Two Johns: Coltrane on his 50th Anniversary and Altman on the Archive

June 18th, 2017 marks 50 years since the death of John Coltrane, who passed away at the age of 40. This is yet another milestone reached this year, which sees the centennial anniversary of the first jazz recording (Original Dixieland ‘Jass’ Band’s “Dixie Jass Band One Step” and “Livery Stable Blues”).

To celebrate, I figured I’d highlight video 168 from the archive, which features a program that documents the discovery of Monk and Coltrane at Carnegie Hall, back in 1957. This is a clip that, like with some videos in the Altman-Koss collection, was an undiscovered gem hidden in a gigantic VHS archive that was only rediscovered years later by people digitising and maintaining the tapes. At 1:10:05, one commentator exclaims, “It’s the best music we have of these two people playing together, I think” The value of the discovery of this clip is reinforced when a few minutes later,  another says, “Thelonious Monk and The John Coltrane playing together, is of enormous historical importance, because this is a relationship that was relatively, in fact, greatly, undocumented.” The tape goes on to detail John Coltrane’s life while he was working with Monk, including commentary from Ravi Coltrane and other jazz greats. There’s a section describing Coltrane overcoming his drug addiction, a pivotal moment in the musician’s life, and the advice Monk gave to snap him back to sobriety: “‘If you take care of the music, the music will take care of you, and you’ll be alright.’ And that was Thelonious’s way to get through to Coltrane: immerse him in the music.” Shortly after that, Coltrane quit cold turkey, and claimed to have a spiritual experience that coupled with a vast improvement in his playing. This was such a critical moment in Coltrane’s life, yet that whole time period of when he was playing with Monk largely slipped into the past without making it into the annals of history. Finding this video, years after the actual performance, actually had a real impact on our collective record of jazz history and understanding of John Coltrane. Of course, the documentary inspires me with the prospect of finding our own treasures in the dusty pile of VHS tapes at University of Sussex.


That same tape also has Nnenna Frelon’s album Blueprint of a Lady, Herbie Hancock on Travis Smiley Show and The Tonight Show, Bill Ware and Vibes at the Knitting Factory in NYC, and Joshua Redman on EGG The Arts Show at Blues Alley in Washington D.C. In other words, it’s a packed spanning decades of jazz history.

The bonus celebration is that Professor Ed Hughes and I got to actually meet John Altman today, on the seafront in Hove. We asked him how the archive got started in the first place; apparently he had just bought a VHS player (this was in the early 1970s) and was traveling through Europe, but as the technology was still new, he couldn’t get anything to watch. He arrived in Germany to work on a commercial, and had just checked into his hotel. Everything in the town was closed: food, shops, music and entertainment venues. So he went back to his hotel room and started flipping channels, and all of a sudden he came across the Berlin Jazz Festival live. Immediately absorbed, he spent the night watching it, and the next day when the director asked him how his night was, John described how pleasantly surprised he was to catch live jazz on television. “Oh, we have jazz on TV all the time,” the director replied. “I’ll tape it and send it to you.” Meanwhile, Eric Koss, a European accountant and John’s friend, had been privately and meticulously amassing his own jazz VHS collection; John reached out to him and said, “If we could find someone everywhere you went who knew the music, we’d get some good tapes.” The first place they check was at a jazz club in Sweden. They arrived, asked if anyone around was into jazz on video, and were immediately pointed to a guy in the corner who had been responsible for every broadcast on Swedish TV since the 1950s. He had a personal archive and agreed to make the two some tapes. One of those tapes turned out to be an entire Charles Mingus concert with Eric Dolphy, unedited. Then Eric Koss went to Denmark, and quickly came across a man who Chet Baker stayed with when he was in the country. Quickly, the collectors began to build a tape-swap network that spanned the European continent.

This is the amazing thing about this collection: from the very beginning, it’s been about so much more than having a set of historical records (although that’s still a valuable aspect to the collection). It was something that the musicians, impresarios, and enthusiasts where making and sharing with each other because they love the music. To me, the swap-meet element of the archive adds a living aspect to it, where the goal wasn’t just to preserve, but to interact. I was more and more convinced of this as Altman described the reactions of some musicians watching videos of themselves that he and Eric had collected: Gil Evans, staying with Altman, watching his own performance and going crazy because he thought it hadn’t been recorded.  Stan Getz seeing a concert of him with Kenny Barron, and being so excited at the tape that he insisted they put it out on CD (and so they did). Sonny Rollins’s Stockholm set in 1959, which became the album Sonny Rollins in Stockholm 1959. And this is just what the collectors thought to share; with so many tapes in the collection, they couldn’t feasibly have gone through everything thoroughly. Hopefully the digitsation and publication of the archive will lead to a renewal on this kind of living interaction.

John mentioned that he remembered the day Coltrane died: the legend was supposed to perform with Miles Davis in Europe that year, but as a result paired the tour with Archie Shepp. Altman went to see them play in England, and Miles played first. After he finished, half the audience walked out! But of course John stayed, and as a sax player himself, was taken by Archie’s wild improvising.

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