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Burchfield Penney event celebrates John Coltrane

John Coltrane’s “classic” quartet played only one gig in Buffalo in the 1960’s. It was at the legendary club called The Royal Arms in September of 1963.

I wish I could report that it was a transcendental experience. It was certainly extraordinary in every way but it was also extraordinarily frustrating. The art of sound mixing live performances hadn’t routinely come to jazz yet and it made it difficult to hear everyone in Coltrane’s Quartet. Because of the divine thunder of Elvin Jones’ drums, both pianist McCoy Tyner and bassist Jimmy Garrison might as well have been playing in Schenectady, much of the time.

As crucial as they were to Coltrane and Elvin, they were almost incidental to the audience.

It was still revelatory. Suddenly, everyone understood why Coltrane played so much soprano saxophone when heard live. The horn’s higher  sound was so much easier to hear over Elvin Jones than Coltrane’s tenor.

Coltrane was amazing. His solos were long and self-evidently physically exhausting.

It turns out that Elvin Jones’ special place in the quartet in that particular gig may have had another reason that’s been virtually unknown to those of us who were there.

In 1991, guitarist George Benson told interviewer Yasuhiro Fujioka that there was a 36th birthday party for Jones on Sept. 9, 1963 in a Buffalo hotel room, attended by the major jazz musicians who happened to be in town during the Coltrane Quartet gig. Attending, according to Benson, were he, Jones, Coltrane and the members of the Jack McDuff Group that happened to be in town – McDuff, Red Holloway and, get this, Wes Montgomery, who was in McDuff’s band back then.

It is just another hidden part of Buffalo’s luminous Coltrane history.

More than a year after that gig, Coltrane would record his most famous and beloved record – “A Love Supreme.”

That record – which first hit the world 50 years ago – is being celebrated worldwide in 2015. In Buffalo, a very special celebration will happen from 6 to 9 p.m. Thursday in the Burchfield-Penney Art Center.

In celebration of Coltrane’s birthday Sept. 23, 1926, it will continue the remarkable tradition of the late Buffalo saxophonist and band leader James “Pappy” Martin who would annually celebrate Coltrane’s birthday with his Love Supreme Orchestra.

With Martin’s death last year, the event will pick up his Coltrane’s birthday celebration with a showing of the film “The World According to John Coltrane” at 6 and at 7:30 p.m. The Herbie Small Quartet will play portions of Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.”

The event is free.

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