John Coltrane was 40 years old when his death in July 1967 stunned the jazz world. It had been just 10 years since the consummate saxophonist had the epiphany that helped him get clean and sober, leading to one of the most astonishing artistic transformations in all of music.
Ten years to the day after Coltrane’s death, on July 17, 1977, a group of Boston musicians led by percussionist Syd Smart and saxophonist Leonard Brown convened in a loft space to play the inaugural John Coltrane Memorial Concert. Every year since — the same length of time that Coltrane was alive — the group has dedicated itself to the ongoing celebration of one of the 20th century’s supreme musical figures.
This year’s milestone 40th event features a full week of programming, beginning Sunday, that includes a screening of the documentary “Chasing Trane,” a photography exhibit, a slideshow talk about Coltrane’s life and work and, on Friday, the memorial concert itself. On Saturday, the commemoration concludes with a performance at Northeastern University’s Blackman Auditorium by the Pharoah Sanders Quartet, led by one of Coltrane’s closest surviving kindred spirits.
For Brown, who recently retired from his longtime teaching position at Northeastern, Coltrane’s music has always represented the roots of the African-American experience, encompassing religion and the blues. No matter how far Coltrane pursued his muse into free jazz — and, on his last several albums, he often sounded “like he was out on Jupiter,” Brown says — he always came back to the core.
“With a unique master like Coltrane, my God, you might as well put your spacesuit on and buckle down,” says Brown. “But then he’ll bring you all the way back, put you in a chair, and give you a kiss on the head.”
Brown once traveled to California to receive the blessing for the memorial concert’s continuing dedication to Coltrane from his widow, the late Alice Coltrane, whose own Hindu-inspired music has enjoyed a bit of a revival this year. Years before, at a gig in Detroit, he’d worked up the nerve to ask Alice if he could sit in with her band. They played Coltrane’s “Leo.”
“I was probably in seventh heaven, and nervous to death also,” he recalls with a laugh.
Over the years the concert has established itself as the world’s premiere Coltrane memorial event, with visitors including Ravi Coltrane (John and Alice’s son), the late Yusef Lateef, and Sanders, who will be making his third JCMC appearance this year. Sanders, who played on several of Coltrane’s post-“A Love Supreme” records, including “Meditations, “Ascension,” and “Expression,” went on to establish his own indomitable presence as a leader on probing albums such as “Karma” and “Black Unity.”
Sanders, a man of few words, once explained that he and Coltrane rarely had much to say to one another — until they began playing.
“I would sit right next to him and not say a word and wouldn’t think about saying nothing and he would sit and never say anything either,” he told the website All About Jazz in 2003, the last year he played the John Coltrane Memorial Concert.
“It seemed like when he picked up his horn, it was a whole different story then. Then I would listen,” Sanders continued, laughing. “I would definitely listen.”
Brown’s son Omrao, 42, grew up around the annual concert. An artist manager and festival promoter who operated a jazz nightclub in Washington, D.C., for years, he helped secure Sanders’s return for the 40th anniversary show.
Growing up in Framingham, he was exposed from an early age to an endless fountain of music with spiritual leanings: “Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Mahalia Jackson — all kinds of music that evoked that type of feeling, and Coltrane had his own lane within that.”
For him, peak moments in the JCMC’s history include the 1991 show, when the musicians learned of the death of Miles Davis not long before taking the stage — emcee Eric Jackson composed a poem on the spot — and the year that Ravi Coltrane performed not long after his mother’s death.
“Ravi crushed it,” remembers the younger Brown. “It was great to have him there.”
Asked whether Omrao is being “groomed” to assume a leadership role with the memorial, Leonard Brown laughs.
“He doesn’t need any grooming,” he says. “He’s 21st century. He’s pulling us along.”
Which is only fitting, Brown says. Even 50 years after Coltrane’s death, the music he left behind continues to push ahead.
“His music sounds like tomorrow,” he says, “even today.”
John Coltrane Memorial Concert ENSEMBLE
At Blackman Auditorium, Northeastern University, Oct. 6 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets $20-$35, www.friendsofjcmc.org
Pharoah Sanders Quartet
At Blackman Auditorium, Northeastern University, Oct. 7 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets $30-50, www.friendsofjcmc.orgJames Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.