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John Coltrane and the Pulp Connection

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Arguably one of the most significant musicians in American history (and unarguably one of the most significant saxophonists and jazz musicians ever), John Coltrane grew up in High Point, North Carolina. It might be a weird thing to bring up —  where he grew up, that is — except that, when we think about major artists, we so often imagine them having sprung into being fully-formed, if not in technique or approach, then at least in their essential selfhood. This is also often how we tell their stories: for example, in Coltrane: Story of a Sound (a book I’ve just picked up) Ben Ratliff starts with Coltrane’s discharge from the Navy, in 1946. (Which is not a complaint about the book — it’s an understandable place to start.)

However, there are sometimes interesting things to be found, if you look into an artist’s youth, and Trane is a good example. I’m just finishing off Coltrane on Coltrane: The John Coltrane Interviews, a book that compiles interviews with, and articles about, the man — and which is at once both something of a slog, and a great joy to read. I’ve learned a number of interesting things about Coltrane, been reminded of a few I’d known but forgotten, but I have to say, editor Chris de Vito saved the best for (almost) last: Appendix A consists of an interview by C.O. Simpkins of a close childhood friend of Coltrane’s, one Franklin Brower.

In the course of discussing his and Coltrane’s youthful lives — their love of rollerskating, and of going to the movies, and their relationships with girls, and their going to different churches — Brower explains, at some length, his and Coltrane’s mutual fascination with pulp fiction and comics, and related serial films, including not only The Shadow and Dick Tracy, but also Doc Savage and Flash Gordon! Apparently, Coltrane and Brower even created a pulp text or comic of their own, writing their own stories and drawing accompanying illustrations. (Coltrane did the illustrating, according to Brower’s hazy memories.)

I’m excited about this not just because, hey, John Coltrane was into SF and pulps as a kid! but also because it makes me think about some of the themes and concepts in his work in later life a little differently. For one thing, there’s the terminology he used sometimes in naming songs and albums (“Sun Ship” and “Stellar Regions” come to mind) but also the New-Agey language he used to express his views on religion/spirituality, and how they intersect with his views on music. I was, perhaps, distracted by the heavily religious content of Coltrane’s later themes — religious in a sort of New Age, pan-ecumenical sense — to notice the hints of SF lurking here and there.

I’m rather shocked that I never put two and two together myself. Perhaps it’s the profusion of more directly space-related/SFnal narratives among African-American musicians: Sun Ra, after all, a pioneer of Afrofuturism, claimed to be from Saturn, and Johnny Griffin also commented about feeling he was exiled on Earth from some other place — a feeling he immediately linked to racial hatred on Earth. (To say nothing of similar themes in the work of George Clinton/Parliament-Funkadelic, among others.)

While the roots of some of this might go far back — there are interesting passages quoted in this short post on Afrofuturism, dating back before the rise of SF in American popular culture — I’m starting to wonder just how much of a relationship might have existed between written SF — especially older written SF — and jazz. And when you start looking, well… hey, in his autobiography, Charlie Mingus discusses his youthful love of speculative fiction — especially HG Wells, whose books remained in his collection well into adulthood, and were displayed on the mantel of his studio in New York (along with work by Rilke, D.H. Lawrence, Sartre, and Churchill). And wait, a number of bebop tunes had vaguely SFnal implications (like “Cosmic Rays” — see the video below — and “Things to Come”).

Ornette Coleman not only titled one of his albums Science Fiction (one of my favorites by him, actually), but also titled another on a riff of a H.G. Wells future-history — The Shape of Jazz To Come. Still more connections are mentioned here.

Anyway, all of this is especially of interest as I continue to puzzle through writing a science fiction story involving John Coltrane. Yes, I have not abandoned it. Some stories just take longer than others… but it also raises the observation that, with all the echoes of SF in jazz, I can’t help but wonder if there wasn’t more jazz being reflected in older SF, too.

Lots to think about, and to look into, eventually.

BONUS: Ah, yeah, I forgot to include this:

Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam from 1934 to 1975, taught his followers about the existence of the “mother plane,” an intricate extraterrestrial vessel composed of spheres within spheres, which was similar to an object described by the ancient prophet, Ezekiel. The “mother plane” turns up in other incarnations as the mothership, a symbolic element in the music of Sun Ra, George Clinton, and Afrika Bambaataa. These Afrofuturists link black music to both precolonial African cultural retentions as well as a futuristic disavowal of essentialism…

… a passage taken from this essay.  The weird thing is, while I clearly play on this in the first jazz-SF story I published — the Black Space Muslims in the big band have a similar belief in the Black Muslims’ destiny to rule the solar system and master interplanetary travel — I’m not sure I’d ever heard about Elijah Muhammad’s  “mother plane” teaching. I had heard rumors that Sun Ra wasn’t the only jazz musician to express a belief that he’d come from outer space. (I had, years before, heard that the Ayler brothers had believed that, but can’t find a reference to any such thing online.)

Was it just coincidence, or had I (somehow) internalized enough of Afrofuturist ideas from the music I listened to, to come up with it on my own? I have no idea… maybe I’d even heard of the “mother plane” and later forgot, or turned it up in research. But I don’t remember doing so. I do remember thinking that a conviction of being an alien exiled to Earth was pretty understandable for a sensitive African-American artist to develop, in the era of untreated mental health problems, rampant drug use among jazz musicians, tremendous racism and stress, and alienation from mainstream American society. I wonder whether, while delusional white Americans were reporting claims of being kidnapped by aliens, a very different narrative was being entertained among delusional African-Americans.  It certainly would map onto the general anxieties of race relations pretty well, if you ask me.


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