Coltrane, Born-Again

“During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music.”

That quote appears in the liner notes to John Coltrane’s 1965 jazz album, A Love Supreme. Many individuals who go through a period of struggle with vices, demons, and self-destructive behavior, often claim that they’ve been “saved” after turning to God. Some of these claims are genuine, others not so much. Many death row inmates claim to be “born-again”, conveniently during their court appeals process.

But the sincerity of John Coltrane’s spiritual awakening cannot be questioned. In fact, it is an integral aspect of the legendary saxophonist’s personal and professional odyssey. His career in the 1950s brought him consistent work as a sideman in groups led by DIzzy Gillespie, Johnny Hodges, and Miles Davis. This period also saw him, like too many jazz musicians of the day, fall into heroin addiction.

John Coltrane photographed by William Claxton at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City:

Miles Davis was himself a recovering drug addict and took very seriously the signs of addiction in his fellow musicians. In 1957 he felt he had no choice but to fire John Coltrane from the group, as his heroin use and alcoholism were affecting his performance and professionalism. It was this “tough love” act on the part of Miles Davis which prompted Coltrane to kick his habit once and for all and take control of his life.

At his home in Philadelphia, John Coltrane locked himself in an upstairs room, demanded no mercy from family members, starved himself, endured the sweats, the shakes, and all the agonizing symptoms of withdrawal, and kicked it cold turkey. Coltrane offered few details about the ordeal, except to say that he experienced God.

John Coltrane with his wife Alice:

Miles Davis re-hired John Coltrane in 1958, and Trane, liberated from his substance abuse, was finally able to become the innovative, groundbreaking musician he was destined to be. Coltrane’s spiritual epiphany, his profound religiosity and devotion to God, informed his music, his relationships, his entire life from then on. It was also the sole inspiration for A Love Supreme.

Although John Coltrane was raised in a Christian household in North Carolina, the exact religious orientation of his liner note writings is unspecified. Rather, they express a general reference to “God” – his grace, his redemptive power, and his love. His “love supreme”.

Coltrane conceived the album at his home in Dix Hills, Long Island in 1964. He called it a “thank you gift to God”. Indeed, an essential element of Coltrane’s divine revelation was a profound feeling of gratitude – his belief that his talent, his gifts, came from God for the purpose of sharing and uplifting others. As a drug addict, he was a squanderer of his talent. As a sober man, he had clarity, the ability to communicate, and the generosity of spirit to share his creativity with the world.

The music is truly revelatory. So naked, so transcendent, so brutally revealing, and Coltrane just pushes the notes out of his sax. At times they screech and wail, frantically run up and down his solos, desperately imploring the listener to understand that he has seen and experienced God. Throughout A Love Supreme, John Coltrane is telling us that his miracle can be everyone’s miracle. He is saying, “LISTEN to me. I have gloriously surrendered. This is my pilgrimage. Life HAS meaning. I’ve been to hell and back and now I am the right place . . . finally”. With the exception of hard core jazz fans, for most people it is a tough album to listen to. Heck, I AM a hard core jazz fan and even I get rattled with it sometimes. But you have to respect a man – any artist really – who lays it out in such a bare, unvarnished way. He is fearless, and the album can be considered “holy” by anyone who values personal, intimate spirituality. It also features the phenomenal McCoy Tyner on piano.

For today’s “Music Monday, from A Love Supreme, this is “Acknowledgement”:

“I’ve always felt that even though a man was not a Christian, he still has to know the truth some way or another. Or if he was a Christian, he could know the truth. The truth itself doesn’t have any name on it to me. And each man has to find this for himself, I think.”

-John Coltrane