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Friday, November 22, 2013 / 1:16 PM

Dennis Owsley on Watching Coltrane Play the Night After the JFK Assassination

Dennis Owsley on Watching Coltrane Play the Night After the JFK Assassination

Coltrane in '63, the year of the JFK assassination. Photo by Hugo van Gelderen, via Wikimedia Commons

Our jazz blogger, Dennis Owsley, has broadcast a weekly jazz show for St. Louis Public Radio (KWMU-FM) continuously since April 1983. His current show, Jazz Unlimited, is heard every Sunday night from 9 p.m. to midnight. To mark the 50 year anniversary of President John Kennedy's assassination, here are his memories of seeing the brilliant John Coltrane play on November 23, 1963. 

On November 22. 1963, I was in a class at the University of California, Riverside that started at 10 a.m.  The doors to the classroom were closed and it wasn’t until class was over that I heard that President Kennedy had been shot.  My late wife, Rosa (we were married in August, 1963), was in our apartment sleeping after having worked very late on a paper the night before.  As I stepped into the hallway, everyone was milling around stunned at the news.  I called Rosa and told her to turn the radio on.  The time was roughly 11 a.m.  Just as she turned it on, they played the “Star Spangled Banner” and we both knew that President Kennedy was gone.

I picked her up and we went to the dorms where they had televisions.  As we watched, we noticed my friend from the second grade, Bob Holcomb, mouthing the words to the Kennedy speeches that were being replayed.  While in high school, we had both worked in the Kennedy campaign.  Everything on campus was cancelled, but we did not know about November 23.  We left campus and went to Rosa’s mothers home in Los Angeles to spend the night and to be with family.

We brought our tickets to a concert by the John Coltrane quartet at Royce Hall on the campus of UCLA and found out that the concert was going on as scheduled, one of the very few events that had not been cancelled.

Rosa and I had balcony tickets at Royce Hall to the left of the stage and we met two friends who were UCLA students--Bob Shapiro and Barry Katz.  To be honest, I do not remember whether the crowd was large or small.  This concert is not in any of the standard John Coltrane chronologies.  I recently read a review of it in the Los Angeles Times on the Internet and have read a description of it on the web site All About Jazz several years ago.  A writer who was also at that concert recently contacted me.

I had seen Coltrane perform twice before, once in 1959 with the Miles Davis Sextet with Cannonball Adderley and Wynton Kelly and at the Renaissance Club in LA with Eric Dolphy added on alto sax, flute and bass clarinet.  At the concert, I remember waiting for some time before an announcement was made that Coltrane was late and that pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones would play until he got there.

The trio played one song and it seemed to have lasted 20 minutes.  I remember my wife, who was new to jazz, remarking that Elvin was playing in a rage.  The second number they started was "Afro Blue," which started with the trio in their usual arrangement (I have several live recordings of that arrangement) in which Coltrane came in after Tyner’s solo and stated the melody on soprano saxophone.  As I recall, the group played their standard repertoire at the time (probably "Impressions," "My Favorite Things," "Naima," "Mr. P.C." "The Promise," "Spiritual").  I was astounded to see that during Coltrane's solos, Tyner and Garrison would drop out one by one and leave Coltrane on tenor saxophone and Elvin Jones on drums blasting away with each other for long stretches of time.  I had never seen that, but recorded evidence indicates that the two of them were doing that by 1962, but that these practices had not issued on record until 1964.  I remember that whenever Jimmy Garrison soloed, he would carry his bass up to the horn microphone at the front of the stage.  Interestingly enough, “Alabama,” which commemorated the Alabama church bombing earlier in the year, is not in my memory as being played.  The quartet had recorded it five days earlier and did play it on Ralph J. Gleason’s TV show, “Jazz Casual,” on December 7.

I know that there were walkouts during the concert.  The most striking thing about the concert, for me, was a tune I hadn't heard Coltrane play before, Billy Eckstine's "I Wanna Talk About You."  He played this astonishing, unaccompanied cadenza on tenor saxophone. That seemed to really cause a lot of walkouts.  My feeling about what I had seen and heard was that I had witnessed an exorcism.  Rosa, for some reason, did not want to talk about it at all.  I do not remember what my friends thought about it.

I know that music helps us get through tough times and attending this event helped me get through the rage and sadness about what had happened in Dallas on November 22, 1963.

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