In New York City we are currently in the middle of Winter Jazz Fest, a time when the greatest musicians near and far swarm the city and play short sets in dozens of venues. This year the explicit mandate is “Jazz and Social Justice,” a phrase that has become popular since the last presidential election.
If “Jazz and Social Justice” has a theme song, it surely would be John Coltrane’s “Alabama,” a wonderful track originally included on Live at Birdland. Wikipedia claims that the composition, “…Was written in response to the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing on September 15, 1963, an attack by the Ku Klux Klan in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four African-American girls.”
Wikipedia is probably not wrong, but Coltrane wasn’t overwhelmingly explicit. In the original liner notes, Leroi Jones (later Amiri Baraka) writes:
“Bob Thiele asked Trane if the title ‘had any significance to today’s problems.’ I suppose he meant literally. Coltrane answered, ‘It represents, musically, something that I saw down there translated into music from inside me.’ Which is to say, Listen.”
Reportedly the other members of Coltrane’s quartet did not know the title or the meaning of “Alabama” at the time of tracking. The only other time Coltrane played the piece seems to have been on the television show Jazz Casual, an occasion where Coltrane did not address the audience.
However, the point of just how much Coltrane himself tied the bombing to his composition is mostly moot, for every single glorious note recorded together by Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, and Elvin Jones strikes a blow for social justice. The story behind “Alabama” is actually told in any Coltrane performance. Whether they read about “Alabama” or not, any John Coltrane fan has a chance to embrace multiplicity and learn about American history simply by listening to his records.
Coltrane was sympathetic to Baraka and other civil rights leaders; he also supported the best players of ‘60s avant-garde jazz, some of which was explicitly tethered to civil rights protest. In 1965 a concert benefiting the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School was held at New York’s Village Gate. Baraka was deeply involved in the concert and then wrote the notes for the resultant album, The New Wave In Jazz.
All the musicians performing at Gate that night were fabulous, but Coltrane was the biggest star, and only his picture is on the cover of the LP. Coltrane could have played anything he wanted, but he chose to introduce a marvelous rendition of “Nature Boy,” a standard by Eden Ahbez (a real oddball in the in the history of American music) made famous by Nat King Cole.
The lyric to “Nature Boy” concludes, “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn, is just to love and be loved in return.”