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Making A Home For John Coltrane's Legacy

Jul 22, 2012
Originally published on July 22, 2012 7:12 pm

In 1964, John Coltrane moved from Queens, N.Y., to a brick ranch house on a 31/2 acre wooded lot in the quiet suburb of Dix Hills. This bucolic setting — 40 miles east of the city — is perhaps the last place you'd expect to find a musician creating the virtuosic jazz that Coltrane is famous for.

But Ravi Coltrane, the son of John and Alice Coltrane, who was herself a noted jazz pianist and harpist, says the woods were part of his father's creative process.

"I believe the solitude and the beauty of Long Island gave him something he had not had or experienced before," he says. "Clearly it affected the way he conceived."

Ravi Coltrane was born in 1965 and lived in the Dix Hills house until he was six.

"This is my sister's room over here. Michelle — this is her bedroom," he says. "This was the boys' room back here; this is the room I shared with my two brothers, John Jr. and Oran."'

But, Ravi Coltrane says, not all is as it was: The Coltrane Home in Dix Hills has fallen into disrepair in the 45 years after his father's death.

Preserving The Property

Many, including Ravi Coltrane, are trying to preserve the historic property. The driving force behind the effort is Steve Fulgoni, a music store owner, amateur saxophonist and a huge Coltrane fan. He first visited the house in 2004.

"I was looking around, and I looked in the corner, which I think was in this room, and all there was was one newspaper," Fulgoni says. "I picked up the newspaper, and I looked at the date, and the date of the newspaper was July 17, which was the anniversary of his death. And I said to myself, 'I need to do something.'"

That same year, he founded The Friends of the Coltrane Home. Fulgoni petitioned the town of Huntington, N.Y., to declare the site a historic landmark, and two years later, to purchase the property and designate it a public park.

But it's a long way from becoming a museum. The paint is peeling, the roof needs repair, the window frames are rotting and the gutters are dangling from the eaves.

Last year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation put the Coltrane Home on a list of the 11 most endangered historic sites in the United States.

Fulgoni says the site is important not only because Coltrane and his family lived here, but also because it's a symbol of the musician's triumphs over drugs and alcohol.

"In 1957, he secludes himself in his mother's house in Philadelphia, secludes himself for a week or two, and rids himself of all the demons that the jazz musicians went through at that time," Fulgoni says. "He says, 'If I am able to clean myself up, I will dedicate the rest of my life to God, to being a good person, to being on a mission to help other people.' And he did — it culminates here in 1964, in a room upstairs, he puts that to music."

That culmination was John Coltrane's four-part suite, A Love Supreme, which he composed in the summer of 1964. Widely regarded as one of the greatest jazz albums of all time, A Love Supreme sold more than a half-million copies by 1970, a number that eventually doubled.

'A Force For Good'

In the liner notes, Coltrane wrote that the record was a Psalm of Thanks to God for the spiritual awakening he experienced, and the privilege "to make others happy through music."

Coltrane described his philosophy in a 1966 interview in Japan.

"I believe that men are here to grow themselves into best good that they can be — at least, this is what I want to do," Coltrane says. "I am supposed to go to the best good that I can get to. And as I'm going there — becoming this — and when I become, if I ever become, this will just come out of the horn. Good can only bring good."

"He said himself, he wanted to be a force for good," says Ravi Coltrane. "It's like 'Wow, OK, how do you do that with this brass instrument with buttons on it?' He used sound to achieve those goals."

Ravi Coltrane is 46 years old now — six older than his father was when he died of liver cancer in 1967. Ravi lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two sons of his own. Like his father, he plays tenor and soprano saxophone, and has a new album, called Spirit Fiction.

He says he wants to preserve the Coltrane Home in Dix Hills as a symbol of what his parents stood for.

"This house for me, it's history. It's my own history, but it's also the great history of John and Alice Coltrane," he says. "If some day it can stand as a museum, or cultural center, that can continue to spread their message of creativity, and really truly embracing the inner voice, for the betterment of the exterior world. I would be thrilled if this house could some day be a monument for those things."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

You don't have to be a jazz fan to know the name John Coltrane. The late saxophonist is remembered as one of the most compelling musicians in the history of jazz. In fact, the Long Island house where he spent the last three years of his life, is an historic landmark. But it's falling into disrepair.

On the 45th anniversary of Coltrane's death, Tom Vitale takes a tour of the house with a couple of the people who are trying to preserve it.

TOM VITALE, BYLINE: In 1964, John Coltrane moved from Queens to a brick ranch house on a three-and-a-half acre wooded lot, in the quiet suburb of Dix Hills. This bucolic setting, 40 miles east of the city, is perhaps the last place you'd expect to find a musician creating this.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "ASCENSION")

RAVI COLTRANE: I believe the solitude and the beauty of Long Island gave him something that he had not had or experienced before. And clearly it affected the way he conceived.

VITALE: Ravi Coltrane is the son of John and Alice Coltrane - who was herself a noted jazz pianist and harpist. Ravi was born in 1965. He lived in the Dix Hills house until he was 6.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

RAVI COLTRANE: This is my sister's room over here - Michelle. This is her bedroom. This was the boys' room back here. This is the room I shared with my two brothers...

VITALE: Ravi Coltrane is not alone in wanting to preserve his parents' house. The driving force behind the effort is Steve Fulgoni, a music store owner, amateur saxophonist, and a huge Coltrane fan. He first visited the house in 2004.

STEVE FULGONI: And I was looking around, and I looked in the corner - which I think was in this room - and all there was, was one newspaper. And I picked up the newspaper, and I looked at the date; and the date of the newspaper was July 17th, which is the anniversary of his death. And I said to myself, I need to do something.

VITALE: That same year, he founded the Friends of the Coltrane Home. Fulgoni petitioned the town of Huntington to declare the site a landmark and then, two years later, to purchase the property and designate it a public park. But it's a long way from becoming a museum. The paint is peeling, the roof needs repair, the window frames are rotting, and the gutters are dangling from the eaves.

Last year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation put the Coltrane home on a list of the 11 most endangered historic sites in the United States. Fulgoni says the site is important not only because Coltrane and his family lived here, but because it's a symbol of the musician's triumphs over drugs and alcohol.

FULGONI: 1957, he secludes himself in his mother's house in Philadelphia, and rids himself of all the demons that jazz musicians went through at that time. And he says, "If I am able to clean myself up, I will dedicate the rest of my life to God, to being a good person, to being on a mission to help other people." And he did. It culminates here, in 1964. In a room upstairs, he puts that to music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "A LOVE SUPREME")

VITALE: John Coltrane's four-part suite, "A Love Supreme," composed in the summer of 1964, is widely regarded as one of the greatest jazz albums of all time. By 1970, the record had sold more than a half-million copies, a number that eventually doubled.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "A LOVE SUPREME")

VITALE: In the liner notes to "A Love Supreme," Coltrane wrote that the record was a psalm of thanks to God for the spiritual awakening he experienced, and the privilege to make others happy through music.

In a 1966 interview in Japan, Coltrane described his philosophy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

JOHN COLTRANE: I believe that men are here to grow themselves into the best good that they can be. At least, this is what I want to do. And as I am going there, becoming this, this will just come out of the horn. Good can only bring good.

RAVI COLTRANE: Wow. OK, how do you do that with this brass instrument with these buttons on it, you know? He used sound to achieve those goals.

VITALE: Ravi Coltrane is 46 years old now, six older than his father was when he died of liver cancer in 1967. Ravi lives in Brooklyn with his wife, and two sons of his own. And like his father, he plays tenor and soprano saxophone, and has a new album of his own - called "Spirit Fiction." He says he wants to preserve the Coltrane home in Dix Hills as a symbol of what his parents stood for.

RAVI COLTRANE: This house, for me - it's history, you know. It's my own history, but it's also the great history of John and Alice Coltrane. If, someday, it can stand as a museum or cultural center, that can continue to spread their message of really, truly embracing the inner voice for the betterment of the exterior world, I would be thrilled if this house could someday be a monument for those things.

VITALE: So far, the Friends of the Coltrane Home have raised enough money to waterproof and remove mold. The next phase will be to restore the house exactly as it was when the Coltranes lived there.

For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "A LOVE SUPREME")

WERTHEIMER: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.