By Leslie Hassanein, news staff

Blackman Auditorium saw a full house on Saturday, for the 39th annual John Coltrane Memorial Concert. This year’s theme, “An Evening of Ballads & Blues,” brought a new twist to many beloved compositions from the iconic jazz musician.

The ensemble, comprised of seasoned musicians as well as younger faces, began with “The Promise,” arranged by reed and woodwind player Carl Atkins, who has been with the group for over 25 years. They went on to perform nine other pieces, including solo performances of “Lonnie’s Lament” by pianist Consuelo Candelaria and “Naima” by bassist Nat Reeves.

Cynthia Brown, finance and administration manager of the Bouvé School of Health Science and a 2006 Northeastern alumna, attended the memorial concert Saturday.

“You can tell they’re all well-seasoned,” Brown said. “These people have been around music a long time, they’re not just a bunch of students.”

Leonard Brown is the co-founder and co-producer of the Friends of John Coltrane Memorial Concert (FJCMC), and was also a professor of music and African-American studies at Northeastern until his retirement in 2015. He explained that humility is key when performing Coltrane’s work.

“Everybody’s a star, nobody’s a star. We look for musicians who do the best they can and leave their egos at the door,” Brown said. “If you’re going to play this music, you have to bring your A-plus-plus-plus game all the time.”

At its origin, the FJCMC was not meant to be an annual event. A group of musicians got together on July 17, 1977 at the Great Black Music Loft, a performance space established by percussionist Syd Smart in Boston, to honor Coltrane on the 10th anniversary of his death. The group received an unprecedented amount of popularity, according to Brown, who claims people crowded outside the studio until almost 3 a.m. to hear them play.

The FJCMC relocated three times before finding its home at Northeastern in 1986. Different themes are explored with each performance. One year the group had an Afro-Cuban theme, and a rap theme was performed five years ago. Many rappers sample Coltrane in their work, including Manni Festo, a Northeastern graduate who used the last piano riff from “Love Supreme” in his song, “Slave.”

These annual concerts are performed with the goal of not only paying tribute to Coltrane, but enhancing and perpetuating the musical traditions of black Americans.

“Haynes Barnett and particularly African-American musicians aim to present black culture in the proper fashion,” Brown said. “We’re fighting stereotypes and racism through music. You’ve heard of Beethoven and Mozart – what about our great musicians?”

Mark Lomanno, a professor of ethnomusicology and jazz studies at Northeastern, said he believes Coltrane to be one of the most innovative musicians of the 20th century.

“One of the reasons why I’m so thankful that we can share this concert with Northeastern students is in the hopes that Coltrane and his music will inspire them regardless of their academic concentration,” Lomanno said. “Improvisation can take many forms besides musical. I think one of the best lessons we can provide our students is to help them forge connections between their studies and hopefully inspire them to engage with the world in an open-minded, multifaceted and engaged manner as Coltrane did.”

Photo by Dylan Shen