In 1965, America was at a turning point. The Beatles played their first stadium concert, Bob Dylan went electric, Malcolm X was assassinated, Martin Luther King marched to Selma, NASA launched probes to the moon and Mars, and men first walked in space. Here in Seattle, the Space Needle had been pointing to the heavens for four years.
CORRECTION The original version of this story incorrectly stated that John Coltrane "lit the fuse" on Afro-futurism. As some readers pointed out, that fuse had already been lit by pianist Sun Ra. The text has been corrected to reflect reality. We regret the error.
And on September 30, saxophonist John Coltrane and his ensemble would weave together all these threads at a 225-seat jazz club on the corner of First Avenue and Cherry Street and make history.
The venue was named the Penthouse, though it was on the ground floor of a ramshackle hotel. Owner Charlie Puzzo, a bartender with a penchant for the promiscuous, liked to name his clubs after nudie magazines. His other bar was called the Playboy.
Puzzo usually booked his favored mainstream jazz artists, like stately but nimble-fingered pianist Oscar Peterson or bossa nova cool saxophonist Stan Getz. But this booking was different. By the time Coltrane arrived in the city for his week-long Penthouse residency, he had been catapulted into the mainstream with a sound that led Downbeat to name him Jazzman of the Year with the Record of the Year, A Love Supreme. But Coltrane wasn’t settling. At the peak of his popularity and having just celebrated his 39th birthday on September 23, Coltrane was veering his band away from that sound, on a mission to ascend levels of consciousness through music.
The night of Monday, September 27, started like any other. At the club’s threshold, a sharply suited Puzzo charismatically ushered elegant audiences over carpeted floors to tables and booths, packing them as densely as possible. The club served beer and wine from a bar at the back, and the long red-brick side walls were dramatically lit in circles of brightness. The ceiling above the elevated stage was covered in mirrored tile so the audience could both look up at the musicians onstage and down on them from above.
At the ebony grand piano perched McCoy Tyner. A prolific composer and arranger, his percussive chords of perfect fourths and fifths defied traditional major and minor modes, allowing his improvised harmonic movement to shift in and out of the expected. At the drums sat the regal Elvin Jones with a toothy grin. His four limbs magically manifested an ensemble of Latin percussionists. It was said that Jones’ swing was so deep that even atomic clocks slowed down or sped up to get into the groove laid down by his size 13EEE feet. He was not subservient to any soloist, but would lift every musical idea with punctuation and propulsion.
Embracing the upright bass was little Jimmy Garrison, whose sound was anything but. He plucked and strummed at the low end of the strings, always colluding, never colliding, with the bottom notes of Coltrane’s tenor saxophone. Caressing a second upright onstage was Donald Garrett. His bow skills contributed long high notes complementing Garrison’s low short ones. He also played clarinet and kalimba. Beside Coltrane stood Pharoah Sanders, also with a tenor saxophone hanging from his neck. A wizard of sound effects, he could purr like a cat or screech like nails on a chalkboard.
In the audience was an old friend of Coltrane’s, saxophonist Joe Brazil. They had met a decade earlier, when Brazil had a house in Detroit and Coltrane came through with trumpeter Miles Davis. Coltrane attended some of the many late-night jam sessions in Brazil’s basement and practiced there during the day. Brazil moved to Seattle in 1961 for a job at Boeing. By the time Coltrane visited Seattle, his first and only visit, Brazil was working as a computer programmer in the Applied Physics Laboratory at the University of Washington. While the rest of the band stayed at a downtown hotel that week, Coltrane moved in with Brazil to work on music and hang out.
It was Brazil who, during Coltrane’s visit, drove the band to the Lynnwood studio of country and Western drummer Jan “Kurtis” Skugstad. Coltrane arrived there in search of new sounds that went beyond A Love Supreme. He was also beginning to infuse his music with feelings around spiritual beliefs, an approach that went too far out for many fans and critics as rumors of LSD use tainted the artistic quality in the ears of many listeners. Coltrane had also been studying Eastern philosophies and practicing yoga, and just a month before entering Skugstad’s studio named one of his sons Ravi, after Indian sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar.
In the studio, those influences emerged as Brazil joined the band on flute. They recorded 30 minutes of music that opened and closed with readings from the Hindu scripture Bhagavad Gita—a recording that would later be released on Impulse! Records as Om.
The public transformation of John Coltrane had only just begun when patrons settled in for that first Penthouse performance. At a table near the stage that Monday night were Bill Owens, Puzzo’s booker, and Ed Baker, a reporter for The Seattle Times. In the hushed conversations anticipating the music, Owens whispered to Baker: “This will be like nothing you have ever heard.” Baker’s review would run in the newspaper two days later. “Coltrane’s sound is like nothing else,” he would write. “It is wild, furious, dissonant, scornful of conventional rules of harmonics, indifferent about melody.”
After patrons were seated and the band began, Puzzo left the club to take in the fights. When he came back from the boxing bouts hours later, the band was onstage, sweating and swinging for the fences.
Puzzo leaned close to the perky ear of one of his bunny-clad waitresses, “They’re playing long for a Monday night,” he said. “Are they on the third set?”
“They haven’t stopped once since you left,” she shouted back over a loud drum solo.
The long, continuous performance produced meager receipts, so afterward Puzzo sat Coltrane down and demanded that he take two breaks a night. That way the tables could turn over and the waitresses could take more drink orders. Coltrane complied. Most of the time.
One exception was Thursday, September 30. That night, Coltrane followed his muse. Combining Afrocentricity, magical reality, and science fiction, he fanned the flames of Afrofuturism—which were already lit by jazz pianist Sun Ra, and years later would explode with funk bassist George Clinton's “Mothership Connection.”
Seattle disk jockey Jim Wilke sat near the stage that night, set to broadcast the first 30 minutes on KING-AM. His introduction of the show, broadcast from the club, went out over the airwaves like a countdown to liftoff. Meanwhile, Coltrane had hired Skugstad, who had a studio with portable equipment, to record the evening’s performance. With all the club, radio, and studio gear, there were more microphone stands onstage than musicians. Coltrane briefly borrowed Wilke’s headphones to check the broadcast sound. Handing them back, he informed the DJ that the song was going to last longer than the half-hour broadcast. Meanwhile, Skugstad kept feeding fresh reels into his recorder, capturing every detail of the performance.
The first set on Thursday clocked in just shy of two hours, with the first number lasting an hour and a half.
According to The John Coltrane Reference, a comprehensive chronology and discography, that first song, a Coltrane original named “Cosmos,” had never been recorded before and would never be reprised. “Cosmos” includes long sections of ensemble improvisation, a bass duet, a bass solo, a kalimba solo, hand percussion, and even loud vocal groans. Audience applause marks the transition points, but the music never pauses for more than five seconds.
Coltrane’s concepts for composition and improvisation were expanding. He had explored similar long ensemble improvisations three months earlier while recording of a piece titled Ascension, which would later be released by Impulse! These recordings may have been test flights for the Seattle performances.
Another concept that Coltrane originated ten months earlier on A Love Supreme involved connecting ensemble passages with bass or drum solos. Live, at the Penthouse, Coltrane adapted these solo passages to introduce or segue between songs in his repertoire. So, following the hour-and-a-half “Cosmos,” a lengthy bass solo bridged the transition into the full ensemble’s otherworldly rendition of the title song from a popular 1945 movie, Out of This World.
The unconventional performance of “Out of This World” had a deep impact on at least one listener. Teenage Seattle drummers Gregg Keplinger and Dave Guilland had snuck in to the Penthouse to get a glimpse of Elvin Jones, hiding behind a coat rack near the front door to avoid the bouncer. Three years earlier, Keplinger had been moved to tears by the beauty in Coltrane’s first recorded rendition of “Out of This World.” The band onstage was still developing the song, but with more energy and abandon. Keplinger hyperventilated, he later recalled. The slower tempo, wider harmonic backdrop, and freer solo improvisation, he said, was “blowing his brain cells apart.”
No commercial recording has ever presented this music, sequenced correctly, in its entirety. Pieces of the September 30, 1965 two-hour set have been sliced up, renamed, and issued by Impulse! in 1971 as Live in Seattle and by RLR Records in 2011 as The Unissued Seattle Broadcast. The dissection is likely due to its release after Coltrane’s untimely death in 1967 and the fact that he created this recording without a producer.
Coltrane would return to planetary themes during his final year on Earth, in his saxophone and drum set duet recording Interstellar Space with the songs “Mars,” “Venus,” Jupiter,” and “Saturn.” It is in Seattle, though, that the journey began. The Penthouse is gone, and so are many of the musicians. But the planet continues to orbit the sun, as it has 50 times since Coltrane’s journey.