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John Coltrane: Naima

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In January 1960, Atlantic Records released John Coltrane's first monumental LP, Giant Steps. The album would drastically change the tenor saxophone's sound and purpose. But of all the hair-raising originals on Giant Steps, the one that became most important to Coltrane's repertoire was Naima. After the song's debut on Giant Steps, Coltrane recorded the composition about a dozen times, each in a different way. By contrast, Coltrane never recorded Giant Steps, the title track, again after the album was released.

Naima is a ballad that's so slow and reverential that it seems to stand still, suspended in mid air. Written as a love letter to his first wife, Naima, the song was Coltrane's favorite composition. “The tune is built on suspended chords over an E-flat pedal tone on the outside," Coltrane told Nat Hentoff for the album's original liner notes. “On the inside--the channel--the chords are suspended over a B-flat pedal tone."

Hentoff continues in the notes:

“There is a 'cry'--not at all necessarily a despairing one--in the work of the best of the jazz players. It represents a man's being in thorough contact with his feelings, and being able to let them out, and that 'cry' Coltrane certainly has."

Coltrane met Naima Grubb in 1953, at the home of bassist Steve Davis. Born in Philadelphia, Naima (Juanita was her given name), had already converted to Islam. When she met Coltrane, she was working as a seamstress in a factory to support herself and her five-year old daughter Antonia (who later would be named Saeeda). Coltrane called Naima “Nita," short for her given name.

In 1954, Coltrane's expanding heroin and alcohol addiction cost him playing jobs, most notably a significant one with alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges. After moving back to Philadelphia, Coltrane was forced to play with local r&b bands to make ends meet. In some of these bands, he had to honk away on the tenor while walking along the bar. One night, he saw childhood friend and tenor saxophonist Benny Golson enter the club. Mortified, Coltrane climbed off the bar and walked out for good.

Coltrane and Naima were married in October 1955, just after Coltrane joined the Miles Davis Quintet. Coltrane and Naima moved to New York in 1956 with Naima's daughter Saeeda. By then, Davis had folded the quintet, largely a result of Coltrane's addictions and unpredictable behavior and playing.

In the spring of 1957, Coltrane underwent a major transformation, telling writer Ralph Gleason in 1961: “I went through a personal crisis, you know, and I came out of it. I felt so fortunate to have come through it successfully, that all I wanted to do, if I could, would be to play music that would make people happy." That transformation period was bleak, wrote Eric Nisenson in The Making of Kind of Blue:

“Coltrane went home to Philadelphia and--like Miles himself at an earlier point--made the decision to clean himself up, and to do it on his own. At his mother's house, he lay down in a bedroom and instructed his wife Naima to bring him only water while he went through the agony of kicking both heroin and alcohol."

When Coltrane emerged, he had a new code, writes Lewis Porter in John Coltrane: His Life and Music. Coltrane's mantra now was to “live cleanly... do right... you can improve as a player by improving as a person. It's a duty we owe to ourselves."

In August 1957, Coltrane, Naima and Saeeda moved into an apartment on 103d St. and Amsterdam Ave. in New York, near Central Park West. Coltrane was now clean, and after a series of Prestige recordings, Miles Davis recruited him again in 1958 for his newly formed sextet. But by early 1959, Coltrane was beginning to grow creatively restless in Davis' dominating shadow.

According to John Selfridge in John Coltrane, A Sound Supreme:

“Coltrane wanted to form a band of his own, and playing with various musicians was a way to get to know the players around the scene. In January 1959 he brought together tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, bassist George Tucker and drummer Elvin Jones for a gig at a New York nightspot.

“Tommy Flanagan and Cedar Walton took turns at the piano. The music was astounding, convincing Coltrane that the time was right to put together a group of his own. He proposed the idea to Naima, who suggested he wait until after the Miles Davis tour [for Kind of Blue in early 1960], which would give him added exposure that could help him launch his career as a leader. John knew she was right and agreed to wait until the tour was over."

Instead, at the beginning of 1959, Coltrane began recording for Atlantic Records, separate from Davis. Following Bags and Trane in January, Coltrane started recording tracks for Giant Steps, sessions that were sandwiched between his work for Davis on Kind of Blue. Following the release and critical acclaim of Giant Steps--and the early 1960 tour--Coltrane left Davis and formed his own working quartet, experimenting with both spiritual and modal concepts.

By 1963, Coltrane and Naima were experiencing marital strains. Coltrane had had a mistress since 1960, according to Eric Nisenson in Ascension: John Coltrane and His Quest. But the other woman was not the cause of the break. Coltrane had grown as an artist since marrying Naima and felt they had undergone irreconcilable changes. Coltrane also yearned to start a family of his own.

But Coltrane treated the break as though Naima were a sideman he had to let go, writes Nisenson, “gently explaining that he had to make a change in his life." After the split, Coltrane composed Wise One for her, recording it on Crescent (1964). This track, in many ways, is the bookend to Naima, containing more sorrow and gratitude in its sound than the steady love tribute of Naima.

Said Naima about the break in J.C. Thomas' Chasin' the Trane:

“I could feel it was going to happen sooner or later, so I wasn't really surprised when John moved out of the house in the summer of 1963. He didn't offer any explanation. He just told me there were things he had to do, and he left only with his clothes and his horns. He stayed in a hotel sometimes, other times with his mother in Philadelphia. All he said was, 'Naima, I'm going to make a change.' Even though I could feel it coming, it hurt, and I didn't get over it for at least another year."

Coltrane and Naima were officially divorced in 1965. Coltrane immediately married Alice McLeod, with whom he had been living in Dix Hills, N.Y., since 1964. Throughout the remaining few years of his life, Coltrane kept in touch with Naima, who had much to do with repairing Coltrane's health and setting him on a spiritual course. In 1964, he called Naima and told her that from then on, 90% of his playing would be prayer.

Despite years spent supporting Coltrane and helping to inspire his artistic direction, Naima has been all but forgotten. Very little is known about her, and little credit has been given to her for her indirect contribution to jazz. At least Coltrane's greatest composition bears her name and reminds us musically of her influence and sway.

Naima died of a heart attack in October 1996.

JazzWax tracks: Five takes of Naima were recorded on April 1, 1959, with Cedar Walton on piano. None of them were quite right. Coltrane recorded the song again on May 5 with Tommy Flanagan, but the take was rejected. On December 2, Coltrane tried again with pianist Wynton Kelly. This is the track that became the master take. Interestingly, Coltrane took solos on the earlier alternate takes. But when he played the melody straight and handed the solo off to Kelly, the composition finally found cohesion.

I don't know whether or not Atlantic plans a Complete Giant Steps Sessions later this year. But if you decide to buy one of the many versions now on the market, be sure it contains alternate takes of Naima. It's fascinating to listen to all three. Hopefully a complete set will combine them all. And while you're at it, put Wise One from Crescent into the mix.


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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved.

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