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On "Dear John, Dear Coltrane"

Michael Harper

Black musicians have always melded the private and the historical into the aesthetics of human speech and music, the blues and jazz. The blues and jazz are the finest extensions of a bedrock of the testamental process. Blacks have been witnesses victims; they have paid their dues. "Dear John, Dear Coltrane" was written before John Coltrane died; its aim is the redemptive nature of black experience in terms of the private life of a black musician. Coltrane’s music should be seen as a progression from the personal to incantation and prophesy. It is a fusing of tenderness, pain, and power in their melding, and the [furbishing] is at once an internal and external journey or passage: to live with integrity means "to live"—"to create;" its anthem—"there is no substitute for pain"—The poem is a declaration of tenderness, and a reminder to the reader of a suffering beyond the personal and historical to the cultural, that there can be no reservations fixed to sensibility, that personality gives power through the synthesis of personal history and the overtones of America in and by contact. The poem begins with a catalog of sexual trophies, for whites, a lesson to blacks not to assert their manhood, and that black men are suspect because they are potent. The mingling of trophy and Christian vision, Coltrane’s minister-father, indicates an emphasis on physical facts—that there is no refinement beyond the body. The antiphonal, call-response/retort stanza simulates the black church, and gives the answer of renewal to any question raised—"cause I am." It is Coltrane himself who chants, in life, "a love supreme;" jazz and the blues, as open-ended forms, cannot be programmatic or abstract, but modal.

John Coltrane was a modal musician, who believed in the African Continuum, an un-broken continuity of the beliefs and concepts of African peoples the world over. This world-view has as its basic assumption the spiritual nature of the universe, as well as the attendant belief that man is essentially spirit, and as such is irreducible. The continuum is therefore those fundamental concepts that the black man has created in the universe that reflect his own image. Africa, the potent Ancestor, provides a strong ancestral base that reflects the African spirit wherever it is located; it is evident in the music of Africans, their use of sounds, words and images throughout the world. The African continuum is a modal concept which views the cosmos as a totally integrated environment where all spiritual forces interact. A modal perception of reality is a way of looking at the world which is consistent with the truth of the mode in terms of its own modality; a mode reveals its own truth on its own terms—one perceives it while integrated in the context of the mode. The truth of a mode cannot be arrived at by comparison with something outside its context; a mode is non-analogical and non-comparative. Coltrane’s music is the recognition and embodiment of life-force; his music is testament in modal forms of expression that unfold in their many modal aspects. His music testifies to life; one is witness to the spirit and power of life; and one is rejuvenated and renewed in a living experience, the music that provides images strong enough to give back that power that renews. . . .

from record album liner notes

Lisa Dunick

Written three years after Coltrane’s death, Michael S. Harper’s “Dear John, Dear Coltrane” functions as an elegy to the jazz musician and his musical legacy. By incorporating both corporeal imagery and the refrain of what may be his best-known and best-received work, A Love Supreme, the poem reproduces the cultural form of Coltrane’s free jazz innovations through the image of bodily death. Rather than a simply elevated poetic tribute to his life, the elegy focuses intently on the man’s bodily death and the movement of his music from something immediate and alive to something always reproduced and already commodified in his permanent absence. Without the musician, only recordings are left; the possibility of experiencing the improvisation and communal language that exists within a live jazz performance is no longer possible. By drawing attention to Coltrane’s death, the poem destabilizes the discourse that venerates John Coltrane’s music by questioning the possibility of a disembodied jazz to serve as a revolutionary black aesthetic. The poem’s use of bodily and cultural images of reproduction calls attention to the creation and reproduction of jazz and highlights the absolute importance of the musician himself by reinscribing Coltrane’s body into the jazz he produces.

The poem focuses intensely on corporeal imagery to reposition Coltrane’s jazz squarely within the body. In the line “Sex fingers toes,” the speaker uses the double meaning of the word sex, which should be read as both the act and the genitalia, to align the body with the sexuality embodied by jazz music. Sex as genitalia connects with a later line in the poem: “There is no substitute for pain:/ genitals gone or going,/ seed burned out.” The speaker here links the failure of the genitals, the death of sexuality itself, with the pain necessary to produce movement and desire. The bodily pain initiates the move to “turn back, and move/ by river through swamps.” The pain of slavery, which led to slaves attempting to escape through the swamps of the south, is the same pain from which the blues stems. Thus, the poem links the blues, with all of its ties to slavery and a specific African American aesthetic, directly to the pain of the jazzman’s dying body and represents this personal and communal pain as productive. The historical and personal pain represented in the dying body of the jazz musician repeats and intensifies throughout the poem. It is the “cannibal/ heart, genitals and sweat/ that makes you clean.” The end of the poem mirrors the end of Coltrane’s life; the bodily experience of dying will prove too great for Coltrane to even produce jazz. Instead, the body produces something more pure:

So sick
you couldn’t play Naima,
so flat we ached
for a song you’d concealed
with your own blood,
your diseased liver gave
out its purity.

These lines represent one of Coltrane’s final performances and suggest that it is that very sense of the disease in his music that makes what would otherwise be a flat performance somehow pure. Despite Coltrane not being able to play well or at all, the performance itself becomes what the audience desires. The purity of the music comes directly from the musician’s body, diseased though it may be.

This purity stems directly from the performance’s immediacy and singularity. For some, once jazz is recorded and stabilized as a single text—that is, once John Coltrane records A Love Supreme—it ceases to be true jazz because it loses its sense of spontaneity and communal production. Once the recording becomes a recognizable commodity in popular culture, like the repeated “a love supreme” that encloses the poem, it loses the purity of the live, communal production. The poem points to this commodification when it refers to the crystal of a radio transmitter: “You plod up into the electric city/ you song now crystal and/ the blues.” However, the poem challenges this commodification by including the body of the jazz musician (“you”) with the movement of his music (“song”). In the poem, the movement of the music through the radio mirrors the movement of runaway slaves towards freedom. This music may represent the new route to freedom, but that route remains always rooted in the musician as well as the music.

As it establishes the links between jazz as a mode for liberation and the body of the jazz man, and as it elegizes his death as much as his music’s continuing life, the poem operates in a continual space of flux. The “Dear John” letter genre is both appropriated to write off the possible impotence of a commodified jazz that ignores its source and reworked as a love letter to the source himself. The poem operates between the “because I am” present of the italicized lines and the past tense (“your diseased liver gave”)of the other lines, situating the poem, like Coltrane and his music, as in a constant state of movement between the past and the present. The poem establishes a relationship between Coltrane’s reproductive organs and his production of jazz. As his organs begin to fail him, so too should his music die, but the final lines of the poem draw our attention back to the man and his body in order to reinscribe his music. “A love supreme” in this poem does not represent the commodified version of Coltrane’s music, but “the tenor kiss,/ tenor love” that pumps out of his “inflated heart.” The poem eulogizes the musician himself, not only “Dear Coltrane” (the image) but also “Dear John” (the man). Without the man, the figure of the body, even jazz as revolutionary as Coltrane’s remains an empty aesthetic.

Copyright © 2004 by Lisa Dunick


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