When Miles Davis and John Coltrane Scandalized Paris

When Miles Davis and John Coltrane Scandalized Paris

Jazz trumpeter Miles Davis (left) performs in 1958 with tenor saxophonist John Coltrane.

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Why you should care

Because artistic collaboration can sometimes be stormy.

The mood was tense in the backstage area of the illustrious Olympia Theater in central Paris. It was the first night of Norman Granz’s “Jazz at the Philharmonic” European tour, and the lineup on the marquee was impressive: the Oscar Peterson Trio, the Stan Getz Quartet and, headlining, the Miles Davis Quintet. Fresh out of the legendary Kind of Blue recording sessions, the group led by the seminal jazz trumpeter was expected to be tighter than ever. Instead, it was about to fly apart.

A creative rift had formed between Davis and his enormously talented tenor saxophonist, John Coltrane. One month prior to the show at the Olympia, Coltrane told the bandleader he wanted to leave the quintet to focus on his solo career, but Davis convinced him to stay until the tour ended on April 10, 1960. Feeling he was treading water, Coltrane kept to himself before the performance, sitting in studious contemplation.

But in typical Davis-Coltrane, yin-yang fashion, once the two strode onto the Olympia stage their roles reversed. Davis, hot-headed and cocksure backstage, blew his trumpet with concentrated self-reflection, while Coltrane shed his introversion in favor of unbridled experimentation. But his long-winded and at times off-scale solos didn’t complement Davis’ playing. What was worse, they stole the show and left the Parisian audience shocked and divided. Some cheered; others booed loudly.

I have always wanted whoever played with me to find their own place in the music.

Miles Davis

Not since 1913, when Stravinsky had introduced his avant-garde The Rite of Spring and nearly caused a riot, had Parisian concertgoers been so scandalized. The parallels were not lost on Charles Estienne, who raved the following day in France-Observateur: “… this first day of spring, March 21, was the opening night of the ‘Rite of Spring’ of modern jazz.”

The Olympia concert may or may not have deserved elevation to the pantheon of jazz modernism, but it definitively marked the end of Davis and Coltrane’s five-year collaboration.

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Miles Davis on trumpet, John Coltrane on tenor sax.

Source Robert W. Kelley/The LIFE Premium Collection/Getty

Davis had gotten his big break in September 1955 when a booking agent from the most high-powered record label of the day, Columbia Records, offered him a national tour. At that point the celebrated jazzman was emerging from a very dark chapter of his life. In 1949, Davis returned to the U.S. after a dreamlike escape in Paris, a time he described in his autobiography as changing forever the way he looked at life. “This is where I met Jean-Paul Sartre, Pablo Picasso and Juliette Gréco,” he recounted. “Paris was where I understood that all white people were not the same; that some weren’t prejudiced.”

But deeply segregated postwar America had been a rude awakening, and when Davis descended into depression, he began self-medicating with heroin.

When Columbia offered him the tour, Davis was six months sober but still faced one slight problem: He didn’t have a band. Adding to the pressure was an offer from Columbia’s top jazz producer, George Avakian, to record an album with Davis if he could keep a band together.

He found his rhythm section in Philly Joe Jones on drums and Paul Chambers on bass, along with Red Garland on piano, but he still needed another horn player. Having met Coltrane in 1947 and played with him at a show in 1952, Davis called him in to audition. “Miles Davis was not only one of the great players in jazz history, he was perhaps the greatest talent scout,” says David Demsey, coordinator of jazz studies and curator of the Living Jazz Archives at William Paterson University. “[O]f the Miles band members who went on to become giants, John Coltrane is perhaps the most significant in terms of Trane’s pervasive influence on jazz.”

But at the time, Davis could tell that Coltrane’s sound was still developing, and, ironically, he did not like the sax player asking for so much direction. Later, he said of the audition: “Trane liked to ask all these motherfucking questions back then about what he should or shouldn’t play … to me he was a professional musician, and I have always wanted whoever played with me to find their own place in the music.”

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Davis and Coltrane perform in Chicago in 1960.

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Born the same year as Davis, 1926, the two came from very different backgrounds. Coltrane, the only son in a religious North Carolina family, was forced to become the man of the house at age 13 after a series of deaths, which led him to hard financial times and depression. Davis’ father was a wealthy dentist who bankrolled his son’s education and wild times in Paris. Davis enjoyed success from an early age, recording critically acclaimed albums as early as 1947, at age 21.

Divergent though their beginnings were, the two bonded over a mutual reverence for the art of jazz. In spite of what were at times explosive differences, the five years that Coltrane spent with Davis were some of the latter’s most artistically rewarding albums, such as The New Miles Davis Quintet (1956), ’Round About Midnight (1957) and his masterpiece, Kind of Blue, released just before the European tour.

Davis and Coltrane also shared a dangerous affinity for heroin, one that in Coltrane’s case led to him being suspended from the Davis band in 1957 until he was able to kick the habit. Davis’ tough love was crucial to Coltrane’s development as an artist, as just a few months later the saxophonist traveled to New York to record The First Trane, his initial album as a bandleader.

When the quintet returned to New York after its monthlong European tour, Coltrane and Davis’ creative relationship quickly petered out. Five years later, in 1965, Coltrane released his groundbreaking album A Love Supreme. Though the two went their separate ways, for years Coltrane referred to Davis as “the Teacher,” and Davis knew that Coltrane had been his greatest pupil.

Miles Davis

  • Nickname: Prince of Darkness
  • Vitals: b. May 26, 1926, Alton, Illinois; d. Sept. 28, 1991, Santa Monica, California
  • Instruments: Trumpet, flugelhorn, piano, synthesizer, organ
  • Standards: “’Round Midnight” (1957), “All Blues” (1959), “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and “Seven Steps to Heaven” (1963)
  • Quirks: Got his famously raspy voice when he went against doctor’s orders after vocal cord surgery and yelled at either a record company owner or a booking agent; refrained from food and sex before performing onstage.
  • Another take: Miles Ahead, directed by Don Cheadle (2016)

John Coltrane

  • Nickname: Trane
  • Vitals: b. Sept. 23, 1924, Hamlet, North Carolina; d. July 17, 1967, Huntington, New York
  • Instruments: Tenor, soprano and alto saxophone; flute
  • Standards: “Giant Steps” (1960), “Alabama” (1963), “A Love Supreme Part I: Acknowledgment” (1965)
  • Quirks: After his death, a congregation called the Yardbird Temple in San Francisco began worshipping him as a god. After the temple became associated with the African Orthodox Church, Coltrane’s status was lowered to saint, resulting in the formation of the St. John Coltrane African Orthodox Church, which uses his music in its liturgy.
  • Another take: Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary, directed by John Scheinfeld (2016)

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