Exquisite spiritualist

Exquisite spiritualist

Hans keeps the spirits high, both with the tipple of his choice and the accompanying musician – a toast to the ghost

Whisky & Culture | 27 Mar 2020 | Issue 166 | By Hans Offringa

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Undoubtedly John Coltrane was one of the most controversial jazz musicians and composers of his time. Born in Hamlet, North Carolina on 23 September, 1926, he was raised in a large Christian family, which would be an enormous influence throughout his musical career. Listening to the radio and records played on jukeboxes, he picked up his taste for jazz and settled on alto saxophone after having heard Charlie Parker.

At the age of 17 he moved to Philadelphia to develop his playing. Two years later, in 1945, he was drafted for WWII and shipped to Hawaii, where he played in the Navy band, of which some rare recordings surfaced recently. At that time he must have been given his nickname, ‘Trane’.

He left the military in 1946 and started to play with various famous musicians, among whom were his greatest influences, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. From playing bebop he switched at the end of the decade to big band music, joining Dizzy Gillespie’s band for a while. After having left the big band it didn’t take long before Coltrane reappeared as a tenor saxophonist playing in smaller ensembles. As with many other musicians at the time, he took drugs and became addicted to heroin. In the years that followed Coltrane played with various bands and musicians, like Eddie ‘Cleanhead’ Vinson, and toured with Johnny Hodges.

When he joined Miles Davis around 1955, his fame as a saxophonist started to grow. He would later say, “Miles gave me great freedom.” He developed a unique style of playing, blowing three notes at the same time, which the critics referred to as “sheets of sound.” In 1957 Coltrane successfully dropped his heroin habit and became more interested in the spiritual side of life. The seed that was sown in his early youth began to bear fruit. Apart from playing the flute and the bass clarinet, Coltrane now also practiced violin and harp meticulously. In 1960 the first version of his Classic Quartet came into being and would see a change of different musicians over the years.

At the turn of 1964 the Quartet recorded his most famous piece, a four-part suite called A Love Supreme. It was his personal homage to God, with the final part, called Psalm, being a musical interpretation of an original poem to his Creator that Coltrane had written earlier in his life. His musical interests then shifted to free jazz and avant-garde music. He enjoyed playing with Eric Dolphy and Pharaoh Sanders. His compositions turned into long spun pieces that often would take more than half an hour to complete. Solos could take up to 15 minutes. Not everybody loved his exercises in free jazz, sometimes drenched in LSD, and critics, among them Coltrane’s former musical companion Miles Davis, didn’t think highly of it at all.

The spiritually moved saxophonist might not have cared. He continued to stimulate young jazz musicians like Archie Shepp to explore the outer boundaries of avant-garde jazz. He solidly continued to believe in a universal approach of everything he did as a composer and performer.

In 1966 Coltrane would state in an interview that his music was “a whole expression of his being”. Spiritually and musically he had developed himself into one of the most influential people on the jazz scene at the age of 40. Sadly, he died of liver cancer on 17 July, 1967 in the Huntington Hospital on Long Island, NY. Posthumously he would receive various awards. In 1971 he was declared a saint by the Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church in San Francisco. In the 1990s and 2000s more posthumous awards would follow. But the greatest awards of all to him will probably be the continuous performances of his compositions, be it in movies, accompanying television series or on radio.

We can only wonder what he would have achieved with a longer life.

Although William Grant & Sons bought Glenrothes in its foundation year, James Stuart actually initiated the birth of this high-capacity distillery in the town of Rothes. Forced by a poor financial position, Stuart unfortunately had to step back. It was an ill start for what appeared an ill-fated distillery for a long time. 18 years after its feeble beginning the distillery caught fire and was severely damaged. The owners kept an optimistic view and doubled the still capacity when they repaired the buildings. Five years later, in 1903, disaster struck again, this time in the form of an explosion. Again, extensive repairs had to be executed. It then went quiet for a while until 1922 when one
of the warehouses caught fire.

Fortunately the fire didn’t spread around the entire distillery, but again, repairmen had to be brought in. Despite the series of accidents, Glenrothes drew the attention of the industry and became highly regarded for blending purposes, most notably for Cutty Sark. The period between 1963 and 1989 illustrates the growing demand for Glenrothes single malt. In three steps the still capacity was expanded from four to six, then eight and eventually 10 stills. In 1999 The Edrington Group stepped in as a major partner and owns the distillery today. The well-respected London-based wine merchant Berry Bros & Rudd owned a licence to consign their own bottlings for a long time, but this agreement was terminated a few years ago.

The labels on the distinctively shaped bottle mention year of distillation and year of bottling. In 2007 the Select Reserve was presented, carrying no age statement at all. It is now the core expression of the distillery.

The appearance of a ghost is another interesting aspect of Glenrothes’ history. One of the other distilleries in Rothes is Glen Grant. A former owner, Colonel Grant, fought in South Africa during the Boer War. He stumbled upon a little orphan hiding in the bushes and decided to take him to Scotland. ‘Byeway Makalunga’ grew up in Rothes and became the colonel’s errand boy. At the time he must have been the sole African in this part of Scotland. As a result he became widely known and even made it to the village football team. He lived to a ripe old age and died in 1972.

So far so good. However, seven years later a ghost began to appear on the Glenrothes distillery grounds after a pair of stills were replaced by new ones. It was considered such a serious matter that a university professor was flown in to study the phenomenon. He concluded that an invisible energy line had been disturbed during the installation of the new equipment. He put it right and went to the cemetery adjacent to the distillery grounds where he ruminated in silence. He had never before been in this place but after a while he walked in a straight line to a single tombstone, approximately 70 yards from the distillery. For a couple of minutes he seemed to have a conversation with the dead. Then he returned and made it known that the situation had been resolved in a friendly manner. The name on the tombstone read ‘Byeway Makalunga.’

His ghost did not reappear, but ever since the professor’s creepy encounter, it has become a tradition at Glenrothes to make a “toast to the ghost”. Talking about spirits...
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