Sonic Liberation 8, one of the bands taking part in Coltrane at 90 | photo courtesy of the artist

Next Friday, September 23, would have marked the 90th birthday of iconic saxophonist John Coltrane. Though he passed away nearly half a century ago at only 40 years old, Trane’s legacy continues to cast an enormous shadow over the jazz landscape, influencing generations of musicians not only through his playing but also in his restless experimentation, never-ceasing evolution and spiritual quest.

Coltrane only lived in Philadelphia for about a decade, spending most of the 1950s in the Strawberry Mansion rowhome that is now a National Historic Landmark, but Philadelphia Jazz Project director Homer Jackson says that they were formative enough years that Philly has a valid claim on the jazz legend. “It’s important that we, as Philadelphians, recognize that John Coltrane was our neighbor,” Jackson says. “He was a person that lived in these streets, walked through this community, became a man and shaped his destiny here.”

More importantly, Jackson continues, Coltrane forged his groundbreaking sound in connection with a number of other Philly musicians at the time, only some of whom have gone on to find fame outside the city, an impressive list that includes Jymie Merritt, Jimmy Heath, Benny Golson, and Odean Pope. “He was part of a community of forward-thinking artists that helped shape his ideas,” Jackson says. “These folks were pushing the boundaries of what was going to happen after bebop. We think of John Coltrane as this individual voice, which is true, but he’s also the epitome of what that community was about.”

Community is also key to the events that the Philadelphia Jazz Project, in partnership with a number of local jazz-connected institutions including WXPN, WRTI, Temple University Libraries and Ars Nova Workshop, has planned to celebrate this landmark birthday. “Coltrane at 90” is a weeklong series of events, many of them located in Trane’s own North Philly neighborhood, that will honor the saxophonist in a variety of ways. All events are free, which Jackson says is crucial to “reach across the aisle to people who aren’t jazz fans but may want to come out, walk in the park and learn a little something.”

The festivities kick off this Saturday with a day-long “Jazz Walk” at East Park Reservoir in Fairmount Park, which will feature six stations ringing the reservoir – three of them hosting performances by local jazz artists and three featuring refreshments and information. Performers include saxophonist Terry Lawson and drummer Alan Nelson recreating Interstellar Space, Coltrane’s album of duets with Rashied Ali, and vocalists Suzanne Burgess and Paul Jost singing a set of standards recorded by Trane.

One of the week’s must-see events takes place on Tuesday, with local avant-jazz/Afro-Cuban ensemble Sonic Liberation 8 revisiting Coltrane’s 1965 album Kulu Se Mama in its entirety. The album’s nearly 20-minute title track features some of the saxophonist’s earliest experiments with African percussion, making it close to SL8 percussionist and bandleader Kevin Diehl’s heart.

“It’s definitely Coltrane exploring West African culture,” says Diehl, who has spent his life undertaking similar explorations of Afro-Cuban Orisha music, not to mention a deep love for Elvin Jones, the revered drummer of the Coltrane Quartet. “I always thought that Elvin Jones was doing on the drum kit what three Batá drummers do. That’s not to say that he studied Batá drums or Orisha music, but it comes from the same well.”

To recreate the unique dynamic between Jones and the percussive playing of pianist McCoy Tyner, Diehl has enlisted vibraphonist Behn Gillece to supplement the octet. Temple professor and choreographer Dr. Kariamu Welsh has created a solo dance piece called “Resonance!” to accompany the music, to be performed by dancer Shaness Kemp.

On Thursday, a nine-piece band featuring saxophonist Bobby Zankel and pianist Alife Pollitt will ring in the Autumnal Equinox with a program including Coltrane’s composition, “Equinox,” while next Saturday, September 24, WorldTown Sound System and The Living Sample will explore Coltrane’s catalogue through a techno and hip-hop lens at the Schmidt’s Commons. Other events throughout the week include a tribute to Trane’s early years by drummer Lucky Thompson and singer Karen Smith, a performance by saxophonist Chris Oatts at the Free Library, and a pop-up festival with Temple students.

The series will culminate on Coltrane’s birthday with a six-hour marathon featuring short solo sets and various combinations of some of modern jazz’s leading saxophonists from Philly and beyond. The staggering roster includes James Carter, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Sonny Fortune, Billy Harper, James Brandon Lewis, Douglas Ewart, Odean Pope, Greg Osby, Julian Pressley, and several others spanning generations and styles. “We wanted to do something crazy, one of a kind and historic,” says Jackson, who assembled the line-up with J. Michael Harrison, host of WRTI’s “The Bridge.”

Jackson hopes that the series will be appreciated not just by jazz fanatics but by Philadelphians who may not even know what instrument Coltrane played. “For me, it’s like learning about Ben Franklin,” he says. “He was an important person to the community, and there’s plenty of story to tell, for sure.”

For a full line-up of Coltrane at 90 events, visit the Philadelphia Jazz Project’s website here.