In 1961, he left Atlantic for a newly established label, Impulse! Coltrane's first effort for this imprint, guided by
house producer Bob Thiele, was Africa/Brass, which stripped the formal harmonic underpinnings he'd been flaunting
thus far, down to a fundamental throb and drones. Against, over and through a relatively open field, Coltrane blew
variations of simple themes with increasing density, volatility and volubility, sometimes breaking into harsh cries,
atonal runs or extreme registers of his horn.
Trane's new music was a breakthrough into territory still being explored by improvisers today. However, critical and
public reception to his turn was divided. An influential editor at the jazz magazine Down Beat called Coltrane's
direction 'horrifying', 'anti-jazz', 'gobbledegook'. Thiele retaliated for his artist by conceiving three albums
that would solidify Coltrane's mainstream bona fides: one made up of well-known ballads, a second with the highly
esteemed Duke Ellington and the third with a vocalist.
While Coltrane's sound had evolved as a plunge into the unknown, Johnny Hartman, some 15 years into his career, had
held fast to a style that was receding in popularity. A native of Chicago, Hartman first gained notice after
returning from military service during World War II to sing in the big bands of Earl Hines and Dizzy Gillespie. His
role model was Billy Eckstine, one of the first black male entertainers to be openly regarded as a heartthrob by
white women in America. Early on, Hartman, tall and handsome, was hailed as a 'Bronze Sinatra', a crooner of slow-
to mid-tempo swing whose articulation of language and placement of pitch were proper and precise.
The 1950s, however, witnessed a sea change in popular music trends as the rougher
vernaculars of rhythm and blues, Doo-wop, rockabilly and rock 'n' roll won over young audiences throughout America,
and soon, the world. Sinatra, Eckstine, Tony Bennett, Nat King Cole and several others sustained careers based on
the adult polish of their styles, but Ray Charles, Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Bo
Diddley, Chuck Berry, Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke subverted their dominance. As the big-band era ended, Hartman
adapted by working with small combos in supper clubs and cabarets, while recording sporadically.
In 1959, he went to Europe 'to stay employed', as he put it years later. Intending to visit for two weeks, he stayed
11 months. He worked in England, Belgium and Germany, and appeared (according to Dr Gregg Akkerman's recently
released biography, The Last Balladeer: The Johnny Hartman Story)at least three times as a guest on British
television. Eventually, he ran afoul of the musicians' union's staunchly protectionist rules; otherwise he might
have opened a singing studio and perhaps hosted a TV programme of his own. Back in the States, he found that
bookings were scarce for an urbane black man such as himself, who preferred refinement to rawness. A three- week
tour of Japan, singing with drummer Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, was a high point of this period for Hartman. He
was there when the call came from Bob Thiele, inviting him to collaborate with Coltrane.
'Johnny Hartman - a man that I had just stuck up in my mind somewhere - I just felt something about him,' Coltrane
later said of his one-time-only partner. 'I liked his sound, I thought there was something there I had to hear.' In
another interview, Coltrane offered another reason for his enthusiasm: 'He's a fine singer, and I wanted him to make
a comeback.' The two had never worked together. They'd both been in Dizzy Gillespie's orchestra, but at different
Although Coltrane was so sure he wanted Hartman that he rejected Thiele's suggestions of other singers including
Sarah Vaughan, Hartman had his doubts. 'I didn't know if John could play that kind of stuff I did,' he told writer
Frank Kofsky a decade after the fact. 'So I was a little reluctant at first. Then John was working at Birdland, and
he asked me to come down there, and after hearing him play ballads the way he did, man, I said, 'Hey, beautiful.' So
that's how we got together.'
Jazz instrumentalists - perhaps tenor saxophonists, especially - are adept at portraying elegance, experience and
sensitivity: ideal qualities in a lover. The best of them (for instance, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Lester Young,
Stan Getz and Dexter Gordon) acquire the ability to manipulate almost human-voice-like aspects from their horns, and
control the dynamics of their breathing to evoke feeling over the course of decades of close listening. It's about
delicate yet deliberate physical activity, and spontaneous, interactive self-expression. If such musicians have a
strong-enough repertoire and perform thus, at the peak of their game, their music may live forever.
In contrast, most song stylists are irrevocably identified with their specific historical eras. When a certain mood
is struck, one does not want one's romantic partner distracted by the voice of another man, or by her wondering if
the album had been borrowed from your grandfather. Timelessness is what we're after when we want to take our own
sweet time. A traditional pose, one that projects unquestioned credibility, is required. This is what was so right
about the Coltrane/Hartman pairing. In 1963, Coltrane was 37, fairly young, yet even a cursory encounter with his
music makes it clear he was a person containing profound depths. Hartman was 40, and not susceptible to passing
fads. They may have held contrasting positions on an aesthetic continuum, but their gravitas was a match.
And so when, after a brief piano introduction provided by McCoy Tyner, Hartman intones, 'They say that... falling in
love... is wonderful', with an air of faint disbelief overridden by ineffable yearning that the possibility be true;
as Elvin Jones swishes wire whisks over his snare's drumhead, while Coltrane enters with a forthright statement of
the same sentiment: we hear communion comparable to brothers bearing a single message.
Hartman's tone, rising from a chamber near his heart to the tip of his tongue, bespeaks a longing to be joined in the
test of a tender hypothesis. He sings as a man who is unsure such a thing as 'love' exists, but is more than willing
to give it a try. The lightness with which he floats key words, and the way in which he lingers over such a neutral
conjunction as 'and', beckon but do not demand response. Coltrane's chorus on sax rephrases, decorates and slightly
expands upon the tune by Irving Berlin, but completely complements what Hartman has sung and returns the song to him
for an even more hopeful iteration.
The second track on Coltrane/Hartman, 'Dedicated to You', written by Sammy Cahn, Saul Chaplin and Hy Zaret, is a pure
offer of devotion, put forth with the same wistful, ready-to- be-rejected attitude as 'They Say It's Wonderful'.
Hartman and Coltrane again express themselves with a limpid air of quietude. 'A lifetime would be just one heavenly
day,' Hartman purrs to the subject of his passion. If that encomium doesn't earn him affection, his cause is
But it isn't! 'My One and Only Love', which sees Coltrane first outlining the tune, is a simply beautiful testimony
of consummation. There is no jumping for joy in either the saxophonist's or Hartman's declaration of ardour
fulfilled. The manner of their gratitude is awed appreciation, not giddy overreaching. First recorded by Frank
Sinatra in 1953, and many times since (including by Paul McCartney), the Coltrane/ Hartman version of 'My One and
Only Love' is definitive: the core of the album, in fact.
Which renders the next song, 'Lush Life', all the more tragic. Both the lyrics and the tune were
written by Billy Strayhorn, whose sexual orientation may have increased his personal reticence during a repressed
age, but did not hamper his long, creative alliance with Duke Ellington. A soliloquy full of vivid imagery and
touching regret, the song had been recorded by Coltrane only two years earlier, and was added to the list of tunes
considered for the album at the last minute. Coltrane and Hartman had heard Nat Cole's rendition on the car radio
during the ride they shared on their way to record at Rudy Van Gelder's New Jersey studio, and had immediately
agreed to try it. Hartman relates the sad story as if it's his own, concluding on a marvellously fragile note, which
he holds steady as the musicians resolve in support.
'You Are Too Beautiful' follows up on the notion of Hartman, our protagonist, being left behind, although one might
suspect that, since he's been so suavely in control up to this point, he's actually giving himself a way to
disengage. Pianist Tyner shines on this track, with a fleetness in his solo that suggests escape more than
self-sublimation. 'Autumn Serenade', the final track of Coltrane/Hartman, also depicts how a gentleman may think of
love when it's over. With an exotic rhythm and Coltrane's most inquisitive effort, the track purports to recall a
former splendour, but doesn't Hartman sound relieved, and free?
A popular legend, spread by producer Thiele and Coltrane's hagiographer Kofsky, among others, has it that the tracks
on Coltrane/Hartman were, bar one, all captured on one take. Akkerman, in his Hartman bio, cites evidence to the
contrary, which does not diminish the efficiency with which Coltrane, Hartman and the rest of the team created their
tour de force. After checking the master takes, Coltrane returned to his microphone to add a phrase here and there.
It makes no difference to the end result. Not one gesture on Coltrane/Hartman is out of place.
In 2005, commissioned by the Chicago Jazz Festival, singer Kurt Elling and saxophonist Joshua Redman attempted the
daunting task of covering the Coltrane/Hartman material. The singer and his pianist Laurence Hobgood added strings
to the original quartet arrangements, and included six more songs to flesh out the set. They performed the results
subsequently on several occasions, including the Monterey Jazz Festival, and recorded it live at a concert for Jazz
at Lincoln Center's American Songbook Series. It was released in 2009 as Dedicated to You: Kurt Elling Sings the
Music of Coltrane and Hartman.
Asked how he approached such etched-in-stone material, Elling told The Rake, 'In
an intuitive way, largely ignoring the weight of history or of perceived expectations.' He identified 'a golden
voice and emotional transparency' as Hartman's unique contribution to the monumental album, adding, 'I believe that
all the artists involved raised the level of their games simply by their mutual commitment to quality and to making
the best of every musical encounter. Thanks to Trane, 'compassion' was the name of the game. Therefore, a certain
clear-eyed tenderness shone through.'
John Coltrane died in 1967, having continued to probe the far reaches of music he could create with his saxophone.
Johnny Hartman lived until 1983. After making four more albums produced by Bob Thiele, he spent the '70s and early
'80s performing mostly in lounges and supper clubs, recording for small independent labels. In 1981, he was
nominated for a Grammy for 'Best Male Jazz Vocalist' for an album titled Once in Every Life. In 1995, director Clint
Eastwood used seven tracks from that record, which had fallen out of print, on the soundtrack of his film Bridges of
Tenderness, compassion and emotional transparency are, indeed, impressions one takes away from an encounter with John
Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, as well as admiration for its subdued lyricism and psychological acuity. Then there's
the sheer pleasure one takes from close engagement with an object of multifaceted, inexhaustible beauty. Such
engagement may occur once in a lifetime, or sometimes, if you're lucky, more often. If the 'object' is another human
with whom one wants to strike a spark, or perhaps kindle a fire with and enjoy some warmth, it's very good to have
Coltrane/Hartman at hand.