David Crosby: “John Coltrane Blew My Mind!”

MOJO 20 Exclusive! The Byrds and CSN&Y star reveals the exact moment that inspired him to “reach for more”.

David Crosby, the cheeky monkey, in 1960

IN MAY OF THIS YEAR, Crosby, Stills & Nash played two benefit shows at New York’s Lincoln Center where they were joined by the Jazz At The Lincoln Center Orchestra led by Wynton Marsalis. For David Crosby in particular, the performance confirmed a love of jazz that dates back to his formative period as a singer.

MOJO’s 20th Anniversary Edition
The MOJO 20th Anniversary cover: more about David Crosby’s crossroads 20th year inside!

“I loved harmony. I came into music having listened to classical music all my childhood so harmony really rang my bell,” explains Crosby. “Maybe there was a genetic thing in me, I don’t know. But it really rang my bell listening to The Everly Brothers. Bud & Travis, Peter Paul & Mary and, after I really started listening to the words, Dylan and definitely Joan Baez. But my brother [Ethan] was more sophisticated than I was and was listening to ‘50s jazz. So at the same time I got turned on to those people, I got turned on to Dave Brubeck, Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan, and do you remember a Latin-flavoured jazz guy called Cal Tjader? Him too.”

Recalling the crucial year he turned 20 in MOJO’s 20th Anniversary issue, Crosby tells of his time as an itinerant troubadour, criss-crossing the country and playing coffee houses in New York, Miami, Omaha and Chicago. It was there that he saw a performance that would profoundly affect him.

 

“During my Chicago stint, I had one of the best experiences I ever had in my life!” he begins with a warm chuckle. “I was living in an apartment with an English guy called Clem Floyd. His girlfriend was a little German hooker who was about four and a half feet tall. One day she said to us, ‘Do you wanna hear some real music? John Coltrane is playing on the South Side.’ So this attractive little German girl took Clem and I down to McKee’s – 163rd and Cottage Grove, way South. We were the only white people in the room.

“The way ’Trane played then was that the band would come out and the set was one song which would start out with ensemble playing. ‘Trane would warm up by blowing a little to get going, and they all took their time because they figured their set would be an hour long so they had time [to stretch out]. He’d play for a bit and walk off still blowing. Then McCoy Tyner would play.

“I was so high, I was hunting geese with a rake.”

“Now, with McCoy Tyner, I’d never heard anybody play piano like that. At that point ‘Trane had two bass players, Jimmy Garrison and Reggie Workman. They had a conversation that was stellar, and then it was Elvin Jones’s turn. Now, I will admit to being higher than three kites hooked up in series. I was so high, I was hunting geese with a rake. I was blitzed. Elvin Jones is a pretty intense drummer. I think that’s understating the case, don’t you? [His playing] pushed me up from the table and up against the back wall of the room! I’m standing there trying to hold on and I ducked into the men’s room.

“So I’m in the men’s room, I’m trying to come down just enough for me to stay on this planet, and I’ve got my face pressed against this tile. I can still remember the colour of this filthy, light puke-green tile. I’m leaning against it because it’s cool. And – blam! – someone kicks the door in and it’s ‘Trane. (Makes shrieking jazz noises, as if playing a sax) He’s doing that and by this point he’s burning! Burr-ning! (Makes more squalling jazz-orientated noises) Skee-sa-wee-eek-swark! And I’m up against the wall. He doesn’t even know this little fake kid’s in there. He’s playing in there because it’s a good sound. And at that point my mind ran out of my nose in a puddle on the floor!”

Crosby, who’s gone on to enjoy a career that can in the politest terms be described as colourful, views that night as genuinely life-changing. Later, he would help push The Byrds in a modal direction that owed much to his jazz epiphany.

 

“It really affected me,” he says. “I realized that there were levels that I could never get to but, suddenly, I could see what direction I wanted to go in. There were things that jazz musicians could do that I could never hope to do. I’d listen to the chords McCoy Tyner played and they weren’t in my world. I had never heard those chords. I had listened to Gerry Mulligan and those kind of people, but I hadn’t seen the intensity level of those guys with ‘Trane. I knew that somehow I wanted to reach for more. I wanted to move from [Broadway standard-turned-folk tune] They Called The Wind Maria to ’Trane playing My Favorite Things. Now, I feel I had a direction.”

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