The gift of freedom

Larry Ridley remembers John Coltrane

Volume 112, No. 6June, 2012

John Coltrane (1926-1967)

Over his lifetime, Ridley has played with hundreds of famous musicians. A short list would have to include Duke Ellington, Hank Mobley, Sonny Stitt, Joe Newman, Roy Eldridge and Dinah Washington. But his eyes light up when the name John Coltrane is mentioned. “John, man, John Coltrane,” he smiles at the memory. “He was very soft spoken. I’ll never forget hanging out with him in the original Five Spot. And we were at the back of the club, John and I. And some of these guys had got this ‘freedom thing’ started, and they were honkin’ and squeaking and doing all kinds of crazy stuff, saying they were trying to express themselves. And John and I were listening and I said, ‘John what do you think, man? These guys don’t seem to know any kind of chord changes or songs. They’re just making a lot of noise.’ He looked me in the face and he said, ‘Well, you know, Larry, everybody has a story to tell.’ That’s all he said. That summed it all up. To me, jazz had always been a language, and just like learning a language and you have to learn all the nouns, the pronouns, the verbs, the adverbs… And that’s what struck me when Coltrane said that to me. It was kind of hard for me to relate to at first. I started thinking about it and saying to myself, ‘Don’t be so judgmental; people are people.’ John was just that kind of warm, open, friendly type of person.”

Ridley did get a chance to play with Coltrane, sitting in with him at New York’s Half Note. Regarding Coltrane’s approach, Ridley calls it “riding the wave.” He explains: “I imagined what it must be like for a surfer trying to find the right wave and how exhilarating that must be. Because playing with guys like Coltrane, I learned to accept the fact that no matter what the style, there was always this kernel of the seed that they planted that was something transcendent. They all had their own voice. Like if you want to talk about great orators like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., or Theodore Roosevelt, or anybody of that ilk – they all had their own style. It’s hypnotic. There’s such a thing as a cosmic order and once you’ve felt that, you don’t forget it. The universe is vast; we don’t know how big it is. The Hindus thought of everything as a “multiverse” in their philosophy. Once you experience that feeling, and you allow yourself to accept it and to submit to it, you’re never the same again. A broader consciousness. I’m not saying there’s a magic formula, but speaking for myself, the range of experiences that I’ve had throughout my life, have enabled me to open myself up so that I’m not afraid of anything. I’m not afraid to just let things happen, and to let them take on whatever direction things may go at any given moment. That’s riding the wave.”