John Coltrane and the Meaning of Life

Douglas Groothuis By

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After recording A Love Supreme, Coltrane added other players to the group—such as the histrionic saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders and his second wife, Alice, on piano—and minimized structure for the sake of rather unguided sonic searching. Jones and Tyner soon left the group, but Garrison remained for the duration. This music left many listeners behind, but Coltrane kept looking ahead even if the destination was not in sight. His last (poorly) recorded gig, The Olatunji Concert, was released by Impulse in 2001. After one more unrecorded concert, John Coltrane died of liver cancer on July 17, 1967. The jazz world was stunned and grieved. Jazz guitarist John McLaughlin said his knees shook upon hearing the news.

What can the life of this man tell us about the meaning of life? So much can be said, but let me return to a theme of this essay: Coltrane's pursuit of meaning. Coltrane was not alone. We all seeking meaning—some purpose and significance beyond ourselves, which, nevertheless, bears on our condition The Oxford don, C.S. Lewis believed that yearning and searching for transcendence revealed the deep core of human beings. We desire many things we do not achieve (success, wealth, and health). This desire for something more than mere earth can afford is universal and insistent. We find it in Coltrane's unceasing quests. Could that longing—expressed in the poetry, philosophy, and the music of the ages—all come to nothing? Might Shakespeare's MacBeth have the last word?

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player That struts and frets his hour upon the stage And then is heard no more. It is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.

Does the life and music of John Coltrane signify nothing? Was his pursuit pointless? I think not. Part of the meaning of life is that humans seek meaning and meaning is worth pursuing. We are meaning-seeking beings, and cannot be otherwise. Even those who dispense with all meaning—such as Bertrand Russell who called the world "a chance collocation of atoms"—still find meaning in trying to convince others that there is no meaning. Few have sought meaning and beauty and truth more soulfully than John Coltrane; yet, to our knowledge, he was never quite satisfied. Are any of us? We find meaning, we seek for more meaning. What does all this tell us about ourselves and our world? C.S. Lewis offers an arresting idea from his essay, "The Weight of Glory."

"Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim; well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my early pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly desires were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing."

Coltrane was in search of "the real thing," which he identified as God in A Love Supreme. Many have found the music of John Coltrane to be a kind of portal, an opening to transcendence, and a reason to return thanks. Free jazz saxophonist Peter Brötzmann, who shows no signs of religiosity, says that "music comes from somewhere else." Some music, in its sublimity, evokes humility before a reality for which humans are not entirely responsible and which they have not entirely grasped. Perhaps the Teacher of old put it best:

"He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end (Book of Ecclesiastes, chapter three, verse eleven)."

There may be more yet to this "Love Supreme" than Coltrane grasped. Indeed, I think so. But his ardent "pursuance" should spur us on to seek the higher things while we can.


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