Political Songs | Alabama – John Coltrane

Although not generally an overtly political artist, the saxophonist’s take on Martin Luther King’s speech after the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Alabama is an extraordinarily powerful…

It was 15 September 1963, a Sunday morning. A powerful explosion had ripped through the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Four African American girls – Denise McNair, 11, and Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson, all 14 – were killed while attending Sunday school classes.

Not long before the blast at 10.22am, a white man, later identified as Ku Klux Klan terrorist Robert “Dynamite Bob” Chambliss, was seen getting out of a white and turquoise Chevrolet and placing a box under the church’s steps. It contained 19 sticks of dynamite.

Dozens of survivors, blood dripping from the wounds in their faces caused by stained glass flying out of the windows, staggered around the building in a cloud of white dust. The blast crushed two nearby cars like toys and blew out windows blocks away.

As police struggled to hold back the crowd, the church’s pastor, Reverend John H Cross, grabbed a megaphone, telling the crowd: “The police are doing everything they can. Please go home.

“The Lord is our shepherd,” he sobbed. “We shall not want.”

Three days later, Martin Luther King delivered a moving speech, titled Eulogy for the Martyred Children, at the church: “They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers.”

Soon afterwards, Chambliss was arrested and charged with murder and possessing dynamite without a permit. But just under a month after the attack, on 8 October, he was found not guilty of murder. He received a $100 fine for having the dynamite.

A solemn eulogy

Two months after the church murders, on 18 November, jazz saxophonist John Coltrane and his band – McCoy Tyner (piano), Jimmy Garrison (bass) and Elvin Jones (drums) – were at the Van Gelder Studios in New Jersey to record two tracks. They had already recorded three tracks in concert for what would become the amazing Live at Birdland album.

Coltrane didn’t tell the members of his quartet what the tune was about as he handed them untitled music sheets. The last of five takes that afternoon made it on to the album. Deeply moving, it was clearly a lament, an elegy, a eulogy. It needed no lyrics. The achingly beautiful, solemn, spare song was a meditation for the four little girls of Alabama, but also for black America and its fight for civil rights.

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Alabama, as it was to be called, was inspired by King’s speech at the church, with Coltrane patterning his notes and phrasing on the speech’s cadences.

It opens with Coltrane’s saxophone interpreting the preacher, with Tyner’s heavy, sad chords responding like the congregants. A third of the way into the five-minute song, there’s a pause, a deep inhale, a moment to deal with the emotions, to gather sad thoughts. The four instruments then go in conversation with the meanings and nuances of King’s speech.

Another inhale.

Then Garrison’s bass echoes King’s deep baritone, Coltrane’s tenor joins in, high and keening. In the last minute, an up until then understated Jones, using mallets on the drums and cymbals, starts banging and raging like an angry preacher beating the pulpit, rising from grief to fury, hollering to the skies.

Next, a brief denouement, and it’s done. Only the silent pain remains.

Art from anger

Coltrane, a genius from jazz’s golden age, died in 1967 at the age of 40. While he wasn’t known as an overtly political artist, he played in a number of civil rights benefit events and at anti-war rallies.

But he transcended the protest music of the 1960s.

“Both blacks and whites looked to Coltrane,” wrote Jonathan Curielin 2007 in the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper. “In him, they saw someone who constantly took chances with his music, and someone who created art that [they believed] captured society’s widespread anger at the Vietnam War, at racism, at other wrongs.

“Coltrane didn’t separate his music from current events or from his personal life, which involved a constant search for spiritual meaning.”

It took 14 years to finally convict one of the Alabama terrorists, Chambliss, in 1977. In 2000, the FBI announced that the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing had been carried out by Ku Klux Klan splinter group, the Cahaba Boys. Four men – Chambliss, Herman Cash, Thomas Blanton and Bobby Cherry – were responsible for the crime.

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