The fireman is dead 1967

An appreciation of JOHN COLTRANE by percussionist Guy Warren, of Ghana
Crescendo International September 1967 (UK Publication)


So the Fireman is dead. I heard the news for the first time on the BBC Good Morning, Africa programme by the eminent Ghanaian disc jockey. Pete Myers. My first words were: “What a pity. Poor Fireman. . . ” Pity, because Fireman was that type of artist who was constantly developing his art, and hence under constant criticism. . . and Pity again, because of all artists in the world, this very breed suffers most in the music world. To be more specific, in the jazz world. The Fireman really drove that damn’ train up those rails. I first knew the Fireman when we used to rehearse in New York with His Grace, The Monk. His Grace would have us over to his hacienda on 63rd Street, and we would go over little odds and ends which he wanted us to do for Riverside Records. Those were pretty hectic rehearsals for all three of us. Even though we dug each other, and loved each other’s approach to jazz, together we could never get off the ground. There was the Fireman trying hard to play some of the notes and phrases His Grace was teaching him—mostly how to play twin notes at the same time on the tenor . . . and there was the Fireman wanting to do some other thing . . . and there was I, sitting with my African Talking Drum under my arm, now and then bursting forth into sharp African rhythmic phrases. . . and there was Nellie-0 (Mrs. Monk to you), dodging in and out between us to the kitchen sink, which was very near the piano, which His Grace was not playing then, because he would be teaching the Fireman how to play his tenor. Those rehearsals were like three giants trying to make themselves comfortable on a postage stamp!

Those were the days when His Grace was monking them at the Five Spot night club in Greenwich Village. Come night-time everyone would be swinging his rear end like mad at the Five Spot, and I would be left with the Fireman’s old lady in the kitchen to dig the sounds. The kitchen was the place where the boys relaxed between plays. In those days, the Fireman sure drove the engine up the hill! The paradox about this is that, much as I dug the Fireman then. I never recognised his driving power until much later. When I met him, he was beginning to blossom, and he so reminded me of Sonny Rollins that I used to call him Newk Junior. Then the Fireman left His Grace, and went with Brother Miles (Davis), still driving that train furiously toward the top of That Hill. The last time I saw him was when Brother Miles played opposite William Basie at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, with Symphony Sid as emcee. The Fireman was still playing his fountain of notes, trying so hard to make it up to the top. Came intermission, and I went backstage to say goodbye to Bill Basie and his men, and also to Brother Miles. I was leaving New York for Ghana, for good. I told the Fireman (who was usually a very very quiet man off-stage) that I was splitting the scenery and he asked me what I thought of his playing. I said: “Newk Junior is still running and stealing bases … and where is he?” This was the joshing we enjoyed between ourselves. He said: “You will be hearing more soon . . . ”

The last time I heard from him directly was when he sent greetings through Chief Bey of the Randy Weston Sextet, when that group visited Ghana earlier this year to Play at the Trade Fair. My message back to the Fireman was that at last I had heard! I had been converted by listening to all the sides he had made since 1964, especially with Elvin Jones as the (‘Trane) Engineer. The Fireman had found himself at last and he was driving a storm up those tracks. Well, I guess, seeing that he had Just about gotten to the top of That Hill, the Fireman decided to get off the train and do the rest of the journey on foot, tooting his soprano and tenor sax happily. And now I can imagine what sounds prevail on top of That Hill, with Charles Christopher (Parker) holding the alto chair, Dr. Willis (Lester Young) on tenor, Charles Christian on guitar. Scott La Faro (Jimmy Blanton’s son) on bass, Lady Billie (Holiday) on voice, Pappy Tatum on piano, and Big Sid (Catlett) on drums. What a combo that must be, with the Fireman added on soprano sax! Goodbye. John Coltrane. You sure put a heap of coal on your train. You were a hell of a fireman! Even Casey Jones, Elvin’s grandfather, would have been proud of your company. Goodbye—and make a seat for those of us who will sooner or later be making the trip, too. We are the Poorer because YOU are no longer here with us. There will never be another like YOU. I can safely call you a genius—for that was what you were.