Pianist-harpist Alice Coltrane, the widow of John Coltrane who revolutionized jazz with her Eastern explorations-merging postbop and free jazz with Carnatic music and even avant-classical composition-died on Friday, Jan. 12 at West Hills Hospital near Los Angeles. Her death was related to respiratory failure. She was 69.
Born Alice Lucille McLeod on Aug. 27, 1937 in Detroit, Mich., Coltrane was raised by a family with a strong musical background-her mother sang and played piano in church and her half-brother, Ernie Farrow, played bass for Yusef Lateef and vibist Terry Gibbs-who encouraged her to learn piano at an early age. At 7, she began learning classical piano and religious hymns on church organs, eventually taking lessons from Bud Powell. By the early ’60s, Coltrane had performed with Lateef, Kenny Burrell and Lucky Thompson, and was playing piano for Farrow before she decided to move to New York to pursue a jazz career. After joining old acquaintance Terry Gibbs’ band, she met John Coltrane in 1963 following a gig at Birdland. She left Gibbs shortly thereafter and married John in 1965.
As John Coltrane explored new musical territory and expanded the vocabulary of jazz, so did Alice; she would claim her husband’s impact on her musical progression was enormous. After the dissolution of the classic Coltrane quartet in 1965, with McCoy Tyner leaving, Alice immediately replaced him and joined John for legendary dates in San Francisco, Tokyo and New York. By the time of John’s death in July 1967, Alice had contributed her fantastic piano playing to such trailblazing Coltrane recordings (most being posthumous) as Infinity, Concert in Japan, Cosmic Music, Live at the Village Vanguard Again and Expression. Despite John’s early and tragic demise, Alice devoted herself to raising their children while continuing her career, inspired by her husband’s vision.
Surrounding herself with forward-thinkers like Pharoah Sanders, Joe Henderson and Rashied Ali, Alice began playing harp and organ and released her debut as a leader on Impulse, A Monastic Trio, in 1968. Huntington Ashram Monastery followed in 1969, and by Ptah, the El-Daoud (1970) and Journey in Satchidananda (1970), she had earned her own cult fan base. These albums’ beautiful, exotic compositions resembled nothing before them, successfully melding the cool, swinging bop of the ’50s and early ’60s with the outer-space explorations of Sun Ra; the Indian influence made it all sound very organic and natural, and these recordings hardly sound dated even today.
Universal Consciousness (1971), World Galaxy (1972) and Lord of Lords (1973) completed her stint at Impulse; these albums saw her experimenting even further, adding strings and incorporating avant-garde compositional ideas. She signed to Warner Brothers and released four more albums before retiring from recording and performing in 1978.
Throughout the ’70s, Coltrane continued to examine Eastern religions and philosophies, constantly traveling to India to study with Swami Satchidananda. She started a storefront ashram in San Francisco in the early ’70s but soon moved it to Woodland Hills in 1975. Many people actually recognize Coltrane as a significant spiritual leader and as founder of the Vedantic Center, a commune located in Agoura Hills.
Over the past 40 years, Coltrane was also the keeper of her husband’s musical legacy, managing his estate and overseeing his archive. In 2001 she helped found the John Coltrane Foundation to encourage jazz performances and award scholarships to young musicians. Although she stopped recording for about 25 years, she continued to play and returned from her long hiatus with the 2004 release of Translinear Light and critically acclaimed performances this past fall-where she was joined by her son Ravi on saxophone-in Paris, Los Angeles, Ann Arbor, Newark and San Francisco. She had just completed her next album, The Sacred Language of Ascension, which will likely see release later this year.
Alice Coltrane is survived by her sons Ravi and Oren (who plays guitar and sax), her daughter Michelle (who is a singer) and five grandchildren. A public memorial service will be announced at a later date.