I happen to be a white man with a vowel at the end of my last name who lived half his life in the Northeast and half his life in the Southeast region of the United States. So, what the hell am I doing with the words ‘John’ and ‘Coltrane’ on my tongue?
Well, to put it bluntly, I wouldn’t have been able to answer that question before I moved to High Point, North Carolina back in 2005, where the legendary jazz musician grew up in a cozy bungalow on Underhill Street.
One of my first memories of visiting the small, furniture town of High Point happened on a late night stroll down Hamilton Street. I was set to interview the next day at a local middle school (where I currently teach), and I couldn’t have felt more like a fish out of water if I tried. Just the day before, I’d driven over the 59th Street Bridge from my apartment in Harlem to one of the most diverse classroom settings in the nation in Corona, Queens. Now I stood in a classically-constructed version of Main Street America, where people said “y’all” instead of “yous” and the closest thing I could find to an Italian hoagie was a dang chicken biscuit.
I was nervous as hell. Uncomfortable. Out of sorts.
Then I looked up and saw a statue. It was a man with his top button open, his collar splayed wide, and his saxophone hanging idly at his chest. His eyes were soft, serene, and bursting with character even in their bronze-cast forms.
It was him.
The Legend of Jazz.
I immediately felt at ease and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why. I mean, I didn’t know a thing about John Coltrane, but somehow in that moment as I stood in the shadow of his statue, I knew he was special. I knew he was the sort of man who had the ability to see things and hear things the rest of us could only dream about. I don’t know how I knew–whether it was the brooding creases on his forehead, or the sparkle of understanding in his eyes–but I knew in an instant he would occupy my thoughts from that point forward.
And that’s one of the most important moments I can remember in how I eventually made a decision to move almost a thousand miles away from my nearest family members to live in a town that one member of the next day’s teaching interview lovingly referred to as ‘East Podunk, USA’.
See, John Coltrane does not only epitomize everything that is real and innovative and genuine about jazz music. No. What I came to find in my time living in Trane’s hometown and through hours of relentless research on the man, is that he epitomized everything that was real and innovative and genuine about humanity. From his deep understanding of philosophy and world religion to his undying devotion to mathematics in the form of music, everything about John Coltrane epitomized what could be real and innovative and genuine about life on this planet once again–long after we’ve seemingly lost the thread, Coltrane proved through his music that we can find the loose ends and tie them up anew in the tightness of a melody.
It took me a long time, but I finally realized my sudden obsession with John Coltrane that began on a strange evening on my first night in High Point, North Carolina had nothing to do with race or gender or talent or non-talent or anything other than the essence of what it means to be human. To be a student of living. To care for others and to take care in how we go about accomplishing life’s most elusive goals.
To search for the sound in everything around us.
In John Coltrane we had a human being with great flaws; a man once wracked by addiction; a man who at one time almost gave up on his dream; but also a man who sought to understand the underlying conflicts people faced across all boundaries, who was a student of spirituality in all its forms, and whose dogged determination and drive to master his craft lead to the type of sound that defines the hopes, dreams, and also the heartache of an entire nation.
For a young man like Cordy Wheaton, my protagonist in the young adult novel ON THE WAY TO BIRDLAND, John Coltrane is the light. He is the inspiration that beckons Cordy out of the darkness. Out from behind his own shadows. Out of the cave, if you will, and into a new reality that moves and shakes and clashes in beautiful contrasts like a perfectly-conducted jazz tune.
Like Trane himself.
For a young man like Cordy Wheaton, nothing can be more motivating, more inspiring than a jazz legend who once tossed a baseball down Underhill Street, toiling for hours each day with a wet reed in his mouth, until he found himself making sweet melodies alongside folks like Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, and Charlie Parker. For a young man like Cordy Wheaton, and for a once-young teacher and writer like myself, it doesn’t matter if your hero looks like you or speaks like you or lives in the same type of community as you. All that matters is that your hero saw beauty in everything around him. He saw promise in it too. And he cultivated the beauty in the best way he knew how: through his music.
Both Cordy Wheaton and Frank Morelli admire that about Trane. They admire it so much they’ll happily follow the legend’s unique sound–and his lead–wherever it may take them.