Today’s #BlackMusicSunday continues our jazz saxophonist exploration and features tenor and soprano sax player John Coltrane. “Trane,” as he is often called, was a musical genius whose impact on jazz is still being felt—over half a century after his untimely death of liver cancer at age 40.
So much has been written about Coltrane and his music that it seems almost impossible to write anything new, so today, I simply want to share how he gave me the courage to speak up about the music I love, at a time when female opinions about jazz were often pushed to the side in the heavily male-dominated world of jazz.
When I was in the sixth grade, my parents bought their first home, thanks to my dad finally getting his WWII G.I. bill mortgage, from which Black soldiers often were excluded. We moved from Brooklyn to the middle- and working-class neighborhood of Hollis, Queens, which was undergoing the tail end of “white flight.”
Hollis and other neighboring areas like St. Albans—which had historically been “whites only”—started to integrate in the late 1940s. Not surprisingly, many Black musicians who had access to cash for down payments and families they wanted to raise in the suburbs had settled in these areas.
As a young person, it didn’t occur to me that there was anything extra special about where we had moved; now I can see the significance, looking back, of the neighborhood I took for granted.
The musicians who lived nearby and often played in local bars and clubs—and whose kids influenced other young Black folks—are legendary. Neighborhood jazz luminaries included Fats Waller, Count Basie, Milt Hinton, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, and more. You can find an incomplete list on the Forgotten New York website, in their section on St. Albans jazz greats.
Saxophonist John Coltrance, who along with Charlie Parker is regarded by many fans as the greatest jazz performer in history, lived on Mexico Street near Quencer Road; Mercer Ellington, Duke’s son, who took over the Ellington Orchestra after his father’s death and wrote Duke’s biography, lived on 175th Street near 113th Avenue; saxophonist Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Foch Boulevard near 171st Street; saxophonist Illinois Jacquet and his brother, trumpeter Russell Jacquet, in nearby houses on 179th Street near 112th Avenue; and saxophonist Earl Bostic, pianist/organist Wild Bill Davis, bassist Slam Stewart, trumpeter Cootie Williams, saxophonist Oliver Nelson, drummer James “Osie” Johnson, saxophonist Lester Young, and singer Rose Murphy also lived in St. Albans.
Hollis, next door to St. Albans, was home to Roy Haynes, Roy Eldridge, Milt Jackson, and Jaki Byard. The combined neighborhoods were literally home to some of the greatest jazz artists in the world, and as noted above, this had an impact on the youth of the community—especially the guys.
The brothers I hung out with in my teenage years were no exception. My best friend Michael Lawson played trumpet (he was the younger brother of engineer and video game designer Jerry Lawson). He later became road manager for bassist Teruo Nakamura. Farouq Dawud, the stepson of jazz singer Dakota Staton, was an aspiring trumpet player. And music writer Steve Reid went on to drum with Sun Ra and Ornette Coleman, among many others. All of them were all drawn to the Coltrane home. Trane’s adopted daughter Antonia was my age, and his wife was the center of the household. We, like Trane called her “Neet,” abbreviating her nickname of “Nita.” While her Muslim name was Naima, her given name was Juanita Grubbs.
Steve Reid tells this story about the Coltrane home, in an interview with Ian Paterson at All About Jazz:
IAN PATERSON: Talking of Coltrane, you grew up very close to his place. Did you see him gigging regularly?
STEVE REID: Oh yeah, I saw Coltrane over 500 times. I was lucky. I was living in the neighborhood about three blocks from where he was living in Queens at that time. He was at 116-60 Mexico Street in St. Albans, Queens, and so I was over there every morning. I barely made it to school. I would go over there early in the morning, you know, and stay! [laughing]
PATERSON: Was Coltrane’s house an open house? Were there loads of people coming and going? Hanging out? What was the scene like?
REID: There was that kind of atmosphere, but it wasn’t like a train station or something. It was always full of people that were close to him. When he was in town, he was always there practicing, so it wasn’t like people were interrupting him. He was a workaholic, a “practice-holic. He practiced all the time.
PATERSON: So anytime you were around there, he had a horn in his mouth, yeah?
REID: Always. Sometimes he was sleeping with the horn on his chest—into it 24/7, John Coltrane! He was a beautiful man, generous, open, really dedicated to the music. And he helped a lot of the younger musicians.
One day, when I was there, the guys hanging out in the basement were arguing about music—bop in particular—loudly showing off their post-adolescent musical expertise in front of Coltrane, who was seated in the corner, sunk deeply into finger exercises on his sax. Frankly, I didn’t think he was even listening. Though he was very supportive and tolerant of young musicians, as Steve mentioned, he was not a talkative man; to be honest, I really didn’t pay much attention to him. I adored Neet, she was much more hip than my mom. I remember her giving the guys a stern lecture about smoking weed and hangin’ out on corners. “If you all are gonna smoke—do it here in the basement, “she said. I sat there, wishing my mom would be that enlightened.
Anyway, the guys got more and more vociferous about what uptempo style of play was the best jazz, and for some reason, I decided to chime in.“Well, I like ballads the best,” I said. “Like ‘On Green Dolphin Street,’” I explained.
The guys burst out in laughter and mocked me. “Just like a girl to like ballads and stuff like love songs,” and ”Hard, uptempo bop is where it’s at, which means it’s probably too complicated for you,” were just a couple of the patronizingly sexist comments made. I got ready to argue back, when from the corner of the room came the sound of a quiet voice. It was Trane’s. “She’s right, you know,” he said. The guys fell silent. He continued, “Ballads are far more difficult and complex. It’s about the space between the notes.”
He said no more and I watched him sink back into the fingering exercises on his sax. The guys changed the subject quickly, and I felt vindicated. Walking home that day, with Michael, we talked about what Trane had said, and Michael said, “don’t let us try to shut you up. You have a good ear— stand up for what you hear.” Whenever we would go to jazz clubs, Michael would tease me by shouting at the musicians, loudly, “Play ‘On Green Dolphin Street’” and wink at me.
Neet got Trane through many of the most difficult points in his life. She stuck by him, through severe drug addiction, and helped him kick, after Miles Davis had kicked him out of the band because he couldn’t function. I know from personal experience what it is like to have a partner who is shooting dope: it is traumatizing. Frankly, we may not have had a Trane to admire and adore without Neet’s steadfast and loving support. They were together for 10 years, and those are the years in which he recorded and performed most of his great music.
I have fond memories of Neet—several years after her breakup with Trane—taking Michael and me with her to Slugs’ Saloon, a notorious jazz club on New York’s Lower East Side.
Slugs’ Saloon was the ultimate jazz dive: bare brick walls; hanging globe light fixtures that barely lit up the dark; pushers hovering near the men’s room; sawdust, mixed with peanut shells, on the floor. “If someone threw up you’d just cover it up,” says saxophonist Gary Bartz, who played there often. A bar ran along the left; beat-up tables and chairs filled out the room. Slugs’ was crowded with jazzmen and hardcore fans, who focused on a stage in the back.
The jazz at Slugs’ was seldom pretty or commercial. One heard a crossfire of searching, progressive sounds from the likes of Jackie McLean, Charles Mingus, Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, Roy Haynes, Kenny Dorham and Yusef Lateef. The most important avant-gardists—Archie Shepp, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler—found a home there too. The music, which went until 4 a.m., “was like fire burning,” remembers drummer Barry Altschul. “Everybody who played there was happening.”
When you are a young woman, you need older female role models, and not just the ones who are family. I think what I appreciated most about Neet was that she never talked down to us.
Years later, when I had my own jazz radio show on WPFW-FM Pacifica, in Washington, D.C.—where I was also the program director—I chose to play a lot of ballads. We even named one of the shows on the station “Green Dolphin Street.” I played multiple versions of Coltrane’s “Naima” on my show, and not just because Trane had written it for Neet. It is to my ear, one of the most lyrical jazz ballads ever written.
It wasn’t easy running a jazz station, surrounded by a lot of male DJs who thought of themselves as jazz “experts.” There were plenty of times I got challenged about my music programming decisions. They wanted all hard, uptempo jazz, and I wanted them to include more ballads in the mix. When clashes like that happened, I would remember Trane’s words, smile, and go play another version of “Naima,” thinking about that “space between the notes.”
This video illustrates the timeline of “Naima.”
As the video indicates, Trane met Naima in 1953 in Philadelphia, and later adopted her young daughter; his song for her, “Syeeda’s Song Flute.” Her name is misspelled on the album. The misspelling is mentioned in the documentation of the auction of previously “lost” tapes of Coltrane recordings that were being put up for sale. Misspelling Coltrane’s daughter’s name happened more than once, according to Barry Kernfeld’s auction house notes.
She appears as “Saida” in Cuthbert O. Simpkin’s biography Coltrane (New York, 1975), p.54; as “Saeeda” in Lewis Porter, John Coltrane: His Life and Music (Ann Arbor, MI, 1998), p.96; and as “Syeeda” in the tune on Coltrane’s Giant Steps album, “Syeeda’s Song Flute.” By chance, her son and her brother were present when I telephoned Guernsey’s in mid-December, and I asked for the correct spelling: (It’s) “S-a-i-d-a.” The auction offered confirmation by way of a lead sheet for the composition in Coltrane’s own hand, “Saida’s Song Flute.”
Marc Myers gives some background detail about the recording of “Naima” for All About Jazz.
After the song’s debut on Giant Steps, Coltrane recorded the composition about a dozen times, each in a different way. By contrast, Coltrane never recorded Giant Steps, the title track, again after the album was released.
Naima is a ballad that’s so slow and reverential that it seems to stand still, suspended in mid air. Written as a love letter to his first wife, Naima, the song was Coltrane’s favorite composition.
(Nat) Hentoff continues:
“There is a ‘cry’—not at all necessarily a despairing one—in the work of the best of the jazz players. It represents a man’s being in thorough contact with his feelings, and being able to let them out, and that ‘cry’ Coltrane certainly has.”
Coltrane met Naima Grubbs in 1953, at the home of bassist Steve Davis. When she met Coltrane, she was working as a seamstress in a factory to support herself and her five-year old daughter.
Here’s the full version of “Naima.”
John Vettese, writing for WXPN-FM in Philadelphia, wrote this piece about “Naima” last year.
From the opening C note, softly bending over an airy expanse, it’s clear “Naima” is not a celebration of jolly romantic sentiment. It is sad and somber; the breathless feeling of Coltrane’s phrasing no doubt echoes the exhaustion he must have felt waking up in a Philadelphia bedroom, covered in sweat, exhausted at the end of a traumatic race for his life. It also echoes the exhaustion the title character must have felt as she cared for and cleaned up her companion; a person who put emotional stress and strain on her life, but somebody who she nevertheless loved deeply and chose to be with. In the wistful notes of this four and a half minute song, punctuated by the understated bass playing of Paul Chambers and a gentle piano solo from Tommy Flanagan, you feel the tenderness of a warm embrace between two people who have been through hell together, who are unsure if their stories will continue to move in parallel, but who nonetheless share a deep devotion to one another and know that, for the moment anyway—that one, disheveled, melancholy moment—the best thing they can do is try to be their best selves for one another.
Even though Coltrane and Naima’s story did not end happily, his tribute to her endures. Between its initial release on Giant Steps and his death in 1967, the saxophonist re-recorded it a dozen times, and in the ensuing sixty years, it has become a jazz standard, with cover versions recorded by some 34 artists from Art Ensemble of Chicago and Herbie Hancock to Victor Wooten and George Benson, and is in the repertoire of countless other players. These versions can bring their own personal emotions and baggage, or lack thereof, to the melody, and that’s fine; but for Coltrane, and the original “Naima,” it will always be a snapshot of those difficult months in Philadelphia in the spring of 1956, where he was ultimately saved by love.
I have always found it extremely odd that Neet is virtually overlooked in all the books and articles about him. When I mention Coltrane’s wife, the assumption is instantly “Oh, Alice,” referring to his second wife Alice McLeod, known to the world as Alice Coltrane, who he was with for four years — married only for two. Instead of “Chasin’ the Trane,” in Naima’s case it’s more like “Erasin’ the Trane.” Try doing a Google search for “Juanita Grubbs Coltrane,” and you’ll see what I mean. Even when you try to find an obituary for her, you get one for Alice.
Dr. Cuthbert O. Simpkin’s biography of Coltrane is the only book about Trane that not only references Naima, but even used her as a key source, which he talks about in this article he wrote for Harvard Medicine.
It turned out that Naima Coltrane, Coltrane’s first wife, had a dashiki shop up the street from my father’s dental office in Queens. I wanted to talk with her but was shy. I kept talking about it but also putting it off. Finally, my father said, “What’s wrong with you?” and challenged me to meet with her. I had no choice; I went to her shop.
She was so kind and welcoming. Her manner was that of a person who was in control of her thoughts—and interested in yours. I explained my intention to write a biography of her former husband; she welcomed the idea.
From Naima I received suggestions of people I should interview and advice on how to approach the family. It was a close-knit family, she said, and protective, so I would need to navigate carefully. I ended up spending a lot of time with her and her daughter at their home. Years later, when she had read the finished book, I talked with her and asked, “Naima, is this John?” She smiled and nodded yes.
Simpkin’s use of “Wise One” in this section about Naima references the song Trane wrote for Naima. in 1964, after their 1963 breakup.
Jacob Adams writes about this often-overlooked tune.
“Wise One” reaches a level of beautiful sublimity that rivals anything in Coltrane’s vast catalog. After a mellow McCoy Tyner introduction, one that recalls the impressionistic playing of Bill Evans on Kind of Blue’s “Blue in Green” and “Flamenco Sketches,” Trane joins with a spare, yet complex, melody, and Elvin Jones uses the cymbals in a particularly expressive manner. In Tyner’s solo, the pianist uses block chords to develop short rhythmic motifs in the manner of Coltrane from the previous track.
I have a hard time deciding which versions of “Naima” are my favorites, other than the original love song from Trane. Among my top picks is Eric Dolphy’s interpretation. Dolphy not only loved and respected Coltrane, he knew Naima.
As for vocal versions, of which there are several, I am still completely floored every time I hear the French vocalese jazz group Les Double Six sing “Naima” with French lyrics by Mimi Perrin. There is something about the sound of French that evokes horns.
Also included on Giant Steps was a tribute to Trane’s lifelong friend and supporter, Mary Lyerly Alexander—Cousin Mary to him. She passed on last year in Philadelphia, at the age of 92.
Lyerly spent much of her life working to preserve Coltrane’s legacy and supporting jazz and the arts.
The house at 1511 33rd St. where Coltrane lived with her from 1952 to 1958 is now a national historic landmark.
Washington, the community engagement manager at the Clef Club, said “Cousin Mary was the mother of jazz in Philadelphia.”
Here’s Coltrane’s tribute to her.
For a vocal version, Lambert, Hendricks, & Bavan take it on, with lyrics by Jon Hendricks.
As with last Sunday’s story, featuring Bird on alto sax, the list of Black jazz tenor sax players seems to be a mile long. Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young (Prez), Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson, Ben Webster, Dexter Gordon, Illinois Jacquet, Gene Ammons, and Wardell Gray (to name a few) are all on my list, as is Pharoah Sanders, who played multiple instruments, as did Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Eric Dolphy. And since the sax in Black music was not exclusive to jazz, there was also the phenomena of guys like Junior Walker and King Curtis. My list also includes white and Latino jazzmen like Stan Getz, and Gato Barbieri. That doesn’t even begin to cover young up-and-coming musicians who are breaking new ground—some of them are female.
So join me in comments to talk about them and play their music.
P.S. Make sure you include some ballads for me.