The Coltrane House Finally Feels Philly’s Love Supreme
John Coltrane’s time in Philadelphia–featured this weekend on the radio show American Routes–was the fertile beginning of his development as a unique voice in jazz. He moved to the city as a teen from North Carolina and, along with formal lessons, was embraced by the thriving African-American jazz scene here and the many musicians who came in and out from New York. As one of the genre’s legends, Coltrane’s influence has been felt by generations, yet the properties he’s owned have had a rough time of it.
In 2011 the National Trust for Historic Preservation put Coltrane’s New York home on its endangered historic places list. The same year, the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia put the John Coltrane House at 1511 N. 33rd Street on its annual Endangered Properties list. It described the rationale, in part, this way:
John Coltrane called Philadelphia home during the most formative and transformational period of his career…He lived here full-time until 1958, refining his musical style, overcoming drug addiction, and experiencing a profound spiritual awakening that inspired his most significant musical innovations…The building was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1999.
When Coltrane bought the house for his family, it was still a beautiful home. His mother lived there until her death in 1977, when the ownership passed to a cousin who kept it until 2004. It was then purchased by a jazz fan who passed away, and since then, there just hasn’t been the money or public will to make the renovations happen. When the Preservation Alliance listed it as endangered, it described the home as “vacant and deteriorating, with immediate repairs needed to stabilize the house and its neighboring unit, which suffered a recent fire and remains in perilous condition.”
Now, at last, it seems there’s a new investment in honoring Coltrane’s legacy by fixing the house. Hidden City has been following the story, and chronicles the latest developments and the way the house and the city’s jazz history is tied to Philadelphia’s African-American culture:
Two events in March—a community workshop for residents and music lovers in North Philly, and the charrette that joined the forces of experts from disparate fields of music and museum interpretation—marked the conclusion of an eight-month process, conducted by the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, of sowing the seeds to a successful institution in the form of the Coltrane house.
The community workshop revealed the equal yet opposing truths in remembering John Coltrane: as a singular voice that spoke the universal language of music (one that a kid from Osaka could understand), but also as one that arose from a specific musical tradition bound up in the experience of African Americans who like Coltrane had come to the urban north as part of what historians call the second great migration.
“Music helped our people through trying times,” said one participant. “For us, music is a means of survival, a way of escape, away from oppression.”
The workshop was held at the Martin Luther King Recreation Center on Cecil B. Moore Avenue, the former Columbia Avenue, which once boasted dozens of jazz haunts in the 1940s and 1950s, some of them witnesses to Coltrane’s presence.
So far, Hidden City reports, popular possibilities for the house are a museum, a community center, performance hall or a music school.