A Supreme Love? (That Might Be Sacrilege)

220px-John_Coltrane_-_A_Love_Supreme

My current excellent crop of freshman writers at Stephens College have a new task: make a case for a musician, act, album, song, video, or music film or documentary. It’s essentially a persuasive paper, but I like to avoid the traditional labels, and we’ve been arguing pop merits in class lately, so it fits. Also, our recent Socratic seminar–focusing on Lana Del Rey’s Norman Fucking Rockwell–indicated that many of them are too comfortable with “like / dislike” to think deeply about whether a work works. Thursday, I arrived to work an hour early having made myself a challenge: write a rough draft yourself, to the exact specs you’ve given them, quickly enough to print them copies to critique. I’m a big fan of modeling skills you want your students to master; I’m not a professional, but after 35 years of teaching, you’d think I could, um, as they say we can’t, do. When I arrived on campus, I still didn’t know what I would write about, but as I took the sidewalk into Dudley Hall, it occurred to me that Nicole and I have a framed copy of Trane’s A Love Supreme in our living room. Out of tens of thousands of records in the house, why that one? So after getting coffee and brown sugar cinnamon PopTarts, I was off to the races. Here’s what I produced, in 45 minutes (still in its rough form, though I did have time to re-read it before class started):

Phil Overeem

English 107

September 19, 2019

“Making a Case” Rough Draft

The Album on the Wall

Should one enter our house through the front door and turn immediately to her right, she would see, hanging from the front wall of our living room, a framed album cover. In fact, inside that cover is the advertised LP, titled A Love Supreme after its lone 33-minute song, a four-part suite composed by jazz tenor saxophonist John Coltrane and performed by Coltrane’s legendary quartet. The black and white album photo that comprises the album cover is of the saxophonist in profile—significantly, looking very serious. In fact, A Love Supreme is very serious music. Elsewhere in my house are approximately 1,726 other albums; that does not count CDs, 45s, 1.5 TB of digital content, and music performance and documentary DVDs. How is it that, of all that musical tonnage, A Love Supreme is the lone piece honored by a place on one of our house’s walls? If one chanced to listen to it, she would very likely understand.

Jazz, though it is one of the few artistic inventions unique to the United States and known by practitioners and admirers as “black classical music,” does not command the attention of many young listeners. However, A Love Supreme is a great starting point for any curious Gen X or millennial listener. Simply put, the musicians—Coltrane, Elvin Jones (drums), McCoy Tyner (piano), and Jimmy Garrison (bass)—would make any list of the greatest performers on each of their instruments since the end of World War II, and likely before. In particular, Coltrane’s driving, searching, intense playing can yank listeners by the lapels into full concentration, and Jones’ stormy playing around (and suggesting of) the beat is one of the most easily identifiable percussion styles in jazz history. A Love Supreme is certainly a peak in each musician’s storied career. In addition, though curious neophytes, after their first sampling of jazz, often wonder whether they have the musical background to “understand” what the musicians are doing, particularly when they are improvising, and particularly in non-vocal jazz, this album only requires the listener to have ears, and to have lived. From the opening meditative sounds—a gong, a questing saxophone phrase, a brief chant of the album title—it is clear that the musicians (and listener) are going on a journey.

What kind of journey? Aside from being an outstanding “first jazz album” for the inquisitive, A Love Supreme stands tall in the annals of general music history as one of the greatest spiritual albums ever made. In his original liner notes for the album, Coltrane explains that the suite is a seeking after, and a paean (or a song of praise) to, God. He does not specify a religious denomination, which is a good thing: the surging emotions (carried by the players’ imaginative exploratory phrases and solos), the extended focus, rising tension, and serene relief represented by the suite’s sections, and the resulting aura of mystery and majesty, should be familiar to anyone who has ever been filled by religious passion and devotion—be she Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh, or First Nations, to name but a few possibilities. The effectiveness with which the composition and the performance mirrors the path of the seeker can arguably overcome the musical persnicketiness of even the most skeptical of audiences, and, even so, can appeal just as strongly to atheists and agnostics, most of whom are no strangers to the search for enlightenment themselves.

A Love Supreme is an aural experience for jazz initiates and spiritual veterans that carries considerable potential for landing in their personal pantheons, but one more aspect strongly commends it to adventurous ears: among the hundreds of thousands of records released since the dawn of the turntable, when it is absorbed by two or more present in the same space, it can be a profound communal moment—and not just a moment, but conceivably the birth of a ritual. Many fans of A Love Supreme whom I happen to know excitedly tell stories of having listened to it with other people, a situation that has heightened significance in the age of headphones and heatedness. Sitting side by side with friends and family, in a candle-lit room emptied of smartphones and other modern distractions, one can be transported from the grinding monotony of this world—wake, eat, work, eat, sleep, rinse, wash, repeat—into a more complex, absorbing, mysterious, and—paradoxically–real one, one that can bind the group together and promote true inquiry and produce epiphanies.

That kind of transport, that kind of bonding, readers, is why A Love Supreme hangs on our living room wall. Thirty years ago, crushed flat by serial romantic disappointments, I’d vowed to become monk-like, and disavow romantic love. I drove to my friend’s house to inform him of my decision; he wasn’t home, but a young lady who was renting a room in his house was. I introduced myself, and as we were chatting, I looked over her shoulder to my friend’s stereo and stack of records. In the stack, I saw a certain LP. I asked her if she’d mind me putting it on—she hadn’t heard it. We still have that actual copy. We have it on CD and mp3, too.

Besides providing my students a copy, after I’d read the best final drafts from their last assignment, I read it aloud. Instantly, I noted the same ol’ bugaboos: convoluted sentences, unnecessary italics, inconsistent voice–they noted them, too (which was the point: if I struggle and it’s OK, then why not them?). I also tried to be Mr. Clever and, as I repeat too often, “stick the landing” on the final sentence; maybe it worked, but most of my students wanted to know more. However, I used the reading as a lesson on “Killing Your Darlings.” I love writing personal narratives, but I forced myself to abjure the story and just make the goddam case.

One student commented: “I want more of your story, and I don’t like the title! What about A Supreme Love?

Me: “Um, well, er…I’ve been married almost 30 years and my wife inspired the essay–but maybe let’s not go that far!”

Anyway, submitted, still rough, for your approval, too.

Expository Listening, Expository Thinking: A Writing Lesson that REALLY Worked!

Today at Stephens College, where I teach freshman comp with a pop music focus, I executed one of those rare lessons that works on every level you hope it will. Feel free to steal and/or adapt it!

My students’ next essay assignment is to focus in on a music-related topic they’re interested in, then choose the appropriate expository mode for exploring it. On Tuesday, we reviewed some of the expository modes I’m encouraging them to try (comparison/contrast, problem-solution, description, definition, cause-effect, classification), but I sensed some anxiety and disconnect. As of last night, partially due to being hella busy this week, I still didn’t have a solution for that condition, so I just slept on it, then woke up with this (funny how that happens to teachers):

In class, we are going to listen to (and watch) four excellent singers–Billie Holiday, Anita O’ Day, Jamilia Woods, and Dolly Parton–in action.

As you listen and watch, you are going to think about the following expository modes of analysis and writing, and jot down corresponding observations you make in your notebook or on your device:

Description (external) – What does the singer sound like and how does she present herself?

Definition (internal) – Who or what does the singer seem to be?

Classification – How would you classify the singer, according to official and unofficial terms of classification?

Cause –> Effect – In listening closely to the singer, what effects do you feel as a result of her performance? What specific aspects of the performance cause those effects?

Comparison/Contrast – How are these singers similar? How do they differ?

By Sunday night, transfer your findings in coherent, expanded, and more specific form to the associated discussion board, and be prepared to respond meaningfully to one fellow students’ post.

We began with the above clip from “The Sound of Jazz”–the famous last hot flame from the doomed Billie Holiday. I prompted them by reviewing the above modes, then played the track for them. Afterwards, just for modelling’s sake, I asked students to share some of their observations:

Description: “soulful,” “relaxed,” “rhythmic.”

Definition: “A woman who knows pain.” “She has experienced a lot.” “She is a singer who connects with her band and the audience.”

Classification: “Blues singer.” “No! Jazz singer!”

Cause–>Effect: “She was glowing!” –> It mesmerized me.” “She was getting in tune, effortlessly…”–> “It left me in awe.”

I could not have responded more accurately myself. From the evidence, my idea seemed to be working. I’ll know for sure when I see the discussion board posts and the essay rough drafts.

The other tracks I played them (I need little reason to show the first to every class I teach, regardless of subject).

Jamila Woods’ scintillating and brand-new Tiny Desk concert, which I can’t figure out how to embed.