Donald “The Soul Man” Hyman first picked up a copy of “A Love Supreme,” a book chronicling the writing and recording of the 1964 album of the same name by jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, at the Albany Public Library. And at first, it didn’t immediately grab him.
But one thing in particular did jump out at him — a benefit performance that Coltrane played at St. Gregory’s School Hall in Brooklyn, in 1966, which was only a few blocks away from where Hyman grew up.
“I would have just dropped it and kept on moving, but when I opened it up, it said that in 1966 he came to Brooklyn,” Hyman said.
“He came to a Catholic church that was a few blocks from where I lived, at St. Gregory’s, to do this concert to raise money for a children’s playground. . . . He played there; he didn’t play ‘My Favorite Things,’ or some of the Miles [Davis] stuff — he chose a spiritual piece, which was ‘A Love Supreme.’ ”
‘Trane Trax: The Life of Jazz Legend John Coltrane’
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: Moon & River Cafe, 115 S. Ferry St., Schenectady
How Much: Free
More Info: 382-1938, www.moonandrivercafe.com
Inspired by the connection, Hyman, a social studies teacher in the Albany City School District and a history professor at the College of Saint Rose, began writing a new play, his fourth in a series of what he calls “living theatrical historical documentaries,” based on Coltrane’s life. The historical play, “Trane Trax,” will run at the Moon & River Cafe from Friday through Sunday, concluding on what would have been Coltrane’s 86th birthday.
But the fateful connections don’t stop there. Hyman called an old friend, jazz saxophonist Jeff King, who lived a block away from Hyman in Brooklyn, to ask him to perform “A Love Supreme” in its entirety for the birthday celebration performance on Sunday.
“I said, ‘Jeff, can you come up here and play “A Love Supreme?” ’ And he said, ‘Sure,’ ” Hyman said. “So I wrote him back, I said, ‘Did you know that John Coltrane came to St. Gregory’s’ — we lived down the block from each other — ‘in 1966?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I was at the concert.’ It was meant to be.”
“Trane Trax” follows Hyman’s production on Billie Holiday, “Blessed Blues,” in 2010, and “The Motown Story” in 2011 both of which were performed at the Moon & River. “Blessed Blues,” which featured a 25-person cast, initially showed at the New York State Museum in Albany before Moon & River owner Richard Genest invited Hyman to bring the production to the cafe. When Hyman was putting together “Trane Trax,” which features a considerably smaller six-person cast, the choice of venue seemed obvious.
“We want it to be the kind of theater that breaks through the wall,” Hyman said. “Most of us have worked that kind of theater where we’re one-on-one with the people, and we interact with them.”
The cast features Albany natives Frederick Jones as Thelonious Monk; Chris DeLeo as Davis, Sheilah Miller as Alice Coltrane; and Mickey Downs, who sings “Afro Blue” in the production. Gavin Cook of Newark, N.J., plays Coltrane, and Penny Meacham of Schenectady plays Coltrane’s cousin Mary, immortalized in Coltrane’s composition “Cousin Mary” in 1960. All of the cast members have worked with Hyman before, in his Ira Aldridge Ensemble in honor of the African-American Shakespearian actor.
The play runs roughly 90 minutes, covering from Coltrane’s early teenage years to his work with fellow seminal jazz artists Monk and Davis, through his career as a bandleader in the ’60s, culminating with his spiritual reawakening on “A Love Supreme.” Sunday’s performance will stretch for four hours with musical performances by King, The Chronicles and the Rhythm and Jazz Band.
“His family was religious; it seemed like he had a good culture — black history, books — that the family would share,” Cook said during a rehearsal at the Albany Public Library. “And then at some point he broke away, dipped and dabbed in drugs — he may have been exposed to the culture of the music, I don’t know. But because of that seed that was planted into him because of the religion, he came back. So we’ve got a little bit of a taste of religion, and that’s a good aspect of this play that I like.”
The play is not only educational for audiences, but has been a learning experience for the cast as well. Miller was unfamiliar with both John and Alice Coltrane’s work before signing on to play Alice.
“Alice, I didn’t even know she had albums until I looked it up, and they were all there, and I’m like, oh my goodness,” Miller said. “So I’ve gotten a new appreciation for John Coltrane and his music.”
Keeping legacy alive
For the cast, telling Coltrane’s story is an opportunity to help keep both the memory and spirit of him and other jazz greats alive.
“Especially at a time when a lot of the music programs are being cut, and we’re not sharing the exposure of our history and our heritage of music as much, we need to see this,” Meacham said.
“Our children again need to see that, yeah, we’ve gone through hard times before, and we’ve found a way. You never know, at that difficult time you might spark the interest in an instrument again, in music again, in someone reaching for something positive like John did. But they can do it too. This format makes it real, makes the person real, makes the history come alive.”