Alice Coltrane: “The Gifts God Gave Him”

Alice Coltrane reflects on life with an icon - her late husband John Coltrane

Alice Coltrane, or Swamini Turiyasangitananda, at her Sai Anantam Ashram in August 2005 (photo by Sri Hari Moss)
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Alice and John Coltrane at the 1966 Newport Jazz Festival (photo by Joe Alper/courtesy of the Joe Alper Photo Collection LLC)
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Coltrane with members of her ashram in ’05 (photo by Sri Hari Moss)
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Coltrane with son
Ravi on the cover of
JT in October 2004,
to promote her
Impulse! comeback,
Translinear Light
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Alice Coltrane in April 1971 (Credit: © Chuck Stewart Photography LLC)
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Twenty-seventeen marks a number of anniversaries of solemn significance for the Coltrane family. It’s been 50 years since John died and 10 since Alice Coltrane left her body, as members of her spiritual flock in Agoura Hills, Calif., refer to her passing. Were she alive, she’d be celebrating her 80th birthday this year, and this May, the Luaka Bop label will release World Spirituality Classics 1: The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda, an anthology of the devotional music she created in the 1980s and ’90s with, and largely for, the members of the Vedantic ashram she founded. (Full disclosure: I wrote the collection’s liner notes.)

Turiyasangitananda Alice Coltrane was a musical and spiritual force of depth and remarkable dedication, a woman who, at the young age of 30 in 1967, became John Coltrane’s widow, left alone with four children and the weight of one of the heaviest names in the jazz world. What she became and achieved from that point forward is now legend: a popular jazz headliner with a long-running performing career of her own; the creator of 14 recordings as a leader featuring unique stylistic hybrids of jazz, blues and gospel, with traditional Indian, Vedic and other Hindu musical forms; a mother and swamini to whom hundreds looked for serenity, wisdom and guidance.

When I met her in June 2001, Mrs. Coltrane—the only way I felt comfortable addressing her—had been leading her center for Vedantic study for 25 years, and had been off the map as a performer and major-label recording artist for more than 20. She had agreed to speak with me on the topic of her late husband’s magnum opus, A Love Supreme. To be honest, I was a bit intimidated when I walked into the Woodland Hills, Los Angeles offices of Jowcol Music, the music publishing company John established in 1960. I was unsure how to balance the creative and spiritual aspects of a conversation with a woman in a saffron punjabi dress who was still a dyed-in-the-wool bebopper. I brought a living plant, rather than cut flowers, as a gift. The story of our initial meeting became the opening to my 2002 book on that recording. With two of her children, Michelle and Ravi Coltrane, just one room away, we spoke for well over two hours.

A portion of our conversation made it into the book. What follows is a more complete transcription of the increasingly comfortable discussion that covered many topics—musical, political, spiritual and personal—and which brought the heady subject of John Coltrane and A Love Supreme down to an earthbound plane.

Ashley Kahn: You were with John Coltrane for such a brief moment really—1963 to ’67. What do you remember about those years?

Alice Coltrane: [Great change] was seen in his musical concept and direction. And not so much a divergent change, but change that would be different and that would take music to a higher level, to a higher plateau.

He talked with you about it?

Oh, always. Music was his life; it was everyday discussion. He was enveloped in it; it enveloped him. Constantly he was speaking about music … and he was seeking and looking into other areas. Specifically, he wanted to explore higher dimensions in sound, higher dimensions in creativity. So what he became aware of is that as long as you’re expressing someone else’s music, you are either trying to or are involved in recreating their moments, whatever they may be—happiness, joy, pain. You’re involved in a recreation, you’re not involved in a creation, because that would come from you, principally.

But it was the new music that he put his concentration in, his attention toward, and sometimes there were just long periods of introspection: thinking about music, not necessarily playing anything, but this expression of just listening, meditating on what he wanted to do with the music. And after several days, he would start talking about it, start talking about what he was introspecting on and what he was preparing himself to articulate that is of interest. Great interest in new sounds, new beginnings, new avenues to explore.

By 1964, you had made a home in Dix Hills, Long Island. When he was getting introspective, was there a certain place he would go at home?

Yes, he would go upstairs, because there was an unoccupied area up there that we family members hardly ever went. Sometimes a family member would visit; they would stay there. John would go up there from time to time, just take little portions of food, you know, pondering over the music he heard.

With his instruments, or was it more just thinking?

Thinking. A Love Supreme came from introspection and meditation. He had been upstairs [for maybe] five days. When he came downstairs, it was like Moses coming down from the mountain. It was so beautiful … the gifts God gave him. He walked down and there was that joy, that peace in his face, tranquility. So I said, “Tell me everything. We didn’t see you really for four or five days. Tell us what you’re doing and what’s going on.” He said, “This is the first time that I have received all of the music for what I want to record, in a suite, the first time I have everything, everything ready.”

By everything, he meant every part…

Every part, every passage, every movement, from beginning to end, even the prayer, everything! Everything.

What a special moment.

It was—I think even more so for him, because he was such a creative person. He had mentioned earlier on that he’d had a recording session and he had no idea what he would record. The band had not practiced, he didn’t have the sounds and he admitted it himself: “One day, when we were waiting for the studio doors to open, in the hallway, at that point I created the music.”

Sounds like a Prestige date. I wanted to ask about John when he was performing with Miles around 1960. His extended solos would cause a certain reaction, a restlessness in the audience, and did later on as well. How did he handle that? It seems that in perhaps every phase of his career, there were people who weren’t happy with what he was doing.

There may have been people, but the musicians always held him in high regard. Cannonball [Adderley] said some of the most wonderful things about his musical ability. Miles Davis said that [after 1960], he only hired people in the band who were close to John Coltrane musically. That would be the only reason they’d be hired. The musicians respected his musical ability and his musical knowledge because they were listening. I used to watch the old tapes produced by the gentleman who did Jazz Casual

Ralph Gleason.

…and the attentiveness of the musicians [in his band], watching John play, they were so absorbed in what he was doing. It was such a beautiful, mutual feeling of respect and appreciation that you could see in the eyes of the musicians.

But A Love Supreme—here was a purely spiritual statement, religious, whatever. A declaration that was not trampled on. Many critics had been extremely harsh on him about his music, saying all kinds of things—iconoclastic, anti-music, anti-jazz. It seemed like it silenced the critics. It silenced them! Maybe they didn’t know what to do.

Certainly in 1964 the critics and fans were all feeling it. DownBeat gave him Record of the Year and Jazzman of the Year awards. They put him in their Hall of Fame. … You’re right, it did silence the critics.

Silenced them. Because they were just, “Oh, you have to be a psychiatrist to understand John Coltrane,” and there was not a real musical basis in that. That wasn’t their job—if you were going to critique, you go into the music.

How did John react to all of that?

It didn’t change anything; it didn’t mean anything. I liked his attitude about it. He would show me something in a paper, and like you’re smiling now, he’d laugh. I said, “Let me read it!” Someone had written, “We don’t know what to think about a person like that. We don’t understand his music,” and on and on and on. But he took all that very lightly. I admired that in him. He never called up people, because some musicians would call up critics, sometimes even threaten them. I know several people who did.

Another question about A Love Supreme: Why 1964? What was it about that year that made him write that piece then? Did something happen that summer?

Something did. What he said to me was that when he was in the Navy [in 1945-’46], he had a vision and he couldn’t interpret the meaning at that time. It was just sort of beyond him and he didn’t know who to turn to, who could provide any answers or clarity to it. But he said that when A Love Supreme started to blow into his consciousness, he remembered the vision he had in the Navy, and then he could see everything clearly. The sound, the pieces—“Resolution,” “Acknowledgement,” the prayer [“Psalm”]—and he could understand it for himself.

I think he wanted to reach a professional stage in the presentation of it, because even if it meant other additional elements, more musicians, and maybe something in the arrangement, he seemed to want to present it in its best, purest light. [H]e wrote the parts out and considered other musicians. In fact, I believe there is another session in which Archie Shepp was there.

And [bassist] Art Davis.

Yes.

The sextet version.

Absolutely—two basses, two tenors. So he was thinking about it in bigger, larger terms too.

Did you ever hear the sextet recording [released in 2015 as part of Verve/Impulse!’s A Love Supreme: The Complete Masters]? 

Mmhmm.

What was his reaction to the sextet version as opposed to the quartet?

I think he liked it very much. He always showed an appreciation for what is not always just about you, your story, but he liked hearing other people’s expression and how you interpret this idea, how you respond to these chords.

I think he was always looking and listening for that special sound, special blend, special connection. Not that any of those musicians were incapable—they could play anything—but how would it sound with one bass on this side of the recording, one bass on the other? What is the interplay with that? You put one drummer here, one drummer there—what’s going to happen? He was seeing higher dimensions in sound and was slowly going toward that.

So he brought the tapes home and had to decide between the quartet and sextet versions…

Mmhmm. We talked about that, and he said, “This is final. It will be the quartet.”

It’s striking when you actually hear his voice on “Acknowledgement.”

Oh, so special.

Did he ever talk about that?

No, but I felt a sincerity in everything he did. I felt he was using the instrument God gave him. He had played man-made instruments all those years of his life, but this was almost like saying, “Lord, you also gave us a voice that man could never make, and at least in this context, at least today, let me offer back to you this rendering of A Love Supreme.”

He came from a line of preachers, and it’s as if he was his own preaching voice, but on the saxophone.

It’s true. His mother used to say that too. She said, “You can hear it. It’s like he’s giving a sermon. You can hear God’s names; you can hear people calling for the Lord when he plays.”

When I think of A Love Supreme, “Psalm” to me goes straight to the Christian church, coming from some Biblical inspiration, and it’s in that lament, the prayer, the longing, the hope and the faith—God will bring all great blessings and deliverance and joy.

How does hearing the album now compare with hearing it that very first time in 1964?

It’s very refreshing, very renewing of the spirit. Timeless, ageless.

How did John feel about his older albums on Atlantic and Prestige by the time he was doing things like A Love Supreme?

Each was an opportunity for challenge, for a new development, a new exploration.

When he wasn’t involved with his own music, what other music would he put on? What was his favorite?

Number one, Stravinsky.

Why Stravinsky?

Dimension, vastness, great ambiance in sound. One day, around the summer of ’66, we were at home, and it was a nice afternoon. John said, “What type of music would you like to hear?” I said, “Oh, maybe something like chamber music, or maybe some South American music, from Brazil or something.” I said, “What would you like?” and he said, “Something greater, something vast, something with multiple, higher dimensions.” “What would that be?” He said, “Stravinsky!” So we got out his two main pieces, The Firebird and The Rite of Spring, and we listened to them for a long, long, long time!

What music did John have in the house in ’64 that was new?

Japanese temple bell music, the Indian [master musician] Bismillah Khan, very fine. He plays something like the nadaswaram, a double-reed horn [actually the shehnai].

So he wasn’t putting on the Beatles. Was he aware of the popular music of that time?

I think so. You couldn’t avoid it, if you turned on the radio or went out to a shopping mall. That music was everywhere you’d go. What I also used to hear was the music he had currently recorded, but I never heard him listening to any music he had previously recorded.

By the time of Ascension, he wasn’t listening to A Love Supreme?

No, not particularly. That’s something that I think many of us should introspect on. Maybe we, or many of us, require to hold onto something that serves a purpose in our life or a particular need, whereas [for] the originator or the giver of some great work, [that work] has served its purpose and he’s gone on to other lands or plateaus, other vistas.

A Love Supreme was just another step along the path.

In spirituality, you have gurus who start you with a mantra initiation. They don’t say that’s all there is—you have your belief and your mantra, on your way. They say there’s always another step higher, another branch higher. Like his records. We should challenge ourselves, because it makes us stronger, gives us clearer insight, better perception. We can grow morally, ethically, spiritually.

Why do you think, when you look at the incredible range of music he recorded in his career, A Love Supreme is still his most popular recording today?

Because it is an absolute acknowledgement of precisely where his mind, heart and spirit are—they’re really not so much of the material world and universe, and none of us are. If we could ever see a ray, a glimpse of the truth, we would know that we’re coming from God, and [the album] made no mistake about it. It didn’t try to hide behind any rhetoric, no stage production, nothing of a contrivance, nothing that diverts attention away. It wasn’t, “This is really spiritual, but I want them to think it’s material—I want ’em to get up and dance, I don’t want them to meditate.” It was a purity of religious commitment. In humanity, we don’t always live up to our conviction, but he affirmed his commitment, and reaffirmed it.

That photograph of John on the cover of the album—he had a special feeling about that. Did he tell you about it?

Interestingly, there were two. You know how you can take one snap, and then you take the next snap right after—the same man within seconds? So he showed them to me and said, “Which one do you like?” And I said, “I like this one. Which one do you like?” “That one.” I said, “Well, that’s the one it will be.” The one he didn’t use, there was a lightness. But the one they did use is a great, great photo. I see everything in it. Ev-er-y-thing. The seeker. The devotee. The musician, father, son. The man.

Bob Thiele was the producer of A Love Supreme, and later he produced you too. His approach seemed to be just to let John go into the studio and do his thing.

Freedom, yes. That was important, because near the end of John’s life, when he was not able to work on the road, traveling and all this, John could go in and record hours and hours of music, in order to provide salary to the musicians. I thought that was quite noble.

I remember one of the things Bob used to do was, he had written this piece, I think Louis Armstrong had a hit on it.

“What a Wonderful World”—Bob was trying to plug it?

Yeah, and he would send it to John, from time to time, and he’d play a portion of it. Once I said, “You like it?” and he said, “It’s nice, it’s fine. I like it.” And that was the end of it, and not much more.

That was a rather definite intention. [Thiele] really wanted John to record it and John was being a gentleman about it. But they had a nice ongoing musical relationship and never any tension that I know of.

A lot was going on in the ’60s—black empowerment, civil rights, new jazz music was becoming the New Thing, which also had a political edge. How did John look upon all of that at the time—especially race politics? Was he with Dr. King or more with Malcolm [X]?

He was very interested in the civil-rights movement. He appreciated both men from their different perspectives. He did see the unity in what they were trying to achieve, basically almost the same thing, taking different directions to reach that point of achievement.

He knew that Dr. Martin Luther King was an intelligent man, who would’ve probably found his quest in civil rights more horrible, more horrendous, by going through the system as a lawyer or a professor. John felt that [King] as a preacher could reach the heart of the people. And he felt that this was very good, that it was an asset, that he would be able to lead the people based on the spiritual sense instead of the civic, intellectual, legalistic. John felt if you can talk to their heart you’ll get their support, and you’ll get them to believe in what you’re doing.

About Malcolm, I know John had attended some of his talks that were in our area. Once he came back and I asked him, “How was the lecture?” and he said he thought it was superb. Different approaches to the same goal, telling the people [to] be wise, try to get some kind of economic freedom, be self-sufficient, depend on yourself, strengthen your family ties. Things like that, not even involved with religion, just basic areas of improvement so that you can make yourself a strong force for the good that needs to be achieved. He told me that he appreciated the way that when the really tough questions were asked from the audience, every one was answered with an intelligence which the people could comprehend.

I know that some musicians who were around at the time were more militant. How did John feel about that?

He would not be a part of it, and this is what many people wanted him to do. They’d say, “Why don’t you take your horn, use it as an instrument to rally people together, to awaken consciousness in these people to really stand and fight for their rights?” He just said, “That’s not the way for me to go with this music.” It was not the way for him, to take his music into a militant zone to try to stress a point. If anything, we saw him going up. I would imagine his philosophy would be closer to Martin Luther King Jr.: Let me try to reach your heart, your spirit and your soul, and then we can move forward uniformly as a people and accomplish great things.

He didn’t prefer violence to peace, and he was very disturbed by the consequences [of the riots in the mid-1960s] and all the people who were getting hurt in the rioting. I believe he called us once [when] he was out of town when those [riots] were happening. He was mainly on the phone with his mother, because she was with us at the time and she was quite upset about it.

You mentioned tests and growth. For John that could be a way to describe 1965, when it seemed the quartet was starting to be insufficient for his vision. By ’66, you had joined John’s band.

Let me clarify that a little. The quartet started to envision their own presentation of the music, not so much his anymore, [and] they each were looking at a time when they should be presenting their music publicly.

They were all becoming leaders themselves.

Yes. I think there was a perception that maybe John didn’t feel they had it anymore. I came in the band with Pharoah [Sanders] and Rashied [Ali], but principally we were not the reason [the quartet ended]. We were supposed to be a part of the solution, because as one member of the original quartet would say, “I think it’s time that I go out on my own, get a nice band, travel and record.” And it was one of John’s key musicians. But he didn’t try to plead with anyone: “Oh, you must stay, look at the years you’ve been here, and if it’s a matter of salary…”

So one musician went and John told me about it. I remember that day. He was very deep in thought, and I asked him, “Is everything OK?” And I said, “It’ll be all right.” Then the next one left, like a chain reaction, and then all three of them left, and Jimmy Garrison did come back. Then John asked me [to join], and I told him, “If this is what you wish, then I’m willing. I would not have considered that this would be what you would like me to do.”

It was not reluctance [on my part], because [McCoy Tyner] was such a great, and still is, a great pianist. I mean, one of the innovators—John brought out everyone’s best potential, and I feel McCoy was one of the innovators. But it wasn’t reluctance toward that. 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.” And then he got everybody else.

You had played with him before?

Little things—duets at home.

The kids must’ve loved that—private concerts. How would the children react when you would get together and play?

Well, like children. They’d walk in and out and not pay attention, just like ordinary children. [Calls to her daughter Michelle, who knew John from age 3 to 7.] Do you remember the times when John and I used to play duets? I would play the piano, and he would play the sax. Do you remember? Can you go back?

Michelle Coltrane: I remember the tape-recorder sound, the tape going back and forth. I remember that a lot. It would go on all the time, even at night.

Alice Coltrane: And we’d practice at night with the white piano, or in the basement. See, she’s thinking much later, when we got a concert grand, but I’m talking about a little [Steinway] Grand B.

MC: I remember there were instruments all over the place, different things, like these instruments from Japan, a koto, and a sitar from Indian, a tamboura. And there was a piccolo, and that little baby Guild guitar, a small, acoustic one. I could tell my mom played piano really well. I was so short, my face was right next to the keys. [To Alice] I remember watching your fingers going, and I wished that I could do that.

I also remember Christmastime; they let us do whatever we wanted. I remember I tried to ride my tricycle in the house…

Ravi Coltrane [calling out from the other room]: You sure you’re not talking about last week? [general laughter]

What an incredible household for them to grow up in. 

AC: I would see it in our family, John at home with our children. He could be just like a boy, playing with the children. He’d buy toys that the children loved and be playing with them. They’d be laughing; he’d be laughing. I liked that lighter side.