John Coltrane - Spiritual Jazz

"My music is the spiritual expression of what I am --- my faith, my knowledge, my being"
- John Coltrane

During the fifties and early sixties, racial oppression was still rampant in the United States. Jim Crow laws were oppressing, black churches were being bombed and the civil rights movement was just beginning. The African-American population was forced into molds formed by whites, and began to leave the predominantly white culture presented to them in order to return to their roots. Black Nationalism came into existence, beginning a struggle for identity and control over their own history. In music, this developed as hard bop, then avant-garde nationalism, a reaction to cool jazz. Cool jazz was a movement to "incorporate Euro-classical aesthetic ideals into jazz" (Stewart 158). It brought on waves of middlebrow musicians, most of whom were white, interested in capitalizing on jazz's popularity. They produced watered-down jazz which lacked both the feeling created by being an oppressed race, and the improvisational talent that is jazz. Hard bop and avant-garde nationalism reacted to cool jazz by creating quick and furious sounds, and by incorporating new ideas and musical motifs from other cultures into its style. John Coltrane was never satisfied with the control over his music, and was always searching for ways to elevate both his playing style and himself. Coltrane's search for identity through the Tenor Saxophone led him to foreign lands and spiritual music. Coltrane felt that it was necessary to raise jazz from the pleasure houses to heaven, as shown in his development of musical style.

John William Coltrane grew up living with his grandfather, Reverend Walter Blaire. From an early age Coltrane was a spiritual man, but his life led him away from a spiritual lifestyle in the 40s, when he pulled a two-year stint in the Navy during World War II. He suddenly found life depressing, and heroin and alcohol worked their way into Trane's life. Through this time, Coltrane was developing musically, playing stints with such legends as Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Parker. He was left behind, as it became evident that drugs were ruining Coltrane's life. Here Coltrane made a commitment to spirituality and his music by admitting himself to a detox program and converting to Islam in order to keep his new convictions. His style continued to develop, and the traits we come to associate with Coltrane, such as his ability to play many notes in an extremely short time developed. Over the next few years, Coltrane went through a vicious circle of drug binges and detox centers, as he used drugs to propel him musically, but let it destroy him in the process. Coltrane had yet to find an identity in his search, and was thrust back into his old habits. Through these years, he sought a closer relationship to God, but drugs constantly held him back he felt. In 1955 he married Naima, who helped him again move away from drugs, but he but again fell back into the same circle. Coltrane's work did evolve, and his distinct styles became very clear. Coltrane developed further in his ability to play what Down Beat critic Ira Gilter called "sheets of sound," which is a good description of Trane's method. He would play notes so closely together that it almost sounded like a continuous note. Coltrane also developed "Coltrane Changes," started with "Giant Steps," in which he added more chromaticism to the jazz cadence. Coltrane later used these and other techniques to drive his intense music.

In 1957, Coltrane suddenly went through what he explained as "An experience, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life." He once again dedicated his life to God and the spiritual, but not necessarily the Islamic method. Coltrane believed in what is described as a "cosmic mysticism," (Kofsky) though he generally considered himself to be a Christian. He found his own music to be thoroughly spiritual in nature, and his experience with God to be exclusively personal. He became interested in Eastern philosophy and music as a solution to his intense need for self-expression, and discovered Hinduism, the Yoruba Religion of West Africa, Buddhism and others in his search for understanding and meaning (Horst). While the musical styles these religions embodied did not pervade Coltrane's work after he discovered them, he fashioned his philosophy of the world from them. Later he absorbed the foundations of their music into his own. Trane began writing pieces with Indian undertones, such as 1961's "India." His work absorbed Eastern musical ideas, and moved in avenues previously unexplored.

Spiritual tones and Eastern ideas were later used in Coltrane's piece "Alabama", about the Sunday morning bombing of a Birmingham church in 1963 (Strickland). During this time of Black Nationalism, Coltrane's music was propelled by avant-garde ideas, but Coltrane himself remained a pacifist despite militant upwelling within the black community. This was most likely due to his close personal relation to his God and newfound Eastern philosophy. While he did not want to fight, he did however want:

to be a force for real good. In other words, I know that there are bad forces, forces out here that bring suffering to others and misery to the world, but I want to be the opposite, I want to be a force which is truly for good (Kofsky).
These ideas combined for Coltrane in his next major piece. Coltrane had taken up meditation, and in 1964, he created what is regarded by many as his masterpiece. In the fall of 1964, deep in meditation, Trane "sought clarity and the knowledge that he and his music were following the right path. After hours of deep meditation, he was suddenly filled with music" (Wright). This meditation produced "A Love Supreme," which Coltrane describes as "a message from God." "A Love Supreme" was created completely by Coltrane, down to the artwork and poems in the liners. He felt the work was deeply spiritual, and by listening to it you can quickly gather that it is. Interestingly, Coltrane again uses various Eastern, African and even Baptist "building blocks," or basic sound ideas, which he then melds into the musical piece. The piece is musically complex, and divided up into four parts - "Acknowledgement," "Resolution," "Pursuance," and "Psalm". The four parts represent a pilgrim on a spiritual journey. The African American culture at the time was searching close and far for the same identity and culture as Coltrane, and his work was popular with many who followed him as a guide on their spiritual quest. Later, the piece became popular with the mainstream, but its spiritual intensity cannot be removed from the piece.

After "A Love Supreme," all of Coltrane's work had strong spiritual appeal. Such titles as "Meditations," "Om," and "Transition" show the deep religious nature of his work at this time. Coltrane brought even more revolutionary ideas into his music, and began to use the forms of the Indian ragas and quarter tones (Wright). As Coltrane put it, "I had to keep experimenting. I feel that I'm just beginning. I have part of what I'm looking for in my grasp, but not all." In late 1965 Coltrane began yet another musical evolution, and moved against into completely uncharted waters. This caused Elvin Jones, Coltrane's longtime key drummer to quit. The music emerged in a new form, difficult for the listener to understand without great effort. Spirituality was still plentiful, but Coltrane's quest for self led him away from what the world wanted him to do and toward inverted music, complex and deep.

After his death in 1967, the intense spiritual nature of his work carried on without him. In 1971, the Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church was founded based on the music and writings of Coltrane, namely around "A Love Supreme." They found Coltrane's work to be so intensely spiritual in nature to use him as their key figure in a quest for God. Obviously, Coltrane had succeeded in his attempt to make spiritual music, and elevate jazz to new heights. He helped bring a generation of Black Americans into understanding about who they are and helped them on the difficult journey to identity. In a time of revolution and rejection of classical ideas of culture and history, Coltrane help forge the musical equivalent of his own personal journey, one which explained itself naturally. The work continues to have profound metaphysical meaning and has helped many new generations in the same search for self.


Horst, Ian Scott. A LOVE SUPREME: Ian's Guide to the Ecstatic Spirit In
Jazz. July, 1997. May 1st, 2000
Kofsky, Frank. John Coltrane and the Jazz Revolution of the 1960s. 1997. May 1st, 2000
Stewart, Earl. African American Music: An Introduction. New York: Schirmer Books, 1998.
Strickland, Edward. "What Coltrane Wanted." Atlantic Monthly December 1987: 5+.
Wright, Derek. The Art of John Coltrane and Ralph Ellison. 13 Feb. 1996. May 1st 2000 http://www.

Written in 2000 by tyrian.

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