One of the most touching and powerful stories of spiritual renewal we know of comes from the life of an undisputed icon of modern jazz, John Coltrane (1926-1967).
Coltrane, like many jazz musicians of his era, had a history of substance abuse–a long standing addiction to alcohol and heroin. But in 1957, ten years before his untimely death at 41, he had an unexpected spiritual awakening –something that had highly significant musical as well as personal consequences.
One result of this was his suite, A LOVE SUPREME, recorded during the Christmas season on Dec. 9, 1964. It featured his classic quartet of pianist McCoy Tyner (piano), Jimmy Garrison (bass), Elvin Jones (drums), and Coltrane himself on tenor saxophone. Not only did it become Coltrane’s best known work, it is considered one of the most influential jazz recordings ever made. As writer Nat Hentoff noted, it “struck such a spiritual chord in so many listeners.”
In his book JOHN COLTRANE: HIS LIFE AND MUSIC, the preeminent Coltrane scholar Lewis Porter–a cherished personal friend and colleague–draws attention to Coltrane’s commitment to bringing a sense of the divine into everyday life : ” My music is the spiritual expression of what I am–my faith, my knowledge, my being—When you see the possibilities of music, you desire to do something really good for people, to help humanity free itself from its hangups.” (There is today a unique storefront church in San Francisco–Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church, at 1286 Fillmore Street–which reveres Coltrane as its patron saint and builds its services around this album.)
A LOVE SUPREME is made up of four sections –“Acknowledgement,” “Resolution,” “Pursuance,” and “Psalm.” Porter points out that this sequence of movements suggests ” a kind of pilgrim’s progress, in which the pilgrim acknowledges the divine, resolves to pursue it, searches for it, and, finally, celebrates its attainment in song.” The music is intertwined with a long Coltrane poem by the same title included in the notes that accompany the CD (IMPULSE B 0000610-02).
We want to draw your attention to the first and last movements–“Acknowledgement” and “Psalm,” for deeper enjoyment of Coltrane’s spiritual artistry. Thirty seconds into “Acknowledgement,” after an opening fanfare, you will hear the bass play an important four-note riff inspired by the pitches and rhythm of the actual words “A Love Supreme.”
At moment 4:54 Coltrane begins playing this riff in every one of the twelve keys. By playing this riff in a sequence, starting each individual statement of the riff on a different one of the twelve keys or pitches, Coltrane creates a perfect metaphor for the universality he wants to convey. (As a basic guide, a piano keyboard is made up of multiple series of seven white keys and five black ones, each one of which serves as a pitch center here.)
Then, starting at 6:05, you will hear Coltrane with his voice overdubbed –a telling moment of self-reflection, as if looking at himself in the mirror– chant the words “A Love Supreme” in unison with the bass. Listen now to savor the essence of “Acknowledgement”–Coltrane expressing his awareness of a divine presence in his life.
In the final movement, “Psalm,” a hymn of praise, Coltrane, in the tradition of the African-American preacher, offers a wordless recitation of his poem through his horn. Listen closely and you can easily fill in the unspoken words conveyed by the music. Here are the opening words : “A Love Supreme. I will do all I can to be worthy of Thee O Lord. It all has to do with it. THANK YOU, GOD. Peace.”
Spirituality is a character strength usually related to many other strengths like hope and forgiveness. It is based on the conviction that life has a transcendent dimension. It reflects the intuition that human wellbeing increases when we feel connected to something greater than ourselves, when life has meaning and purpose. This certainly happened for John Coltrane and it changed his future. As his wife, Alice, wrote, “From a Love Supreme onward, we were seeing a progression toward higher spiritual realization, higher spiritual development.”
Whether or not you are spiritually inclined, A LOVE SUPREME illustrates the power of Spirituality to produce goodness in people’s lives. You may find that listening to this music consciously–meditatively–has a similar effect on you. Meditation, which is part of many great spiritual traditions, has been shown again and again to contribute robustly to general wellbeing. Try it and let us know your experience.