Alice Coltrane: In the Spirit

Kurt Gottschalk By

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From the 1995-2003 archive: This article first appeared at All About Jazz in December 2002.

Alice Coltrane walked out onstage, joining an ensemble led by her son Ravi on a recent and historic night at Joe's Pub. The bassist Darryl Hall played an immediately recognizable four-note line and the group (also featuring drummer E.J. Strickland) launched into the only reasonable song they could have chosen for the evening, if one that many in the packed room might well have thought would be too much to ask for. Meanwhile, a continent away stands a church that has taken the author of that composition, Alice's late husband John, as a patron saint. And while claiming a saint outside the proper channels—the pope is unlikely to recognize Trane anytime soon—is an unorthodox move, if anyone in jazz is a contender for sainthood, well, they picked the right man.

The night at Joe's Pub marked the release of a two-disc reissue of John Coltrane's signature 1965 record, A Love Supreme, and a book chronicling the making of the classic record. The album is not just a brilliant achievement by one of America's most important musicians. It's not only an apogee in the development of jazz, standing as one of the watermarks during a vital time when jazz was being stripped of such notions as theme-solo-theme, chordal progressions and even successive solos. It is quite simply one of the major statements of faith in a higher power in recent history. Removed from its importance in the jazz pantheon, the album is a bowing before God in a country and during a century when such statements were decidedly unfashionable.

The tradition into which Trane entered in the 1940s, and to which he was devoted until his death in 1967, was at least in part a religious endeavor. At that time, much of the source material was still gospel and spiritual songs, blues and slave songs, much of the inspiration coming from the church. Coltrane was hardly alone in bringing this foundation to the fore; Duke Ellington composed masses, Pharoah Sanders and Albert Ayler professed their faith in no uncertain terms, and countless others blurred the lines within Black American music. But with A Love Supreme, Coltrane made a statement. It's not the stuff of a jamboree or an evangelist tent, but a dignified, pronounced and above all serious work. It's hard to imagine even the most cynical remaining untouched. In the introduction to A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane's Signature Album, author Ashley Kahn goes even further in stating the case that cannot be overstated:

"It's difficult to write of Coltrane and not sound heavy-handed. As enticing as the inevitable Trane/train metaphors may be, so are the Christ-like parallels. The saxophonist's life of self-sacrifice, message of universal love, death at an early age—even his initials—amplify the temptation." Needless to say, none of those are points Kahn was the first to notice. The casting of Coltrane as Savior has been taken, perhaps, to the extreme at a small, storefront church in San Francisco. Calling itself the St. John Coltrane African Orthodox Church, the congregation holds jam sessions after sermons and takes Coltrane as their patron saint. The walls are decorated with mock stained-glass windows featuring Trane, an eternal flame leaping from the bell of his horn. If it's all a little extreme, it still shows the esteem in which the man is held.

It's an extreme into which his widow, however, politely does not buy. While she worked with the congregation, which was founded in 1969, during the '70s, she said the focus on her husband—or any human—led her to part ways with the church.

"You can believe in who you wish," she said. "It's something in your heart. So when people say, 'Oh, he was like an angel,' I don't take it away from them because who knows the set of experiences that can bring about a religious experience?

"If a person wants to adhere to a human being before God, maybe they're permitted to grow more in their appreciation, but now it's time to look up, to know greater matters in your soul and advance in your greater appreciation."

Alice Coltrane now devotes much of her time to a Vadantic center near her southern California home which practices a mixture of Indian and Christian beliefs. She has retired from commercial music making, and now her only musical outlet is recordings of music, traditional compositions as well as her own, that are supplied to religious institutions for use during meditation. If she questions the canonization of her late husband, however, the power of music for her is beyond doubt.

"Music is spiritual," she said. "It's invisible and that's where your faith comes in. It can be seen. It has shape. It has form. Music comes from within your heart, within your soul."

As for A Love Supreme—recorded after Alice and John were together but before she had joined his band, the composition, she said, seemed a statement divinely inspired.

"He said this was something that had been in his heart a long time, and then one day all of the music came out at once," she said. "It was such a beautiful offering to the people and to God."

It's an offering that has touched many musicians in their quest to find a voice.

Trumpeter Roy Campbell—who leads the band Shades and Colors of Trane and who has realized the remarkable task of playing Coltrane's "sheets of sound" on his trumpet—said that the discovery of A Love Supreme led him out of the dark days of drug abuse during his college years. A friend loaned him the album and helped to lift him from drugs and depression—a struggle with which Coltrane himself had been involved just two years prior to recording the album.

"When I first heard A Love Supreme and read what he had said [in the album's liner notes], that really changed my life," Campbell said. "During that time, people knew I needed something to bring me back, to bring me into focus.

"It's a call to worship, an invocation," he said. "You feel like you're going to heaven, and when you hear that bass line you feel like you're going to do some heavy activities. And then when that saxophone comes in, you feel like you're leaving all your earthly possessions."

A Love Supreme was recorded in December, 1964, and released the following year—a year during which Coltrane accomplished more than most musicians do in a lifetime. Under an unusual agreement with Impulse!, Coltrane would have free reign over "experimental" works as long as he delivered commercial albums, including marketable standards. As a result, he pushed his 4-album-a-year contract (unthinkable in today's world) to the hilt, releasing two versions of the landmark Ascension, the then-untitled Transition, the beautiful Om and Kulu Se Mama, and the powerhouse Meditations, as well as crowd (or suit) pleasers The John Coltrane Quartet Plays and New Thing at Newport, (which might have been a knock-off had it not been for its sponsoring of young up'n'comer Archie Shepp). The saxophonist, as it happened, had only two more years on earth, and was pushing it for all he was worth.

"Coltrane came out with Ascension, and when I first heard it, it was too much for me," said keyboardist/composer Amina Claudine Myers, who has built much of her work from her coming-of-age in the Baptist church. "I would say 'Oh, it's giving me a headache.' After two more hearings, I loved it. And then I went to see him and the music was so spiritual, it was so uplifting—it was fantastic.

"Coltrane affected me consciously and unconsciously," she said. "He gets to the root of you, he was just so happening—everything that happened in the universe."

While close to 40 years ago, Coltrane's masterpiece might have had a Christian base, to Myers, it's only about faith in something greater, something higher.

"To me, it's all the same—the one god, even though he has many names," she said. "I'm a Christian because I was raised it, but I have many beliefs." As for people who don't feel the spiritual connection to music, who aren't devout in their beliefs in a higher power, Alice Coltrane said that inspiration can still be found within the music.

"Aren't we all at our own evolutionary stage of life?" she asked. "Where we are musically, academically, spiritually—we're all responding according to where we stand. Some people may gather more, may gain more, but we're all progressing. We're all moving in an evolutionary path."

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