[JPL] John Coltrane's Dix Hills home is a national and musical
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Sun Sep 30 18:04:24 EDT 2007
Wellspring of genius
John Coltrane's Dix Hills home is a national and musical landmark, but also
can serve as a tribute to a 'force for good'
BY ASHLEY KAHN
Ashley Kahn is author of "A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane's
Signature Album," and "The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse
September 30, 2007
A national landmark now resides at the unlikely address of 247 Candlewood
Path in quiet Dix Hills. Down the street from a high school and a church,
mere minutes from the Long Island Expressway, the brick-and-wood frame house
that was once the primary residence of jazz legend John Coltrane and his
family has now been deemed a site of national importance and cultural weight
- with all the protection and support that such designation may bestow.
I'm certain such a move may initially generate as much head-scratching as
hosannahs: certainly among Suffolk County residents, and possibly among an
international circle of jazz musicians and enthusiasts.
The immediate questions are: Will all of this eventually engender a suburban
shrine to a man who primarily plied his craft - and crafted his art - in
urban nightclubs? And what will it ultimately house: a re-creation of a
family dwelling, with a recording studio in the basement, circa 1967, when
Coltrane passed away? Or a more museum-like display of objets de musique?
There are models: the Stax Museum in Memphis, a multimedia extravaganza that
tells the story of soul music and heroes of the '60s like Otis Redding and
the Staple Singers. The Louis Armstrong home in Flushing - fascinating in
its domestic details, and furnished as it was when the jazz great and his
wife lived there.
Yet so little of Coltrane's furniture, instruments, manuscripts and home
recordings remain in the family's hands. Perhaps the house simply should be
left open, clean and empty - offering a meditative space within which
visitors can be still and inspired, a space that reflects the transcendental
effect that Coltrane's music could achieve.
These questions are part of the increased challenge now faced by the Friends
of the Coltrane Home - the dedicated few who initiated the process that
saved the house from the wrecking ball in 2004, and from a neglected and
leaky roof two years later. They are led by Steve Fulgoni, a local historian
and jazz fan, who stumbled upon the fact that the house was bound for
demolition and immediately saw a need to prevent that from happening.
As the author of two books on John Coltrane, I had visited the house in 2002
but found little worth reporting: an abandoned, weather-beaten place with a
cracked driveway, rusty railings and sagging eaves. Knowing of the man who
lived there, the family he raised there and music he created there, it was a
Two years later, Fulgoni contacted me. I was inspired by his spirit and even
more by his tenacity. He was willing to call anybody and everybody who could
help: TV reporters, elected officials, rock stars fascinated by Coltrane's
music and mystique, and the Coltrane family, including John's widow, Alice,
who lived at the Candlewood Path address with her four children for six
years after her husband's death.
In the years that followed Coltrane's demise, his widow pursued a musical
path that led her to record her own music in the house - utilizing the
studio and instruments her husband left - until her own spiritual journey
took priority. She sold the house in 1973, moved to Southern California and
founded an ashram that she led until she died this past January.
I was especially impressed that Fulgoni was able to raise the interest of a
woman who had largely renounced connections to the material world - save
those that might help in the spiritual enlightenment of others. And it is in
this mission of Alice Coltrane's - one that began in earnest after she met
her future husband in 1963 - that I believe the true, communal benefit in
preserving the Coltrane home can be found.
John Coltrane today stands as more than just a jazz icon. To an
ever-expanding, international circle of people - not just jazz fans and
beyond the music-focused - he is revered for the way that his life, music
and his message of supreme love so perfectly and influentially meshed.
There's hardly a saxophonist who can pick up his instrument and not quote
from Coltrane's expressive vocabulary of slurs, runs and emotive cries. Most
people who create improvised music find a shared need after awhile to draw
away from Coltrane's overpowering imprint to find their own musical voice.
As for the world outside of music, I wrote in 2002: "When he succumbed to
liver cancer in 1967, his obituaries rang with an extra-musical fervor that
furthered his ascension. ... 'A giant of a man, a strong and honest spirit,'
'a serious man ... nearly mystical in his dedication to his music.' Coltrane
has since become a patron saint of creative discipline: worshiped as a
paragon of commitment and uncompromising credibility. For African-Americans,
he has attained the rank of prophet, sitting among a pantheon of
race-lifting message-givers ... [like] Martin Luther King, Jr."
As opposed to other jazz giants who famously led less-than-clean lives,
Coltrane served as a role model of clean living. Despite years of substance
abuse, Coltrane rededicated himself to music and to God in 1957. As
trumpeter Don Cherry put it: "It changed the whole scene because of him
being a vegetarian and meditating. ... And everyone became aware of health
and balance and life."
Coltrane himself proffered the idea that music could serve as a
life-affirming, spiritual force. "I would like to be able to bring something
resembling happiness to people," he once said. "I would like to discover a
method such that if I wanted it to rain, it would start to rain. If one of
my friends was sick, I'd play a certain theme and he'd be healed."
His continuing impact on non-musicians explains why both the initiated and
those who might be hearing Coltrane for the first time deserve a destination
and focal point to spend time appreciating him - even if that site is 40
miles east of Manhattan.
I mentioned Martin Luther King, Jr., and I think one can easily hear that
the link between the two is deep and meaningful. There was rhythm and melody
in how they both expressed themselves, and a nondenominational message of
love and tolerance driving that expression. King's universalist philosophy
is known by way of his popular "I Have a Dream" speech. Coltrane's
all-embracing vision is encapsulated in his album, "A Love Supreme," which
became a bestseller when released in 1965, garnered a jazz record of the
year award and was composed in its entirety at 247 Candlewood Path.
Speaking of jazz, King said in 1964: "Much of the power of our Freedom
Movement in the United States has come from this music. It has strengthened
us with its sweet rhythms when courage began to fail. It has calmed us with
its rich harmonies when spirits were down." Speaking of his own music,
Coltrane said a year before he died: "I know that there are evil forces in
the world, but I want to be a force for good. A force for real good."
In a world where too many markers are being erected to those who must bear
arms, it's nice to see one set aside for a man who bore a musical
instrument. How this landmark will grow remains to be seen; it deserves our
Coltrane, 'a line in the sand'
Newsday critic Gene Seymour writes about the music of John Coltrane on Oct.
This much can be gleaned from decades of conversations about jazz with its
fans, novices and antagonists: John Coltrane's music frightens as many
people as it inspires, infuriates as many people as it comforts, confounds
as many listeners as it enlightens. Coltrane is a line in the sand as much
as he is an occasion for reflection and exaltation. Such was the state of
things when Coltrane died in 1967 at age 40, and not much has changed since.
. . . there's little one can say about the man and his legacy now that
couldn't have been said five, 10, even 20 years ago. One fears, though, that
as jazz continues its ongoing contraction within the margins of popular
culture, resistance to Coltrane's daring, challenging and transfiguring
music will only harden. ... The biggest news of this 75th birthday
celebration is the release of the April 23, 1967, concert at Harlem's
Olatunji Center for African Culture. This ["The Olatunji Concert" album] is,
by all accounts, the last recorded work of Coltrane before his death. . . .
This music represents the outer edges of Coltrane's furiously experimental
period, with [the song] "My Favorite Things" stretched to what may well have
been its psychic, incantatory limits. One hears Coltrane hurling himself
against those outer edges to obtain whatever secrets, spiritual or
otherwise, were waiting on the other side. However thrilling the struggle
can be, those secrets remain inscrutably at bay.
Copyright © 2007, Newsday Inc.
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