Week 184: “My Little Brown Book” by Duke Ellington and John Coltrane


Here are some highlights from the early years of Belgian inventor Adolphe Sax:

  • Born in 1814
  • At age 2, he fell out a third-floor window and cracked his skull
  • At age 3, he swallowed a pin
  • At age 6, he almost died after accidentally drinking boric acid
  • At age 9, he fell off a cliff and broke his leg
  • At age 11, he was in a measles-induced coma for nine days
  • At age 14, he broke his arm in a carriage accident
  • At age 19, he was hit on the head by a falling brick
  • At age 23, he drank tainted wine and almost died again
  • At age 26, he was so poor he was living in a shed in Paris
  • At age 29, he invented the saxophone

Other misfortunes suffered in his young life include falling down some stairs, being burned in a gunpowder accident, surviving an unpleasant encounter with a hot frying pan, and almost drowning in a river. After the river incident, his mother had this to say: “The child is doomed to suffer; he won’t live.” Not exactly supportive. But in fairness to her, she was busy raising ten other children at the time.

Perhaps the saxophone’s ability to convey sadness and hardship has something to do with the many hardships suffered by its inventor. Or maybe it’s because the instrument was almost forgotten after Adolphe Sax’s death, only to be revived by the arrival of jazz.

Whatever the reason, few instruments have the ability to convey the pain and raw emotion of jazz the way the saxophone can. And few sax players have harnessed that ability quite like John Coltrane.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. Ellington’s piano part that opens and closes the song. Sad and reflective.

2. Coltrane’s playing. Smooth and un-hurried.

3. The Coltrane-Ellington combination is awesome. Coltrane had always wanted to collaborate with his idol. Like Adolphe Sax, Coltrane had a bit of a rocky life. Struggling with various addictions, he would be dead within five years of recording this track. But in his brief life (he was only 40) he was able to take Adolphe Sax’s instrument to places he would never have imagined.

Recommended listening activity:

Dusting yourself off and trying again.

Buy it here.