“I’m never sure of what I’m looking for,” John Coltrane once told noted jazz critic Nat Hentoff, “except that it’ll be something that hasn’t ever been played before; I know I’ll have that feeling when I get it.” In the world of jazz, Coltrane was Ponce de Leon with a saxophone tirelessly searching for a mystical fountain of rhythms and harmonies. He practiced relentlessly, stretching every conceivable note to conform to his will.
“A man who studied all religions as well as Einstein’s theory of relativity, Coltrane dared to try to discover through music a way toward what Stephen Hawking has called ‘the mind of God’ for modern man,” writes Eric Nisenson in Ascension: John Coltrane and his Quest. “That quest was not just pretense on his part. Anyone with ears and heart and soul could hear and feel it.”
Throughout his illustrative life (1926-1967), Coltrane shared the stage with jazz masters such as Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Theolonious Monk, and Dizzy Gillespie. His admirers have included Bono, Patti Smith, Duane Allman, Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana, Jimi Hendrix, Jerry Garcia, and Outkast.
In 2007, Coltrane received a posthumous Special Citation from the Pulitzer Prize Board for his “masterful improvisation, supreme musicianship and iconic centrality to the history of jazz.”
There is even a 30-year-old church in San Francisco that has named him as their patron saint. It’s not a novelty schtick. The three hour worship service at Saint John’s African Orthodox Church was once described by the New York Times is described as “half jam session and half revival meeting,” featuring traditional Christian liturgy and improvisational jazz.
A notable difference between the contemporary church service and a vintage Coltrane gig would be the use of words. For most mortals, worship is expressed through prayers, creeds, and hymns. For Coltrane, it was expressed through sweat, overlapping chord progression, bulging neck veins, blasts, and wails.
For Trane, as he was called, to play is to pray. Dubbing it “sheets of sound,” Ira Gitler described Coltrane’s playing as a “continuous flow of ideas without stopping. It was almost superhuman, and the amount of energy he was using could have powered a spaceship.”
Those packed into the gritty jazz clubs such as Birdland, the Village Vanguard, Five Spot, Blue Coronet, or the Half Note would all testify that Trane could light the joint ablaze—sometimes logging 45 minute solos. Saxophonist Dave Liebman described one scene: “En masse, cats started to put their hands up to the ceiling and the whole place stood up. It was like those holy-roller meetings. It was unbelievable.” Jazz man Archie Shepp remembers another occasion: “The place was packed. And man, they played until 4 o’clock in the morning and it was like being in church. I mean Coltrane brought something which raises this music from secular music to a religious world music.”
The potency of his musical genius was not always so easy to recognize. Miles Davis had to kick Trane out of his band in 1957—for the second time—because of intense addiction to alcohol and heroin. Davis was all too familiar with the travesty because he had kicked a nasty heroin habit cold turkey a few years earlier.
Trane was a mess. He was nodding off on the bandstand, appearing disheveled, always running late or never showing up at all. Davis had reached his limit.
Coltrane retreated for a two-week stay at his mother’s house in Philadelphia where he locked himself in a room with water and cigarettes to kick the addiction. Trane is said to have heard the voice of heaven during his withdrawls.
“During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life,” Coltrane wrote many years later in the liner note of his masterpiece, A Love Supreme. “At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music.”
His recovery was jaw-dropping. One need not believe in God to know that Coltrane had met Him. He began playing in Thelonious Monk’s band and recorded Blue Train. At the end of the year, Miles Davis asked him to rejoin his group.
Seven years after his battle with heroin, Trane recorded A Love Supreme. He had been sequestered to a section of his Long Island home for four or five days. “It was like Moses coming down from the mountain, it was so beautiful,” Alice Coltrane recalls. “He walked down and there was the joy, that peace in his face, tranquility.” She asked him to tell her what he was experiencing. “This is the first time that I have received all of the music for what I want to record, in a suite,” he told her. “This is the first time I have everything, everything ready.”
A Love Supreme is introduced with a Chinese gong and then the listener is ushered into a mosaic of sound and energy. Be informed that this is not elevator jazz; this is jazz as exclamation point—tortured souls finding liberation, exorcism, and deliverance. Within the confines and liberties of jazz, it is Jacob wrestling with an angel, the parting of the Red Sea, the kiss of betrayal from Judas, and the empty tomb.
In the liner notes, Coltrane writes: “God breathes through us so completely … so gently we hardly feel it … yet it is our everything. Thank you God. Elation—Elegance—Exaltation—All from God.”
Rolling Stone ranked A Love Supreme #47 of the “500 Greatest Albums Of All Time,” commenting that “…Coltrane soars with nothing but gratitude and joy. You can’t help but go with him…” Likewise, the Village Voice keenly observed, “As much as any speech by [Dr. Martin Luther] King or The Autobiography of Malcolm X, A Love Supreme radiates the virtues of principled struggle, rapturous idealism, intellectual rigor, devotional passion. For all its thunder you can hear yourself think when you listen to it, primarily because Trane achieved the unthinkable: creating a secular form of God-loving music for the godless universe of Western modernity.”
You often hear about the blind having a stronger awareness of their other senses, particularly hearing and smell. Coltrane had the accentuated senses of a blind man who had been healed—eyes wide open and soaking up a dazzling vision from a heavenly realm.
“My goal is to live the truly religious life, and express it in my music,” said Trane. “If you live it, when you play there’s no problem because the music is part of the whole thing. 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 being.”
Steve Beard is the editor/creator of Thunderstruck.