John Coltrane Was the Most Important Homework Assignment I Ever Had

Morgan Enos (Other Houses) examines John Coltrane’s Coltrane ‘58 and reflects on his jazz-obsessed youth.

My family friend David Johnson pulled me aside one evening after Bible study. “I have some homework for you,” he told me. My 13-year-old self inwardly groaned, thinking I was in for a crash-course on Hebrew genealogies or the dimensions of the Ark. Instead, he handed me three CDs. “Listen to these and tell me what you think,” he said.

I didn’t recognize two of the names on the jewel cases. Who’s Lee Morgan, and what’s a Sidewinder? Oliver Nelson’s The Blues and the Abstract Truth seemed deep and unknowable. Soultrane by John Coltrane? I recognized the name, at least.

I put it on. The cover looked sleek, sophisticated and urbane — but the music was gnarly, driving, deeply human. Coming from my battered Walkman, Soultrane sounded like a bolt out of the blue.

Today, I’m still enthralled by that sound. Lately, I’ve been digging into the excellent new boxed set Coltrane ‘58. It captures every recorded performance Coltrane gave that year for Prestige Records, remastered and resequenced in chronological order. The effect is of a lovely, long evening with the band.

Thanks to the Internet, I had been exposed to all manner of arcane sounds: punk, dream pop, no wave. I had formed a band with two other kids in our small congregation, but our renditions of “Rise Above” and “I Wanna Be Your Dog” struck our devout parents as needlessly transgressive. It didn’t last. I decided to establish my adolescent tastes in a different way.

Coltrane sounded radical and exploratory too, but in a different context. I flipped through the liner notes. Instead of paisley shirts and greasy locks, these men wore dress clothes and cropped haircuts, like friends of my parents.

This was music for adults, but not like Frank Sinatra, dated and stuffy and redolent of expensive cologne. It rippled with improvisational energy. It sounded light-years from my life.

It was the beginning of a budding musical love. David, my dad and I caught saxophonists like Lanny Morgan and Pete Christlieb at a now-defunct Cambria club called the Hamlet. I wore ill-fitting preppy sweaters and read things like On the Road and Naked Lunch. I was on a floor of elderlies in a touristy beach town, but I imagined Dean Moriarty and Neal Cassidy hollering at the combos in Mexico.

David sent me home with more and more CDs. There was a flurry of new names: Benny Golson, Kenny Burrell, Art Pepper. I dug it all, even if I didn’t fully understand what I was hearing. And something about Coltrane made me want to dig deeper.

I took his suggestion of Coltrane’s Black Pearls because the title sounded rich and aged and potent. It was released the same year, 1958, but it sounded like a hyperspeed advancement. The title track was my favorite because it sounded like an argument. Coltrane’s tenor sax was anxious, pontificatory, double-speed. Sort of like my teenage brain.

A decade later, I found Kenny Burrell & John Coltrane, also included in the box. Their plaintive, guitar-and-sax take on the existential standard “Why Was I Born?” spoke to an unsettled time in my early twenties. Mostly taking solo drives down the hazy coast of California to my music store job.

Today, I still love every CD David passed along to me — and much more. I moved to New York and became a music journalist. My wife and I stop by Jazz Standard in the city. We just caught organist Joey DeFrancesco. I’m looking forward to the trumpeter Avishai Cohen. I’m still that excited kid at the Hamlet.

But it all comes back to Coltrane. I love that nexus point on Coltrane ‘58; between workmanship and play, restraint and adventure. And when I put on the opening track, “Lush Life,” it all comes flooding back. It’s not a brain-breaking experiment like his later work, or tentative like his earliest. Rather, it shows he could play ballads better than anyone.

Trane’s lush, golden tone, Red Garland’s luminous piano plinks; Paul Chambers’ uttermost restraint on double bass, the capacious sound of Rudy Van Gelder’s studio — it reminds me of when I fell in love with this music in the first place.

I can’t play jazz or even explain it to you like some of my music-school friends could. But hearing this music is one of the greatest Earthly pleasures there is. I don’t remember a whole lot from public school, but Coltrane ‘58 reminds me of one assignment I’ll never forget.

Morgan Enos is a musician, essayist and music journalist specializing in classic rock. He records and performs as Other Houses and has bylines in BillboardHuffPost, the Recording Academy, Vinyl Me, Please, TIDAL and more. He is also the co-founder and editor of North of the Internet, a series of conversations with creative people. He can be found at his website.