Jazz Research Journal, Vol 3, No 1 (2009)

Sampling Kimberly Benston's 'Coltrane Poem'

Claudine Raynaud
Issued Date: 12 Apr 2010


At the height of the Civil Rights Movement, John Coltrane became a major African American cultural icon whose magisterial 1964 A Love Supreme acted as a model for black artists infused with the spirit of the Black Arts Movement. In his study of black modernism, Performing Blackness (2000), literary critic Kimberly Benston defines the numerous poems dedicated to the musician as a distinct genre, that of the ‘Coltrane Poem.’ A close reading of three major texts by Jane Cortez, Sonia Sanchez and Michael Harper illustrates how the poetry of the black aesthetics raises jazz music to the rank of the ultimate medium of interrogation, transgression and innovation that poetry itself in turn incarnates. After Coltrane’s disappearance in 1967, black poets construct an elegiac mode by revisiting the myth of Black Orpheus from dismemberment to resurrection. Poetry is performance, immediacy, and presence, to the point of letting the voice alone bear the burden of a vanishing text. The violent political context of the sixties, the avant-garde desire to disrupt barriers between music and words and the impact of Coltrane’s conversion in 1957, account for the revolutionary character of these texts. ‘Coltrane’ is not the ‘subject’ of a meditation. His radically new approach to jazz and his genius for improvisation–he also wrote poems that he incorporated into his music–inhabit a questioning of the form itself and of the nature of art as a medium, often at the peril of the word and at the risk of meaning. Elegy and eulogy are as many fighting modes on the battlefield of sound and voice, faced with death, chaos and silence, but full with the promise of transcendence.

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DOI: 10.1558/jazz.v3i1.87


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