Spiritual Improvisation

Some things are still worth celebrating. Doubt has been cast on the free-love, anti-establishment, mind-expanding drug culture of the 1960s by AIDS, hepatitis C, and the sight of former New Leftists shouting "Yippie!" as the stock market broke 10,000. Yet it’s hard to escape the fact that America’s most tumultuous decade produced

some truly enduring music. Reshaped by the current dominance of rock and roll, 1960s flashbacks open with the relative innocence of Bob Dylan’s "The Times They Are A-Changin’" and close with Jimi Hendrix’s violent evisceration of "The Star-Spangled Banner." But for many people during the era, it was jazz—not rock—that defined the avant-garde, both musically and politically. In the midst of the struggle against American apartheid, jazz, like almost anything else African Americans did, could be and was construed as a political act.

During that era of remarkable change, jazz musician John Coltrane was held up as the flagbearer of the avant-garde by both critics and the movement. Yet the effort to define reality by one’s political agenda may have caused both sides to diminish Coltrane’s deeper significance. The explorations "Trane" undertook through his saxophone indicated that the truly relentless pursuit for freedom required an equal measure of spiritual discipline. If there was any flag borne by this artist, called "the heaviest spirit of them all" by poet Amiri Baraka, it was that transformation came first through the spirit.

Now, as technology propels us into a time of change of perhaps even greater magnitude and significance than that of the 1960s, and we are tempted to believe in the unrestrained idols of smart bombs and the free market, we have a renewed opportunity to learn from the humble, searching trailblazer, John Coltrane.

Coltrane: The Classic Quartet—Complete Impulse! Studio Recordings, a recently released, eight-CD retrospective, captures Coltrane’s development during the most successful artistic period of his life. Accompanied by McCoy Tyner’s percussive piano style, the powerful, churning drums of Elvin Jones, and Jimmy Garrison, one of the most innovative jazz bassists of all time, Trane’s quartet was the definitive jazz group from 1961 to 1965. Starting with conventional standards like "Too Young to Go Steady," Coltrane: The Classic Quartet wraps up with "First Meditations," an extended contemplation that dwells on God the Consuming Fire rather than Jesus the Good Shepherd.

Coltrane’s own life started somewhat conventionally as well. Born in North Carolina in 1926, Coltrane was raised in the home of his grandfather, who was a minister. Soon after starting to play in his school band, Coltrane was known for his incessant practicing—a characteristic he held for the rest of his life. By the 1950s, Coltrane’s determination had earned him gigs backing some of the biggest names in jazz, including Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. However Trane’s career suffered, like that of many jazz artists of the era, because of his drug and alcohol addictions. After being fired in 1957 by Miles Davis when heroin-related problems affected his performance, Trane removed himself from the music scene to turn himself around, "physically and spiritually."

Coltrane locked himself in his room to wrestle with the demons of his addiction, and he emerged several weeks later as a renewed human being, with a new commitment to his art and to God. "I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music," Coltrane later wrote. "I feel this has been granted through God’s grace." Coltrane had only 10 more years to share his blessing. In 1967, he died of liver cancer at the age of 40.

It was with "the classic quartet" that Coltrane perhaps came closest to the sound he was always seeking. Coltrane: The Classic Quartet, 66 tracks compiled from 18 albums, shows Tyner’s strong chordal chops turning the piano into a percussion instrument. This frees Jones, who was considered at the time "the most fiery, compulsively brilliant of modern drummers," to play around the rhythm rather than simply keep it—challenging Coltrane to blow all the more strongly to stay up front. Meanwhile Jimmy Garrison provides a pulsing, nearly constant drone on bass as a platform over which Coltrane and Jones improvise.

The collection shows Coltrane to be amazingly enigmatic. In a single session he recorded both the volcanic "Crescent" and the "by-the-still-water" tunes "After the Rain" and "The Wise One." While the anthology excludes Trane’s best-known recording, "My Favorite Things" (recorded for Atlantic Records), it does present some of the saxophonist’s larger works, such as "A Love Supreme" and "Prayer and Meditation Suite." The collection also includes a disc of alternate takes that offer testimony to the spontaneity of jazz. Coltrane’s music, and jazz in general, retains a human spirit that is increasingly hard to find on the layered tracks of today’s music, especially as technology plays a greater role in the creation of music.

THE PROPHETIC NATURE of Coltrane’s voice captured on these discs made him a lightening rod for many seeking change in the 1960s, especially in the black community.

Yet while Trane was never noted for being outspoken on politics or race, as were many artists of his era, nobody in the African-American community during the 1960s could ignore the radical political changes exploding around them. Drummer Rashied Ali, who worked with Trane after the quartet broke up, said that the politics of the era had a deep effect on Coltrane’s thinking and this began to show in his music. "The music started getting rougher and tougher. Coltrane wasn’t into politics; he wasn’t the type of person to speak out about it. But he was playing and writing music about it. He admired people like King and Malcolm X. He kept up on things."

Yet Coltrane himself sidestepped others’ efforts to politicize his music. When characterized by critics as an "angry young tenor," Trane replied, "If it is interpreted as angry, it is taken wrong. The only one I’m angry at is myself when I don’t make what I’m trying to play." A Marxist interviewer prodded him to address jazz as a form of militant black resistance to the war in Vietnam, but Coltrane dismissed any ideological motivation. But the music did oppose the war, he said, "because jazz to me is an expression of higher ideals. Brotherhood is there, and I believe with brotherhood, there would be no poverty. With brotherhood, there would be no war."

Coltrane was controversial in the 1960s, but not because of his politics. For many, Trane’s ceaseless musical quest was impossible to keep up with. Some say that toward the end of the quartet’s tenure even his bandmates lost the plot. Coltrane’s public spiritual pursuit was even more of a problem. "He may be having some kind of spiritual experience," one critic wrote, "but why does he have to drag us through it?" While many musicians in jazz were spiritually minded, nobody ever turned an evening at a nightclub into an initiatory adventure like John Coltrane.

Bassist Art Davis, who is considered by his peers to be a rational analyst of life and music, said when Coltrane played, "People would just be shouting, like you go to church, a holy roller church or something like that. This would get into their brains, would penetrate. John had that spirit—he was after the spiritual thing....John had this power of communication, that power so rare it was like genius—I’ll call him a prophet because he did this."

OF ALL THE WELLS Coltrane dipped in for his spiritual and musical inspiration, perhaps none were more profound than that of the African-American church tradition in which he was raised. Even with his deep forays into the traditions of distant cultures, Coltrane’s music, said saxophonist and composer Kenny Garrett, "was coming basically from the church. He played a lot of songs based on hymns, the blues, and the old Negro spirituals. Coltrane at some point probably listened to Mahalia Jackson for his playing.... That’s why people gravitated towards his music, because its structure was really simple, but harmonically, it was very advanced."

Jazz scholar Lewis Porter shows that Trane’s sound closely follows the musical patterns ethnomusicologists have discovered in African-American preaching, which Coltrane surely must have heard plenty of growing up as the grandson of two ministers. The deep, haunting melody of "Alabama"—perhaps Coltrane’s most overtly political tune—is based on the cadence and tone of the speech Martin Luther King Jr. gave after four girls were killed in the Birmingham, Alabama church bombing by white supremacists.

Another awe-inspiring piece of music is "Psalm," the final movement of "A Love Supreme." It is likened by Trane biographer Eric Niseson to rare works of art such as the Sistine Chapel or Chartres Cathedral, which not only convey spiritual values but have in themselves the power to provoke religious experiences. "Psalm" is a musical intonation of the poem Coltrane included in the liner notes of the original album. Sadly, this poem isn’t reprinted in the retrospective.

Also missing is the beautiful, personal acknowledgment of God Coltrane wrote for "A Love Supreme." After his initial spiritual awakening in 1957, Trane wrote, "a period of irresolution did prevail. I entered into a phase which was contradictory to the pledge and away from the esteemed path. But thankfully, now and again through the unerring and merciful hand of God, I do perceive and have been duly re-informed of his omnipotence, and of our need for, and dependence on him." From "A Love Supreme" on, Coltrane said 90 percent of his playing would be prayer.

As an instrumentalist, the prayers Trane sought to play were closer to the uninterpreted tongues of angels than the Book of Common Prayer. Yet the three words that Trane did interpret for us reveal where he was coming from and where he was going. The phrase "A love supreme," chanted in the first movement of this spiritual masterpiece, encapsulates his outlook on politics, race, war, peace, and all the other issues swirling around him and throughout society. While the struggle of those around him might have been motivated by the revolutionary ideologies current in the 1960s, John Coltrane sought to bring about nothing less than a sacred transfiguration in the lives of those who heard him. Deep in his heart, Trane’s motivations were spiritual, not political. By the end of his life, his purpose had even transcended music.

"My goal is to live the truly religious life and express it in my music," Coltrane said. "To be a musician is really something. It goes very, very deep. My music is the spiritual expression of what I am—my faith, my knowledge, my beingà.When you begin to see the possibilities of music, you desire to do something really good for people, to help humanity free itself from its hang-ups. I think music can make the world better and, if I’m qualified, I want to do it."

Even more than the brilliance of the music he created, the greatest legacy John Coltrane left us was his belief that it is worth the effort to raise whatever we do from the earthly level to the spiritual. Commentator Nat Hentoff, who has written extensively on jazz in the 1960s, said Coltrane truly believed music to be a "healing art," and that what he did made a qualitative difference in the well-being of the world we live in. With the application of a little heart and soul, what kind of world might we help create?

AARON McCARROLL GALLEGOS, a Sojourners contributing editor, is a writer living in Toronto.


Coltrane: The Classic Quartet---Complete Impulse! Studio Recordings. John Coltrane. Impulse!, 1998.

Blue Train. John Coltrane. Blue Note, 1957.

Giant Steps. John Coltrane. Atlantic, 1960.

My Favorite Things. John Coltrane. Atlantic, 1961.

Live at the Vilage Vanguard. John Coltrane. Impulse!, 1961.

Duke ellington & John Coltrane. John Coltrane. Impulse!, 1962.

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