When we talk about rock, we talk about bands: Zeppelin, the Who, the Stones. But when we talk about jazz, we tend to talk about individuals: Miles, Monk, Coltrane. On some level, that makes sense: If the song is the primary mode of rock expression, the solo is generally the way you make your mark in jazz. Whether you’re considering Coleman Hawkins, Louis Armstrong, Freddie Hubbard, or the colossal, now-retired Sonny Rollins, it was when they stepped out front and said their piece that they truly embodied their legendary status.
But on another level, jazz is the ultimate band music. Throughout the music’s history, plenty of magic has been made by ad hoc groups, ensembles that came together only for a night or two. But the true seismic shifts in the music have all come about through the chemistry of an established group, a collection of players working night after night toward some kind of shared telepathy. It’s what McCoy Tyner — who died Friday at 81, and who was the last living member of one of the greatest bands of the 20th century in any genre, John Coltrane’s so-called classic quartet — meant when he told jazz journalist Ted Panken in 2003 that he, Coltrane, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and drummer Elvin Jones “knew each other’s musical vocabulary.” And it’s what jazz critic Ben Ratliff meant when he ended Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, his definitive 2007 study of the saxophonist’s musical journey, with the statement that “The truth of jazz is in its bands.”
So, while Coltrane, Tyner, Garrison, and Jones might have each played with hundreds of other musicians throughout their careers — in accord with the mix-and-match practices of their art form — it was together that they achieved immortality. This is what Ratliff was referring to when he wrote in his New York Times Tyner obit that “When you are thinking of Coltrane playing ‘My Favorite Things’ or ‘A Love Supreme’ you may be thinking of the sound of Mr. Tyner almost as much as that of Coltrane’s saxophone.” That piano sound was often a counterbalance, a crisp, chiming, and sometimes yearning pulse contrasting the tectonic rumble of Elvin Jones’ drums, the earthy snap of Jimmy Garrison’s bass, and the whirling flights of Coltrane’s soprano saxophone or preacher-like cry of his tenor. Just as with Led Zeppelin, or Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys, or the White Stripes, or Slayer circa Reign in Blood, the collective effect of these four communicating — or more accurately communing — was irreducible: the sound of a group of players who had each cultivated their individual voices, while learning to speak as one.
And since the sound of Tyner, Garrison, and Jones is so deeply imprinted on Coltrane masterpieces like A Love Supreme and Crescent, as well as less decorated but equally fascinating works like Sun Ship, Transition, and the recently unearthed Both Directions at Once, we can’t celebrate the saxophonist without celebrating the unit and all the hours on the bandstand that led to these four developing a sui generis language. Coltrane made magic with Miles Davis before the classic quartet, and with Alice Coltrane, Rashied Ali, and others after it. Tyner did the same with countless other groupings on albums ranging from 1967’s The Real McCoy to 1980’s lesser-known Quartets 4×4 and 2008’s Guitars; likewise for Garrison and Jones. But it’s the context of a band, this band, that made them legendary.
It’s the same with Ornette Coleman and his 1959 quartet with Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, and Billy Higgins, or Bill Evans and his 1961 trio with Scott La Faro and Paul Motian, or Miles Davis’ Fifties and Sixties quintets or Charles Mingus’s 1964 sextet, or the Duke Ellington “Blanton-Webster Band” of the early Forties, or Count Basie’s orchestra of a few years before, or the Modern Jazz Quartet. Ditto cult-favorite units like Keith Jarrett’s American Quartet, John Zorn’s Naked City, or the combo co-led by saxophonist George Adams and pianist Don Pullen. Name an iconic rock band, whose membership you know by heart, and the principle is the same: You can’t celebrate the frontperson, primary songwriter, or star soloist without celebrating the context that launched them to mythic status. (Hence why fans often have difficulty embracing reunions that proceed without key members.)
Jazz has mostly moved away from the model of the working band. Today’s marquee collectives like the Bad Plus, Medeski, Martin and Wood, Kneebody, or the Branford Marsalis Quartet are in the minority, even if star bandleaders like Kamasi Washington and Robert Glasper are quick to credit their supporting casts. The death of McCoy Tyner — and the symbolic end of the mind-meld he achieved with Coltrane, Garrison, and Jones — reminds us that jazz has always found its greatest strength in numbers.