Radio 3 is the BBC’s flagship serious music channel. I listen to it often; It provides access to musical worlds which I have only a sketchy affiliation with. It expands my musical horizons and gives me an opportunity to discover music for the first time. I listen to jazz in a different way. Sadly, Radio 3’s jazz coverage is minimal-two weekend programmes- JtoZ and the long running Jazz Record Requests with quite a bit of coverage of occasional jazz performances at the summer BBC Proms season and much coverage of the ever-expanding London Jazz Festival held annually each November.
In a way, this is reflective of the lack of serious consideration that jazz evokes within mainstream UK cultural and musical circles. This doesn’t excuse R3’s unwillingness to give jazz the serious profile it deserves.
The situation is very different in many European countries. I’m a regular listener to Radio 3’s French equivalent, France Musique, particularly the early evening editions of Open Jazz and Banzai which showcase historic and contemporary jazz recordings for two hours every weekday plus numerous broadcasts of jazz performances within their mainstream programming.
So, I was driving to Norfolk for a gig my band were playing in Swaffham and tuned into Radio 3’s Composer of the Week half way through John Coltrane’s impossibly complex solo on Giant Steps. On this occasion Composer of the Week was being presented by contemporary musicologist Kate Molleson who is a regular presenter on Radio 3 with expert comments from jazz writer, critic, and broadcaster Kevin Le Gendre. Even more interestingly, the week of programmes was devoted both to John and Alice Coltrane.
After Miles, Duke and Louis John Coltrane is probably the best known jazz musician in terms of wider name recognition. Alice much less so and the programme very usefully focuses on many aspects of Alice’s musical life and formation. Her background in the black church and early interest in classical music, her jazz life prior to her meeting with John Coltrane- she opened for John’s classic quartet with Terry Gibbs in a long residency at the Village Vanguard in New York, her brief and intense musical life as part of John’s band up to his premature death, and her own musical adventures rooted in her profound immersion in Indian mysticism.
Alice was initially known as a pianist. Very movingly she received a classical harp as a present from her husband a few days after John died and went on to incorporate the harp, an instrument very rarely associated with jazz for the rest of her life. I covered the jazz harp in an earlier episode – click here to read.
The week’s programming was a fascinating insight into both the shared and individual worlds both musical and spiritual of John and Alice Coltrane. You can listen to the programmes here.
It is hard to imagine what they would have achieved together had John lived.
The week of programmes is described as follows;
Coltrane is a name you’re likely to have heard, even if you know little to nothing about jazz. More than half a century after his death, saxophonist and composer John Coltrane is hailed as a giant of American cultural history, and one of 20th-century music’s greatest visionaries. But he’s not the only Coltrane. His wife, Alice, was an accomplished keyboardist and harpist who made revolutionary music in her own right, and whose contribution to John’s late output has not always been fully recognised. As soulmates and fellow seekers in sound, John and Alice both transcended cultural and genre boundaries, helping to pioneer avant-garde and spiritual jazz. But following John’s premature death in 1967, Alice began her solo career and would take forward their journey of creative and religious expansion. All this week, Kate Molleson is joined by journalist and broadcaster Kevin Le Gendre to dive into the lives and music of these monumental figures and explore their contributions to the jazz world and beyond.
I appreciate the seriousness and depth of consideration which this series of programmes gave to John and Alice Coltrane and the fact that Molleson was at pains to reference both their significance within and impacts on 20th century music more widely, on which she is a published author. Most recently in Sound Within Sound-A History of Radical 20th Century Composers. Which I highly recommend.
The Playlist features tracks from the Radio 3 series offering insights into Alice and John Coltrane’s respective and shared musical lives.