Friday, March 14, 2014

Focus, Drive and Coltrane

John Coltrane was intense. 

There have been many accounts of this great saxophonist's singular purpose and drive. Those who observed him practicing have said it is unlike anything they have every seen. I remember Denis Diblasio sharing a story about Coltrane's extended sessions blowing in the mechanical room of a venue he was performing in. Despite the gig every night, he was still exploring up to 12 hours at a time. It was a wild sight.

Anyone who saw Coltrane or listened to his recordings from the late 1950s to 1960s knows that this man was reaching for something. And he had the focus and attention to someday grab it.
Now Coltrane, like many jazz musicians of that era, struggled with drug use in his past (particularly heroin). Interestingly, once he kicked the habit, he entered his most exciting, creative period of his career.  He was exploring new harmonic progressions (Giant Steps, 1960). He was extending the modal vocabulary defined by Miles and Shorter (My Favorite Things, 1961). And he was reaching to experience the free-est of the "free" jazz (Ascension, 1966). All while sober.

How was he able to focus this intensely? How did he keep his mind from wandering? How did he keep himself from being interrupted in the middle of the creative explorations? Was he ever distracted to just go watch some TV? These are questions many people ask about Coltrane's practice ethic. 

Coltrane attributed his work to forces beyond himself. He was a very spiritual person (he carried with him a variety of religious texts) and said his music came from a higher power. I think Coltrane tapped into that same power that  Mihály Csíkszentmihályi describes as "flow". In positive psychology, flow is "mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity". That seems to describe Coltrane to a T.

From sax player Mel Martin:

In a private interview, John Coltrane spoke of a higher power. He felt that there were forces beyond himself that were driving his music to higher planes of consciousness. He certainly was on to something because he developed in a way that has never been seen before or since. This, however, never stopped him from practicing and developing his skills to the utmost. Jimmy Heath called him the greatest "practicer" that ever lived and, indeed, I witnessed him with his Quartet in the 'sixties where he would solo at great length and then go into the dressing room and keep playing while McCoy Tyner and the others soloed. This phenomenon was observed by many and led to a kind of blind imitation of both his style and approach. It is not possible to duplicate the spirituality that drove John Coltrane. It certainly is possible to be inspired by the man and his music and many were. But the important thing is for every artist to follow their own muse. Music is many things to many people. It can be a philosophy, a style, a way of life. Music, like all art, is never merely technical.

So what can we learn from Trane and adopt into our own creative practice? After all, most of us will not ever be able to devote the length of time to our craft as described in the above encounters with Coltrane. However, I think we can all strive to emulate that intensity in the time we do have. If you have half an hour for a creative project, milk that 30 minutes for all it is worth. Instead of only giving part of your attention, try to focus on your output with the same simmering intensity that you see when Coltrane plays.

I leave with you a video from 1963 of Coltrane's "Alabama". It is a haunting ballad written a mere few days after a church bombing enacted by a chapter of the Klan killed four children in Birmingham. While Coltrane is not playing as fast and frenetic as he does in his more exuberant explorations, I think this clip illustrates his focus and intensity in a unique way. Just watch his presence throughout the clip. Many describe his reverence in playing as a musical prayer. To me, it is the perfect portrait of man in the deepest state of concentration and flow.

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