The 1960s are virtually synonymous with social and political upheaval in America, and with a popular culture nourished by intrepid experimentation and a rejection of traditional symbols of authority. Of course, in the world of jazz, musicians like Charles Mingus, Max Roach, Sonny Rollins, and others had already been responding to—and carrying out—upheavals in American society for some time, and wild experimentation had long since become a touchstone of their music. Still, the events of this turbulent decade gave rise to some intense and profound transformations. Some jazz artists continued to create music inspired by the increasingly violent struggle for political freedom; other performers explored radically new forms of expression in search of a purely artistic freedom.
The 1960s began with a sense among many Americans that they were on the threshold of a bright new era. On January 20, 1961, a youthful John F. Kennedy took the presidential oath of office, promising to lead the country toward a “new frontier”—one in which Americans would unite to achieve what had once seemed impossibly distant goals: equal rights for African Americans, the alleviation of widespread and persistent poverty at home and abroad, the peaceful neutralization of perceived Communist threats, and the manned exploration of space. When, at the emotional high point of his inaugural address, Kennedy made his now famous declaration that “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans,” much of the country was swept up by his spirit of unfettered optimism.
This lofty idealism, however, quickly encountered some unsettling realities. Even in the afterglow of Kennedy’s inauguration speech, the groundwork for the vastly unpopular war in Vietnam was being laid, and, in the impoverished centers of several American cities, tensions were brewing that would eventually erupt into full-scale riots and translate into extremism on both sides of the racial divide. Less than three years after taking office, Kennedy himself was shot and killed, in a stark act of political violence that would be a foretaste of similar assassinations to come: Malcolm X in 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, and, two months later, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, the late president’s brother.
And yet, as the decade progressed, the reverberations of Kennedy’s idealism could be felt across the political, social, and cultural landscape. Thousands of young people took President Kennedy’s most famous exhortation—“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”—to heart by joining the newly established Peace Corps. Segregation was being challenged at lunch counters and schoolhouses across the South. And the women’s liberation movement was convincing politicians that the struggle for equal rights was a matter of both race and gender. Against this political backdrop, a new social phenomenon was growing out of the literary and musical bohemianism of the 1950s. Hippies became the cultural icons of the era; they adopted a lifestyle that emphasized a wholesale rejection of conventional politics, religion, and sexuality and that embraced a loose interpretation of non-Western religions and spiritual systems.
Though the hippie movement came to be associated almost exclusively with rock music, its sense of freedom and mysticism could be felt in some of the jazz being made around this time. Spirituality of one sort or another had always been an undercurrent in jazz, but in the 1960s John Coltrane, one of the most influential and adventurous saxophonists of the era, put forward the belief that music actually had the power to heal, and he brought an almost religious intensity to everything he played. Coltrane explored the harmonic freedom of modal jazz and the tones and textures of various world musics, and he tested the very limits of his instrument—all in search of a more profound musical meaning. Supported by an equally innovative and turbulent rhythm section, Coltrane developed one of the most powerful and explosive styles in jazz, known as “sheets of sound,” for the torrents of notes that streamed from his horn.
Saxophonist John Coltrane,
Randalls Island, New York City, c. 1958.
Courtesy of Chuck Stewart.
Spiritual though he was, Coltrane was hardly detached from the world around him. In 1963, when he learned that the bombing of an African-American church in Birmingham, Alabama, had killed four young girls, he drew on all his expressive resources to create a haunting musical elegy titled simply “Alabama.” This potent combination of seriousness and spirituality became a signature trait of this powerful and charismatic performer. By 1964, when his landmark album A Love Supreme was released, John Coltrane had already achieved the status of idol among many fans and fellow musicians.
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