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John Coltrane and the Meaning of Life

Douglas Groothuis By

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McCoy Tyner on piano gave grounding as well as forceful solos. He, too, was keenly in sync with the rest of the band. Jimmy Garrison on bass could swing and risk with finesse and power and was one of the best soloists on his instrument. Each member had "big ears," a term in jazz meaning the knack of listening and responding to the playing of others in real time on the stage or in the recording studio.

The members of classic quartet meshed so well that they seldom rehearsed after they had established their alchemy. Coltrane might give some brief instructions before a tune, but the rest was forged through extended improvisations. There was an open sky. They were looking up, unafraid. Jones said in an interview with Terri Gross on National Public Radio's "Fresh Air," that the group's interactions were "almost telepathic."

In the book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimum Experience, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explains that we sometimes have experiences in which our abilities, joys, and a sense of purpose merge and produce a heightened state of awareness and he calls "flow." All things pedestrian are transcended in these magic moments or hours. "Flow states" can be experienced by athletes performing at their peak, by surgeons totally engaged in their operations, and more. Becoming one with their music is such a flow state for musicians. They experience it either individually or with other musicians—often transporting their audience with them.

This path-breaking group reached its apex with the recording of "A Love Supreme," released in early 1965. Coltrane had been seeking musical innovation and spiritual enlightenment passionately since he kicked heroine in 1957. A Love Supreme was offered to the God he who had delivered him and given him a radically new perspective on life. He writes in the liner notes:

"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."

He did make others happy though his music as I can attest. For many, this is most evident on "A Love Supreme." Unlike Coltrane's previous recordings, this effort is one thirty-nine minute piece of music consisting of four movements: Acknowledgment, Pursuance, Resolution, and Psalm. Jazz writer Michael Cuscana notes that "this four-part suite, [is] simple in construction but rich in content." It also became one of the most popular and seminal recordings in the history of jazz. A Love Supreme is a work of modal jazz; but it transcends Coltrane's early efforts in this genre because of its focus, intensity, and group dynamics. The musical structure is that of a soul in search of The Supreme, which for Coltrane, was God. In the poem that accompanies the liner notes, he writes of a time of wondering away from God. However, he returned.

"I do perceive and have been duly re-informed of His OMNIPOTENCE, and of our need for, and dependence on Him. At this time I would like to tell you that NO MATTER WHAT ... IT IS WITH GOD. HE IS GRACIOUS AND MERCIFUL. HIS WAY IS IN LOVE, THROUGH WHICH WE ALL ARE. IT IS TRULY—A LOVE SUPREME."

The music manifested in this session is sublime and evokes a kind of attention-getting awe for those who listen carefully and repeatedly. It took several listens for one of my students to "get the music." The epiphany occurred when he was listening to A Love Supreme in his car. The experience was so consuming that he had to pull his car to the side of the road to take it in. I am no stranger to these irruptions.

Instead of evaluating this suite movement by movement, delving into one passage of Part I of "A Love Supreme" gives us a window into Coltrane's apprehension of universal meaning. Lewis Porter, a professor and an expert on John Coltrane's life and music, observes that in "Acknowledgement," Coltrane plays the "Love Supreme" four-note motif in every possible key. By playing these twelve keys Coltrane is musically affirming that "a love supreme" (God) exists in every possible dimension of existence. Lewis Porter notes:

"He's saying it's everywhere. It's in all 12 keys. Anywhere you look, you're going to find this "Love Supreme." He's showing you that in a very conscious way on his saxophone."


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