Editor’s Note: John Coltrane is a Philadelphia legend, but how does the city account for his time here and the influence of the city on his work and his work on the city? Most of the jazz world he inhabited, which Rob Armstrong has so lovingly revealed in this article below, is gone. As a preservation issue, restoring and celebrating Coltrane and Philly’s jazz golden age is a challenge. The Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia has begun thinking about that issue, convening a planning process to imagine uses for the Coltrane house in Strawberry Mansion. They’ve lined up two events in March: a Coltrane community workshop open to the public on Saturday, March 9th from 11AM to 2PM, for neighbors to share memories of Coltrane and ideas for revitalizing the house and a planning charrette later that month. For our part, we’ve launched another media partnership, this with the internationally acclaimed website All About Jazz, to explore Coltrane and Philly’s jazz legacy as it relates to the city of today–and tomorrow. This article and the others we feature will be published here and on All About Jazz, where you can find a new forum to share your Coltrane memories and ideas for repurposing his house.
When 18 year old John Coltrane moved to Philadelphia, in 1943 the nation’s third largest city, he entered a fundamentally different world from his hometown of High Point, N.C. Like many African-Americans who migrated to major cities of the North, Coltrane joined older family members and friends already settled there. They lived in an apartment at 1450 N. 12th Street between Jefferson and Master Streets in an area since demolished for the Yorktown Urban Renewal project.
What Coltrane, already a studious musician even in high school, encountered here was a vibrant and intense nightlife scene almost completely centered on live jazz. Trane entrenched himself among a large group of highly skilled musicians and took advantage of the affordable, serious musical education available, all of which would have been inconceivable in the small town Jim Crow South. According to saxophonist Odean Pope, Philadelphia was the “institution” that fostered great talents like Coltrane, pianist McCoy Tyner, saxophonist Jimmy Heath, organist Jimmy Smith, trumpeter Lee Morgan, drummer “Philly” Joe Jones, saxophonist Benny Golson, bassist Reggie Workman, and Pope himself.
Pope makes the case that with New York relying on talent from other cities but not entirely fostering its own brand of jazz, Philly was the greatest jazz scene in the United States between World War II and the mid-1960s. New York, headquarters of the top labels and largest venues, was where you went when you made it big. Instead, Philadelphia was the proving ground for jazz artists, and its working-class people fostered the talent by packing rooms every week from Tuesday to Saturday nights. The sheer number of clubs, musicians’ culture of sharing, strong instruction available at both the Ornstein School of Music, located at 19th and Spruce Streets, and the Granoff Studios, located at 2118 Spruce Street, and the discipline and practice regimen of key musicians in the scene, gave young men like Coltrane a true Philly jazz education.
“There was no end to the music,” says Pope, who would regularly practice with Coltrane and pianist Hasaan Ibn Ali, a Philly legend who Pope claims was the most advanced player to ever develop in the city. Pope lived on Colorado Street in North Philly, near Hasaan’s residence on Gratz Street. Together, they’d walk the few blocks to Trane’s house on N. 33rd Street, once the saxophonist took up residence there in 1952, and have long jam sessions, trading ideas, practicing scales and showing each other the harmonic possibilities of their instruments. Hasaan’s ideas were very advanced and Trane “practiced, practiced, practiced.” Unfortunately, there is only one recording session available featuring Hasaan Ibn Ali: “The Max Roach Trio Featuring the Legendary Hasaan,” from 1964 on Atlantic.
Pope argues that it’s possible to draw a direct line from the technique that Hasaan taught Trane to the harmony Trane developed later on tunes like “Giant Steps.” “Hasaan was the clue to all of that, to the system that Trane uses. Hasaan was the great influence on Trane’s melodic concept,” he says.
At the Granoff Studios, Coltrane studied under music theorist Dennis Sandole, who is credited with providing Coltrane with the thorough knowledge of the theory and philosophy of the complicated rhythmic, harmonic and melodic structures necessary to create, compose and play his highly sophisticated brand of jazz.
For all their practicing, education and discipline, Coltrane and his fellow jazz contemporaries could count on playing to packed houses every night during the late 1940s and 1950s. Much of the action was on Columbia Avenue (now Cecil B. Moore Avenue), in a world almost entirely eviscerated by Urban Renewal–the building of Yorktown and the expansion of Temple University’s campus–and by the race riot of 1964 and its aftereffects of intensifying disinvestment and poverty: the 820 Club at 8th and Columbia, Café Society on Columbia between 12th and 13th Streets, and further west, the Crystal Ball on Columbia between 15th and 16th Streets, the Web Bar on Columbia between 16th and 17th Streets, and The Northwestern and The Point on 23rd and Columbia. Nearby was Café Holiday at 13th and Diamond, the Sun Ray at 16th and Susquehanna and North Philly’s largest nightclub in the 1950s, the Blue Note, at 15th Street and Ridge Avenue.
However, the best jazz “institution” of the era was the Woodbine Club, located at 12th and Master, for it was here that jazz musicians would gather at 2AM when their gigs ended. During these sessions, says Pope, musicians learned new ideas and showed younger players techniques that would then be incorporated back into the repertoires and sounds coming out of Philly, all adding to the vibrancy of the institution in this most musical of cities.
Playing consistently, night after night, in clubs allowed Trane and others to develop their unique sound. By the time he left Philadelphia for New York in 1958, “all of the information he had acquired in Philadelphia gave him the opportunity to open up all his ideas and concepts,” says Pope. This knowledge was based not just on touring regularly with Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and other major jazz greats, but also in the uniqueness of the tight knit scene developing here and the way Trane would share his ideas with other musicians he knew and trusted in Philadelphia, gathering insight into his own methods in the process.
Note: Help the Preservation Alliance and others figure out how to preserve the Coltrane house by giving in your thoughts in the All About Jazz forum. Click HERE to comment.
About the author
Rob Armstrong is the Preservation and Capital Projects Manager for Philadelphia Parks & Recreation where he works on projects related to the city-wide trail network, historic preservation and other park improvements. He earned his Ph.D. from Lehigh University in American History, investigating the history and development of Philadelphia's Park system and urban open space in Philadelphia. In his free time, he enjoys bicycling, music, reading, movies, homebrewing and rooting for the Phils.