I grew up in the middle of suburban Long Island, just far enough from the vibrancy and excitement of New York City. My town, Commack, was like every town around it, comprised of Levit homes, big box retail stores, and a high concentration of Billy Joel fans. Manhattan was less than one hour away but I’d have to wait years before I could venture off on my own.
My only escape was the local record store, Mr. Cheapo Used CD and Record Exchange. A fitting name for its founder, Stuart Goldberg, who opened his shop in our town in 1987. As a teenager in the early 2000s, Mr. Cheapo was my sanctuary from the glossy, sterilized malls and music mega chains. Inside its walls, the dusty floors and smell of old vinyl and cardboard intoxicated me as I walked through its narrow aisles. Employees spun their favorite selections through the overhead speakers, curating a collection of sound I’d never heard before on Top 40 radio.
My friends and I were different than many high schoolers. We shared a love of jazz. My mother frequently played old Sinatra and Bennett records at home. While I loved their voices, I was more intrigued by the background musicians providing the melody and mood of each song.
I would often analyze each album cover, front to back, and ask my mother, “Who is Count Basie?” or “Who is Bill Evans?” or “Who’s this guy standing next to him?” She had only little explanation for me.
“Well, they’re musicians, honey,” she said. “They make their own music, too.”
I was determined to find out more.
At school, I managed to make friends with a few like-minded kids who pulled me in deeper to jazz, making me mixtapes of essential tracks like “So What?” and “Take Five.” On weekends, we’d often find ourselves digging through Mr. Cheapo’s inventory, exploring names we hadn’t heard before. Because these used albums were inexpensive, we could afford to invest in artists that struck our curiosity.
One day, I pulled up an album titled A Love Supreme by John Coltrane.
“Who is John Coltrane?” I asked my friend.
“He played with Miles Davis on Kind of Blue,” my friend responded. I had only recently discovered that album and it left a great impact on me.
“OK, I’ll try it out,” I said.
As I brought my selection to the cash register, an older man standing next to me looked down at the CD cover and said, “You know he wrote that record down the road in Dix Hills.”
“Yeah, sure”, I responded sarcastically.
Dix Hills was the town adjacent to Commack. I would never believe jazz music was created anywhere else but in a big city or exotic land. Definitely not the middle of suburbia.
“Don’t believe me? Go see for yourself,” he said, writing down the address on the back of a receipt and handing it to me. I smiled and shoved it in my pocket out of courtesy but not believing a word the man said.
That evening, I returned home and played A Love Supreme on my stereo. My mind was blown. I was deeply affected from those first few notes on Coltrane’s saxophone. The sounds, the flow, the range of emotions, the journey of a man’s life – all gathered into one record.
My understanding of jazz was forever changed that evening. But this album couldn’t possibly have been written only a few miles away from where I lived, I thought to myself. It was too intricate, too dynamic, and too alive to be imagined by someone living in a basic, cookie-cutter house like mine. I removed that crumpled piece of paper from my pocket, that supposedly contained John Coltrane’s home address, and tossed it in the garbage.
Years later, in 2015, I was working in Huntington, the town that oversaw Dix Hills and Commack, and walking passed Heckscher Park on my lunch break when I saw a banner that read:
The Coltrane Home in Dix Hills & The Huntington Arts Council present:
COLTRANE DAY – SUNDAY JULY 5
Heckscher Park, Huntington Village
A Day of Music and Fun
All Are Welcome
Celebrate the 50th Anniversary of A Love Supreme
I was taken aback. That old man in the record shop wasn’t lying. As I stood in front of the park, I googled “Coltrane Home” on my phone and began reading about John and Alice Coltrane’s life in Dix Hills and how he’d written A Love Supreme inside of that house.
“It was there this whole time,” I said to myself.
As I read further, I learned about the great lengths taken by fans, local residents, and town officials to save the dilapidated home from demolition in 2004. Apparently, A Love Supreme and Coltrane’s body of work left an indelible mark on many more people than I realized.
On Oct. 9, I witnessed a legacy being preserved as The Coltrane Home officially became a National Treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Suddenly, I felt a sense of pride of where I came from.
I’m not from the middle of suburbia. I’m from a piece of American history with jazz roots growing out of its soil.
Raj Tawney is a journalist from Long Island, New York. He has contributed to the New York Daily News, Newsday, The Huffington Post, Miami Herald, The Desert Sun, and Medium.