The heart pours forth what it cannot hold,
A living spirit of purest love.
- Howard Thurman
A shimmering explosion. Billowing sheets of sound wrapping themselves around us. The highest sound I know. The music of John Coltrane.
For some, the work of the late jazz saxophonist John Coltrane conveys the voice of God, the holy vibration of the Divine, the aural Love Supreme. An AME Zion church in San Francisco has even been dedicated to him and his music.
For others, Coltrane's distinctive sound is unbearable--squawking, roaring, unsettling, and overwhelming. And, no doubt about it, Trane's music does have an intensity that isn't easy on the ears of the uninitiated.
Both reactions were obvious when the great historian of the civil rights movement, Dr. Vincent Harding, unleashed a long Trane set as part of his Sunday morning sermon at Sojourners' 20th anniversary festival in 1991. Conference participants squirmed in their seats as powerful waves of breathless sax lines poured over them. Quintessential Coltrane, the solo was a long (very long to some) run of exceedingly complex chordal progressions, blurred sixteenth- and thirty-second-note scales, and wailing expressions of soul, concluding with a heartfelt improvisation of "Amazing Grace."
This song's meaning was consistent with the other activities of the conference--breaking out of old patterns and discovering new perspectives. Harding's offering of Coltrane to the largely white crowd was a doxology of sorts, a sending forth into a world of dissolving paradigms and an uncertain future. Indeed--unknown to those present--at the same moment the Trane tune was presented to the Sojourners audience, hard-liners in the Soviet Union attempted a coup to unseat Mikhail Gorbachev and end his reforms, and the Cold War polarization of the world as we then knew it began to thaw.