Scroll down or click here to hear music from John Coltrane on our Spotify playlist. [caption id="attachment_178326" align="alignright" width="300"] Credit Enabled[/caption] When he furrowed his brow, the child’s deep-set eyes
Scroll down or click here to hear music from John Coltrane on our Spotify playlist.
When he furrowed his brow, the child’s deep-set eyes were portals into another dimension. Sometimes, in the wee hours of the morning, he’d plop down in the backyard of his family’s two-story Dutch Colonial in east High Point and practice his clarinet until the sun peeped through the trees. The same notes and scales, over and over and over. His neighbors in the middle-class Black community of Griffin Park — the doctor’s family next door, the dentist and teacher across the street, the minister down the road — didn’t seem to mind. They were accustomed to the quirks of this quiet preacher’s grandkid with an old soul and an uncanny sense of focus. When John Coltrane blew into his horn, the abuses of Jim Crow-era North Carolina couldn’t hurt him. A couple of years later, in 1940, he’d take up the saxophone. And then, even later, his music would change the world.
One of the loveliest sounds ever put to vinyl is the whimsical flight of Coltrane’s soprano sax on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things.” Recorded at Atlantic Studios in New York in October 1960, the instrument starts out happy, swinging on the melody so familiar to anyone who recognizes it from The Sound of Music. The notes flutter like the wings of a sparrow diving over chimneys, soaring into treetops, winding wildly through windy alleys. But not even halfway into the nearly 14-minute epic, this simple show tune transforms into something very different, more like an Indian raga, all rhythm and drone, rumbling bass and percussion, hypnotic piano runs that alternate between the major and minor keys like a pacing animal trying to free itself from a cage. In Coltrane’s hands, “My Favorite Things” becomes nothing short of a spiritual quest, what the jazz writer Ben Ratliff once referred to as the saxophonist’s “path toward the sublime.”
Phyllis Bridges bops up the concrete walkway leading to the front porch of 118 Underhill Street and turns around dramatically, hands lifted, palms to the sky. “And it all started right here,” she says. Her face stretches into a wide, childlike grin, the sense of wonder in her voice still palpable even after years of working through bureaucratic red tape to get a historical marker placed on this hallowed ground.
Bridges, who until recently served as vice chair of the High Point Preservation Society, is dressed in jeans and a white polo shirt, a curly Afro framing her round face. She calls herself the unofficial gatekeeper of the Coltrane house. “I’m very protective of it,” she says. “The first time I walked through this house, it was overwhelming. Just seeing his grandfather’s bookshelves still there in the living room …” — she trails off and gasps — “I got chills!”
• • •
Thirteen years ago, when Bridges first began tracing Coltrane’s early path in High Point, she wasn’t really all that big a fan. “To be honest, I didn’t know much about John Coltrane,” she admits. “I’d listened to some jazz, but I wasn’t as deeply into it as a lot of people are.” She’d recently opened a gallery, Yalik’s Modern Art, which displayed, among other items, vintage black-and-white photographs of African American life in High Point before and during the civil rights era. The gallery eventually morphed into a gathering place. Seniors in the community would come in, huddle around the old photos, and excitedly point to the people and places that they remembered. Younger folks came, too, wanting to know more about the city’s Black history than what they’d learned in school. “A light bulb went off,” Bridges says. “I thought, ‘This should be a gallery of African American history!’ ”
The focus at Yalik’s changed. Bridges became obsessed, digging for more detailed stories behind her images. She recorded interviews with elders who were eager to share their memories. One day, someone told her about the world-famous jazz musician who’d grown up just minutes from her own childhood home in the nearby Burns Hill neighborhood. “I was like, ‘Wow — that’s big!’ ” She scrunches up her face. “And then I thought, ‘But why didn’t I know this?’ ”
Her attention turned almost exclusively to Coltrane. She wanted to know who his parents and grandparents were, where he went to school and church, and, most of all, where his childhood home was. She talked to the curators of the tiny Coltrane exhibit inside the High Point Museum. She scoured Newspapers.com for old articles. She found out that, just a few years earlier, in 2006, an eight-foot-tall bronze statue of the saxophonist had been erected at the corner of Commerce Avenue and South Hamilton Street downtown. Her sleuthing eventually led her to Coltrane’s former home, sitting here on Underhill Street, unappreciated.
Why, Bridges wondered, had it taken nearly 40 years since the saxophonist’s death of liver cancer in 1967 for the city to adequately honor one of its most historically significant former residents? She turns and looks back at the front door, still cracked around the frame and painted a muddy red. “Even now,” she says, “I don’t think High Point really gets who lived here. How he changed jazz. How he changed music.”
• • •
Three decades before he’d rewrite the rules of jazz on late ’50s and early ’60s albums like Blue Train, Giant Steps, and A Love Supreme, John William Coltrane was born in the tiny Richmond County town of Hamlet on September 23, 1926. He was barely 3 months old when his parents, Alice and John Robert Coltrane, moved their newborn son to High Point. At first, they lived with Alice’s parents and other relatives in a small house on Price Street near the St. Stephen A.M.E. Zion Church, where Coltrane’s grandfather, the Rev. William Wilson Blair, served as minister. Coltrane was around 2 when Reverend Blair began building a three-bedroom, nearly 1,600-square-foot home on Underhill Street for his expanding family. There, Coltrane grew up less than five minutes east but a world away from High Point’s busy downtown furniture district.
His childhood home sat three lots north of Washington Street, then a busy hub of Black-owned restaurants, stores, and businesses. There was the fancy Kilby Hotel, listed in the Green Book guide for Black travelers, and First Baptist Church, with its message in stained glass: “Enter to Worship, Leave to Serve.” Two and a half blocks west of Coltrane’s house — an easy walk on crisp fall mornings — was William Penn High School, where he joined his first jazz combo. The school, a majestic red-brick building established in 1910 by the Quakers for Black students, still stands today, and now houses the John Coltrane Hall of Music and Dance. The hotel and church are long gone, demolished after years of neglect. And the railroad tracks that run parallel to Washington Street between the Coltrane house and his former school sit beneath steep banks of kudzu.
As preteens, Coltrane and his cousin Mary Lyerly — who was really more like a sister — roller-skated all around Griffin Park, zooming down to the home of their friends Walt, Bertha, and Louise Williamson at the bottom of the hill. They may have even ventured into the sprawling Jack’s Row slums that butted up against their more upscale community. “They were kids — I’m sure they explored,” Bridges says. “And for them to experience growing up around professional people and well-educated people in this neighborhood, and then, just a street over, going back there and playing with the kids in that area — that must have been very eye-opening for small children.”
At home, Coltrane and Mary were surrounded by their grandfather’s prodigious book collection and by the music that Coltrane’s opera-loving mother would play on the family’s upright piano. Coltrane’s father, a local tailor, played music, too — violin and ukulele — by himself in his bedroom upstairs. Gathered around the radio, the family — which also included Mary’s parents, Golar and Bettie Lyerly — would listen to the popular singers of the day.
Early on, Coltrane took up the alto horn and then switched to the clarinet that he got from Nash Jewelry, a pawnshop on Main Street downtown. He carried his instruments everywhere he went — out to the backyard, down to neighbors’ houses, and in several rooms of the family home. “He would sit at the [dining room] table and practice,” Mary remembered years later. “He practiced all the time.”
Coltrane was drawn to the sound of the saxophone — it was like a salve to his broken heart.
In the winter of 1938, when Coltrane was just 12 years old, upheaval struck the family. Within the span of a month beginning in late December, he lost both his grandfather and his father. Three months later, his grandmother died. Coltrane was despondent. He buried himself more and more in his music. Shortly thereafter, he took up the saxophone because he was drawn to the warm and lyrical sound of Lester Young’s playing on records by Count Basie and Billie Holiday — it was like a salve to his broken heart. After a while, Mary said, “John couldn’t even remember what his father looked like. He would say to me, ‘Mary, what did Daddy look like?’ I would talk to him, and I would tell him what he looked like.”
After the death of Mary’s father two years later, only Coltrane, Mary, and their mothers remained in the home, and there was no more money coming in. Alice and Bettie took jobs working for well-heeled white people at the Emerywood Country Club. Coltrane would go there occasionally and shine shoes for extra cash. The family rented out two of the upstairs bedrooms to help pay their bills.
That same year, Coltrane joined the new school band at William Penn, and his constant rehearsing became part of the everyday ambience. “You could hear him all the time [after school], from any other part of the building, back in the music room, practicing by himself,” his classmate Rosetta Haywood later recalled. “I think it was jazz.”
When Coltrane wasn’t hyper-focused on his music, he was, in many ways, a typical teenager. He played football. He dated. And he and his buddies Franklin Brower and James Kinzer, whom everybody called “Poche,” were very style-conscious. Coltrane eventually got a job working as a soda jerk at the Washington Street Pharmacy to earn money to buy outfits that the kids called “drapes” — zoot suit-like ensembles popular in Harlem at the time — at a local shop called Jacob’s. He and Mary sometimes ventured down to the park, where there was a dance floor, or over to the Kilby Hotel to see a swing band.
During his senior year, Coltrane was voted “most musical” of his class. By then, his mother had left High Point for Philadelphia to find a better job and live with relatives there; Mary and Bettie moved to Newark. Coltrane stayed behind until graduation, living in his family’s house alone except for some boarders. On weekends, he and his friends would sit around and drink wine. When he finally graduated in May 1943, he followed his mom to Philadelphia, where he continued his studies at the Ornstein School of Music. After a year’s stint in the Navy that took him to Pearl Harbor, Coltrane’s music career took off.
He’d never again return to High Point.
• • •
Some say that Coltrane’s memories of his final years in North Carolina during the Jim Crow era were so painful that he chose not to acknowledge his life in High Point. They point to interviews in which he’d say that he was born in Hamlet and leave it at that. Bridges thinks that this may be part of the reason why it took so long for High Point to acknowledge Coltrane. But efforts to honor the jazz great in the town where he grew up had begun as early as 1984, one year after the state legislature quietly passed a resolution recognizing Coltrane’s contributions as a North Carolina-born artist. High Point leaders started talking about erecting a memorial and launching a jazz festival. It would take another two decades for real progress to begin. In 2006, the city unveiled its Coltrane statue downtown, and then, five years later, the Friends of John Coltrane launched the annual John Coltrane International Jazz and Blues Festival. Still, the saxophonist’s childhood home at 118 Underhill continued to languish. It didn’t get its historical designation until just five years ago.
Bridges had a lot to do with making that happen. And on August 30, 2019, she was present when Michelle Coltrane, the saxophonist’s stepdaughter, yanked the cover off the marker and then put her hands to her face as she looked up and saw the words, “John Coltrane … world renowned Jazz saxophonist … lived with his extended family at 118 Underhill St. from 1928-1943.” Michelle, who remembers sitting in her stepdad’s saxophone case as a little girl growing up in their home on Long Island in New York, knew very little of his childhood in High Point. After the unveiling, she was the first person to step inside the house. “And I’m just thinking about what their everyday life was like here,” she says, reflecting back on that summer day, “and knowing that there was a lot of loss in that house.” She pauses and lets silence hold the space before continuing. “Yeah,” she says in a whisper, “it was very, very touching.”
Bridges would like to dispel the myth, once and for all, that Coltrane ever really turned his back on High Point. Even after he moved north, he was surrounded by old friends from his childhood neighborhood: Brower and “Poche” both moved to Philadelphia around the same time that Coltrane did. “He never forgot High Point,” Bridges says. “He may not have come back, but he didn’t forget the people he loved here, like the Williamson sisters.” Before they died, the two women told Bridges that Coltrane had stayed in regular contact with them throughout his career, sending them copies of all of his latest albums. And when he would see someone from High Point at one of his shows, Bridges says, he’d give them a shout-out from the stage and reminisce with them after the performance.
Even in his music, Coltrane alluded to his formative years. The second song on his groundbreaking 1960 album, Giant Steps, is a breezy tune called “Cousin Mary,” in which Coltrane’s saxophone takes jaunty twists and turns, like kids darting around corners and running through neighborhood yards. It’s a sonic narrative of his and Mary’s childhood escapades in Griffin Park.
Coltrane’s often chaotic improvisations were all about searching and questioning, remembering and confronting — not with words, but through sound. On A Love Supreme, in 1965, his saxophone takes on the voice of a preacher from the pulpit of his youth, perhaps that of his grandfather, who spoke directly, even in 1930s North Carolina, about pressing issues like discrimination and poverty. In the album’s liner notes, Coltrane explains that on the final track, his saxophone “sings” the words of “Psalm,” a poem that he wrote: “Thank you God. God is all. Help us to resolve our fears and weaknesses.”
• • •
Just a mile east of 118 Underhill Street, across the railroad tracks, sits Greenhill Cemetery. This is where you’ll find some of High Point’s most prominent African American family names — those of doctors, teachers, veterans, and businessmen like John Kilby, who owned the Kilby Hotel.
Bridges is standing in the cemetery’s northeast corner, over a gravestone that reads “The Blair Family.” She bends down and brushes dirt away from one of the markers. In crumbling letters is the name John R Coltrane, the saxophonist’s father. Nearby is the marker for Reverend Blair’s grave and those of other family members. This is where John William Coltrane’s physical path in High Point ends. But the “path to the sublime” — the one that jazz writer Ben Ratliff wrote about so eloquently in his book Coltrane: The Story of a Sound — that path will never end.
In the years since Phyllis Bridges first learned that one of the world’s greatest musicians grew up in High Point, she’s become quite the jazz buff. Nowadays, when her own path in life gets rocky, she looks to Coltrane’s music for solace. “My favorite song, my go-to,” she says, “is ‘Spiritual.’ ” She’s referring to the song that, in 1961, Coltrane adapted from the melody of the African American spiritual “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” written during slavery times. It’s a sound of deep pain, of longing, of walking the path to what Christians call Glory and Buddhists call Nirvana. “That’s the song that …” — Bridges trails off, eyes shut, hands clasped together as if about to pray — “well, it just moves you. It reaches deep inside of you. You can feel what he’s expressing, and it’s deeply, deeply emotional.”
For information about where to see landmarks from John Coltrane’s childhood, contact the High Point Museum, 1859 East Lexington Avenue, (336) 885-1859.