Jazzforschung / Jazz Research 25 (1993)

150 150 International Society for Jazz Research

Gerhard Putschögl
John Coltrane und die afroamerikanische Oraltradition.


The central purpose of the author is to convey an understanding of John Coltrane‘s music, and at the same time, be as faithful as possible to the aesthetic conceptions and value system of Afro-Americans, paying due recognition to their performative traditions and their cultural and social reality. Here, it should be pointed out that an appropriate interpretation of Coltrane‘s music (and of most Afro-American music) presupposes – aside from detailed investigation of transcribed material – a profound study of its cultural roots and an in-depth exploration of various contextual aspects. This holistic, basically interdisciplinary research concept of music theory, in which socio-cultural and ethno-historical considerations occupy a key position, can be seen as an integrated part of Afro-American cultural theory. In embedding aesthetic theory and musicological analysis in a comprehensive cultural, social and historical context, a central significance in the musical world of black Americans is gained. For one thing, this methodological approach strongly contributes to a differentiated estimation of the universal meaning of music and the multiple functions which music traditionally occupies in the black community. (Additionally, vice versa, this approach offers the possibility of revealing the hermeneutic potential of Afro-American music as a decisive instrument for the understanding of socio-cultural and historical developments.) Furthermore, in Afro-American musical culture, aesthetic meaning can only be understood in the knowledge of the mutual reactive process going on inside the performative world and its relation to social contexts. For this reason, only by studying intra-cultural meanings and relations can we approach the symbolic language of the musical rituals, the complex processes of energy and information exchange, the whole communication system which functions, as it does, according to non-Western notions and strategies of information.

Therefore the primary task for an appropriate procedure is to develop research methods which aim at penetrating and overcoming European ethnocentric filters and their corresponding evaluative schemes, in order to provide access to perspectives appropriate to the culture. The basic methodological problem can be formulated as follows: how can we develop analytic criteria and standards that are appropriate to the cultural context, to the diverse, functional creative and communicative components of the music and its specific features in a way that harmonizes with the interests and customs of those who produce the music or who directly participate in the ritual events?

According to the concept of a holistic, contextually oriented approach using appropriate criteria and explanatory models, it is helpful to try to grasp the different styles, genres and expressive categories of Afro-American culture from their integrated position inside black oral culture. This approach is emphatically justified and corroborated by the concept of Afro-American „cultural unity“. This principle of unity is primarily apparent inside the oral culture as a continuity existing on the basis of elementary symptoms of relationship between different fields of style and modes of expression. Due to these correspondences there are flexible transitions between speech and song genres, between vocal and instrumental styles, both in the secular and the religious field. The fact that, in oral cultures, the expressive potential of the human voice carries paradigmatic value for sound productions of very different kinds – respectively those which are produced with wind instruments – represents a crucial aspect of the concept of „cultural unity“.

For present research purposes, the historical dimension of continuity is of special interest, denoting, as it does, the maintenance of certain characteristics over long periods of time. Accordingly, certain basic elements may survive by changing over, in sublimated shape, to different stylistic fields and may in a later epoch regain in metamorphosis a significant stylistic function. It is this fundamental property of historical continuity and stylistic permeability which has always given way to the organic reintegration, reappropriation or else revitalization of historical elements in black oral culture. It needs to be emphasized that the dialectical momentum of transformation is generally inherent in the notion of continuity.

Numerous prominent theoreticians of black American culture, writers and poets, have over and over again pointed imploringly towards the crucial significance of the folk culture as an indispensable source of inspiration, a reference point of orientation and a value criterium for the totality of black culture. It is especially in the field of so-called jazz that research into personal style in a framework of cultural origination has the advantage of revealing the relationships and the share of traditional components and creative individual characteristics. Specific research of traditional elements of black folk culture provides a significantly fruitful perspective, in particular with regard to the fundamental stylistic innovations of John Coltrane‘s modal and post-modal style periods.

The fact that the most authentic forms of significant creative and expressive features of Afro-American performative culture can be found in the structural sequence of religious rituals is of paramount importance to the search for culturally immanent criteria. Various socio-historical factors are clearly responsible for the retention of elements based on tradition here. In contrast to the secular arena, the relatively low degree of acculturation within the field of religion prevented substantial erosion of its elementary structure. As a result of these conditions, it is necessary to thoroughly study the religious oral culture in order to ascertain typical structural patterns.

The general timeless position of Afro-Christian oral culture as an important source of musical inspiration and as a paradigmatic value standard of Afro-American aesthetics gained an immense revaluation in the context of the revitalization of the black oral tradition during the Sixties. Quite naturally, during this period of search for black identity and struggle for emancipation, exactly those sources became increasingly mobilized which embody the substance of black culture most authentically. During this period, the potential of black identity, solidarity and ritual performance inherent in certain components of the Afro-Christian oral tradition – together with capacities of the secular culture, resp. the blues – became an influential source of inspiration and a formative force.

Some of the most convincing and systematically constructed forms of reappropriation and transformation of black oral culture can be found in the music of John Coltrane. For this reason the research which identifies the connection between John Coltrane‘s music and the black oral tradition – sacred and secular – provides a paradigmatic contribution to the comprehension of „cultural continuity“. It is out of this coherence that the thesis fundamental to this whole research project originates: the main key for the interpretation of the modal and post-modal music of John Coltrane (i. e. 1959–67) lies in the regularities and the specific characteristics of the black oral tradition. Besides taking into account traditional blues and R & B features, priority should be given to the exploration of central elements and points which are peculiar to the vocal expressions of Afro-Christian religion. So the identification of the prototypical musical principles in religious rituals is intended to help reconstruct and comprehend determining stylistic characteristics and architectonic aspects in the music of John Coltrane. These, in fact, cannot be derived from common black instrumental music – so-called jazz. Since the potential of revitalized tradition in Coltrane‘s music is combined in an organic unity with stylistic elements of Bebop, Hardbop, modern tonal systems etc., it is advisable to make sense of the stylistic aspects of different origin in their fusion and coordination.


The historical reasons for the peculiar position of the Afro-Christian ritual world inside Afro-American culture and various aspects of its intracultural meaning are here expounded in the form of an ethno-hermeneutic discourse which provides a framework of understanding for the whole process of research. The exploration of original functional meanings and of the initial conditions of this communication system illuminates the historical motivation, the force by virtue of which a vivid relation towards the tradition was able to be maintained over long periods of time. Principally, this methodological approach aims at estimating aesthetic values, amongst other perspectives, from the socio-cultural and socio-economic conditions of their genesis.

The peculiar meaning of black oral culture, or Afro-Christian culture, becomes most graphic in those instances where it serves vital functions of survival strategies. The rejection of white Christianity and the strictly selective, critical use of the Bible were carried out on the basis of criteria defined by virtue of aesthetic principles and the value system of the oral tradition, and also, as a matter of fact, by the social situation of the slaves. It was primarily the ethno-specific approach, according to which biblical texts and their interpretations functioned in the cathartic events of the oral rituals, which assigned to this scripture a new dimension in the hands of the black preachers. These slave preachers acculturated the „right“ text material by virtue of the capacities of transmutation inherent in their oral culture, by the traditional musical modality of expression, thus making it their own. Altogether, the oral rituals of the „invisible church“ worked in many different ways as mediators of black identity, as catalysts for self-determination and resistance and as instruments for spiritual independence.

After Emancipation, after secularization of numerous elements of the religious oral culture, after years during which the religious oral culture had to survive under the cultural surface again, after a long constant de-radicalization process of the Afro-Christian church, it was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King who released the latent emancipatory potential of the black folk religion, bestowing on it a new, up-to-date political meaning. He talked in the Southern preaching style so familiar to blacks, and he filled the symbols and the customs of the oral tradition with new life. During this period of revolutionary movements struggling for black self-determination, King’s appearance coincided with the rise of the „New Black Music“, which also revitalized old traditions in a radical manner, and at the same time put them into perspective and transformed them.

The essentials of musically-specific characteristics of the Afro-Christian ritual, in view of all the above-presented perspectives, gain a significance which goes far beyond any interpretations of John Coltrane‘s music. In this sense, the systematic, empirical search for criteria also contributes to a well-founded, dynamic and comprehensive notion of the aesthetic dimension in black culture and its inherent connection to psycho-social mechanisms.

The analytical studies are carried out with transcriptions of five examples of sermons and of three recordings performed in solistic Gospel style. The main interest is focused on dynamics, architecture and diverse communicative measures. In this way, the attention is concentrated on the sound parameter and on the creative principle of the „paraphrase variation“. This principle of structural organization occurring equally both in the speech/poetry and musical areas is very often simply termed as „repetition“ or „sequence“. It is without any doubt the most widespread, most varied and most multiply applied creative mode in the whole black world. Generally, it can be described as a varying-repetitive circling around a tonal, rhythmic or textual basic formula (or initial thought pattern) involving a process of permanent permutation. This procedure is essentially an expression of a spiritual conception which is non-Western in origin and in its accomplishment quite alien to Euro-American music and speech. The aesthetic value of the „paraphrase variation“ is based on the premise that skilled circling, circumscribing forms of presentation (on the speech-level: „indirection“, „circumlocution“, „innuendo“, „metaphor“ etc.) are estimated very highly – in contrast to the so-called „linear“ fashion – and are regarded as certain proof of high artistic ability.

The analysis of the black sermon occupies most of this section owing to its central position and its significance. In general, the most expressive black American poetic genre, the „chanted sermon“, offers the most favourable prerequisites for the exploration of criteria. It represents the most systematic construction and the most intense forms of expressive and communicative elements.

The five examples of the sermons are divided into two groups: for the „sermonizing“ style the falling contour of the „sermonline“ is characteristic, whereas the „sermonline“ of the „shouting“-style has a linear shape, the declamation happening mainly on one „recitation note“ here. Being the smallest structural unit, the „sermonline“ („linear unit“) is the starting point of analytical observation. Larger coherent sections are mostly formed by certain measures (for instance „paraphrase variation“) that provide the grouping, the coordination of „sermonlines“.

The long transcription of Jasper Williams‘ sermon „The Beloved Prostitute“, besides exhibiting general aspects of formulaic concepts („stalling“ etc.) and conveying typical modes of repetitive paraphrase-creations, serves to demonstrate the macro-structural build-up of the „chanted sermon“. Its primary feature is a consequent dynamic development which shows a partly stepwise – partly continual development from a relatively restrained mode of presentation to a final ecstatic climax. From the beginning, this final stage is the ultimate goal brought about using various periods of dynamic increase. In these sections the preacher provokes a growing involvement and emotional participation within the congregation by the use of stimulating paralinguistic devices. The „chanted“ part is presented using a modal scale. Prominent features in the entire process consist of a drastic increase in timbre intensity in the sermon-reciting itself and a growth in communication between preacher and congregation reaching full collective interaction. The central means of expression during the climax is a hyperbolic sound-emphatic language („glossolaly“, „screaming“, „zooning“). It is causally in close relationship with repetitive procedures.

For the songs presented in solistic so-called „free meter“ Gospel style, the author uses the ethno-musicological term „cantillation“, because the most significant characteristics of the singing style analyzed here, such as melismatic singing of single syllables and vowels, long holding notes, strong ornamentation etc. have their most graphic analogies in the musical cultures to which this term is most often applied: Sudan, Arabia, Turkey, Persia, North India and Central Asia. Similar to the stylistic examples which can be found in these areas, the „cantillation“ in Afro-American musical culture comprises independent one-movement song performances (see „A City Called Heaven“, „Amazing Grace“) as well as introductions, interim and final movements, which are interconnected with metrically structured movements. The broad form type of the introduction (see „I Got Over“) can be found quite often.

The scope of creative modes of the cantillation style is most thoroughly revealed in the transcription of Aretha Franklin’s recording of „Amazing Grace“. This interpretation offers a graphic example of how a simple, original stanza model can be turned into a sophisticated piece of music with complex architecture using the vast transformative devices of the cantillation style, i.e. through extensive development of textual and musical structure, rhythmically free expression, and even an altering of the basic form. Over and above these manifestations of the cantillation style we can also discern some of the methods demonstrated in the black sermon. Remarkable dynamic tension is created by the stylistic means of contrast, surprise and „tension through delay“, which enormously stimulate the participation of the congregation. In all these developments, it is highly interesting to note that Aretha Franklin, like Mahalia Jackson, clearly stays inside the basic modal scale; all the harmonic changes (different dominants!) are principally disobeyed.

It can be stated conclusively, as has been shown in detail from the analytical examples, that the Afro-Christian oral tradition has been a repository of means of expression and structure which point back to old Afro-American traditions, African or of more remote origin.


Before entering into analytical treatises upon Coltrane’s modal and post-modal periods, a survey of stylistic means applied in the last phase of the preceding period of functional harmony-improvisation is presented. As a comparative basis, this documentation is very useful in appraising the degree and extent of the fundamental changes happening during the ensuing development phases. It allows conclusions as to which techniques were abandoned and which are used further in modified ways, and it contributes to an understanding of the prerequisites, in detail, for an integration of oral cultural elements. It should be mentioned that the transition from one principle of construction, one aesthetic conception to the other, was a gradual one due to an overlap of the different phases.

A major focal point in the analytical research of the modal period is the examination of Coltrane‘s structural and expressive stylistic means. As the examples reveal, the „paraphrase repetition“ becomes the essential means in Coltrane‘s melodic organization, appearing as a principle of variation in very different forms. It is important to note that while the development of Coltrane‘s modal concept progresses, there is an enormous growth in the diversity of basic formulae, in the methods and extent of their variation. Coltrane increasingly uses the lowest („honking“) and the highest („screaming“) registers in a sound-emphatic manner – even for longer paraphrase passages. While the paraphrases during the early and middle phases of the modal period show very obvious relationships (i. e. clear „gestalt“ coherence), the degree of abstraction is heightened drastically during the later phases. This also implies that a basic formula can be gradually commuted into a substantially different structure – progressing through different patterns of variation.

Closely tied to the observation of these melodic procedures is the exploration of the dynamics, both micro- and macro-structural. In both cases we find developments which show striking similarities to the „chanted sermon“. For instance, in the „Impressions“ recording of 1963, we notice a systematic increase of dynamics, paralleled by a constant intensification of the sound parameter spectrum which culminates in glossolaly during the final climax. Other means of intensifying the tension during the improvisation found here are an increasing use of the higher registers, an increasing use of kinetic elements by means of wide register leaps, increasing use of different types of contrast measures, and the gradual departure from the basic tonality to freer tonal structures.

We find a principally similar progress of events in the „Impressions“ recording of 1965. Yet, apart from the differences resulting from the development of tendencies of melodic organization pointed out above, a major change lies in the nature of the intensive dynamic phases of culmination. The latter start much earlier here, and therefore cover much more of the improvisation and take place at an even higher energetic level. Furthermore, in contrast to the first recording in which phases of dynamic increase mostly follow the stanza scheme, coherent structural-dynamic processes are accomplished over several stanzas. All this is symptomatic of the tendency of structural developments to be increasingly determined by the relatively „independent“ expressive forces, clearly dominating with the use of cathartic sound energy and hyperbolic language.

Major insights into the conditions and coherence which cause or influence these developments are gained through the observation of the communicative processes. Here, the main interest is focused on the interaction taking place between John Coltrane and Elvin Jones. Due to the extraordinarily close cooperation of both musicians, all phases of dynamic increase show a striking interlocking of saxophone and drums. At the beginning of, and during these dynamic processes, we notice interactive patterns of both mutual stimulation and absolutely synchronic events. An often occurring reaction model is represented by vehemently articulated ternary or asymmetrically grouped beat combinations of Jones, which are elicited by sound-emphatic and/or repetitive formulations of John Coltrane; in some instances with McCoy Tyner joining synchronically in Jones‘ accent patterns – the whole sound structure of the quartet gains in homogeneity. With respect to communication, there is a strong analogy with the behaviour patterns and interactions going on between preacher and congregation inside the sermon ritual. The sequence of vehement articulation of repetitive formulae, which evoke glossolaly and „structure-dissolving“ tendencies is another point of analogy.

The most significant feature of the new style genre that Coltrane started to develop towards the end of his modal period is the absence of a metrical basis. Its modes of rhythmically free creativity open up new possibilities for both lyrical and solemn formulations as well as for ecstatic expressivity. The development of this style marks a decisive break with the basic rhythmic idioms and formal conventions of the so-called jazz-tradition. Concerning its origin, this genre represents an extension of prototypical forms of cantillation in the solistic Gospel tradition. This musical affinity to the religious culture is amplified by its dedication: in this genre, we mostly find titles with religious-spiritual content, some of which clearly reveal that the pieces are considered as prayers or meditation.

The piece “Brazilia” represents the type of tune in which only the theme – occurring before and after the improvisations in 4/4-meter – and the coda are played in the cantillation style. This architectonic form shows analogies to prototypical Gospel forms. The coda with its long build-up is also rooted in the creative conventions of this traditional genre.

In contrast to „Brazilia“, the tunes „Song of Praise“ and „Psalm“ are conceptualized in their totality in the cantillation style. The solemn, low register declamation of the initial theme of „Song of Praise“ shows remarkable resemblances to the „moan“ style practised in Southern churches and, as a matter of fact, exhibits typical affinities to Mahalia Jackson‘s interpretation of „A City Called Heaven“. Also, the thematic reprise with its decorating/ paraphrasing formulations and interspersed comments reveals parallels to Aretha Franklin‘s extensive recreation of „Amazing Grace“.

Coltrane was concerned with the development of the cantillation style until his death. He continued to exhaust the possibilities suggested by rhythmically free creation. We realize „a new attitude towards sound“ and new forms of collective interaction as prominent features of this development.

If we look at John Coltrane‘s stylistic development from the beginning of his modal period to the recreation of the cantillation style, we notice an increasing share of principles of organization, structural patterns, expressive characteristics and creative mechanisms, all of which originate in adaptations of prototypical elements from the black oral tradition. The most typical feature of the concepts that were adapted and recreated through the revitalization of these cultural sources, lies in the fact that structural development is less determined by exterior, formal factors than by the creative dynamics which melodic, timbre, rhythmical and communicative measures unfold, by emphatic means of expression and collective energy.

The share of „freely“ or „spontaneously“ created events is much smaller than is suggested by non-analytical perception. So we can discover behind these structures of massive sound complexity highly differentiated organizational events and processes which occur according to strictly calculated and controlled mechanisms. These are deeply rooted in the strategies of the traditional communication system.

Intimately woven into the fabric of the reflective re-orientation to the black tradition which occurred during the Sixties, these achievements should be viewed within the context of a search for „unique black identity“. Coltrane‘s systematic exhaustion and transformation of cultural sources closest to the origin and fundamental substance of the Afro-American culture offered a contribution with an extraordinarily strong and lasting effect.

It is vital that Coltrane‘s exploration and transformation of the whole historical potential suggest a re-evaluation of Afro-American history. In this way, the basis for a new historical awareness could be established. Perhaps the most singular feature of Coltrane‘s music is the achievement of a unique bridge over the historical division between secular and sacred music, thus bestowing a particular ritual quality on the secular field of music which it did not have before. In this aspect, „Soul“-music, with its amalgam of R & B, Gospel and preaching elements, shows striking parallels. From the perspective of cultural history, it is important to note that in the processes that went on during the Sixties, the traditional rural Southern-culture gave, as is also confirmed in other critical periods of radical change of Black American history, significant impulses and thus new life and indispensable surviving force to the urban Northern culture.