Deep Dive with Lewis Porter: The Inspiration(s) Behind John Coltrane's "Impressions"

Sep 21, 2017

John Coltrane, the revered saxophonist and composer, would be turning 91 this week. This year also marks the 50th anniversary of his death, at the age of 40.

Had he lived, he might have been astonished to witness how the power and impact of his musical legacy continues to grow. This year, a documentary film by John Scheinfeld, Chasing Trane, has been screening worldwide to considerable acclaim. (Full disclosure: I appear in the film several times.) And just this month, a beautiful mural of Coltrane was unveiled in North Philadelphia, near his childhood home.

So let's talk about Coltrane the composer. Many jazz fans, and even musicians, are surprised to discover that he took ideas for some of his compositions from existing works. In some cases he drew from folk songs, which are in the public domain — but in others, he borrowed themes directly from tunes composed by other people.

In my 1998 book John Coltrane: His Life and Music, I devote a chapter to showing where he found some of these themes. Since then, I have learned more about Coltrane’s inspirations, and will share these insights with you in the next few installments of Deep Dive.

Let’s start with “Impressions,” one of Coltrane’s best-known works. It was among his favorite tunes to perform live in the early 1960s. One of these performances, at the Village Vanguard in 1961, is the title track of an album released by Impulse! in July of 1963.

As I illustrate in my book, Coltrane’s source for the main theme of “Impressions” is the second theme of “Pavanne” — part of a longer work, “American Symphonette No. 2,” written in 1938 by the American composer Morton Gould.

Gould was well known to radio listeners in the 1940s, by way of nationwide broadcasts that mixed light classical and popular music. Gould himself recorded “Pavanne” on multiple occasions, with instrumentations ranging from his own solo piano to large groups.

For example, let’s listen to the first theme of Gould’s “Pavanne,” as recorded by the composer with orchestra in 1942.

“Pavanne” was also recorded by prominent big bands of the era, such as the one led by Jimmie Lunceford, which may have been the first big band Coltrane ever saw in person.

And it was recorded by one of the Swing Era's most popular bandleaders, trombonist Glenn Miller, in an arrangement by Bill Finnegan:

This first, main theme of Pavanne was so well known that musicians could throw it into their solos, knowing that an audience would recognize it. 

Wardell Gray with the Basie Septet, 1950

For example, it was quoted by saxophonist Wardell Gray in his solo on “Little Pony,” recorded with the Count Basie Band in 1949. (Significantly, Coltrane said that Gray was one of his favorite saxophonists around this time.)

So we know that several versions of Gould’s “Pavanne” were well known precisely during the time that Coltrane began playing music. But this, of course, is just circumstantial evidence. Let’s talk about the music.

It seems that only Coltrane paid attention to the second theme in “Pavanne,” heard here as performed by Gould, Lunceford and Miller:

When we listen closely, it becomes obvious that Morton Gould’s “Pavanne” is the source for Coltrane’s “Impressions,” for several reasons:

First, Gould’s theme is identical to what Coltrane plays — not similar, but exactly the same.

Second, when Gould’s theme repeats, it moves up a minor third. In “Impressions,” Coltrane’s melody goes up a half step. So the movement between keys is not the same, but the idea of repeating the theme at a higher pitch is retained from Gould’s original.

Third, notice the chugging riff that sets up and then accompanies the second theme. I have listened to every recording of Coltrane playing “Impressions,” including bootlegs that have never been released to the general public. There is an unissued version of Coltrane playing “Impressions” in 1961 where he plays not only the theme, but also the repeating background riff that you can hear played behind the second theme in Gould’s original. This destroys any remaining doubt as to whether Coltrane was familiar with Gould’s piece!

What Coltrane did to create “Impressions” was take the second theme of “Pavanne” and apply it to the AABA form of a composition he knew well. Coltrane was a regular member of Davis’s groups in the late 1950s, and he recorded and performed “So What” with Davis in 1959 and 1960, most famously on the iconic Columbia album Kind of Blue.

But what would give Coltrane the idea to combine “So What” with “Pavanne?”

Davis frequently said, in interviews and again in his autobiography, that the Chicago pianist Ahmad Jamal was an important influence on him during this period. In fact, while Coltrane was in Davis’ group, they regularly played staples from Jamal’s repertoire — originals like "Ahmad's Blues" as well as standards like "Billy Boy" and “Just Squeeze Me.”

In October of 1955 and again in January of 1960, the Ahmad Jamal Trio recorded Gould’s “Pavanne,” playing both themes. This is significant, for without a doubt, Coltrane was familiar with the Ahmad Jamal Trio’s versions of this piece.

On the 1955 version, it’s guitarist Ray Crawford who plays “Pavanne’s” second theme:

The 1960 version, in which Jamal plays the theme, brings us closer to what we hear Coltrane do with this material just months later:

Indeed, when Coltrane started to play Impressions in concert in 1960, “Pavanne” was part of the Ahmad Jamal Trio’s active repertoire.

But when Coltrane first started to perform “Impressions,” he didn’t know what to call it. Apparently, at first he also called his version “So What,” and in November of 1961, when he played his incredibly intense version at the Village Vanguard, he still did not have a name for it.

In fact, even in June of 1962, when he recorded two short versions of this piece in the studio — these were never released on LP, but have since been released on CD — he was calling the piece “Excerpts.” This always makes my students laugh, because they say, “After all, his theme is an excerpt from Morton Gould!”

Finally, you may be surprised to learn that “Impressions” was recorded on two albums by non-Coltrane bands, before Coltrane’s live version was released on Impressions in 1963.

Both times, the tune was titled “Why Not?” — and the credited composer was drummer Pete La Roca Sims. In this tune, the bridge is basically the A theme played a half-step higher, as Coltrane himself sometimes performed it.

The first recording of “Why Not?” is by saxophonist Rocky Boyd, from his album Ease It, recorded with trumpeter Kenny Dorham and Sims on drums in February of 1961:

(A later release of the same album under Dorham’s name, retitled West 42nd Street, included a second take at a slightly slower tempo.)

Before La Roca died in 2012, I asked him about this session.

Pete La Roca
Credit Blue Note Records

He told me that of course he knew the piece, because he’d played it as a member of Coltrane’s quartet in the summer of 1960, before Elvin Jones took his place. La Roca also said he knew the theme wasn’t Coltrane’s, and that it was by Gould.

“I might have been in on the thought process, underlying naming and all the rest of that,” he told me. But La Roca also acknowledged that he shouldn’t have been listed as composer, suggesting that might have been Rocky Boyd’s idea.

A friend, the jazz photographer John Rogers, reminded me that the terrific vibraphonist Dave Pike also recorded this theme, with Bill Evans on piano, in February 1962. La Roca is not the drummer on this date, yet the piece is still credited to him.

Why? I had the chance to ask Pike that question, about three years before he died in 2015. It turns out that La Roca was, again, his source for this tune. By email, Pike explained that he was performing with La Roca at that time, “and he played it for me. I thought that either he wrote it, or it was just what we used to call a ‘riff’ behind somebody's solo.” (In fact, on Pike’s version, Bill Evans solos on piano while the band plays the theme behind him.)

That all these people made use of Gould's theme without anyone — Gould included — expressing any disapproval shows how differently people treated “intellectual property” back then. Ideas flowed from one person to another. As Coltrane said to Frank Kofsky: “It's a big reservoir that we all dip out of.”