A Love Supreme
John Coltrane was born in Hamlet, North Carolina on September 23, 1926.
In 1955, Coltrane began playing regularly with Miles Davis. In 1957, John had an experience that he described as follows:
'I experienced a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. In gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music.'
In 1964, John Coltrane recorded the album, A Love Supreme.
It changed the direction of my music and that of so many other musicians.
He died on July 17, 1967.
I wrote the following review of John Coltrane's Impulse! album 'TRANSITION' for Earshot Jazz Magazine in Seattle about ten years ago as a tribute to one of my leading lights and musical teachers.
Recorded in mid-1965, Transition stands as a breakthrough point not just for John Coltrane but the gestalt that was his working unit until the last two years of his life: THE quartet. Here 'Trane the tenor saxophonist has become one with his instrument completely and is expressing emotions of incredible depth and power without mechanistic considerations or technical barriers.
But what's going on in the band is equally profound. They've all made an almost ideological shift by this time. Bassist Jimmy Garrison is no longer playing four-in-a-bar exclusively and, in many passages, hardly playing 'time' at all. But the time is constant like a river that thrusts along and yet is perfectly still. The Tao of eternal change is balanced by the motionless always-now.
Elvin Jones is the catalyst for this feeling. There's no ding-ding-ga-ding on the cymbals, but a DAAAA-da-DAAAA that swings in a way no drummer has before or since. He's a force of nature. Everything in Elvin's time is triplets, and there are elements of his favorites (Philly Joe, Blakey, Max), but the elements are so deconstructed and redefined that it's entirely his own invention. There is no drummer like him anywhere.
The juxtaposition of this abstract drum canvas, combined with Garrison's departure from strict meter, and pianist McCoy Tyner's unbelievable ability to serve as a bridge between the two, enables Coltrane to play a note of literally any time value, duration or sequence. He's free, and the freedom is breathtaking for him and for us. The love in this music is evident and tangible, the search for truth an audible reality. No band has moved me as deeply as this unit, and I continually seek counsel with 'Trane's records as signposts in my own spiritual and musical growth.
I first heard this album in my early-twenties, but I didn't hear it with my soul. Now thirty years later, it impacts me to the depths. I needed to live, to suffer, to grow. And the message in this music for me is this: evade suffering and we evade truth; evade truth and we evade joy. All of the best parts of humanity are represented in this music. There is love, pain, epiphany, joy, sorrow, seeking, risk-taking, introspection.
In an interview I heard with Coltrane, he said, 'I just want to be a force for good.' This sounds wonderfully refreshing and noncompetitive.
I hear this in all of his work; the cooperation, the soft-yet-strong egoless force of life without an agenda or an excuse. In the same interview he mentioned, 'I guess I'm talented, but no genius... I have to work hard... things don't come easy to me.' Well, there's an old saying: 'Genius does what it must; talent does what it wants.'
And this is a lesson not just in humility but in human power (not power over others, but power within the self); a lesson to not compare ourselves to others but to become and be that which serves ourselves and others in the highest ways, with the highest values and the purest motives.
This music is 'Trane's soul laid bare. We are so blessed to have it. -JW
Ask the 'Trane
John Coltrane has been my light through the darkness. When there are questions, I'll ask 'what would Philly Joe Jones or Dexter Gordon do'; and when things get REALLY weird, I can ask the 'Trane.
Right now, John's beautiful album A LOVE SUPREME (on Impulse) is on my CD player. I've lit a few candles and am burning some incense.
John just launched into 'Psalm'. Elvin is playing the kettle drums and cymbals, Jimmy is playing these beautiful (so subtle) counterpoints to John's reading of the prayer to the Universal. McCoy is an ocean wave.
John speaks through his horn: 'no road is an easy one, but they all go back to God'. People get so warped out about the word 'god' when all it is, is us, all of us and each of us; it's the sea and the sky and the stars.
We are star-stuff, we are one vibration in a standing wave, and it doesn't matter if it's called god or goddess or Allah or Aum or Chi or Orgone. It's gravity and light-years and galaxies colliding and little kittens and bodily love and that chill you get when you listen to great music or see a great painting or hear the sounds of the forest.
When I was younger, I didn't understand about Power. I thought it was something men had, something that the science of men had made real. Now I know that Power is within everyone, and that it can cure or kill, heal or destroy, give joy or pain.
The Power is in the human heart, and it can choose its manifestations. It can be a force of good or of evil. It can bring harmony or destruction. It can make life heaven or hell.
I personally prefer heaven. It works this way for me: I get to give away my Power through my piano, and it translates (most often) as a force that unifies and purifies.
I am often misunderstood but my Music is hardly ever misunderstood.
John Coltrane only lived for 40 years, but he was seeking a path to enlightenment, and in his seeking he led many of us to join the search.
In the words of Coltrane, I have found the beacon by which I set the course of much of my life:
'I want to be a force for real good. I know that there are bad forces here that bring suffering to others and misery to the world, but I want to be the force which is truly good.' -John Coltrane