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Murals can be a powerful means of showing gratitude and appreciation to an inspirational figure. By utilizing such a grand canvas, murals have the potential to educate generations of people as well as provide an identity to a community. Often times, a mural seeks to capture the life and legacy of somebody who made a difference in their lifetime. However, much like the figures themselves, these murals cannot live forever, and the removal of these art pieces can go beyond something much more than a change of scenery. This is true for the John Coltrane mural titled "Why We Love John Coltrane", as it faces a transformation that has caused much controversy in a small-town Philadelphia community.

Lewis's original mural was much simpler in its approach. While it has all of necessary elements to capture the elements of who Coltrane was, it still provides plenty of room for improvement.

The original Philadelphia mural

Building on these ideas, Martinez would seek to enhance the image, giving Coltrane a more stoic look as well as including a saxophone and vibrant background imagery. The method by which an original idea is built on falls in line with the thematic through line of how jazz is constructed.

Martinez's 2017 Reimagination of the original mural

John Coltrane is respected as one of the most influential American saxophonists and composers. By combining elements of classical music, world music, and jazz, Coltrane was able to open up the minds of generations of musicians with his groundbreaking sounds1. Because of his ability to constantly innovate and evolve the genre of jazz music, Coltrane would work alongside, and be respected by, the likes of other influential jazz artists like Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock. Passing away at the age of 40 in 1967, Coltrane's career ended up being one of the shortest in jazz history and despite this, he was able to record over 45 projects2. Because of the appreciation for Coltrane, his estate has released several posthumous albums celebrating the life of John Coltrane and giving new, young artists a chance to discover him. Overall, his music not only changed the affected the sounds of his time, but his legacy is one that continues to be a reference point for young artists looking to innovate.

In 2002, 35 years after Coltrane's death, one of the first murals for John Coltrane was painted by a man named John Lewis which was simply titled "A Tribute to John Coltrane". The mural was in Strawberry Mansion, the hometown of John Coltrane, giving it a sentimental value to the community. However the mural would eventually be demolished in 2014 due to plans for expansion in the neighborhood3. Due to immediate backlash from the community, a replacement for the mural became a necessity. Quickly responding, local North Philadelphia artist Ernel Martinez was called upon in 2017 to create a new mural in the same neighborhood. This mural would utilize many of the desired aspects of the original mural, mainly the blue color palette and the thematic representation of Coltrane's legacy and end up being named "Why We Love John Coltrane". However, this new mural is now facing a form of demolition where a new apartment building will be put up almost directly in front of the mural. Overall, the fact that the Coltrane mural was created twice speaks to its importance in the community as being an important landmark in the neighborhood.

In terms of the political subtext of all this, the removal of Coltrane's murals speaks to a divide between the local government and it's community. For instance, like Coltrane's jazz, it would seem these murals are becoming a fight for Black voices against an overpowering industry. This makes sense considering the fact that historically racist figures are able to remain untouched while a Black murals have to keep moving around town due to land development. For example, a Dox Thrash mural was defaced for seemingly no reason in 20124 while a statue of historically racist mayor Frank Rizzo remained standing through the entirety of the 2010's5. Contradictions like this occurring in a community can be damaging to a how the members of the community portray themselves, especially those in the African American community.

Overall, the philosophies of John Coltrane seemed to have transcended in some fashion to the murals which commemorate him. On one hand, the need to have an appreciation for the past and a fight for Black voices is apparent in the struggle to keep the murals up. However, the idea that nothing lasts forever and that one should always be open to change in the name of progress is on the other side of this duality that makes the situation so difficult.

  1. Porter, Lewis. The Oxford Companion to Jazz. New York, New York. Oxford University Press, 2000.
  2. Ruhlmann, William. John Coltrane, Philadelphia Music Alliance. Accessed December 8th 2021.
  3. Laughlin, Jason. The threat to a John Coltrane mural shows how development can erase Black history in Phill, The Philadelphia Inquirer. July 29th 2020. Accessed December 8th 2021.
  4. Metcalfe, John. Who Destroyed This Iconic African-American Mural in Philadelphia?, November 30th 2012. Accessed December 8th 2021.
  5. Hurdle, John. Philadelphia Removes Statue Seen as Symbol of Racism and Police Abuse, The New York Times. June 4th 2020. Accessed December 8th 2021.
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