Jazz is sometimes called America’s “classical music.” But how much was John Coltrane’s jazz influenced by globalization?
September 21, 2002
John Coltrane’s life story has great likenesses to other African-American jazz and blues musicians of the 20th century. Born in North Carolina, the saxophonist moved to the big city (Philadelphia) and started playing jazz.
Coltrane’s talents were recognized relatively quickly — joining the bands of jazz greats such as Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk.
Coltrane’s abilities were undeniable. But his personal demons — including heroin and alcohol — bedeviled him. Miles Davis even fired Coltrane from his group because of the effect of his addictions on his professional life.
But a change in Coltrane’s personal life would soon emerge — and it would change the course of musical history.
In 1957, John Coltrane underwent what can only be described as a “religious conversion.” (Coltrane described it as such himself in the liner notes to his 1965 classic, A Love Supreme.) He quit alcohol and drugs, rejoined Miles Davis’s band — and began a musical and spiritual quest that would last until his death in 1967.
Coltrane was raised in a very religious Christian household. But after his life-altering experience in 1957, Coltrane began to read deeply in the great religious books of many traditions — including those of India and West Africa.
He started to explore the music of these cultures as well, including West African drum works of Babtunde Olatunji and recordings of the Indian sitar.
Slowly but surely, such influences began to emerge in Coltrane’s music — particularly when he became the leader of his own jazz ensembles. By incorporating what he had heard on his musical and spiritual quest with his own pioneering jazz techniques, Coltrane pushed the boundaries of rhythm and scale in jazz music.
Using the “modal jazz” introduced by Miles Davis in the late 1950’s, Coltrane filled the spaces created by this newer and sparser form of jazz to experiment. On songs such as “India” (on his 1961 album, Impressions), Coltrane makes his love of Indian music — and his canny use of it in his own work — explicit.
The saxophonist’s admiration of Indian music took on a personal touch when he named his son “Ravi,” after the legendary Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar.
By the time Coltrane made A Love Supreme in 1965, he had assimilated his musical and spiritual influences — and pushed beyond them into unexplored territory.
Elements of chant, raga and modal jazz blended into four long compositions — “Acknowledgment,” “Resolution,” “Pursuance” and “Psalm.”
The music’s spiritual base finds the common ground between the Gregorian chant, the mantra of Eastern religions and the ritual of West African religion.
Coltrane’s journeys into unusual rhythms and arrangements led him to replace his long-time trio of accompanists (pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones) for his last recordings.
On albums such as Meditation and Expression, Coltrane used musicians who were willing to follow him into the unknown — including his wife, pianist and harpist Alice Coltrane and saxophonist Pharoah Sanders.
The jazz music Coltrane was making by the end of his life smashed boundaries — and abandoned road maps. It alienated many of the jazz fans who had loved his brilliant improvisations with Miles Davis and the sly subversions of show tunes such as “My Favorite Things.”
The question of where Coltrane might have gone in his later work if he had not died at the age of 40 years is one of jazz’s great unanswered questions.
However, students of jazz do know the road taken by Coltrane’s most immediate collaborators at the end of his life — Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders. In the five years after Coltrane’s untimely demise, both artists made important albums that solidified the musical gains that the jazz legend had made — and deeply embraced the spirituality that led him.
Alice Coltrane’s use of the harp already marked her as unusual in the world of jazz. Yet on recordings such as the title track to her 1970 album, Journey in Satchidananda, the harp plays a crucial role (along with the tamboura) in setting the dizzying Eastern mood of the piece.
The piece is a straightforward tribute to Alice Coltrane’s guru — the Swami Satchidananda — whose teachings she embraced. Journey to Satchidananda, like much of Alice Coltrane’s later music, places her Indian influences directly in the foreground.
The influence of Indian spirituality is even more explicit on Alice Coltrane’s version of her husband’s A Love Supreme on the 1971 album, Alice Coltrane With Strings World Galaxy.
Swami Satchidananda intones spiritual messages about love as Alice Coltrane reinterprets her husband’s work through solos on a variety of instruments — including the organ, harp and tamboura.
The experimental jazz of Coltrane fell out of favor by the mid-1970s. It was replaced first by jazz-rock fusion — and then by a new traditionalism.
The music made by the legendary saxophonist and his heirs has found a new audience as jazz and world beat have infiltrated dance music. Many hip hop and dance artists have sampled A Love Supreme.
Alice Coltrane’s work has been especially influential in this regard. The sonic landscapes she created by combining jazz with Eastern music and spirituality have been a road map for both the mellow dance music now known as “trip-hop” and for Indian artists seeking a way to integrate their music with Western forms.
It all began, however, with a Trane that jumped the tracks of addiction into a spiritual journey that changed world music forever.
Editor and writer Richard Byrne lives in Washington, DC. He is an editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education. His writing has been published in the The Guardian, the Washington Post, Foreign Policy, The American Prospect and on Time magazine’s web site. He was also a contributing writer for New York Press and the Boston […]