November 18, 1963: John Coltrane Records “Alabama” in Reaction to the Horrific Church Bombings in the South

John Coltrane, born in North Carolina in 1926, was one of the most important musicians of the 20th century. His saxophone playing revolutionized jazz music and his influence can still be heard today not only in jazz but in the music of rock and hi-hop artists.

John Coltrane rewrote the jazz canon, according to Lindsay Planer in “AllMusic Review.” He was responsible for both “furthering the cause” of free jazz and “delivering it to an increasingly mainstream audience,” Josh Jones wrote for “Open Culture.”

In the October 2003 issue of “Socialist Review,” a tribute to John Coltrane movingly recounts the background that inspired Coltrane to write “Alabama”:

Coltrane never described himself as a political activist–he was a musician first and foremost. He was also a deeply religious person. But it was his deep-seated humanity that drew him towards the civil rights movement. In 1964 Coltrane played eight benefit concerts in support of King. He also recorded a number of tracks inspired by the struggle–‘Reverend King’, ‘Backs against the Wall’ and his album Cosmic Music was dedicated to King. Events in Birmingham would also move him to write ‘Alabama’.

On the Sunday morning of 15 September 1963 a dozen sticks of dynamite were planted by white racists in the basement of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. At 10.45 a.m. the bomb went off, killing four young black girls aged between 11 and 14.

Coltrane wrote the song ‘Alabama’ in response to the bombing. He patterned his saxophone playing on Martin Luther King’s funeral speech. Midway through the song, mirroring the point where King transforms his mourning into a statement of renewed determination for the struggle against racism, Elvin Jones’s drumming rises from a whisper to a pounding rage. He wanted this crescendo to signify the rising of the civil rights movement.”

John Coltrane, known and beloved by his fans as simply Trane, died in 1967 at age 40 from liver cancer.

Thanks to youtube, however, you can still hear him perform. The video below shows the John Coltrane Quartet playing “Alabama.”

For more on the church bombing, you can see my post here.

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