Monday, July 18, 2022



By Eric Wagner 

September 23, 1926. Hamlet, NC. John Coltrane born. 

September 9, 1927. Pontiac, MI. Elvin Jones born. 

March 3, 1934. Miami, FL. Jimmy Garrison born. 

December 11, 1938. Philadelphia, PA. McCoy Tyner born. 

April 18, 1949. Birmingham, AL. Addie Mae Collins born. 

April 24, 1949. Birmingham, AL. Carole Robertson born. 

April 30, 1949. Birmingham, AL. Cynthia Wesley born. 

November 17, 1951. Birmingham, AL. Carol Denise McNair born.  

September 15, 1963. Birmingham, Alabama. Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair died in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist church. 

November 18, 1963. Englewood Cliffs, NJ. The version of “Alabama” included on John Coltrane’s album Crescent recorded. 

July 17, 1967. Huntington, NY. John Coltrane died.  

April 7, 1976. New York, NY. Jimmy Garrison died. 

May 18, 2004. Englewood, NJ. Elvin Jones died. 

March 6, 2020. Bergenfield, New Jersey. McCoy Tyner died. 


A box of rain will ease the pain 

and love will see you through. 

(Phil Lesh wanted a song to sing to his dying father and had composed a piece complete with every vocal nuance but the words. If ever a lyric “wrote itself,” this did – as fast as the pen would pull.  - Robert Hunter  


I have lost both my parents, but I cannot imagine the pain of losing a child. John Coltrane’s “Alabama” uses silence and sound to mourn America. 58 years later things have gotten a bit better. The idea of a post-racial America is like a three hundred pound man who has lost five pounds and proclaims, “I have solved my weight issues!” 


A piece in 4/4 played by four musicians honoring the murder of four girls. For one nation. For this class I am supposed to write about this music. “I have nothing to say, and I am saying it.” – John Cage. I told myself I wasn’t going to quote that, but so it goes. 


Basil Bunting wrote of Pound’s Cantos, “There are the Alps. They don’t make sense.” In 1985 I heard a poet read a poem about Michael S. Harper’s poem “Dear John, Dear Coltrane”. Sitting there I decided I wanted to become the Jimmy Garrison of poetry. Hell, I told myself, why not become the John Coltrane of poetry? Well, I have accomplished neither of those. Sitting here in the Vinteuil Society Bunker during the past year I have experience the usual human agonies, nothing special, living my life of mild privilege. Music has helped me make it through. 


John Coltrane certainly seems a success as an artist, but the world continues in its usual way. In college I imagined writing a poem so wonderful it would heal all of the world’s ills. I guess I read a lot of comic books and believed in magic. (When teaching Tolkein I have noticed that the most overweight student in the class usually volunteers to read the part of Gandalf.) 


McCoy Tyner plays a lot of chords based on fourths. Jimmy Garrison often plays four quarter notes to the bar. Does Elvin Jones feather the bass drum, softly playing four to the bar? Four young women who never grew up. The Lord’s anointed temples broke open. On the album Coltrane Live at Birdland the song “The Promise” precedes “Alabama”. The promise of justice for all? God’s promise to His people? 


In the 1970’s a reviewer commented that one never knew whether George Harrison’s love songs were about a woman or God. Why not both? 


Silence and Elvin Jones’s mallets. Imperfect unisons between the saxophone, bass, and piano. To form a more perfect union. 


Speaking in tongues. Two clouds collide to provoke lightning, the sound of Elvin’s thunder reaches us seconds later. I saw birds floating in circles this morning. Jonathan Swift said we have enough religion to hate each other and not enough to love each other. 


Migration. Racism and privation drove many Black families from the South northward to Michigan and Pennsylvania. Those four girls never got to migrate, to explore, to raise children to continue the fight, or to walk away from the fight. John and his band ended up migrating to New York and travelling the world. I heard Elvin Jones in 1982 when I travelled from Arizona to New York City. I feel like my aesthetic appreciation is not enough. 


I have taught high school for 23 years. I try to teach in such a way to make the world a better place, but who knows?  

I first heard “Alabama” on The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz which my mom got for me for Christmas in tenth grade. In the 60’s just about all I knew about Alabama was that my Aunt Holly’s family lived there. My Uncle John worked for IBM in Huntsville working with NASA on the space program. We visited them once when I was about four. I vaguely remember seeing rockets. 


Confucius emphasized the importance of a love of learning. I try to teach students that, but who knows. I know of at least one former student, now a doctor, who believes that money means happiness. 


“Only love can conquer hate,” said Marvin Gaye in response to police violence against unarmed Black people. The more things change….