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Q&A: Talking Acid, Jazz & John Coltrane Stereo Blues* w/ Francis Davis, Dean Of Philly Jazz Critics

 

Like pearls before swine. On November 11th 1966, John Coltrane performed at Temple University, situated in his adopted hometown of Philadelphia. Coltrane’s backing band included, among others: his wife, Alice Coltrane, on piano; Pharoah Sanders on saxophones and flute; and Rashied Ali on drums.  The concert was staged just six weeks before his 40th birthday and a mere nine months before he succumbed to liver cancer. Despite the fact that, at the time, Coltrane was one of the living legends of jazz and tickets were only $2.50, the turn out was disappointing. According to an article in the student newspaper, the college lost $1,000 on the show because only 650 people showed up for the concert, held in a hall that holds 1,800. The article goes on to say that “those attending generally were disappointed by the concert.” The article goes on to say that Temple hopes to recoup its losses with a sold-out Dionne Warwick concert.

To mark this auspicious occasion Temple University Libraries, Ars Nova Workshop and Resonance Records will host a panel discussion on this historic concert with noted Philadelphia-based jazz critic and author Francis Davis (who was in attendance at the concert as an undergraduate student at Temple) and noted Sun Ra biographer and jazz historian John Szwed, local Philadelphia percussionist Robert Kenyatta (who played with Coltrane that night in ‘66) and Baltimore saxophonist Carl Grubbs, who was in attendance and is related to Coltrane’s first wife, Naima. The panel will be moderated by J. Michael Harrison of WRTI-FM, host of “The Bridge,” a 15-year-old program that bridges the gap between jazz and hip-hop and other contemporary black music. For more information, go HERE.

In advance of the album release and panel discussion, we got Francis Davis on the horn. In addition to being in attendance that night as a 20-year-old Temple undergrad, Davis is a highly respected jazz critic has been working on a major Coltrane bio for years. Check out his CV:

He has written about music, film, and other aspects of popular culture for The Atlantic since 1984 and was appointed lead jazz critic for the Voice in 2004. He was jazz critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer from 1982 to 1996, jazz editor of Musician from 1982 to 1985, and a staff writer for 7 Days from 1988 to 1990. His work has also appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times Arts & Leisure and Book Review sections, The Nation, Connoisseur, Rolling Stone, Wigwag, The Oxford American, Stereo Review Sound & Vision, High Fidelity, the Boston Phoenix, The Absolute Sound, ARTicles, Cadence, Down Beat, Jazz Times, Elle, Audio, The World & I, The Wire, The Black American, the Village Voice Rock & Roll Quarterly, The Washington Post Book World, The New York Times Book Review, and The Times Literary Supplement (London).

DISCUSSED: Post-Bop, Free Jazz, LSD, Cancer,  God and Allen Ginsberg.

(For more on Francis’ fascinating back story, and how he came to be married to Fresh Air’s Terry Gross, check out our 2006 interview with him HERE.

PHAWKER: As you may recall, we spoke when Phawker.com started seven years ago or so. And we had a great conversation, but you were telling me at the time that you were in the midst of  working on a Coltrane biography. Is that still in the works?

FRANCIS DAVIS: I still am [laughs]. I still am.

PHAWKER: Can you give us an ETA on its completion?

FRANCIS DAVIS: No its already seriously overdue, and you know I’ll finish it when I finish it.

PHAWKER: You were at the concert at Temple in ‘66 that is is now being released as Offering, what is your recollection of it?

FRANCIS DAVIS: Well, I was 20 years old at the time and I’m beginning to mistrust my recollections. I thought it was packed, and it wasn’t but I think, you know, I was probably judging it as a large crowd. You have to remember that up to that point there weren’t and stadium rock concerts or anything like that. So compared to the usual jazz audience, it seemed like a lot. Musically, there’s no way the CD could possibly have the impact that hearing Coltrane live did — just the noise in the hall that night, just the sound, I should say, not the noise, but just the sheer mass of sound. The CD doesn’t have the same force or shock value. I kinda knew what to expect because I had been following Coltrane on record and in the press in Downbeat and other magazines like that. And you kind of expected an outrage of some sort at that point. But other people [at the concert] were shocked there by the sound, I mean just taken a back by what Coltrane was doing. It made it a kind of theatrical event where the theater wasn’t limited to what was happening on stage. Very confrontational without the audience ever being acknowledged by the people on stage. It was a very strange night and in a way a very exhilarating night.

PHAWKER: The CD booklet includes a copy of the student newspaper article that followed up on the concert and expresses the disappointment that only 650 people came. They needed 1800 people to break even. I was thinking to myself, ‘My god 650 people, that’s a lot of people for a free jazz gig!’

FRANCIS DAVIS: I know, it is and especially for jazz at the time. The other thing to remember is, Temple at that time was very much a commuter school. This was a Friday night so a lot of people were gone for the weekend. Also, Allen Ginsberg [pictured, below left]  was also on campus that night…

PHAWKER: Oh really?

FRANCIS DAVIS: Yeah, Allen Ginsberg was always on campus, it seemed. So that siphoned off a lot of the English department people and political people.

PHAWKER: They should have put them together.

FRANCIS DAVIS: There is a link, Allen Ginsberg recorded with [drummer] Elvin Jones, who played with Coltrane for many years.

PHAWKER: Reportedly, the concert lost $1000, but I think we can chalk this up to the naivete of the students that put the concert on for thinking that 1,800 people were gonna show up for an experimental free jazz concert. Also, maybe they should have charged a little more than $2.50 per ticket.

FRANCIS DAVIS: Well, you have to remember that $2.50 was a lot more money than it sounds today. At the time, I was working at a book store and getting paid $1.50 under the table.

PHAWKER: The Temple student newspaper article doesn’t actually quote anyone but the story says most people in attendance were ‘dissatisfied with the performance.’ That sounds like Emperor Joseph II telling Mozart there was too many notes in his music.

FRANCIS DAVIS: Its always hard to measure these things, but there was grumbling, there was objections, there were walk outs.

PHAWKER: Really? Because it was too noisy? Too jarring?

FRANCIS DAVIS: Well you know it was kind of an aural assault and this was before there was such a thing as like heavy metal or anything like that, before the Electric Factory opened. People weren’t used to that kind of volume, for one thing. And it was really outside music, it was not what you would have expected if the last Coltrane you had listened to was A Love Supreme which had come out a year and a half earlier. I do remember people saying, “Where’s Mccoy Tyner?” and ‘That doesn’t look like Elvin Jones on drums.’ There were people that were expecting, I guess just to hear “My Favorite Things” as played on his 1960 recording of it, you know? But his music was evolving he had a great influence on people like Pharoah Sanders who was there that night. But also Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp and people like that, the other young fireballing saxophonist. But they had a big influence on him, he was kind of monitoring what they were doing and interested in it. I guess he felt that one of the best ways he could keep up was by having people like that in his band. Now the other side of that there were a lot of people that thought he was turning every set into amateur night. That these people were not the caliber of musician that McCoy Tyner was or Elvin Jones or Jim Garrison.

The thing that really fascinates me is that this turned out to be the sound of late period Coltrane, by default. He was dead eight months later. There’s no telling what he would have done next if he would have stayed with this, would jazz have evolved the way it did? Because the avant garde to some extent kind of lost steam with his death and several other events in 1967. But theres no telling, if he had lived another 20 years or 25 years we could think of this as middle Coltrane or just an episode in Coltrane’s career. But the point is that this was completely new, it was shocking and I’m guessing that, unlike me at the time, most people that were there that night weren’t listening to ESP-Discs by Albert Ayler and stuff like that.

PHAWKER: As a Coltrane live album album, how do you think this rates beyond the fact that this is obviously of interest to us because it happened in Philadelphia?

FRANCIS DAVIS: I think its a really valuable artifact, but I think if you wanted to hear a Coltrane live performance from that period a much better choice would be one called Live at the Village Vanguard which has a virtually all the sames songs.

PHAWKER: Coltrane had gone through a sort of spiritual transformation prior to this, I was always curious was there any proof or evidence that he had ever tried LSD?

FRANCIS DAVIS: Yeah. Proof? I don’t know. But the late jazz and blues critic Robert Palmer identified Ornette Coleman as the person who gave LSD to Coltrane, and you know Ornette has never confirmed that. But they were all tripping and I know it was going on in those circles. You have to realize it wasn’t illegal yet. To [people in those circles], this was expanding your mind, this wasn’t just getting high. I remember there was an article in the New York Times that said something like ‘John Coltrane hallucinated a vision of God.’

PHAWKER: That’s what its for, it’s not a party drug. It’s a sacrament.

FRANCIS DAVIS: I wrote about Coltrane in the New York Times and said something like ‘Coltrane hallucinated a vision of God.’

PHAWKER: Amen. Last question, Coltrane was dead less than nine months after this concert, was he noticeably stricken?

FRANCIS DAVIS: No, but people have said that. Rashied Ali the drummer had said that he had pictures of Coltrane in Japan holding his side. Any doctor can tell you that your liver doesn’t ache when you’re dying of cancer. But it was a shock. I still remember turning on the radio in ‘67 and the DJ playing an inordinate amount of Coltrane and talking about him in the past tense. That’s how I found out. It was a huge shock. I mean, nobody outside of his family expected this.

*This is an allusion to “John Coltrane Stereo Blues,” a song by The Dream Syndicate song.

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