Meme and Variations: How Video Mashups of John Coltrane’s Giant Steps Became a Thing

Meme and Variations: John Coltrane's "Giant Steps"

Below is a video playlist to accompany a chapter in the forthcoming book Remediating Sound: Repeatable Culture, YouTube and Music, edited by Holly Rogers, Joana Freitas and João Francisco Porfírio for Bloomsbury's series, "New Approaches to Sound, Music, and Media." This study looks to emerging video memes referencing John Coltrane’s jazz classic, Giant Steps. Memes are rapidly-evolving, short video pieces with deep meanings and multiple referential layers, often intended to be consumed and passed in our feverish and fleeting lacuna of short attention spans and shifting platforms. YouTube has become one of the most important testing grounds and repositories of longer-form musical memes. The field of Ethnomusicology has not been well-equipped to study this new realm, as it has been built on classic ideas of personal observation, co-spatial and co-temporal engagement, and ethnographic method.  The intent of this study is to expand our field’s toolset to better deal with these digital texts; to tease out the cultural context around YouTube memes; to grasp and document the intentions behind the creation of pieces within a genre of memes; and to understand this particular trope’s placement in larger meme culture.
Thanks to Navarro Peck and Zev Spencer-Shapiro for research and advice.

Video Example 1
In this piece for the animated series “Blank on Blank,” Frank Kofsky’s tape-recorded interview with John Coltrane in November of 1966 – a year before Coltrane’s death at age 40 – is set to images.  We can hear Coltrane discussing some of his larger ideas about music that he tried to convey in his compositions. Uploaded to YouTube on May 12, 2015.  

Video Example 2
Recorded on May 5, 1959 and released on Atlantic records in 1960, the ensemble for this particular session was John Coltrane on saxophone, Tommy Flanagan on piano, Art Taylor on drum set, and Paul Chambers on double bass. Uploaded to YouTube on September 29, 2010.

Video Example 3
In the Vox series “Earworm,” Estelle Caswell has musicians Braxton Cook and Adam Neely discuss and demonstrate the compositional music theory behind the complex “Coltrane changes.” Uploaded to YouTube on November 12, 2018. 

Video Example 4
An animated transcription of Coltrane's playing on "Giant Steps." Uploaded to YouTube on January 3, 2007.

Video Example 5
“Giant Steps in C [Live]” by Caleb Curtis. Originally uploaded to YouTube on January 22, 2014.

Video Example 6
A review of Zynaptiq's Pitchmap music manipulation software. Uploaded to YouTube on November 16, 2013. 

Video Example 7
An example of pitch manipulation - changing notes in the Pink Panther theme to make aspects of it in major. Uploaded to YouTube on June 25, 2013. 

Video Example 8
A live recording of the John Coltrane Quartet playing Impressions. Uploaded to YouTube on February 8, 2013. 

Video Example 9
An animated transcription of "Giant Steps in C [Live]." Uploaded to YouTube on January 1, 2016.

Video Example 10
Brad Smith's version of "Giant Steps" made to sound like it is being played on a Nintendo gaming system. Uploaded to YouTube on November 25, 2012.

Video Example 11
Ilja Reijngoud's mashup of "Giant Steps" and the BeeGees. Uploaded to YouTube on January 21, 2014.

Video Example 12
Diane Wong’s mashup references both the moon landing and the EDM genre dubstep. Uploaded to YouTube on March 29, 2018.

Video Example 13
Ian Ostaszewski's mashup with Rihanna’s “Work.” Uploaded to YouTube on January 15, 2019. 

Video Example 14
This piece uses images from the Japanese manga Golden Boy (a static visual meme in itself), while depicting Tommy Flanagan “drowning” (a jazz term meaning struggling to keep up) during his solo during the classic 1959 recording session. Uploaded to YouTube on May 20, 2018.

Video Example 15
Jasper Swank's mashup with "Baby Shark." Uploaded to YouTube on February 28, 2019.

Video Example 16
Simon Fransman’s mashup, in which the chords of Katy Perry’s “Roar” are transmogrified into the Coltrane changes, while also being recontextualized as smooth jazz. Uploaded to YouTube January 17, 2019.

Video Example 17
Excerpt from an Italian documentary on jazz, in which "Giant Steps in C [Live]" is played instead of "Giant Steps."

Video Example 18
Caleb Curtis' "Giant Steps in C [Live]" was taken down from YouTube in 2021.

Extra Video Examples


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