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Honoring his favorite thing

Annual memorial concert celebrates Coltrane's musical, spiritual legacy

On July 17, 1977, exactly 10 years after John Coltrane's death, a concert in his memory took place at the Friends of Great Black Music Loft in Boston. "There was no intent when we started for it to be an annual event," says Leonard Brown, saxophonist, composer, and music professor at Northeastern University.

But the John Coltrane Memorial Concert, or JCMC, took on a life of its own, and three decades later, Boston is home to what may be the world's longest-running annual tribute to the man's legacy. To mark its 30th anniversary, this year's tribute will be Sept. 16-22, officially proclaimed JCMC Week by the mayors of Boston and Cambridge. "We've got both sides of the river," says Brown, who has co-produced and performed in the concert since its inception.

The Rev. Mark Harvey, a lecturer on music at MIT, says, "This is one of the major events of the jazz year, and it celebrates Coltrane in a way that has deep integrity with his philosophy and his music." Harvey's big band, the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra, will kick off JCMC Week with a program titled "Coltrane Facets" (Sept. 16) that will include Harvey's "The Seeker," originally commissioned for the JCMC's 15th anniversary.

Harvey has a deep appreciation for Coltrane's spiritual legacy. "It is in fact the spiritual quest musicalized in notes and rhythms," he says. "What his music says to all of us is that we should be following a similar path, to look for the things that bring out the best of our common humanity."

Bill Pierce, master saxophonist and woodwind department chairman at Berklee, says, "The way [Coltrane's] life developed would be a blueprint for anybody who wants to aspire to the higher things." But he emphasizes Coltrane's deep imprint on the music. "For a guy who only played one instrument, he influenced every other instrument there is . . . He changed the vocabulary." Pierce, who has taken part in the JCMC since it began, this year leads a quartet featuring superb pianist Mulgrew Miller (Sept. 21).

"The one thing that stands out for me is that there's a core group of musicians who've been on most of these concerts for 30 years: Tim Ingles, Sa Davis, Syd Smart, Armsted Christian, Frank Wilkins, and myself," says Brown. "So there's a family happening here that is committed to this."

These players and more will form the JCMC Ensemble at the week's final concert (Sept. 22), which will open with poet Amiri Baraka speaking on Coltrane's meaning for the 21st century. The Ensemble will be joined by Coltrane's son Ravi and his quartet, the first time a Coltrane family member has participated.

"I'm so happy that Ravi agreed to come," says Brown. "He's going to bring his own sound and approach to it. People shouldn't come here thinking they're going to hear John Coltrane through Ravi, just like they shouldn't come thinking they'll hear John Coltrane through us. They're not. What we hope to maintain is the integrity and the honesty that he brought to the music every time he played."

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