There is never any end… There are always new sounds to imagine

A chance listen to Freak Zone last weekend brought me back to John Coltrane’s Giant Steps and it’s proving to be a rewarding experience.

I’ve gone on at length in other posts about an awkward relationship with Jazz, and you’d’ve thought I might’ve laid that scuzzy ghost to rest, wouldn’t you? But even now, I’m still relieved when someone who doesn’t look like an extra from The Talented Mr Ripley talks with enthusiasm and knowledge about such things.

You’ll know all this, I’m sure, but it was news to me that Giant Steps was recorded little more than a breathless fortnight after Coltrane finished the sessions for another milestone of its time, A Kind of Blue, with Miles Davis in 1959. I can’t say I’m fully, fully cognisant of quite the importance of these two records but… phoo-ey… that sounds pretty impressive. Prolific, driven…

So, anyway, after a long day in front of a Zoom screen, I put Giant Steps on again last night, and this gem winked at me.


I say “winked”… but there’s something quite unprepossessing about “Naima”, and if you’re an easily-distracted dullard it’s quite easy to miss it as you move from the jaunty forwardness of “Syeeda’s Song Flute” to the breathless, traffic of “Mr PC”.

Written for his first wife, Juanita Grubbs, “Naima” is a haunting, insistent tribute to a stabilising influence in a previously chaotic life. Playing spots with pretty much all of BeBop royalty and settling into Davis’ band for many of his key recordings, Coltrane had lived the “jazz” life to the letter, including a lengthy period of alcoholism and heroin addiction which eventually forced him to leave the Miles Davis Quintet.

Coltrane married Juanita in 1955 and, in tandem with something of a spiritual experience, she is credited with helping him leave his past behind him, quitting heroin in 1957. There’s a nice account of Coltrane’s debt to Juanita here. It makes reference to a phrase from Eric Nisenson’s book about A Kind of Blue:

“Coltrane went home to Philadelphia and — like Miles himself at an earlier point — made the decision to clean himself up, and to do it on his own. At his mother’s house, he lay down in a bedroom and instructed his wife Naima to bring him only water while he went through the agony of kicking both heroin and alcohol.”

He rejoined Miles Davis shortly afterwards, a renewed, even monastic character and the rest, as they say…


I am not a musician, nor do I understand how simple music works, let alone the swirling complexities of jazz. I simply do not have the vocabulary to describe what is going on, and helpful diagrams like this one (from Coltrane himself), are really not as helpful as he thinks:

But it’s a beautiful song, isn’t it? Steady, unerring, independent.

Coltrane’s pensive saxophone, Paul Chambers’ calm insistent bass pedal, Tommy Flanagan’s respectfully distant piano. They all tiptoe carefully around a series of quietly dominant chords. It’s a remarkable piece whose sombre mood and repetitive tones are hard to shrug off and suggest that Coltrane would never forget or indeed ever completely escape his mother’s bedroom in Philadelphia and Naima’s restorative devotion.

It was reportedly Coltrane’s favourite composition and one he returned to many times, re-recording and reinterpreting it more than once.

The live version that appears on the Afro Blue Impressions record is a longer, more complex affair that stretches out some of the themes the original only really hints at. It was recorded in 1963 and points to a darkening of his relationship with Juanita. Gone are the rock-like convictions of previous bass lines – now they wander around uncertainly; Elvin Jones’ drums burst in aggressively; Coltrane’s own runs are more chaotic, more plaintive:


Juanita later said:

“I could feel it was going to happen sooner or later, so I wasn’t really surprised when John moved out of the house in the summer of 1963. He didn’t offer any explanation. He just told me there were things he had to do, and he left only with his clothes and his horns. He stayed in a hotel sometimes, other times with his mother in Philadelphia. All he said was, ‘Naima, I’m going to make a change.’ Even though I could feel it coming, it hurt, and I didn’t get over it for at least another year.”

There’s also this absolutely absorbing footage of a live performance from 1965…


(I’m not sure quite what’s going on with all the steam – I can’t work out whether they’re cold or steaming…)

If I was struggling to describe things before, I’m useless with this one – I may as well try to write (dance, even) about classical architecture. The piano piece (by now, taken by MyCoy Tyner) is complex and hopelessly oblique, Jones is harsh and confrontational, Coltrane is cold and angry, exasperated, inarticulate. The coaxing encouragement of the bass lines are now absent.

By 1966, Coltrane and Juanita’s differences had crystallised and they divorced.

Coltrane went on to marry pianist Alice McLeod who would go on to join later incarnations of his quartet. “Naima” remained a song he would return to, however, regularly reworking it on stage (with his second wife on piano) and Juanita remained a part of John Coltrane’s life until his early and tragic death in 1967.