devotion to practice, is said to have emerged as ‘Coltrane being Coltrane’ as an outcome of his 1957 ‘coming clean’ period, when he distilled an approach and palette that was distinctly his own.
Critics note that year as being one where the saxophonist most particularly exhibited his passion to practice incessantly, leading to his signature style — slaloming through changes, playing and replaying scalar patterns, and offering an outpouring of harmonic stacking that critic Ira Gitler famously dubbed ‘Sheets of Sound.’
Whether it is founded in the core of a song he has written or, like ‘Favorite Things’ or countless other recorded pieces of his, from the American songbook., his enunciation of dense, rapidly changing chords with complex extensions built upon each note in the chord, is no ‘freestyle’ stream of consciousness act, or core-bound tangential weaving.
One repeated modality for Coltrane is a kind of spiritual/ religious/ meditative sonority (Love Supreme, Om, etc). But Coltrane went from incorporating African musical traditions, spirituals, and blues to elements of classical European and South Asian musical traditions.
Coltrane’s ability to draw inspiration from a variety of musical traditions was evident on his albums India, Ascension, and especially A Love Supreme which was released in 1964 and soon became his most successful recording.
As Charlie Parker demonstrates, the competent improvisational artist (poet in the midst of writing, saxophonist in the midst of wailing) is successful because has internalized the compositional moment into the performative moment. Early Parker was laughed off the stage as a 17-year old in Kansas City, and he retired to his mother’s woodshed to master his craft. When he came back a year later to try again, he had the chops to make everyone shut up and listen.
We don’t, after all, necessarily find in the superstructural composition of ‘Love Supreme’ to be Coltrane’s most remarkable achievement. Rather, it is his what he DOES with a composed core tune — from the American Songbook or from his own pen — the ‘in the moment’ improvisational compositional complexity and prowess of his moves, that we are enamored and impressed.
This extension of mastery of subject into the performative moment is something we cannot directly assess in Whitman, but we may explore similarities in compositional technique between Coltrane and Whitman.
In a sense, both ‘tease the core’ of standards to their repertoire. Far from random or haphazard, phrasing choice is an organic growth from theme and concept, and the product of intense wood-shopping. Both have achieved mastery over the conceptual core and the process of phrase choice.
For both Whitman and Coltrane, their personal philosophical frameworks — all-embracing, transcendental, universally expanding — resulted in the ability to create new material in a manner that escapes the gravitational bonds of subject, beyond repetition and worn out cliche.
Let us take a somewhat deeper dive into pattern, structure and vocabulary.
We know Whitman could ‘spit’ with the best of them in NYC in the 1840s and 50s. He hung out with and considered himself one of the ‘roughs,’ consorting with immigrant barflies, streetbrawlers, firemen, dockworkers, stagecoach drivers leaping onto carriages for a little raucous shoutout with the team-driver.
But much as he talked the street talk, his vocabulary was steeped in the bible (particularly parallelism), the preaching he heard from Elias Hicks, and — as a reporter deeply enmeshed in the politics of the day — the oratory style of the day.
The formal patterning devices of anaphora, repetition, front-loaded verbal choices, and the seasoning of New Orleans experienced creole and French culture are omnipresent.
In fact it is quite easy to take a prose passage from the likes of Father Taylor, Daniel Webster, Edward Everett, Emerson, Thoreau, or abolitionist Lydia Marie Child, or even Charles Dickens (who wrote about his visit to NYC) and insert it virtually undetectable into a Whitman poem.
In the end, Whitmanic list poems/ catalogue poems are particularly conducive to expansive, inclusive commentary. And not incidentally, they set the foundation for cubist deconstruction and juxtaposition, for impressionistic/expressionistic layering on of linguistic brushstrokes, and everything from James Joyce and William Faulkner to the bop prosody favored by Ginsberg, Kerouac and the Beats.
Meanwhile Coltrane, who took jazz from the level of riffing off standard songs, running tangents and parallel melodic wanderings that ‘tease the core’ song, past be-bop and to a next level, paved the way for his successors.
His harmonic explorations expanded well beyond bending the melodic line of an established chord progression, exploring previously uncharted modal progressions, intent and rapid-fire exploring of every possible harmonic implication of every single note in each chord, and laying it all out in an open field in a manner that astonished listeners.
This is a prodigious layering on of musical/linguistic imagery, applying a profusion of brushstrokes that have logic and discipline to their individual utterance, and in the aggregate achieve composite effect.
Do the individual dots in a pointillist painting possess this kind of disciplined knowledge and alliance to influence? A single drip in a Jackson Pollock?
It is fair to say that any one of Coltrane’s multiplicities of musical phrases, any single image from Whitman’s all-inclusive composite of catalogued images, has been chosen by a craftsman and can lead us from the singular to the universal.
Thus it is that one might delight simultaneously in the particulars of the work of either of these two artists AND at the same time, in the juxtaposition and insights (emotional, intellectual or spiritual) the sequencing, the progression and flow, and the overall aggregation of what is presented in the catalogue.
Bottom line? Whitman and Coltrane both leap the shark, from casual spitting and improvisational freestyle that ‘teases the core,’ to a schooled and philosophically advanced craftsmanship that retains the freshness of improvisation.
This is no mere spontaneous/random/ abstract selection process at work. It is the work of craftsman who have a solid base vocabulary, an insatiable curiosity which leads them to expand that vocabulary. They have workshopped a highly advanced and individualized ‘book’ of sources, and are capable of delivering a sample of them with lightning-like rapidity, from existing vocabulary.
When it works, John Coltrane and Walt Whitman in their own fields reach that nuclear moment of fusion wherein the combination of training and vision leads to a level of exploration, discovery, composition and utterance that can be called truly original.
And that, for better or for worse, is a place that Google-maps can’t get ya.