Gradually Conquer the Heights

John William Coltrane September 23, 1926 – July 17, 1967


I had a visit from a friend a few months ago who wondered if I was interested in buying a record collection from an old guy her work had connected her with, whose collection had somehow taken over the whole house. A large house, but they needed to downsize on health grounds. By way of illustration, a new white porcelain bathroom set had been bought by him and his wife a few years back, and somehow it had got lost under the stacks, in this bindweed of a species, the record collection. I happily offered access to my phone number.

As it happens, the collection has similarities with my own, in that it contains quite a lot of classical, and quite a lot of jazz she explained, mainly on vinyl, with other formats in varying amounts also. How my heart sang at the thought of it.

I already feel, these few months later, like Ahab, having spotted the white whale in Moby Dick, and like him, it appears to have hoved from view. Having spent weeks working out the best value logistics of relocating a large collection, the phone call never came. I then agonised over whether it would be appropriate to be the one who makes the first call. Of course, I emboldened myself to that degree because of what was potentially on offer, I did the legwork to find the number. I made the call, was made to feel welcome that I had, and agreed a date the following week to just initially visit. This was all with the wife, as the old fellow was temporarily bedridden. Two days later a call is made to me to cancel the visit, as apologetically she passes on, he does not really want to sell, and is forsaking the downsizing in the short term. She also admitted that a friend came by and it almost killed him to give about ten LPs to the friend.

So in this time, the unseen collection becomes this marvellous thing, you start imagining near complete sets of Blue Note 1500’s. A set of black and Orange spines interspersed with bold lettered white ones, denoting a mixed happy family of US and UK HMV pressings of the Impulse! catalogue, unreadable razor thin spines to London American Atlantic Jazz series issues and later the ECM’s. The hard to classify quirky individualists on the smaller labels.

But what is this really? It’s the collection you imagine a life long collector has, when you superimpose your own tastes on to a collection not yet seen.

A house full ought to be a broad church, but what if the whole lot never passes beyond a taste for Swing? Piles upon piles of Stan Kenton and Benny Goodman, or that dreaded second wave of trad, the revival with all those Merseysippi type puns filling the shelves and unplumbed bath?

What I have had to do is try to forget about it, start acting as if it will never be seen by me, because it has taken my eye off the ball of getting on with the day job of selling LPs by auction, totally thrown me off a mechanical way of pulling together a theme and making the listings, aiming for numbers, then dealing with the work that creates.

So what did that do there, that sharing of the tale of the one that got away?. It revealed my own dream acquisitions and cataloguing of my Blue Notes, London Americans of Monk & Mingus, those fine British & German issues on labels like Incus, Ogun, ECM, MPS and Steam. And yes, the Impulses.
So what forms the heart of the Impulse! catalogue, what comes first to mind. I am guessing for most of us it is Coltrane (as did Ashley Khan who wrote the history of the label, calling it ‘The House That Trane Built’). A shelf of mine has a good vinyl and cardboard cubic foot of the classic Quartet, the ambitious suites and the searing live dates, which get wilder by the year. Then they suddenly stop, when I am five years old.

So what have they got to do with me, these dense complex workouts from the maestro, half of which are from before I was born?. Enough it seems to make me get a plane to Cork city in the 90s to see Elvin Jones, wait after the gig to shake his hand to connect on a level with the absent John, then on my 40th Birthday to choose San Francisco as destination of celebration, because I knew there was a church downtown that also worshipped him, and I needed to attend one of their services (I was not disappointed, James Max Haqq’s blowing takes you there).
ABC Paramount had made a decision to operate a Jazz sub-label, and Cred Taylor was the man they chose to run it, someone trusted by musicians on the scene. A bit of instant success with Ray Charles, allows him a chunk of freedom to record whoever he likes. Next thing you know, April 1962, Coltrane is in the Rudy Van Gelder home studio. The recordings of the classic quartet begin.

One mediocre 80s pressing of ‘My Favourite Things’ bought by my fifteen year old self from The Record Centre (Birmingham) starts the soundtrack of my life off, and if there’s anything on vinyl that I would try to grab from the burning house, it would be that foot of mixed vintage pressings from both sides of the Atlantic. I remember saying to Ray, “I need more, what should I buy next?. He told me to get them all, and handed me “Coltrane” which confirmed for me that the classic quartet was the white hot centre of it all for myself, and still now 37 years on. Mine is an unashamedly mixed group of issues, added to most years, from all over the world, from every label variant, and I love the difference.

Like that white whale of a collection, I can’t even grasp – what it is that he does that I can’t resist, yet I often turn to his playing when my spirits need lifting. Not just him but also those who followed his spirit in their music most closely, Pharoah Sanders and Alice Coltrane can do the same thing to me, such is its power, so closely are they allied to the spirit of his message. They elicit some ecstatic connection to their slow unfurling declaration, repetition and innovation, their conviction giving this atheist a serene feeling that passes all understanding.

“gradatim conscenditur ad alta” / “gradually conquer the heights”
This was the motto of mountaineer and explorer Guido Monzino, whose life has been a continuous rise towards the supreme values of human existence. As a 27 year old in the 50’s he walked from Guinea to Senagal, along the Ivory Coast, a good 2000 miles even as the crow flies. He had already by then climbed the Matterhorn. Subsequently he made a total of 21 expeditions to places including Patagonia, Equatorial Africa, Greenland, the North Pole and the Himalayas. I feel alright about taking a lifetime to understand the output of Coltrane because Guido gave me permission in this phrase.

Mark Harrington