Rusty Hassan Talks About John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, and Today’s Jazz Scene

Learn about the jazz legends who transformed American music

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John Coltrane helped transform jazz and American music in general.

On Sunday, celebrate Jazz Appreciation Month with the Anacostia Community Museum and the National Portrait Gallery‘s “Rhythm Cafe: Insights into Coltrane and Herbie.” The Howard University Jazz Ensemble will perform selected works by John Coltrane and Herbie Hancock. Before the music starts, join WPFW radio host and Georgetown professor Rusty Hassan for a discussion of the life and work of these two jazz giants. We called Rusty for a quick preview.

What is the presentation about?

It’s in conjunction with the performance of the Howard University’s jazz orchestra, which will be performing music of John Coltrane and Herbie Hancock as part of Jazz Appreciation Month. What I’ll be doing is putting John Coltrane and Herbie Hancock in context, looking at their careers, what their importance is in the history of jazz and American music overall.

Why are Coltrane and Herbie related in this discussion? How did they change jazz?

The real connection is Miles Davis. Miles was really important for both of their careers. John Coltrane was part of a really important quintet that Miles had in the mid 1950s. Coltrane was part of probably the most popular album, a recording by Miles Davis called Kind of Blue, in which Miles shifted the emphasis from improvisation on chords to improvisation on modes. Coltrane later used modal improvisation for some of his major recordings.

In the 60s, Coltrane became one of the most influential saxaphonists. Everyone coming up since then has been touched by Coltrane’s approach to the music. And in the 60s, when Coltrane’s leading his own group, Miles is shifting gears with his own group and assembling a rhythm section with Herbie Hancock on piano.

I’ll never forget being at the Village Vanguard and seeing Herbie Hancock, who was second on the bill. When he said, now I’m going to play my composition, “Watermelon Man,” it was like a lightbulb went off. This was at a time when Herbie was still establishing himself working with Miles. He is just so eclectic. He’s maintained a pop music persona; he was one of the first to do videos that would be part of the MTV generation. But he also worked in an all acoustic jazz environment.

What got you interested in jazz in the first place?

I got interested in jazz as a kid growing up in Greenwich, Connecticut, listening to all different kinds of radio shows. This was in the late 50s. There was jazz on the radio interspersed with pop. And one New Year’s Day, somebody played the Benny Goodman Carnegie Hall concert, which didn’t come out until the early 1950s even though it was performed in 1938. Some DJ featured the concert. So that led me to the Woolworths, and I bought my first LP. And then I discovered my mom had some jazz Philharmonic records. When I went to DC to go to Georgetown in the 1960s, I stumbled into radio. Somewhere along the way, in addition to working for the American Federation for Government Employees, I did radio and taught jazz history courses. I’ve lived for the music, while I’m doing other things, like watching my grandson play baseball or taking my granddaughter to piano lessons.

What is the state of today’s jazz scene?

Music is so segmented now, particularly with the change in technology and record sales. I’m sort of manic depressive about it. I’m optimistic when I see young musicians coming up and the music is really fresh and vital. When I see someone like Jason Moran succeeding, Billie Taylor at the Kennedy Center, see the turnout for the different clubs, I can feel that for a niche music, it’s doing kind of okay in this country. But musicians will tell you that to sustain themselves economically they have to tour Europe or Japan. I think DC has a very good jazz scene right now, particularly with the reopening of the Howard Theater with all the musical genres they’ll be featuring there. It’s a small segment of the market in terms of record sales, but culturally there’s a lot going on that makes it an exciting time.

There’s a great debate going on right now. Nicholas Payton, an incredible trumpeter who lives in New Orleans, wrote an essay. He starts off saying jazz died in 1959 when it was no longer cool, or something along those lines. His whole thesis is that we should come up with another term for this music. He’s very eclectic in his approach. It’s fascinating. I did a riff on that theme in a lecture on Duke Ellington, saying that Ellington also didn’t like the term jazz. He just wanted to say all music is either good or bad.

Learn more and listen to some of Coltrane and Herbie’s most famous works at “Rhythm Cafe: Insights into Coltrane and Herbie,” an event sponsored by the Anacostia Community Museum and taking place at the National Portrait Gallery on Sunday, April 15, 2012.

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