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Celebrating John Coltrane with Cultural Documentarian Steve Rowland

Celebrating John Coltrane with Cultural Documentarian Steve Rowland
Christine Passarella By

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Steve Rowland is a documentarian, educator, lover of music and humanity. Discussing his journey for this article was enjoyable, thought-provoking and informative. Steve is a humble man, and he wanted the focus of this article to be on the music, but I hope also to shed light on what goes into the development of a good man who lives a life of integrity. Our initial discussion for the interview took place last year and the discussions grew with a lasting friendship as we are like minded in the ways in which we were impacted by the majestic musician John Coltrane. Steve and I are believers in the vibrational force and messages of love, messages of peace, and messages of universal oneness in John Coltrane's music. In this "law of attraction" people are pulled into the loving energy of John Coltrane all over the world. Steve Rowland shares a devotion to John's spirit, and a belief that the music is a healing force. Rowland is a keeper of the flame in mind, heart, and soul.

I had a growing curiosity about what went on in Steve Rowland's life which prepared him to create his exemplary audio documentary Tell Me How Long Trane's Been Gone. I decided the best way to find this out was to interview him. He agreed to be interviewed having met me once before in a social setting with a mutual friend. The landmark production was directed and edited by Rowland, scripts written by novelist and musician Larry Abrams and narrated by the late poet Professor Michael S. Harper. It was produced by Steve, and co-produced by Abrams and writer and music business visionary (and another profound Coltrane lover) Marty Khan. The program was originally brought to life to honor the 75th anniversary of Coltrane's birth and hauntingly was originally released to public radio stations a week before the attacks of September 11, 2001. Listening once again to the audio broadcast I am struck by the reflections which include my mentors the outstanding public intellectual and American philosopher Dr. Cornel West, and legendary jazz critic and writer the late Nat Hentoff. Also included in this colossal work are Alice Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, Wayne Shorter, Elvin Jones, Max Roach, Charlie Parker, Art Davis, Carlos Santana, Makanda Ken McIntyre, Zita Carno, Bobby Zankel, Lewis Porter, Steve Coleman, Babatunde Olatunji, Sekou Sundiata, Gary Bartz, Odean Pope, A.B. Spellman, Amiri Baraka, "Cousin Mary" Alexander, Rashied Ali, Reggie Workman, Jimmy Stewart, Jimmy Oliver, Dizzy Gillespie, August Blume, Dennis Sandole, George Russell, Jimmy Amadie, Gerry Mulligan, Roland Wiggins, Bob Thiele and more. I strongly suggest you listen to it, perhaps as a gift to yourself in honor of John Coltrane's birthday this week.

The overarching Socratic question explored in the documentary is what makes us tune into John Coltrane? Tell Me How Long Trane's Been Gone is an extraordinary treasure. He captured lightning in a bottle. Every time I listen to the five-hour radio documentary it provides more for me to unpack and learn from. Weaving throughout, we hear John Coltrane's family, close friends, musicians, poets, advocates, and intellectuals discussing why he was important to civilization. For some people such as myself John Coltrane is a prophet. The music came through him with the Grace of God for his survival, and as a vessel to help all his listeners in order to create a better world. People are yearning once again for answers so listening deeply to the message in John's music seems quite fitting. John was relentless in his search creating music which could actually bring change to humanity and here, so many years after his 1967 passing at the age of 40, his music holds so many beautiful answers which can be guides to human evolution. JC unlocked the power of music and left the world a force to reckon with, a "good" force to push away the "evil" forces.

In Rowland's radio documentary for example we hear pianist Zita Carno sharing with us that Coltrane has the powerful force to pull his listeners right out of their chairs and that they can't help being driven ahead by him. All followers of Trane know that he made his feelings clear in his letter to the listener which he included in his stellar album A Love Supreme, "During the year 1957, I experienced, by the Grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music. I feel this has been granted through His grace. ALL PRAISE TO GOD..." In the documentary Rowland includes the majestic voice of John himself speaking to us. For Coltrane music was his way of coming to terms with the mystery of creation. In the radio documentary we hear John in a rare 1958 interview conducted by journalist August Blume, talk about his powerful grandfather Reverend William Blair who was active politically, "He was the dominating cat in the family." He also talks about his father who was a tailor, and a man who played music in the sanctuary of his home. In a later interview with Kazuaki Tsujimoto we hear John state, "I believe that man is here to grow into the fullest, the best that he can be. At least this is what I want to do. As I am growing to become whatever I become, this will just come out on the horn. Whatever that's going to be, it will be. I am not so much interested in trying to say what it's going to be. I don't know. I just know that good can only bring good."

Trane's music is an eternal flame which includes a devotional landscape we can all listen and learn from directly from the prophet himself. Throughout Steve's production, he includes the primary voices of the people who John had in his life. It was a time in which a superhumanity was created by artists and activists who had the courage with a supreme effort to make that real difference to bring a better life to all. With his brilliance John Coltrane continues to feed the soul of the entire world with his message of A Love Supreme. Saxophonist Gary Bartz who saw John perform live states these breathtaking beautifully affirming words in the documentary, "It was like being in the presence of Jesus..." With a preciousness the production offers John's voice surrounded by the music he held so dear. In Steve Rowland's artistic and careful hands is sculpted an oral history that informs us great music be shared and examined to bring forth a deep understanding and peace.

I remember listening to and meeting A.B. Spellman at a 2009 NEA event at the Schomburg Library in Harlem which focused on keeping alive the legacy of jazz. Hearing his voice in the Rowland's documentary was quite uplifting as well and what he said having "witnessed" Trane live on many occasions was quite moving. Spellman was brought to a level of awareness and emotional depth that had him call out "Don't take me there Trane," when actually knowing that is exactly where he needed and wanted to go to continue to grow with his gifted poetry and purposeful life. Spellman's transformational experience hearing John Coltrane live can be found in his poetry. Rowland includes master musicians who also teach the technical genius of how John broke through what was and created a new way of playing his instrument which came from a foundation of literally playing with the best musicians to have ever walked this earth like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Babatunde Olatunji and others. So, it is absolutely clear to me that Tell Me How Long Trane's Been Gone is a five-hour documentary that should be studied by all who are moved by the music and or who want to continue to learn from the divine gifts left to us by John Coltrane and his contemporaries.

Now good friends, Steve and I often talk about the 'vibrations' music, and examine how it connects us to the universe in powerful and mysterious ways. It is always a joy to dive into Coltranian discussions with Rowland, from across the country we connect from his home in Seattle to mine on the east coast via phone conversations. In a recent conversation we were uplifted by the research that came out of Stephon Alexander's book The Jazz of Physics: The Secret Link Between Music and the Structure of the Universe. "Coltrane played with physics in his music and incredibly, correctly realized that cosmic expansion is a form of antigravity. In jazz combos, the "gravitational" pull comes from the bass and drums in the rhythm section. The songs in Interstellar Space are a majestic display of Coltrane's solos expanding, freeing themselves from the gravitational pull of the rhythm section. He was a musical innovator, with physics at his fingertips. Einstein was an innovator in physics, with music at his fingertips." Stephon is an astrophysicist and a saxophonist who sees the force in Coltrane, so including him in any Coltranian discussion sheds light on the world Trane explored as his musical journey evolved. Steve and I discussed this fascinating book which had us land on a discussion referenced in the book between master musician Yusef Lateef, a Coltrane confidant and the author. Dr. Alexander called Dr. Lateef to discuss Coltrane's drawing of a mandala which was a birthday gift to Lateef in 1961 from John. Alexander writes, "What I had realized, I told Lateef, was that the same geometric principle that motivated Einstein's theory was reflected in Coltrane's diagram. Einstein was a hero of mine. So were Coltrane and Lateef."

Steve and I continue to discuss the physics and math in jazz as we along with Coltrane are fascinated with Einstein's ideas. At some point in the discussion I told Steve, that recently one of my Kids for Coltrane students, Husna Mirza, now a college student living in California and an exquisite young poet had worshipped with her parents in the same mosque as Yusef Lateef. She gave me her copy of his doctoral dissertation entitled An Overview-of Western and Islamic Education as a gift when she discovered Lateef was Trane's dear friend. Steve was not surprised that the dissertation which focused on education wound up in my possession. It seems that the vibrational connections through the universe bring people together in this miraculous transforming way.

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