On the evening of Friday, 24th September the students of Professor Ramsey’s Jazz class attended A Philadelphia Tribute to John Coltrane at the Ethical Society in Center City, Philadelphia. We filtered into the building with other jazz enthusiasts of the public. We checked in and bought our tickets in the reception set up just before the two doors opening into the hall. There we were received by Eleanor Childs and Annie Gadson, associates of the Producer’s Guild who checked and sold tickets. Set against the wall opposite was Raymond A. King – looking youthful for his eighty three years – who works on corrugated sculptured images. His works, most of which was images of John Coltrane and other jazz greats, lay out across his table and behind him.
The hall where the stage was set off the ground was filled with more images of Jazz icons: Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk. Most of all, it was Trane in various moments of musical performance that suffused the room. Trane was ubiquitous in a place that was home to him. Philadelphia, of course, is where Trane was raised, and where his musical inclinations were sharpened and where he began his life as a working musician; landing a notable early gig in the band of the legendary drummer Bill “Mr C” Carney. As is well known, before making landmark records as a leader, he spent some years with seminal trumpeter Miles Davis. A studious musician with a intense practicing regime, he often practiced and studied with other musicians as well. Among these were brothers Earl and Carl Grubbs. The Grubbs brothers are also related to Coltrane through their aunt Naima, Coltrane’s first wife. Carl Grubbs’s presence as a performer at the tribute, then, stood for a deep connection with Philadelphia and John Coltrane. Through the sounds of music, of course.
The penchant for improvisation, which is a typical aspect of jazz, was embodied in another way in the evening. As we sat, waiting for the musicians to set up, trumpeter Daud El-Baraka and poet Nzinga Asele collaborated. On the spot. Blowing melodies, weaving and listening, El-Barak added color to Asele’s narrative poetry. In a poem, Asele would reference a Coltrane composition. Blue Train. El-Baraka would return with a quotation of the song’s melody in a dark, sombre tone, then improvising melodies over the poet’s words. Equinox. “Blowing, blowing justice and truth to the universe.” Asele’s words. Afro-Blue. These were the sonic memories embodied in poetic narratives. About urbanity. Philadelphia. Women’s diasporic longings for peace and home. Coltrane.
The audience was treated to four sets, with the Alan Nelson Trio and Carl Grubbs’s quartet alternating. The opening set was played by the Alan Nelson Trio. The leader and drummer, born in New Jersey, as a young man, frequented Philadelphia for its rich music and jazz culture, often seeing Miles Davis and John Coltrane in the local clubs. His band was composed of Philadelphia musicians; Kenny Gates on piano and Eddie Harris on the acoustic bass. They began with a John Coltrane original, “Moments Notice.” In the jazz tradition, the Alan Nelson Trio mostly played standards, adding the dynamic vocalist Michal Beckam in the middle of the first set. Her interpretation of “Just in Time,” “On Green Dolphin Street,” and “Stolen Moments,” among other songs, demonstrated her vocal abilities, creating different timbres, adding melisma, on top of the melodic content of the music for affect. At times, she showed the influence of Nancy Wilson. All done tastefully and with a great deal of swing from the rhythm section. The band did the same in their second set, following Carl Grubbs’s quartet. In the manner a jam session, the trio added Daud El-Baraka on trumpet for Miles Davis’s “So What.” The set ended with Michal Beckam, whose charisma surely made for “Stolen Moments” with her captive audience.
Carl Grubbs played two sets, alternating with the Alan Nelson Trio. He played soprano, alto and tenor saxophone, having recently begun working with the latter. His band, “these are the stellar ones,” he described them at the end of the concert, included Eric Byrd on piano, Ray Parker on bass, and Eric Allen on drums. The band played with a familiarity and sympathy, guiding the composition to heights of sonic intensity, at times over odd time metres. “Saturn,” an original by Grubbs, was tinged with the influence of Coltrane, driving a 15/4 metre with each band member soloing as if intimating confrontation with adversity. Grubbs also quoted the melody of Coltrane’s “Spiritual” in his solo. In honor of Coltrane, Grubbs and his band played “Naima,” ending their set with an arrangement of “Giant Steps” with a bridge.
“This is the other part of the gig.” This was Eric Allen, the drummer in Carl Grubbs’s band as the chairs were being packed in the hall and the musicians, seeming tired but still under the spell of their work, were loading their instruments for their departure. It was a reluctant commentary after an evening of moving music. Yet, perhaps this statement can be shaded with other meanings. Music takes place with other elements of time. With live music, or during the gig, the experience of sound is collective. This must make the other aspects of time worthwhile. Music and its tendency to mingle with memory, adding color to situations, encounters, thoughts, and sentiments. Musical statements have many histories that we relive after the moment. With the hall empty, another signifier of collectivity shaded into view. Framing the stage where the musicians had performed for four hours were the words: “The Place Where We Meet to Seek the Highest is Holy Ground.”
Carl Grubbs poses with event promoter Leo Gadson and friends after the concert.