Black History Month: Trane Keeps A-Rollin’

For the final of our tributes to Black History Month, first-time contributor Jason Marshall takes a solo.

John Coltrane, saxophonist and visionary, set standards in nearly every facet of his short but ultimately fruitful life.

While generally associated with Philadelphia, Coltrane is actually from Hamlet, North Carolina, and never tried to hide his Southern roots. In an interview by author Frank Kofsky — one of the few times his voice was recorded — the usually soft-spoken Coltrane gives casual yet measured responses to provocative questions in a thick Southern drawl.

This casual treatment of the provocative was a reoccurring theme with Afro-American musicians sartorially inclined toward the Ivy League Look, especially those whose matriculation in post-Jim Crow America was almost never casual but always provocative.

In “Men of Color,” Lloyd Boston writes, “Avant-garde sax-man John Coltrane’s music may have been ‘giant steps’ ahead, but he favored an understated style of dress: single-breasted sack suits, buttondown oxford shirts, and plain ties.”

John Coltrane’s musical trajectory gave birth to what is now known as postmodern saxophone playing, while his sartorial sense facilitated the goals of a legend in the making with more to concern himself with than the roll of the buttondown collars he was often seen in, or whether the sleeve on his terrycloth-knit polo hit his bicep at just the right spot.

Trane, as he’s affectionately referred to, had style in spades because he never seemed to have time to look anything but correct and presentable. Yet in hindsight his photographs seem to have been styled by Frank Muytjens: natural-shouldered, three-button jacket paired with a buttondown-collar shirt (with or without tie), odd trousers and typically penny loafers. Add to that look an austere haircut, occasional neat mustache, and nothing less than the most fertile musical imagination in jazz and there you have John Coltrane, musician. — JASON MARSHALL

Jason W. Marshall is a New York-based, Grammy-nominated saxophonist, composer and arranger. He is also a noted wardrobe consultant, lecturer, and clinician on the subjects of jazz history and improvisation, as well sartorialism from an Afro-American perspective. He hold degrees from the New School for Social Research and Aaron Copeland School of Music.

The following are some samples of Coltrane’s music. First, one of his best-known compositions:

Next, a visual primer on how jazz is made:

Finally, Coltrane’s take on a tune from Franz Lehar’s operetta “The Merry Widow”:

7 Comments on "Black History Month: Trane Keeps A-Rollin’"

  1. The 13th note is also a question of…style.
    Great post. Thank u.

  2. Black Trad | March 1, 2011 at 9:26 am |

    Does the paucity of comments tell you something about your readers’ degree of interest in Black Ivy?

  3. Michael Mattis | March 1, 2011 at 12:22 pm |

    I was kind of thinking the same thing. It’s sad, really, because this is a great post from a terrific man of style. There are a lot of men in the trad world with some pretty… er… narrow views, as some previous unsavory comments have shown.

  4. You can read a little into it — like it’s probably a small percentage of readers who listen to John Coltrane — but not too much. A lot of these kinds of “check this out” or appreciation posts only garner a few comments. There’s nothing to take issue with. The posts that bring out the comments are the ones that invite analysis, opinions and taking sides.

  5. ScoobyDubious | March 1, 2011 at 2:27 pm |

    @Black Trad

    It doesn’t say anything about race… except to someone like you.

    You gotta be a troll too.

  6. It would seem impossible for an African American who is both sartorially inclined and socially conscious to separate completely the trad/prep/ivy-league aesthetic and the attitudes and behavior of its progenitors. Yours truly no exception.

  7. April Inez Kaplowitz | March 3, 2011 at 6:05 pm |

    Gorgeous post. As a jazz musician as well as “an African American who is both sartorially inclined and socially conscious”, I have found the entirety of your “Black History Month Series” to be not only esthetically inspiring, but also culturally. Thank you for your great work this month, as well as your dedication to providing diverse takes on “Ivy Style” throughout the year.

    All of my best,

    April Inez Kaplowitz

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