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How John Coltrane gave Henry Rollins a musical "epiphany"


Cultural polymath Henry Rollins may have risen to fame as one of the icons of the US hardcore punk movement, but don’t think for a second that he is some knuckle-dragging skinhead. As well as fronting the legendary Black Flag, Rollins has released books of poetry, starred in the likes of Sons Of Anarchy, established himself as a Television personality with The Henry Rollins Show, and campaigned for a number of political causes including LGBTQ+ rights, world hunger, and an end to US invasion of the Middle East.

Indeed, Rollins is one of those figures who, like a Russian doll, appears to be three men in one. Strip away one layer and there’s another intricate personality underneath. Who would have thought, for example, that this icon of the US hardcore scene would count modal jazz pioneer John Coltrane as one of his favourite artists? In fact, that doesn’t even do it justice. For Rollins, Coltrane was the flame that sparked an important musical epiphany, setting off a chain reaction of jazz fanaticism that consumed his life.

“In ’91 I was living in Venice and I had this epiphany while listening to Coltrane’s Live at Birdland,” Rollins once recalled, explaining how his love of jazz began during an interview with Pitchfork. “John Coltrane is my favourite musician, and jazz is the best thing America ever came up with, and I need to know every single thing about jazz. This thing exploded in my mind. I was almost dizzy. With my meagre savings, I just started buying all the records on cassettes. I would go to Rhino Records, where those guys behind the counter just know everything. I got into the ESP catalogue. Now I’m checking out Don Cherry. And then I’m meeting up with Thurston Moore, and he’s like, ‘You need these.’ I became this jazz-inhaling machine.”

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Moore, a founding member of noise group, Sonic Youth, was also partial to jazz, favouring the free-jazz explorations of underground adventurers such as Black Artists Group and The Ric Colbeck Quartet. Moore pushed even more records on Rollins, feeding what appeared to be an insatiable appetite. “But of all those records,” he continued, “It was A Love Supreme, because Coltrane’s tone, the music, it’s just beautiful. It aspires to so much. I really think John Coltrane thought he could cure the world of war and hatred and everything bad with his horn. Not like, ‘Don’t worry, I’m the man, I’ve got this,’ but, ‘Oh creator, I’m here to serve you.’ Like he was so humble in the face of music and in the face of his God”.

A Love Supreme is probably Coltrane’s best-known work. Released in 1964, it was one of the last breathes of the modal, post-bop jazz that artists like Miles Davis and Pharoah Sanders had pioneered throughout the 1950s and ’60s. This uncategorisable style saw Coltrane and the like take the principles of modern harmony utilised by avant-garde composers such as Igor Stravinsky and meld them with the bebop jazz forms that had emerged from Harlem and New Orleans in the 1920s. “I connected with Coltrane because there’s just not one impure note he ever blew,” Rollins said of his hero. “Find the photo of Coltrane where he doesn’t look intense. Even when he’s smiling, look at the eyes. And quite often he wouldn’t really look at the camera. He’s looking at what could be. I know I’m getting a little highfalutin, but he’s intense. He meant it all the way to the end”.

While Coltrane’s seriousness may well have been an unavoidable aspect of his personality, some argue that the solemnity of modal jazz stars like Davis and Coltrane reveals a deliberate attempt to do away with the jovial ‘Uncle Tomism’ embodied by stars like Louis Armstrong. In this way, Coltrane and the like can be seen to have used their music to undermine the White public’s perception of jazz performers. “It’s the jazz guys that informed my musical integrity: If you don’t like it, don’t play it. I got that a bit from Black Flag, but I really got it from jazz,” Rollins continued, “The real punk rock in America is bebop”.

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