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Tender and Fierce Blessings: Malcolm, Coltrane and My Mentor Nat Hentoff

Christine Passarella By

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Dear Nat,

It has been awhile since I wrote. You are heavily on my mind. I must say I miss the ability to reach out to you when I had something magnificent to say about my Kids for Coltrane Project in Education. Sharing other positive news in education such as George Lucas's online magazine Edutopia and the amazing research coming out of Harvard's Project Zero was nourishing. Working out my personal deep frustration with certain aspects of the educational system in New York City with you from 2007 through 2015 was also profoundly life-changing. You always understood and sent me on my way with words of empowerment, enlightenment, and ethics. I was blessed to have you as a mentor. As your great and dear friend John Coltrane was a force for good, so were you. Indeed, I must tell you that the lives you touched while you were here, continue to be elevated and enriched by your love and consideration. Your brilliant body of work certainly impacted me and my students through your courageous and unwavering commitment to beauty, love, and justice.

I attended your memorial service last year at Saint Peter's on the east side of Manhattan with my son. The rooms were filled with people who loved and respected you throughout your unique and dedicated life. I spoke to your daughter Jessica and two of your grandchildren that evening. There were paintings of some of your best friends in the jazz world covering the walls. Sweet conversation flowed with memories of knowing you. I gravitated to the paintings of John Coltrane. I stood by them while we waited to be ushered into the church. The paintings were created by Victor Kalin. I was excited when I saw them as I remembered a deep conversation I had with the artist's daughter Rebecca a few years ago. She told me how much John meant to her dad. It seems this message repeats itself as I meet more and more people through my Coltranian experiences. I hear many narratives in which people state John Coltrane and his music uplifted their lives, so I was moved to see Kalin's work at your Memorial service. As you know, Kalin is the artist who created the portrait of John which is in the inside cover of A Love Supreme.

In my view, John Coltrane brought the protection of the divine and message of A Love Supreme for people all over the world. He preached through his extraordinary music. Tears welled up in my eyes when Jessica told those in attendance that my work with the Kids for Coltrane brought joy to your life! You always encouraged the work which focuses on jazz to teach children about American history, equality, character education and the Arts. By doing this, children become invested in literacy, creativity, compassion, curiosity, and courage. I think you really valued that the program celebrated the individual while also working in collaboration with others. You kept the flame alive, and your spirit pushes me to continue. Something else was stated that evening that blew my mind and touched me to my core. Your two daughters told the mourners what transpired the weeks before you passed with Grace. It still takes my breath away when I think about it, and has enabled me to write this letter which others will read during Black History Month.

I know that you lived a vibrant life as an atheist. You stated this publicly and told me as well. We discussed John's belief in God throughout our talks, and your personal view of a higher power existing was otherwise. It was clear that the difference in this area between the two of you made no difference in your admiration and respect for one another. And then that evening at Saint Peter's the astonishing words uttered by your family, with a song sung by your granddaughter Ruby who was accompanied by your daughter Miranda on piano told what transpired artistically. Your sweet and generous loved ones shared a personal divine miracle with all of us. Weeks before your passing you had three dreams in which God came to you. The message was to accept and believe in Him and before you passed you did embrace a belief in a higher power.

Nat, jazz music and its profound teachings help me get through each day as it did for you as well. You wrote that Charles Mingus once told you most people do create their own slavery, do spend their working time at being smaller than they could be. You always encouraged people including me to live uniquely and fully. Remembering that you told me Duke Ellington's song, "I Know What I Am Here For" related to my laser focus on my work in education, gives me oxygen in the rain. You stated I absolutely knew what I was here for.

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