In 1959, just months after John Coltrane appeared on the seminal Miles David album Kind of Blue, Coltrane recorded his own soon-to-be-legendary album, Giant Steps.
But once Giant Steps was put on wax by Atlantic, Coltrane never recorded it again, and to this day there exist no live recordings of John playing the song that would most define his legacy.
So, what happened?
It’s a numbers game
Let’s stay with our initial comparison between Kind of Blue and Giant Steps. The opening tune from Miles’ album, So What, had at least X live versions recorded within a few years of its release, many featuring John Coltrane.
Here are just a few live recordings of So What (there are many more out there):
- The TV Movie The Sound of Miles Davis
- A set from the Olympia Theatre in Paris
- A live recording from the 1963 Monterey Jazz Festival
- The version found on Miles in Tokyo (1964)
- The take recorded at the Lincoln Centre for the album Four & More
Coltrane, however, never recorded a live version that was released. Jazzdisco does list five private or rejected recordings that can’t be tracked down. Two at Showboat in Philadelphia in July 1960, another two from September 1959 at Birdland and a New Jersey club, and one at The Olympia Paris in 1962.
Of course, Kind of Blue was a much more successful album – Giant Steps isn’t the most palatable tune, especially compared to So What or All Blues.
But commercial released live recordings of most classic albums from that period are plentiful, so the lack of a Giant Steps live cut is still extremely odd.
Here’s the conventional answer. Giant Steps is a really hard tune, for two reasons. First of all, it’s normally played really fast – which makes it hard for hackers like me to play a decent solo on it at speed.
Secondly, Giant Steps is an untraditional take on jazz harmony, heavily utilising chords moving in thirds, which Coltrane likely pulled from Nicolas Slonimsky’s Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns.
I won’t go into any more theory than that, but if you haven’t checked out the Vox video on Giant Steps, do it after you’re finished reading.
There is some speculation that the song was mostly written as an etude, or a musical study, of this idea. Certainly, for a long time after it was released, Giant Steps was, as sax player Petter Wettre has put it, a “tune that serves the purpose of competing with other musicians to see who’s the best.”
So Giant Steps was basically a dick measuring contest.
Now Coltrane was a humble man, but the weaponisation of Giant Steps didn’t come until years later, so his lack of live performances was hardly him railing against that. It is possible that Coltrane never meant to play it live, that it really was a way to explore a technical and harmonic idea, the way it’s been treated by many thousands of musicians since.
As for the unreleased recordings, it’s possible that Coltrane simply wasn’t happy with the playing, either by himself or a member of his band. Listening to the alternate takes of the song from Atlantic’s Deluxe edition, released in the 1990s, even Coltrane didn’t play perfectly on each take.
Both are reasonable explanations, and either might very well be true. But I’d like to consider one more angle, which has more to do with John Coltrane’s approach to art.
Play it again, Sam
Something I’ve always loved about music as an art form, especially in jazz, is that its creators get to reinvent the same piece of work again and again, with every gig and recording session a chance to paint another version of a masterpiece.
I’ve always compared it to the work of Claude Monet. Monet, along with some of the other impressionists, would regularly paint a series of works depicting the same scene. Water Lilies, Haystacks, and Poplars are some of the most famous examples.
In both cases, the base composition becomes a vessel to create new art with. Rather than starting with another blank canvas, it allows the player or painter to try new things in a familiar context. I’ve always liked that very organic approach to growing artistically, but it also makes it easier for audiences, who come in with some pre-existing knowledge of what they’re experiencing.
Art fast, die young
Now John Coltrane did take this Monet-esque, reinventive approach to many of his tunes. For example, he recorded dozens of live versions of Impressions and My Favourite Things. But he didn’t do it on Giant Steps. That is, on one hand, a shame, but it can also be seen as an upshot of Coltrane’s incredibly fast-paced musical development over his working life.
Which, by the way, was incredibly short. Coltrane’s first album as a leader was recorded in May 1957, while his last date with a recording studio was in April 1967. That’s a few weeks shy of a decade. But within that decade, John Coltrane established himself as a master of the art form, and one of the most important innovators in its history.
So why are there no live recordings of John Coltrane playing Giant Steps? We’ll never know for sure, but had John slowed in his reinvention of the art form, even to the pace of Miles – which was sluggish compared to his own – would he have been able to innovate as much as he did in the brief time he had to work?
Whether Giant Steps was a technical study or a carefully crafted piece of art, it’s clear that John didn’t feel like he, or his composition, needed to be constantly reinvented on the bandstand.
John Coltrane died of liver cancer, likely caused by hepatitis, which was very probably linked to his heroin use. Despite that, it came as a surprise to his contemporaries, even his friend and past colleague, Miles Davis.
John was a deeply spiritual man through his final decade, best encapsulated by his inspired, tribute to God, A Love Supreme (which, by the way, was only recorded live once). It might be a stretch to posit that Coltrane foresaw the short tenure he would have in this life. In any case, it seems he rarely lingered on an idea for longer than was necessary.
John Coltrane changed jazz. The fact we don’t have film or tape of him playing his most iconic song out in the world shouldn’t be seen as a tragedy. Rather, see it as a testament to his insatiable desire to innovate, and an apparent inability to rest on his laurels.