March 2008

Alice Coltrane (8.27.37– 1.12.07)

It was an honor to meet and play and record with John Coltrane, as it was an honor to meet and play and record with Alice Coltrane.

What impressed me about John Coltrane was his spirituality, and that is what also impressed me about Alice—her serenity and spirituality. She impressed me even before I played music with her.

We got to know each other in the late ’60s and over the years developed a lasting friendship. I always felt so peaceful and comfortable around her. There was no tension. There was such a vibrant and positive feeling surrounding her. We played many concerts and made many recordings together over the years. At each of these meetings I felt that I was in the presence of greatness.

I remember performing with her at the Village Gate in 1970 with Ben Riley playing drums. I remember a recording session that same year at Village Recorders in Los Angeles where I asked her to play some bebop tunes with Ben Riley and me, and it was one of the greatest experiences of my life. Ed Michel, the producer, asked her if he could turn on the tape machines and she said no! We were there to record excerpts from The Firebird by Stravinsky with a string orchestra as well as some of Alice’s compositions for strings.

When I heard her play the harp at that recording session that experience stayed with me and in 1976 I composed a piece for her called “For Turiya,” which was written specifically for her to play the harp on my duet album Closeness. The introduction that she takes on the harp in “For Turiya” is like ascending into the heavens. It takes your breath away.

As years passed she moved to Los Angeles with her family and in 1979 I also moved back to Los Angeles. She called me one day after she heard that I’d started the Jazz Studies Program at California Institute of the Arts because she wanted her son who played bass, John Jr., to study with me.

She said, “Charlie, I want you to hear something,” and the family began to play the blues over the phone: Alice on piano, John Jr. on bass and Ravi on saxophone. They sounded great! She said, “What do you think? Will you give John lessons?” And I said, “Will I ever!”

A short time after that we all learned that John Jr. had been killed in a car accident. Everyone was devastated. A few years later, I was very happy and proud when Ravi came to CalArts to study with me. Alice had told him, “If you’re going to play jazz you have to study with Charlie Haden!” He’s developed into a great musician. It took a lot of courage to play the same instrument as his father. I feel he has that same serenity and dignity that his mother has.

In the year 2000 I got a call from Ravi to tell me that he’d talked his mother into recording again. Following the release of Translinear Light, we played several concerts, the first being in Paris with Jack DeJohnette on drums. After the concert as we were all having dinner, I asked Alice about her early days in Paris studying with Bud Powell. She told me about the quartet that she played with which was comprised of Lucky Thompson on tenor saxophone, Kenny Clarke on drums and Oscar Pettiford on bass.

She said it was an amazing time for her and a great experience to study with Bud Powell. And I said to her, “Can you imagine that at the same time you were playing with these great musicians I was at the Five Spot playing with Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry and Billy Higgins?” We discovered that we were born in the same year and the same month and that Ravi was born on my birthday.

We played several concerts after that, the last one being in San Francisco in November 2006 with Roy Haynes on drums. It was a transcendent experience. We all strongly felt that John had been on stage with us.

A few months ago Ravi showed me a DVD of a French TV show from the ’60s in which Alice is playing “Strike Up the Band” with Lucky Thompson, Kenny Clarke and Pierre Michelot on bass. Can you imagine? She was so young and dedicated even then—she was a great bebop player who went on to forge her own way musically and spiritually.

As I write this I feel Alice’s presence as I will always feel her presence. Alice was the embodiment of dignity and grace and the world is blessed to have had her here for this time.

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