Forgive me father, for I have categorized. I have labeled and I have pigeonholed. So sayeth the penitent music historian.
To catalogue and create systems may merely be a human response to help process the multitude of music that’s out there. Yet to many, it’s a cardinal sin. Duke Ellington excoriates the practice in his memoir from a number of angles. It’s definitely a personal habit. I catch myself placing musical heroes along lines of influence and succession, a Levitical approach – so-and-so begat so-and-so. Charlie Parker led to Dexter Gordon. Dexter Gordon led to John Coltrane. And Trane begat so many generations that followed. I habitually compartmentalize, until an artist so singular and unrooted reminds me to reboot my thinking.
More than a dozen years since her passing, Alice Coltrane continues to serve as the embodiment of what it means to be truly, musically unique – distinct from John Coltrane, and the entire jazz world as well. In fact, relative to her more famous husband, it can be argued that her music was more original, more ground-breaking. Alice Coltrane may have grown up in the post-bop, jazz world of the late 1950s, but by the end of the 1960s, when she recorded the first recordings bearing her name, she had already begun to create her own sonic signature. Her later approach to chordal instruments – piano, organ, and harp – had few precedents, and even fewer followers. Her compositional style – which generated songs and blues and modal workouts with exotoc, mystical titles like ‘Journey in Satchidananda’, ‘Blue Nile’, and ‘Lovely Sky Boat’ – is all her own. Her recorded legacy – approximately a dozen albums – defines a creative arc unlike any other musician. That musical alchemy remains a category unto itself, a distinct fusing of African American idioms with Indian and Vedic song forms distinct from other cross-cultural experiments employing similar elements.
That Alice Coltrane accomplished this while nurturing a profound spiritual sensibility that led her to dedicate herself to Vedic worship and practices, and eventually found an ashram in California, makes her story all the more impressive – especially when one factors in the fact that she began her own career in 1967 as a 30-year old African American woman. Jazz was primarily a man’s game back then; in many ways, it still can be. And while Alice had the benefit of the Coltrane name, it offered no guarantee that her way forward – as an unproven solo artist and widow with four children – would be smooth, nor that her music would be warmly received.
But she was resilient and remarkably focused. Recent history had shown her rising to a similar challenge. At the end of 1965, she had stepped into the spotlight and taken over the piano seat vacated by the great McCoy Tyner in her husband’s so-called Classic Quartet when many fans were still in shock over the dissolution of that stellar lineup. Alice was John’s choice, and as she related years later, only one consideration came to mind before she accepted the position.
“When I came in the band, with Pharaoh [Sanders] and Rashied [Ali], but principally, we were not the reason [the quartet ended]. We were supposed to be a part of the solution . . . I just felt that maybe there’s some other youngster ready to go on the road, with no family or children or anything like that. But John said, ‘I want you in the band, because you can do [the music] like I want.’ So I said, ‘OK.’”
Alice Coltrane’s embrace of her spiritual mission provided her both purpose and personal strength – it was her path and her rock. That realization helps explain her story, and why her music has had such lasting value. ‘Yes, I do get very deeply engaged spiritually in the music. Because it’s a spiritual language for me, it’s not a musical language,’ she said in 1988. ‘I’m expressing, articulating deep feeling and deep experience in life, in spiritual life, in God.’
Let’s take it back to pre-Motown Detroit. Before she was Alice Coltrane, she was Alice Lucille McLeod, the fifth of six siblings in a musical family, raised on church music and schooled in classical music from the age of seven. Her musical enthusiasm and facility on the piano led her to modern jazz. She sat in with groups led by Detroit’s leading jazzmen, including saxophonist Yusef Lateef and guitarist Kenny Burrell. Sometime in 1959 or ’60, she began to entertain the idea of traveling to Paris. According to Alice’s daughter, vocalist Michelle Coltrane, her mother had become involved with her father, Kenneth ‘Pancho’ Hagood, a singer who had been a member of Dizzy Gillespie’s band. ‘She told me about Paris, how it was so hip in that era . . . for her, the music definitely was first, not to discount her relationship, but knowing her as I did I’m sure that it was the drive to be involved in music. She was young.’ He was bound for France; they got married and set off together.
Inspired, busy, and soon pregnant, Alice made the most of her time in Paris. She located her bebop hero Bud Powell and took lessons. She sat in with expats like tenor saxophonist Lucky Thompson and Kenny Clarke; there’s a YouTube video of one of the gigs. But in within a year, her marriage fell apart and she returned to Detroit with her infant daughter, eventually joining a group led by vibraphonist Terry Gibbs.
In 1962, Gibbs shared a run at New York City’s Birdland club with a group led by the well-known and hugely influential saxophonist John Coltrane, which brought the 25-year old Alice together with her future husband. ‘Before I even met him and became part of the group and part of his life,’ she later recounted, ‘there was something in me that knew that there is a spiritual, musical connection – a divine connection – with this person. Because there were things that he said to me, they weren’t spoken with the human voice.’
Their initial spark was fanned by a number of mutual experiences and passions. Both were steeped in the blues and were beboppers at heart, exploring and expanding the musical language that Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Powell had introduced. Both came from church backgrounds and were intently focused on healthy living: Alice a teetotaler and John having sworn off drugs and alcohol in ’57. Though his father had been a preacher and his grandfather a minister and community leader, Coltrane’s questioning nature had led him to unravel the singularity of his own Christian faith. He read the Baghavad Gita, the Qur’an and other religious books. He developed a personal, spiritual path that drew on his Christian upbringing but was not limited by it.
Musically and spiritually, John Coltrane would prove to be one of the most influential forces in the jazz world of the 1960s and for generations after, swaying the direction of an entire musical community through his recorded music. Imagine the influence he must have had on the woman who was at his side day by day, who married him and bore his children, who played alongside him when his music pivoted towards a charged, avant-garde sound that challenged even the most stalwart fans.
By 1966, Alice’s piano approach developed a startling new style, filled with sweeping, tide-like cadences, much like the approach she later transferred to the harp; at the same time, she began to follow a spiritual curiosity that veered away from the Christianity of her youth, all influenced and encouraged by her husband’s example. Then, in July 1967, John suddenly succumbed to liver cancer and was gone.
In a five-year flash, Alice Lucille McLeod had become the wife of John Coltrane, his sideman and, in July of ’67, his widow. She not only persevered, but stepped up her schedule and became more public than ever. Through the rest of ’67, Mrs Coltrane buried her husband, and focused on her family. Before 1968 ended, she finished building the home studio in their Long Island family house that John had begun, and started putting it to use. She completed an album of music the couple had been working on together and released it on the record label her husband had planned to establish.
That bold move – releasing music on her own imprint, Coltrane Music – was uncommon for that time, but also contractually questionable: John Coltrane had been signed exclusively to Impulse when he recorded on the tracks that would be featured on the album Cosmic Music. To avoid a legal squabble, the label’s attorneys offered Alice a compromise: Impulse would re-issue the album, and sign her to the label as a solo artist.
The door that deal opened led to a series of now classic recordings, from the late 60s through the 70s, that chart an expansive, twelve-year musical journey unlike any in the jazz world, before or since. While she took some musical ideas and devices she had learned from her late husband, her music charted a course that was more innovative and categorically defiant than John Coltrane’s, more polymusically perverse: a swirling vortex of modal jazz, gospel hymns, Hindi devotional music and twentieth-century classical sonorities, some requiring generous production budgets and marketing support. She helped introduce the harp into the jazz idiom (bought for her by John a few months before he died), blending it with traditional jazz and Indian instruments. She worked a Wurlitzer organ into the mix as well; the model she used had a distinct, tone-modulating effect; and later expanded to digital synthesizers. She recruited an A-list of musicians who had performed with, or been influenced by, her late husband – Pharoah Sanders, Charlie Haden, Ornette Coleman, and Ron Carter. She collaborated with others: guitarist Carlos Santana, pianist McCoy Tyner and saxophonist Joe Henderson.
The album titles underscored Alice’s mystical, even celestial ambitions: A Monastic Trio; Huntington Ashram Monastery; Ptah, The El Daoud; Journey in Satchidananda; Universal Consciousness; World Galaxy; Lord of Lords; Illuminations; Eternity. Any of these can serve as a worthy doorway into her music; Journey and Ptah tend to be more popular and accessible.
As Alice’s musical career blossomed, her spiritual directive drove her ever deeper into spiritual study. In 1969, the bassist Vishnu Wood introduced her to Swami Satchidananda, an Indian spiritual guru and yoga practitioner, who relocated to the United States to teach. She began to study with him, and later, with another swami who made it to the West, Sathya Sai Baba. She became familiar with devotional chants and other Vedic devotional music – songs and sounds she would eventually absorb into her musical world. In 1970, she accompanied Satchidananda on a five-week pilgrimage to India. She began to call herself by her Sanskrit name – Turiyasangitananda – writing it on a piece of paper and taping it to the refrigerator at home in order to teach it to her children as well.
Of Alice Coltrane’s choice of spiritual direction, two points merit focus. The first is how different her choice was from her husband’s. In his wide range of reading, John Coltrane had delved into certain Vedic texts – Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads – he espoused a universal, non-denominational approach. ‘All paths lead to God,’ he wrote on the cover of his personal, jazz testament A Love Supreme, ‘No road is an easy one, but they all go back to God.’ While Alice also subscribed to an essential, universal philosophy – that the divine could be found through any church – yet in practice, she began to steer herself to the Vaishnavism branch of the Vedic religion, and teach its precepts and tenets.
The second point deserving mention is the enduring aspect of Alice’s commitment. Her spiritual awakening took place in an era when guru-following was the fashion, and many rock stars flirted with Eastern spirituality. A few musical luminaries held fast to the spirit of that day – George Harrison and Carlos Santana among the standouts – yet none as profoundly as Alice Coltrane.
Upon her return to the States, Alice followed the calling that inspired her next, life-shifting move. She relocated to California in 1972, and three years later, established an ashram in Woodland Hills, California. Her priorities shifted away from her musical career. In 1979, she released a live album on the Warner Bros. label; in the decades that followed, between 1981 and ’95, she recorded four albums of devotional music for a small, private imprint (including the highly collectable Turiya Sings, her sole vocal effort.)
These recordings have been both hard to find, and sadly overlooked in most surveys of Alice Coltrane’s career (The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda, a recent compendium of this period on the Luaka Bop label, sought to correct that.) It was homegrown music that carried its own charm and spiritual depth. In her role as a swamini, bedecked in saffron robes and sandals, that Alice brought her extensive musical experience to her flock – in formal and informal ceremonies on various evenings during the week, and especially on Sundays. The services leaned heavily on Vedic devotional songs that are still common throughout India and Nepal – bhajans (known for solo voice sections) and kirtans (more a group, participatory form). At their most basic, the lyrics praised Hindu deities by chanting their Sanskrit names and attributes. She developed original melodies from traditional tunes, and created sophisticated song structures with multiple sections of varying moods and meters. In a sense, she was elevating folk forms by bringing her own sensibility to the mix, to find an effective bridge between the steady beat and basic harmonic structure of those congregational chants, and her own improvisational, blues-based experience.
Today, it’s a challenge not to get a bit grandiose in describing Alice Coltrane’s life and accomplishments, nor to bemoan the fact that she is not more widely known and appreciated. Perhaps that’s simply the price of musical singularity. Her music is still unfamiliar to the mainstream ear. It still requires close attention which, as John Coltrane himself once said, offers its own reward. ‘Music shouldn’t be easy to understand. You have to come to the music yourself, gradually. You can’t accept everything with open arms.’
Now, in an age of streaming and playlists, categories and prejudices of the past are fading away and all music is within easy reach. Alice Coltrane’s fan base has expanded inside the jazz circle – harpist Brandee Younger is a one-woman movement pushing for wider recognition – and far beyond it as well. Meshell Ndegeocello, Georgia Anne Muldrow, Radiohead, the drone-metal group Sunn O))), and DJ/producer Flying Lotus (her nephew) all count themselves devotees, and have paid tribute in words or music.
Popularity and numbers mattered little to Alice Coltrane when she was with us. By the time she exited the career-building part of her life, music had become but one more extension of her identity and spiritual focus, music and message woven tightly together, expressed on recordings, in weekly services, and at home.
‘I’ve woken up in that house we grew up in, hearing this beautiful harp music playing at dawn, when your eyes are still closed and ears open first,’ says Michelle, ‘this beautiful, tranquil, heavenly music.’ Her brother, saxophonist, recalls an afternoon routine he often witnessed.
‘I’d come home from school and she’d just be sitting at the organ playing hymns and things. It wasn’t like she was practicing or getting ready for a performance or a gig . . . it was like, you go home and your dad’s reading the paper, your mom’s reading a book or watching the television. That’s what that music was for her. It was this sustenance that was a part of her existence, her daily existence.’
I was fortunate to meet Turiyasangitananda Alice Coltrane, and interview her a number of times in her last few years. Out of deference, I always addressed her as ‘Mrs Coltrane’. The last time we spoke, she shared a story I love to retell:
Sometimes I’ve heard music and I feel that I’ve already engaged in the praise of God. Once John and I were coming from a concert that he had played and it was late in the morning. We got out at daybreak. We heard a couple leaving, and the lady said, ‘Oh, I have to hurry home, because I’m going to church tomorrow.’ Her companion said, ‘Church? You’ve already been to church!’
Image © European Space Agency