The late saxophonist John Coltrane left a legacy that looms large not only in jazz, but in all music. His contributions have inspired countless others and have paved the way for generations beyond his own. With a profound spirit that remains unmatched, he reshaped music as we hear it today and it is this impact that lead saxophonist and composer Leonard Brown to help co-found the annual “John Coltrane Memorial Concert” 39 years ago. Last year I got a chance to witness this fantastic tradition and was floored by the passion, dedication and spirit of the ensemble and their love for Coltrane’s music. Recently I spoke with Dr. Brown about his life in music, feelings on Coltrane and his own personal legacy as a beloved performer and professor.
Ben Shaw: What got you started on saxophone?
Leonard Brown: It was probably Jackie McLean’s sound that got me started. It comes down to personal choices based on what makes you be who you are, particularly early on, and as you grow older your experience spans out into knowledge of different tonal qualities and so on. But I thought Jackie’s sound was great; it made me really listen and what he played was always exciting.
BS: How did you first start off in the Boston scene?
LB: I moved up to Boston around 1974 where there was a rich scene at the time — a lot of avant garde and new music — and I was fortunate to come when that was happening. It was very cutting edge with new ways of conceiving the music as well as having the older tradition of bebop and swing going on. It was at the Friends of Great Black Music Loft, a creative space that drummer Syd Smart had, where the energy really came together. You’d meet other artists with like-minds, find out what’s happening, talk about doing things together, take a lesson with somebody on trumpet or dance; it was an eclectic offering of learning performance traditions so we used to do a lot of music down there. This is where the Coltrane concert grew out of.
BS: What compelled you all to start this concert?
LB: Part of it was political since as black musicians we needed to be the ones who defined what it’s about, where it comes from and where it goes. It was a matter of recognition. For instance, if you want to know about Japanese music, please talk to Japanese musicians. That was the idea, and Trane was such a big part of all our lives so it was a natural progression. Clearly it wasn’t just us who found him important, seeing how we’re entering into our 39th year of doing this. We don’t have an endowment, nobody is underwriting us. The buy-in is from us as the musicians and the people on the board, along with the people coming consistently, who are keeping this going. This will be our 30th year at Northeastern. I went in as a professor back in the mid 1980s and had the opportunity to go in and integrate African American and black studies into the standard curriculum.
BS: You earned a doctorate, correct?
LB: Yes, my doctorate is in music with three areas of specialty in ethnomusicology, creative improvisation and African American music culture of the Western hemisphere. So that’s how I got to Northeastern and in 1986 move the concert there, and it has been a good relationship.
BS: I had the opportunity to attend last year’s concert that focused on both Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, and the way the ensemble approached the music with such passion and understanding you can feel the dedication, but it wasn’t with a preservationist attitude. Clearly you all have studied and lived this music, but have lived different lives, so while you played the music with integrity you were also able to inject your own unique personalities and approaches. Was that the point of this concert?
LB: That is our intent. Integrity is very important to us. All of us aren’t trying to play exactly like Trane — or anybody else for that matter — you have to get your own sound. However we can still be true to the integrity and conviction that he brought, as well as the spirituality. And within that creative sphere we will give it to you in a contemporary format. Hopefully some of the ways we approach it and the meaning we put into those notes will parallel the same intentions they were designed with. We want to bring in 21st century interpretations of Trane’s music with the same conviction that he brought to it.
BS: I imagine you found something similar through teaching, showing the next generation the things that might turn them on to something and give them a path toward this music. Since you’re retired now, how does it feel to be free of the structured collegiate atmosphere?
LB: I have no regrets. I feel like I was able to make some pretty significant contributions to who is going to get presented as important in our general education process and helped move the curriculum into a multi-cultural paradigm. That was a fundamental thing I was always about. Something that was not only Euro-centric and African American, but also focuses in on the cultures of Asian American and indigenous peoples, among others. I got work to have some impact on stuff that is really important, like how we educate our kids to be “Americans”. Yeah, it was a good run for me.
The 39th Annual John Coltrane Memorial Concert “An Evening Of Ballads & Blues” takes place Saturday, October 29 at the Blackman Auditorium at Northeastern University, Boston. For tickets and more information please visit. Shoutout to Erin Smithers at for help in making this conversation possible.
Happening Around Town:
The John Allmark Jazz Orchestra; Mondays @ The Met (Pawtucket)
Is This Jazz?; first Friday, bimonthly @ AS220 (Providence) isthisjazz.tumblr.com
Joe Potenza; Fridays @ Rosmarin (Providence)
Groove Merchants; Mondays @ Fifth Element (Newport)
Jazz Jam;Tuesdays @ Ten Rocks (Pawtucket)
Groove E Tuesday;Tuesdays @ Murphy’s Law (Pawtucket)
Parlour Jazz Jam; third Sunday each month @ The Parlour (Providence)
Matunuck Beach Hot Jazz Party; Thursdays @ The Ocean Mist (Matunuck)
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Ben Shaw is a local composer, performer, writer, and podcaster. Dig into his works at ahueofshaw.tumblr.com or find him on Twitter @ahueofshaw.