Prologue; Coltrane as Musical Prophet; Excerpts from The Last Gig of J.C.; Coltrane’s Ecclesial Welcome; The Coltranean Key: An Aversion to the Major (Church?) and Affinity for the Minor (Jazzclub?); Heroin and LSD; Olatunji’s Drums of Passion; 1957: Coltrane’s Promise to God; Coltrane’s Spirituality: Beyond Good and Evil; Coltrane’s African Classical Music; Coltrane Changes: 1959-1961; Modalism: 1961-; A Love Supreme: 1964; Musical Shepherd and Goatherd; Epilogue; Coltrane: Magical Musician.
The Last Gig of J.C. makes sense to me as a performance subject, because I wrote and performed a show called The Last Gig of Lenny Breau, and I hear the same thing in John Coltrane’s music that I hear in that of Breau. Specifically, I hear a desperate attempt to reconcile the blues with the Western tonal cadence, and African and American aesthetics and conceptions of deity, in Coltrane’s Acknowledgement, from A Love Supreme, and in Breau’s Five O’Clock Bells. Breau sat in with Coltrane once, and I think they shared a similar musical vision. In fact, I think Breau’s vision derives in part from that of Coltrane.
Gil Scott Heron’s tribute to Coltrane, ….Then He Wrote Meditations, seems to associate Africa and America with a black person’s heaven and hell, respectively. Carlos Santana’s 1973 album, Welcome, seems to associate Africa with a heavenly home for the soul, for the alpha and omega of the album are the spiritual Going Home and Coltrane’s Welcome, and other tracks include Yours is the Light, Mother Africa (based on a ‘dark’ blues chord, like Peter Tosh’s Mama Africa), and Light of Life. Amiri Baraka: “Coltrane’s salvation will only come as a murderer, an anarchist, whose anarchy seems so radical because references to the ‘old music’ still remain.” “[Coltrane] showed us how to murder the popular song. To do away with weak Western forms. He is a beautiful philosopher.” Brian Ward cites black playwright-activist Ronald Milner’s conclusion that “’Black art can do a lot to topple white, racist America, if it is black enough’. Consequently, he turned to the jazz avant-garde, which he held was ‘the blackest of the arts’, with practitioners who were ‘furthest along in self-assertion and unrestrained, unaccommodating self-expression’. Milner hailed John Coltrane as ‘a man who through his saxophone before your eyes and ears, completely annihilates every single western influence.’” (Just My Soul Responding, 409)
The Last Gig of J.C. deconstructs or challenges these interpretations of Coltrane’s music by suggesting that the Coltranean Welcome refers, not to Africa, but to the light of the world, the life and the resurrection, and the life, the truth, and the way – Jesus Christ, whom Coltrane associated with Western churches. I find evidence for this view in the saxophonist’s words and music. However, Afro-American theologian James Cone describes the social climate of his childhood in the rural south during the Jim Crow (segregationist) years (1940’s and early ’50’s): “Although whites posted ‘Welcome’ signs outside their churches, ostensibly beckoning all visitors to join them in worship, blacks knew that the invitation did not include them.” (Risks of Faith, xi) Trumpeter Jack Walrath mentions “’that whole “Jim Crow” thing about a black man’s penis being longer than anyone else’s.’” (from Todd Jenkins, I Know What I Know, 144) Shelby Steele: “In Jim Crow, white supremacy was the motivation.” (A Dream Deferred, 129)
Frank Kofsky mentions Coltrane’s “desire to have his music perceived as ‘classical,’ and his concomitant unhappiness with the word ‘jazz’ to describe it.” (Coltrane, 420) Coltrane: “Everytime I talk about jazz I think of prizefighters.” “If you wanted to name [my music] anything you could name it a classical music.” It is therefore ironic that a plaque at Coltrane’s Hamlet, North Carolina, birthplace declares him to have been a “jazz messiah,” and that Ingrid Monson state that Coltrane “remains the only jazz musician to have had a church founded in his name.” (Freedom Sounds, 296)
Coltrane as Musical Prophet
Saxophonist Archie Shepp described jazz clubs as “crude stables where black men are groomed and paced like thoroughbreds to run until they bleed.” “Coltrane often practiced blowing his horn until his lips bled, and was even known for practicing alone in his dressing room between sets on stage.” John Mayers “Trane wore me out. Trane would practice so much that his lips would be bleeding. With those cats, man, it would be all music. That was the Golden Age. A great period.” Scotty Barnhart, The World of Jazz Trumpet: A Comprehensive History and Practical Philosophy Wanda Coleman, Coltrane’s Naima Narrative Transmigrated by Himself: “Primitively bleeding devilish screeches.”
Breau on Coltrane: “John Coltrane used to play so much that when he’d come off the bandstand sometimes his lips were bleeding and he’d go into the dressing room and still practice. Practice, practice, practice. He’d come down [and] there’d be blood running down. Now that’s serious. That cat is devoted, you know, to playing music, right? So there ain’t a whole lot of people like that.” Both Breau and Coltrane were tortured souls who saw music as a form of prayer, but were utterly conflicted concerning the nature of the deity. This is in part what made their musical prayers so anguished. Was God symbolically black or white, or universal? Who were God’s people and what were their aesthetics? Incidentally, if Breau’s vision of Coltrane is akin to the crucified my own vision of Coltrane resembles the resurrected, whereby he attains his three Es – elation, elegance, and exaltation. On the other hand this distinction may be superficial if it is the crucificied who has been resurrected.
Wynton Marsalis suggests a more mundane explanation for Coltrane’s bleeding lips. “Once we [he and Elvin Jones] were playing so hard my lips started bleeding. I didn’t want to tell him that I thought he was playing too loud. Finally, I got up the courage to tell him. He stared at me for a while and then said, ‘All you had to do was say something. Ain’t nobody on earth above being told something.’” (Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life, 111) Geoff Dyer: “By the time of Sun Ship, especially on ‘Dearly Beloved’ and ‘Attaining’, Jones is murderous: it seems impossible that the saxophone can survive the pounding of the drums. Coltrane is on the cross, Jones is hammering in the nails. Prayer turns to scream.” (But Beautiful, 183)
Allen Ginsberg described “an eli eli lamma lamma sabacthani saxophone cry that shivered the cities down to the last radio.” (Howl, line 77) W.T. Lhamon Jr.: “In using Christ’s last words on the cross (translated at Matthew 27:46 as ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’), Ginsberg has slightly respelled and doubled the King James version’s ‘lama.’ Stuttering the question anthemically, Ginsberg blows it through a saxophone to shiver his existing cities as Joshua did Jericho.” (Deliberate Speed, 29) Ginsberg: “’Lester Young, actually, is what I was thinking about….”Howl” is all “Lester Leaps In”….And I got that,’ he said, ‘from Kerouac…he made me listen to it’ (Composed 43).” (70)
Kahn mentions “Christ-like parallels. The saxophonist’s life of self-sacrifice, message of universal love, death at an early age – even his initials.” (xix) Kofsky: “Coupled with his resolute determination to push his music beyond what he had already perfected, and his constant, unfeigned humility, such attributes made Coltrane appear a Christ-like personification of incorruptible integrity and the quest for truth in a society that defines artistic merit in terms of box-office receipts and record-sales figures.” (Coltrane, 427) David Ake: “In many of the later performances the saxophonist was at once indiscernible and ubiquitous. For some this music must have felt (and must still feel) like the definition of the Almighty handed down from the ancient Hermetic text: an infinite sphere, the center of which is everywhere, the circumference nowhere. Jazz writer Frank Kofsky did, in fact, equate Coltrane with a deity (if not the Deity), writing, ‘I am not a religious person but John Coltrane was the one man whom I worshipped as a saint or even a god.’” (Jazz Matters, 34)
Beat poet Ted Joans: “At rest at last / J.K. says hello to J.C. / John Coltrane that is!” (The Wild Spirit of Kicks: in memory of Jack Kerouac) In The Ladder of Basquiat Joans again refers to “J.C. / John Coltrane that is!” Joans lists Coltrane among “sax maniacs of colored races” (I Am the Lover) and describes the saxophone as “hanging lynched like / J shaped initial of jazz” (The Sax Bit) The potential depth of this performance is only gradually entering my consciousness. It’s like the Breau show in that I’m tapping into a subject and themes that have no objective interpretation, for they convey a mystery that transcends words. NFB has a film entitled Has God forsaken Africa?
Gary Giddins castigates “the ’60s journal Jazz & Pop for the most lurid hyperbole” of casting Coltrane as “the son of God.” (Visions of Jazz, 477) From the radio documentary Tell Me How Long Trane’s Been Gone, vol. 3: “Nisenson cites an observation of James [Lincoln] Collier’s that ‘Coltrane was a certifiably neurotic, if not near-psychotic man, driven by inner demons rather than a search for God.’ The evidence cited for this claim is Coltrane’s compulsive practicing and his candy habit (1993: 194). For a philosophical discussion of existential anxiety, see Slote 1975.” (John Coltrane and Black America’s Quest for Freedom: Spirituality and the Music, 109) Salim Washington: “One biographer posits that his practicing and his penchant for sweets (which, along with his heroin addiction, led to dental problems) are evidence of an oral fixation.” (Don’t Let the Devil (Make You) Lose Your Joy, from John Coltrane, 149)
Coltrane: “You just keep going all the way, as deep as you can. You keep trying to get right down to the crux.” (C on C, 321) Crux derives from the Latin word for cross, as in crucifix. Coltrane in Newsweek, 12/66: “My goal is to live the truly religious life and express it in my music. If you live it, when you play there’s no problem because the music is just part of the whole thing. To be a musician is really something. It goes very, very deep. My music is the spiritual expression of what I am – my faith, my knowledge, my being. [When you begin to see the possibilities of music, you desire to do something really good for people, to help humanity free itself from its hangups. I think music can make the world better and, if I’m qualified, I want to do it. I’d like to point out to people the divine in a musical language that transcends words. I want to speak to their souls.]” (C on C, 337) Giddins: “‘The main thing a musician would like to do,’ Coltrane said, ‘is to give a picture to the listener of the many wonderful things he knows of and senses in the universe.’ When Miles asked him why he played so long, he answered, ‘It took that long to get it all in.'” (Visions, 490)
Coltrane on guitar? “Coltrane’s practicing from harp books – probably Carlos Salzedo’s Modern Study of the Harp – led him toward extravagant and rapid arpeggios and scale patterns.” (Ratliff, 44) “The critic Ira Gitler, right around this time, in the liner (43) notes to Coltrane’s 1958 Soultrane LP on Prestige, had called this kind of playing ‘sheets of sound.’” (44) Yusef Lateef: “I remember when the critics were saying John was playing what sounded like ‘sheets of sound.’ Well, they didn’t know that Naima had seen to it that a harp was in his study, and of course you could just set the pedals and pull your fingers over it and you would get the idea of ‘sheets of sound.’” (Conversations With Yusef Lateef; from John Coltrane and Black America’s Quest for Freedom, 193)
Eric D. Jackson: “In these troubling times, many can probably use the uplifting effect of Trane’s music, perhaps sharing in that vision of a better life that John wanted to communicate though [sic] his music.
Recently I found this poem by Franz Von Schober that Franz Schubert put to music in his 1817 work ‘An die Musik,’
O gracious Art, in how many gray hours / When life’s fierce orbit encompassed me, / Hast thou kindled my heart to warm love, / Hast charmed me into a better world. / Oft has a sigh, issuing form thy harp, / A sweet, blest chord of thine, / Thrown open the heaven of better times; / O gracious Art, for that I thank thee! ‘Somebody please say, Amen!’” (Somebody Please Say, ‘Amen!’; from John Coltrane and Black America’s Quest for Freedom, 181)
Coltrane owned a guitar in his Long Island home and bought one on tour in Scotland to play in his hotel. J.C. Dargenpierre on Coltrane in Paris in 1961: “Coltrane took a guitar out of a case and started playing chords. ‘I bought it in Glasgow, since my hotel neighbors complained that I was making too much noise when I practiced the saxophone. It’s a lovely instrument.'” (C on C, 127) Ennosuke Saito: “Please name three musicians that you like.” Coltrane: “I’ll start with Ravi Shankar….and Ornette Coleman. And Carlos Salzedo – he’s not living at this time, but he’s one of my favorite musicians. He was a harpist. Shankar is a sitarist.” (Tokyo, 1966, C on C, 268)
The genre of The Last Gig of J.C. is a musical mission trip – perhaps the first ever. The first set is a musical voyage to Nigeria and the second set and coda are modeled on a church service. “Given Coltrane’s interest in spirituals, we can infer that he may have been importing an idea from church – not only the musical rhetoric of gospel music, but the actual worship.” (Ratiliff, 60)
Excerpts from The Last Gig of J.C.
First Set: Journey to Nigeria
|“… And Then He Wrote Meditations”|
Chart a course due east of Canada,
On the trade winds to west Africa;
Chant a rhythm of the Yoruba,
On a journey to Nigeria.
Chant in E minor: Africa, mama Africa
Jingo go ba 2x Go ba ba 3x Go ba – followed by improvised call and response
Nigerian percussion master Babatunde Olatunji said:
“The spirit of the drum is something that you feel
But cannot put your hands on,
It does something to you from the inside out
It hits people in so many different ways.
But the feeling is one that is satisfying and joyful.
It is a feeling that makes you say to yourself,
‘I’m glad to be alive today! I’m glad to be part of this world!”
“Nigerians call rhythm the soul of life, because the whole universe revolves around rhythm, and when we get out of rhythm, that’s when we get into trouble.”
Carlos Santana said: “The music of Olatunji is the music that was here before Christ, because it goes back to the motherland. It wasn’t just the music, it was the consciousness of how things work with Africa and mother nature. It’s not just playing congas and getting high. There’s stories of planting seeds and growing. He was a garden keeper of sacred chants. When I die [the sound of his big drum] better be the entrance to the door to heaven, otherwise I’m turning back, man. There he is – maestro [Olatunji].” “Everything from Elvis Presley to Chuck Berry to whoever you want has got African music.”
In Santana’s celestial vision Olatunji beating a big drum replaces Saint Peter guarding the pearly gates. Stardom may have spoiled the guitarist: “I only want to go to heaven if they have congas up there.” (The Universal Tone, 516) Santana wishes to start a church which “will have to have congas to put away the false notion that drums and percussion are the instruments of the devil.” (515) However, Little Richard states: “I believe [rock and roll] is demonic….A lot of the beats in music today are taken from the voodoo drums. If you study music in rhythms, like I have, you’ll see that is true. I believe that kind of music is driving people from Christ. It is contagious. I believe that God wants people to turn from Rock ‘n’ Roll to the Rock of Ages – to get ready for eternal life.” In a variation of the black nationalist phrase, “the white man’s heaven is the black man’s hell,” it seems that the rhythms of Scott-Heron and Santana’s heaven are those of Little Richard’s hell. Where do African rhythms fit in the Coltranean cosmology?
Drummer Neil Peart said: “‘I was walking through a small village in Gambia, and I heard the sound of a drum. I looked into a compound and I could hear the drumming coming from a curtained room. Inside I found a young, white missionary from a nearby Catholic school. Sitting across from him was a local drum master. He was attempting to show the missionary how to play any kind of beat. The missionary was trying as hard as he could, but he wasn’t having a lot of success. The drum master gestured to me to try and play a rhythm. So we began playing together, and he started smiling because he could tell that I had a rhythm. We were playing and playing, building the intensity, and little kids started coming in, laughing at the white man playing drums. Then a few women came into the room, and everybody began dancing to our beat! It was just a magical moment.’ When they finished the missionary ran up to Peart and asked, ‘How can you do that?’ Neil responded, ‘I’m in the business.’” (Modern Drummer Magazine, February 1996)
The beat has a rich and magnificent history, full of adventure, excitement, and mystery.
Some of it bitter, and some of it sweet, but all of it part of the beat.
They say it began with a chant and a hum, and a black hand laid on a native drum.
Savor a land where you become
One with a hand stroking a drum
Shades of delight cocoa hue rich as the night Afro blue
Moonlight above desert below
Saharan sands bask in the glow
Shades of delight cocoa hue rich as the night Afro blue
“That silent beat makes the drumbeat, it makes the drum, it makes the beat. Without it there is no drum, no beat. It is not the beat played by who is beating the drum. His is a noisy loud one, the silent beat is beaten by who is not beating on the drum, his silent beat drowns out all the noise, it comes before and after every beat, you hear it in beatween.” Bob Kaufman, Letter to the Editor, Golden Sardine 81
After meeting a group of Liberians at a nightclub performance, Coltrane composed and recorded Liberia, based on the harmonic structure of Dizzy Gillespie’s A Night in Tunisia.
Night in Nigeria
The moon is the same moon above you
Aglow with it’s cool evening light
But shining at night, in Nigeria
Never does it shine so bright
The stars are aglow in the heavens
But only the wise understand
That shining at night in Nigeria
They guide you through the desert sand
Words fail, to tell a tale
Too exotic to be told
Each night’s a deeper night
In a world, ages old
The cares of the day seem to vanish
The ending of day brings release
Each wonderful night in Nigeria
Where the nights are filled with peace
Where are all the African Gods? Did they leave us on our journey over here?
Where are the African gods? Will we know them when they suddenly appear?
The ones dismissed with voodoo, rock & roll, and all that jazz; and jungle mumbo jumbo, and razzmatazz.
Where are the African Gods, who lived within the skin, without the skin, and in the skin again?
Do they hide among the shadows while we stumble along the way?
Or did they go with heaven to prepare another day?
Where are the African Gods who will save us from this misery and shame?
Where are the African Gods?
Will we find them while we pray in Jesus’ name?
Where are the African Gods who lived, and set us free?
We are the African gods. We are, you and me.
Lines from Helene Johnson’s Magalu
I met Magalu, dark as a tree at night,
Eager-lipped, listening to a man with a white collar
And a small black book with a cross on it.
Oh Magalu, come! Take my hand and I will read you poetry,
Fill up your throat with laughter and your heart with song.
Do not let him lure you from your laughing waters,
Lulling lakes, lissome winds.
Would you sell the colors of your sunset and the fragrance
Of your flowers, and the passionate wonder of your forest
For a creed that will not let you dance?
Lines from Countee Cullen’s Heritage
So I lie, who always hear,
Though I cram against my ear
Both my thumbs, and keep them there,
Great drums throbbing through the air….
My conversion came high-priced; I belong to Jesus Christ,
Preacher of humility; Heathen gods are naught to me
Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, So I make an idle boast;
Jesus of the twice-turned cheek, Lamb of God, although I speak
With my mouth thus, in my heart Do I play a double part.
Ever at Thy glowing altar Must my heart grow sick and falter,
Wishing He I served were black, Thinking then it would not lack
Precedent of pain to guide it, Let who would or might deride it;
Surely then this flesh would know Yours had borne a kindred woe.
Lord, I fashion dark gods, too, Daring even to give You
Dark despairing features where, Crowned with dark rebellious hair,
Patience wavers just so much as Mortal grief compels, while touches
Quick and hot, of anger, rise To smitten cheek and weary eyes.
Lord, forgive me if my need Sometimes shapes a human creed.
Second Set: Purgatorial Tones
“I have all these things running through my head and I don’t know how to end them,” said J.C. to Miles, who replied, “just take the horn out your mouth.” Santana recalls “what Miles Davis used to say about musicians who play too much: ’You know, the less you play the more you get paid for each note.”’ (110) In front of what he described as “a beautiful church,” J.C. responded to a comment about Malcolm X and modern jazz by stating: “I know that there are forces out here that bring suffering to others and misery to the world, but I want to be the opposite force. I want to be the force which is truly for good.” “I want to produce beautiful music…in communion with the natural laws.” “You just keep going all the way, as deep as you can. You keep trying to get right down to the crux.” “There are always new sounds to imagine, new feelings to get at. And always there is the need to keep purifying these feelings and sounds so that we can really see what we’ve discovered in its pure state. So that we can see more and more clearly what we are…we have to keep on cleaning the mirror.”
J.C. purged base moods and blue notes with blood, sweat, and tears. Lenny Breau said: “Coltrane used to play so much that when he’d come off the bandstand sometimes his lips were bleeding and he’d go into the dressing room and still practice. Practice, practice, practice. He’d come down [and] there’d be blood running down.” A year before his final concert J.C. performed at a benefit concert to raise money to build a playground on the site of a former convent. Zane Massey recalled: “It was so intense. I was very young, but I was very touched by that music. It was a very long performance – Trane played for over an hour. They played for so long that there were puddles of sweat. Where they were standing – John, Jimmy, Elvin – there was literally water there on the floor. I remember at one point after he played for maybe a half-hour, he went in his pocket and he read the prayer, the whole A Love Supreme prayer. He actually read it – ‘Thank you God,’ you know – while the band was playing. Then everybody was chanting [sings], ‘a love supreme, a love supreme’ while he was reading the prayer. The band was playing, and he was reading the prayer. And I remember in the back of the room it was all musicians and they were chanting his name, ‘John, John, John.’ Rahsaan [Roland Kirk] was actually crying, and I couldn’t understand. I was in shock, because I hadn’t ever seen anything like that before.” (191)
Invocation to A Love Supreme
(Chant in A major)
Holy Parent, Holy Child, Holy Spirit;
Holy Power, Holy Wisdom, Holy Union;
Holy Lover, Holy Loved One, Love so Holy;
Hallelujah. The whole earth is full of God’s glory.
Isaiah Chapter 6, Verses 5-8
(Aria in A minor; melody: Seraphic Light)
Woe is me I am lost For I have Unclean lips
And I live With a race Tainted with Unclean lips
And my eyes Gaze upon
God above Lord of love Touch my lips With your coal
(Recitative in A minor)
Then an angel flew to me with a live coal in his hand,
Which he had taken from the altar of heaven.
With it he touched my mouth, saying,
(Recitative in A major)
“See, this has touched your lips;
Your guilt is gone and your sin atoned for.”
Then I heard the Lord ask,
“Whom shall I send and who will go for us?” And I cried
(Aria in A major)
Here am I. Lord send me.
Psalm from A Love Supreme (To be chanted, with optional verbal and melodic embellishments, by audience members as they feel moved, in the spirit of an unprogrammed Quaker meeting; Coltrane attended a former Quaker school for blacks in High Point.)
I will do all I can to be worthy of Thee O Lord. It all has to do with it. Thank you God. Peace. There is none other. God is, It is so beautiful. Thank you God. God is all. Help us to resolve our fears and weaknesses. Thank you God. In You all things are possible. We know. God made us so. Keep your eye on God. God is. He always was. He always will be. No matter what…it is God. He is gracious and merciful. It is most important that I know Thee. Words, sounds, speech, men, memory, thoughts, fears and emotions – time – all related…all made from one…all made in one. Blessed be His name. Thought waves – heat waves – all vibrations – all paths lead to God. Thank you God. His way…it is so lovely…it is gracious. It is merciful – thank you God. One thought can produce millions of vibrations and they all go back to God…everything does. Thank you God. Have no fear…believe…thank you God.
“The universe has many wonders. God is all. His way…it is so wonderful. Thoughts – deeds – vibrations. They all go back to God and He cleanses all. He is gracious and merciful…thank you God. Glory to God…God is so alive. God is. God loves. May I be acceptable in Thy sight. We are all one in His grace. The fact that we do exist is acknowledgement of Thee of Lord. Thank you God. God will wash away all our tears…He always has…He always will. Seek Him everyday. In all ways seek God everyday. Let us sing all songs to God to whom all praise is due…praise God. No road is an easy one, but they all go back to God. With all we share God. It is all with God. It is all with Thee. Obey the Lord. Blessed is He. We are from one thing…the will of God…thank you God.”
The very first thing that J.C. wanted to express to people was “the love that holds the universe together.” He said: “Welcome is that feeling you have when you finally do reach an awareness, and understanding which you have earned through struggle. It is a feeling of peace. A welcome feeling of peace.”
Coda: Death and Exaltation
Abide With Me
(Coltrane recorded this hymn with Thelonius Monk in 1957, the year of his spiritual awakening; some of the lines appear to have inspired Coltrane’s poem from A Love Supreme.)
Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.
Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
Earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see;
O thou who changest not, abide with me.
I need thy presence every passing hour.
What but thy grace can foil the tempter’s power?
Who, like thyself, my guide and stay can be?
Through cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me.
I fear no foe, with thee at hand to bless;
Ills have no weight, and tears not bitterness.
Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if thou abide with me.
Hold thou thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.
Heaven’s morning breaks, and Earth’s vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.
J.C.’s memorial service was held July 21, 1967, at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Manhattan. From a vision of a sheet descending from heaven to the four corners of the earth St. Peter concluded that he shouldn’t call anyone unclean and that God accepts people from every nation. (Acts 10:28, 35-6)
“The New York Times noted: ‘Instead of a eulogy, Mr. Coltrane’s friend, Calvin Massey, read a long religious poem ‘A Love Supreme’ written by the dead musician.’” (Kahn, 196)
Benediction (To be sung in gospel call and response style)
I have seen God – I have seen ungodly – none can be greater – none can compare to God. Thank you God. He will remake us…He always has and He always will. It is true – blessed be His name – thank you God. God breathes through us so completely…so gently we hardly feel it…yet, it is our everything. Thank you God. ELATION – ELEGANCE – EXALTATION – All from God. Thank you God. Amen
Coltrane’s Ecclesial Welcome
Coltrane’s cousin Mary Alexander: “‘I just want people to know that John was a normal person, he was a man, you know, and not God like some people might think.’” (Kahn, 223) “‘John was a normal child, fun and a practical joker. When we were little, you know – skating and playing and doing everything that everybody else was doing – we had to go to church every Sunday. Had to go. I remember one Sunday, after everything was over, they opened the doors of the church. In the Methodist church they call it ‘opening the doors of the church,’ that’s when people come up from their seats to join the church after the pastor has preached. They still do that. Out of the clear blue sky John went up to join the church. I didn’t even know what he was doing, he was so little.'” (Kahn, 224)
“‘When we first came from North Carolina we lived in a building where there were two-room apartments – we had the apartment on the second floor in the rear. Later on we got an apartment on the fourth floor in the front, which meant we had four rooms in that place. But that first apartment was small, John used to practice all the time, and we’d just go right past him, and go outside and let him sit there. He’d practice in front of a mirror bedroom set. In fact, I still have that vanity right here in the basement and it has the marks [on it where] John would put his cigarettes and let them burn. The neighbors were close by, and they kind of got tired of his practicing, and they’d talk in the street about it. So we sort of got wind of it. Just about a block from our apartment….was our church. The pastor said that he would let John practice there, and gave him a key so he could go in and out whenever he wanted. And that’s what he did.'” (Kahn, 223) Griffin and Washington: “Perhaps playing the saxophone was the most reliable  therapy for a man who first began his seemingly obsessive studying and playing of the saxophone at the time of his father’s death.” (Clawing at the Limits of Cool, 154-55)
Lateef: “the music definitely was learned outside of school. The university of life! Yeah. He never lost sight of development. I remember I came to New York, it was in the ‘50s, to make a record, and he was playing with Miles at the club in the Village….and when John finished his solo, Miles said to John, ‘You ain’t playin’ nothing,’ and John didn’t say anything, and then right after that is when he started that practicing. And I’ve never seen anyone practice as much as he did, and he just got moving up the steps of evolution you know. I remember once I went to visit him on 103rd Street, after I moved to New York. And I heard him practicing on my way up the steps, and I knocked on the door, and he let me in, and he welcomed me, and I sat down, and he went back to practicing. And I listened about twenty minutes…and then I got up and I left…[laughter], and went home and started practicing!” (Conversation with Yusef Lateef, 201)
Coltrane: “’I’m just trying to clean up…can you imagine if you didn’t take a bath for thirty for forty years…I’m just trying to be clean…’” (from God’s Mind in That Music, 198) Coltrane in late 1966: “‘There is never any end. There are always new sounds to imagine, new feelings to get at. And always there is the need to keep purifying these feelings and sounds so that we can really see what we’ve discovered in its pure state. So that we can see more and more clearly what we are…we have to keep on cleaning the mirror.'” (198) Was Coltrane alluding to the mirror in the bedroom where he would practice? When he looked in that mirror was he thinking that his reflection was impure because it was black? I wonder if Coltrane had James 1:23 in mind when stating the above thoughts in 1966: “Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.” The law of music, conformity to the major triad, was surely part of Coltrane’s musical conscience. Did he think of the major triad, and the divine Trinity it manifested, as symbolically white?
Kahn: “I asked her how she felt when she first heard A Love Supreme, if she (223) was taken aback by its exposed spirituality. ‘He had done spiritual things before, but it was a big difference. I mean really spiritual. I felt he was doing the same thing Grandfather had done, but he was doing it through his music.'” (224) His grandfather was a preacher.
Kahn: “I immediately thought of how many rituals are built around that moment of religious acceptance, and how – though celebrating the most intimate moment between man and God – they tend to be thrust into an open, communal forum. I thought of A Love Supreme as the ultimate step of a public path John Coltrane began when, as a child, he first rose from that church seat in North Carolina. I recalled a passage Joe Goldberg had written of the saxophonist in 1965: ‘That he continues to progress in the inexorable glare of a scrutiny that invests his most casual acts with significance is evidence of unusual conviction. Coltrane is probably the first major soloist of the contemporary era whose development largely took place under such scrutiny.’ And, as one who was a little less assured in his agnostic or rationalist beliefs, I thought of that phrase ‘opening the doors.’ On the verge of standing up and stepping forward to celebrate the universally transcendent possibility in music, I find that A Love Supreme still opens the portal wider than any other recording I know.” (Kahn, 224)
A Love Supreme, as Alice Coltrane noted, is not an ultimate step, for it merely opens the doors, but doesn’t walk through them. In the following year, 1965, Coltrane recorded a new composition called Welcome, in a major key. This song to me represents Coltrane stepping through the door (Jesus said, ‘I am the door.’) Is it significant that the cover of A Love Supreme is relatively black and the text is white, whereas the cover of Santana’s Welcome is white and the text is gold? “When asked why Coltrane did not perform his suite more often, Alice Coltrane shrugs, ‘To speculate on why A Love Supreme was rarely performed opens up many variables.’ Why that evening in a Brooklyn church? ‘I believe the sacredness of the event may be a reason.'” (Kahn, 193) Alice Coltrane: “‘John made his own decision to perform ‘Acknowledgement’ from A Love Supreme…and to recite the poem during the program.'” (Kahn, 190)
St. Gregory’s School Hall was the site of the concert. The Catholic church, convent, and school “functioned as the religious and social heart of the community.” (187) Coltrane performed a Sunday afternoon jazz concert on April 24, 1966 to raise money to build a playground on the grounds of a former convent. “The flyer promised a concert with a ‘Religious Theme.'” (Kahn, 188)
“The idea of reaching new listeners, of performing in a location where ticket prices and age limits would not hinder attendance, was a primary concern for Coltrane in his last year. ‘His goal, shortly before he died, was to get a loft in [Greenwich] Village,’ explained Bob Thiele: (189) He wanted to set up a place where people could come in, listen to his music…in other words, people could attend rehearsals, no admission, just the price of a Coca-Cola, ten cents if you wanted anything to drink, but this was definitely an ambition of his.'” (Kahn, 190)
Zane Massey: “‘It was so intense. I was very young, but I was very touched by that music. It was a very long performance – Trane played for over an hour. They played for so long that there were puddles of sweat. Where they were standing – John, Jimmy, Elvin – there was literally water there on the floor. I remember at one point after he played for maybe a half-hour, he went in his pocket and he read the prayer, the whole A Love Supreme prayer. He actually read it – ‘Thank you God,’ you know – while the band was playing. Then everybody was chanting [sings], ‘a love supreme, a love supreme’ while he was reading the prayer. The band was playing, and he was reading the prayer. And I remember in the back of the room it was all musicians and they were chanting his name, ‘John, John, John.’ Rahsaan [Roland Kirk] was actually crying, and I couldn’t understand. I was in shock, because I hadn’t ever seen anything like that before.'” (191)
Charles Toliver describes the performance: “‘It was sort of melodic, just a little different. It wasn’t hard jazz – the Gillespie kind of jazz. I was thinking that maybe it was tempered because of the church. His stuff was very…it was almost symphonic. I understand now, having listened to some of his music, that that was his jazz.'” (Kahn, 192)
“Almost exactly a year later Coltrane performed Acknowledgement again on April 23, 1967, at Olatunji’s cultural center in Harlem – his last concert. Drummer Rashied Ali recalls: “‘with incense burning  and the place packed, he did something I had never seen him do before – he sat down on the bandstand.'” (Kahn, 198) According to Monson, Coltrane’s “last public appearance was at a benefit concert for Olatunji’s Center of African Culture, an organization that was intended to awaken the interest of the Harlem community in learning about Africa. Indeed, at the very end of his life Coltrane had planned to do several self-produced concerts with Olatunji and intended to travel to Africa for further musical explorations. Olatunji had a long-standing interest in black nationalism and the Nation of Islam.” (Freedom Sounds, 303)
The Coltranean Key: An Aversion to the Major (Church?) and Affinity for the Minor (Jazzclub?)
Guitarist John McGlaughlin’s new release, To the One, is a tribute to Coltrane and his classic recording, A Love Supreme. I find that Coltrane had a curious relation to the one. In bluesy pieces in a minor key, such as Psalm, Coltrane frequently plays the fundamental. Ratliff states that A Love Supreme “includes a word-based recitation, probably his best, in ‘Psalm,’ taking off from Coltrane’s poem, which was printed on the LP sleeve. (‘Thank you, God’ is the refrain in between lines; in that phrase, the word ‘God’ always signals a return to the tonic.)” (91) Giddins notes that a second version of Chasin’ the Trane, “posthumously released as ‘Chasin’ Another Trane’”, “is virtually as long as the classic one, but it is the least effective. Coltrane opens with thirty-six repetitious choruses, mowing down changes, sub-dividing meter, and cranking up dissonances, but always returning to the tonic at chorus-end, as though the blues were a vise he could not escape.” (Visions, 478) Compare with the title, Chronic Blues, recorded in 1957. However, in major key pieces, Coltrane seems to express an antipathy towards the fundamental.
Olly Wilson: “In the 1960s, when John Coltrane becomes ‘Trane,’ he becomes an icon. As a consolidator he pulls many things together (different musical styles, cultures, and genres, his intensity, his political consciousness, his spirituality), and all of this becomes identified with the musical period and becomes the kind of music that many people listened to, beginning with ‘My Favorite Things.’ And his name, ‘Trane,’ is suggestive of the period because it’s a powerful symbol that is also associated with African American spirituals, and conveys the image of a train…the moving, the running away, the getting away, the going to a better place, is all part of that metaphor.” (Conversation with Olly Wilson; from John Coltrane and Black America’s Quest for Freedom, 189)
“‘Perhaps my main fault at the moment is that I have a natural feeling for the minor,’ Coltrane apologized in 1965. ‘I’d like to do more things in the major.'” (116) Coltrane in late 1966: “‘There is never any end. There are always new sounds to imagine, new feelings to get at. And always there is the need to keep purifying these feelings and sounds so that we can really see what we’ve discovered in its pure state. So that we can see more and more clearly what we are…we have to keep on cleaning the mirror.'” (Ratliff, 198)
Coltrane’s natural feeling for the minor can perhaps be contrasted with a supernatural, or spiritual, feeling for the major. Rudolph Steiner’s theory of major and minor comes to mind, as does Rudhyar’s statement that “personal love, when it leads to biological union, turns out to be asocial and ultimately tragic, as for Tristan and Isolde, and the sin of Amfortas in the Parsifal legend. The tragedies of love and frustration also had to find their field of expression in music. They are associated with the minor mode in which the first third interval is flattened (C to E flat), evoking a descent of the energy of love to the physical level and a deep feeling of the futility or tragedy of the ascent of human nature.” (The Magic of Tone, Chapter 9)
Coltrane’s consciousness of major and minor tonality is evident in the following statement: “’The way the song [My Favorite Things] is constructed,’ he explained, ‘it’s divided into parts. We play both parts. There’s a minor and a major part. We improvise in the minor, and we improvise in the major modes’” (Kofsky, Coltrane, 421) My intuition is that Coltrane associated the fundamental tone in his songs in a minor key and blues with a compassionate deity, familiar with suffering – perhaps a symbolically black, or colored, deity – and that he associated the fundamental tone in songs that he wrote in a major key with a symbolically white deity, or God of light, looking down on him relatively dispassionately, and perhaps with judgement and condemnation. I find evidence of this antipathy in Acknowledgement, The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, Giant Steps, Amen, Welcome, Dear Lord, and After the Rain. The song, Love, is an exception, to my ears, as is Selflessness and The Reverend King.
Major Key Songs
The brief invocation to Acknowledgement, the first piece of the A Love Supreme suite, is the only major key section of the entire suite, in the key of E major, an unusual key for Coltrane. He plays a 2-5-1 melodic motif that begins with the 5 and ends with the 2; the 1, or key center is hardly played. This aversion to the ‘one’ contrasts with the minor key Psalm, where the ‘one’ coincides with the word God in the text.
Whyton notes that “the introductory saxophone flourish that opens the A Love Supreme suite…is most often described as a fanfare-like introduction to the suite, setting the scene for the spiritual experience to follow. As Ashley Kahn writes: 
‘Whether it’s blown from minarets or at military barracks, as a call to prayer or to arms, it’s a time-honored device with a timeless function. Fanfares demand attention, heralding the importance of the message to follow….In the context of A Love Supreme, Coltrane’s warmly stated opening figure – in E major, which, though briefly played, was an unusual key for Coltrane – serves as a benediction, a spiritual welcome. ’
Kahn’s statement imbues Coltrane’s opening with spiritual significance , aligning the fanfare with politics and religion, and citing the ‘unusual’ key signature as a unique feature of the work.
The unique characteristics of the opening are also discussed by Ravi Coltrane:
’In “Acknowledgement,” John uses two sets of harmonic relationships or melodic “cells.” The opening motif is built on one: it’s a 1-2-5 cell (1 being the root of a major scale, 2 the first degree above it, 5 the fifth) in E major, which he begins on the fifth. Later, he revisits this cell in the main melody – ba-dwee-dah, ba-DWEE-dah – as 5-2-1, first in the key of F and then B-flat….If John only used these particular cells in A Love Supreme, that would be one thing. These melodic cells may have had much representational value for him because they began to appear in various ways in much of his music after the suite was recorded.’
Ravi Coltrane asserts the importance of these cells to Coltrane’s output from A Love Supreme onward and stresses the symbolic importance of these motifs, suggesting Coltrane had discovered something deeper about music. He continues:
‘So I thought about those cells as pure numbers and saw how they define ratios know as the Golden Mean, also called the divine proportion. These ratios are found in proportions of the human body and in nature: in seashells, when trees begin branching. It’s also an established theory of aesthetic perfection: how buildings or portraits are arranged, or when events occur in Mozart sonatas.’
To conclude, Ravi Coltrane suggests that these cells have a deep symbolic meaning that reaches beyond the music itself and demonstrates Coltrane’s desire to create a universal language in music and to ‘call together the most basic and divine qualities that are common to all human experience.’
As with any reading of musical content, both Kahn’s and Ravi Coltrane’s interpretations are governed by an externally imposed ideo-  logical agenda that promotes certain aspects of Coltrane’s music and philosophy over others. In order to demonstrate this, consider the following transcription of Coltrane’s opening fanfare: … “Figure 1.2: A Love Supreme – John Coltrane’s opening ‘fanfare’ phrase.” (15-17) There are eight F#s, 7 Bs, and only 4 Es – unusual as E is the keynote. In contrast, the blues riff sung as “a love supreme” has twice as many Fs (the keynote, falling on a and su) as Abs (love) and Bbs (preme).
Whyton continues: “Contrary to Ravi Coltrane’s statement that this motif was unique to A Love Supreme and shaped the later works of Coltrane, the opening fanfare material is not unusual at all, but closely mirrors the theme to My Favorite Things both in terms of underlying single chord and motivic structure: … “Figure 1.3: My Favorite Things, bars 1-9 (5-2-1 cells).” (17) Omitting bar 9, there are 4 F#s, 6 Bs, and 12 Es – to be expected as E is the keynote. Therefore, these recordings do not closely mirror one another in terms of the quantity of particular scale tones represented.
Whyton continues some more: “When playing this passage, the thematic and harmonic relationship to My Favorite Things is clear. Indeed, the 1-2-5 motivic cell that Ravi Coltrane describes provides the building blocks for My Favorite Things and A Love Supreme. Furthermore, the motivic links between the two pieces move beyond the opening fanfare, as the first 9 bars of My Favorite Things [bar 9 in particular] sound out the same intervals (albeit transposed) as Coltrane’s A Love Supreme theme (da-bwee-dah): [5-2-1 (B, F#, E), 5-2-1 (E, B, A)] “Figure 1.4: A Love Supreme opening melody (transposed for comparison) and 5-2-1 cell structure.” (17)
More Whyton: “We need to consider why these connections are not discussed in any of the Coltrane literature. Both Kahn’s and Ravi Coltrane’s statements stress the importance of these cell structures, which might well be true. 
However, in positing these ideas, they use signifiers that serve to detach the spiritual significance of the motifs, the way the music feeds into concepts of perfection, divine proportions, nature, and even Mozart, Coltrane is automatically elevated in status; these signifiers serve to promote Coltrane as a spiritually inspired artistic genius who is separated from the everyday world of commerce and industry. To compare Coltrane’s My Favorite Things with A Love Supreme at a musical level does not suit the master narrative at play. The My Favorite Things motif was performed almost constantly by Coltrane throughout the 1960s, and it would not be far-fetched to suggest that this cell was embedded within Coltrane’s musical routine, his muscle memory and formed part of his musical consciousness. However, to suggest an influence of this popular melody on the opening of A Love Supreme would seem at odds with the conception of the suite as it challenges several of the established mythologies surrounding the work’s creation. At once, the music would be regarded as intertextual and not a singular original, and the suggestion of tying the recording to any aspect of Coltrane’s popular hit would jar with the spiritual and political conception of the album.
Equally, other musical traits are not discussed within writings on A Love Supreme. The title of Part II, ‘Resolution,’ for example, is often discussed in spiritual terms, feeding off the narrative of Coltrane’s resolution to follow the path of God. And yet, at a basic musical level, resolution can also be understood as a literal study in musical resolution. The ‘Resolution’ theme is not only made up of a descending phrase that is repeated four times, each with a slightly different ending, but also the melodic contour moves from tonic to the tritone and back again, reinforcing the notion of tension and resolution in musical terns. As a descending figure, the resolution theme is suggestive of its title, moving far away from the tonal center before moving back again.” (16-18)
Amen has the major key cell, 1 and 2 and 5, with Coltrane emphasizing the second scale degree and hardly settling on the keynote. Charles Tolliver mentions Coltrane’s “‘explorations of Western harmonies with ii-V-I resolutions.'” (149) Coltrane’s major key melodic cell of 2, 5, and 1 seems to be a leitmotif for Western tonality and metaphysics, which would explain his ambivalence about settling on the keynote of this Mozartean “Golden Mean” and “divine proportion,” to use Ravi’s phrases. Trane is more comfy with the blues – like replacing a suit and tie with a dashiki.
My thesis that the 2, 5, 1 cell found in My Favorite Things is a musical symbol of whiteness for Coltrane is supported by comments of Ingrid Monson. It seems to her that “African American music makes use of the [Du Boisian] doubleness of the African American position in America through allusions to divergent musical repertories.” (Saying Something, 106) One example is Coltrane’s My Favorite Things. Monson: “McCoy Tyner reported that he was not very enthusiastic about the tune at first, but Coltrane was.” (107) “‘Once I was standing next to Coltrane after he finished playing ‘My Favorite Things’ in a club,’ a renowned singer recalls. ‘He told me that he was so tired of audiences requesting the tune, he was sorry he ever recorded it in the first place.'” (Berliner, Thinking in Jazz, 482)
Monson notes that Coltrane’s version “transforms a sentimental, optimistic lyric into a vehicle for a more brooding improvisational exploration. Since the lyrics would have been on the sheet music the song plugger brought to the quartet, Coltrane would have been well aware of the emphasis on white things in the lyric – girls in white dresses, snowflakes on eyelashes, silver white winters, cream-colored ponies. In 1960 – a year of tremendous escalation in the Civil Rights movement and a time of growing politicization of the jazz community – there was certainly the possibility that Coltrane looked upon the lyrics with an ironic eye.” (117) Monson’s conclusion invalidates Cornell West’s assertion that “Black music is paradigmatic of how black persons have best dealt with their humanity, their complexity – their good and bad, negative and positive aspects, without being excessively preoccupied with whites….Coltrane [was] just being [himself].” (Prophetic Reflections, 16)
Monson concludes her analysis of Coltrane’s version with reference to the “deep significance of irony and doubleness in the articulation of a jazz musical aesthetic.” (121) With Coltrane, doubleness yes, irony and jazz no. Monson later acknowledges that homage may be misinterpreted as irony. “Direct quotations or indirect musical allusions may also be made for reasons of homage and respect (Gates 1988, xxvii; Murphy 1990). For example, Coltrane’s turn to the soprano saxophone, which he plays on ‘My Favorite Things,’ was partially in response to the death of Sidney Bechet in 1959 (Priestly 1987, 42). In some cases, audience members may interpret allusions to past styles as ironic and humorous when the musician playing them is doing so as an act of homage.” (124) Similarly, in My Favorite Things, Coltrane seems to be acknowledging that the 2, 5, 1 melodic cell is an expression of ‘white’ cadential tonality, and yet he wants to integrate this with an aesthetic appreciation and respect for blackness.
There may be some irony intended. Monson: “In asserting a musical superiority even when measured against the white hegemonic standard, musicians make ironic the presumption of racial inferiority. Not only does the Coltrane version of ‘My Favorite Things’ stand out in comparison to the Broadway version within some standards derived from the European American world, it does so while at the same time articulating an independent improvisational aesthetic that draws on African American cultural sensibilities and is the taken-for-granted standard against which non-African American music is evaluated.” (120) Nisenson: “If you clutch fondly to the fantasy of ‘white supremacy,’ the overwhelming genius of Armstrong, Ellington, Parker, Miles, Monk, Coltrane, and all the others is like a good dose of reality.” (Blue: the Murder of Jazz, 30)
Charles Nussbaum: “Following Henry Louis Gates, Zbikowski argues that ‘Signifyin(g),’ a trope of African-American rhetorical practice that makes use of parody to critique the voice of the oppressor (among other things), is an integral part of certain jazz styles. ‘A stellar example of this,’ says Gates (1987, 243), and one specifically  noted by Zbikowski (2002, 224), ‘is John Coltrane’s rendition of “My Favorite Things” compared to Julie Andrews’s vapid original’ (see also Gates 1988, 104). Another case, according to Zbikowski (2002, 223-224), is Miles Davis and Coltrane’s 1956 recording of the song ‘Bye Bye Blackbird.’ The performance, he says, ‘makes a mockery of the simplistic messages of the song,’ which by that time was loaded with racist associations….If Gates and Zbikowski are right, Davis’s interpretation of ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’ and Coltrane’s interpretation of ‘My Favorite Things’ proceed simultaneously on two levels: that of using the original tune and that of mentioning it in a commentary, something like using a sentence and commenting on its content by uttering it in a tone expressive of an attitude taken toward that content. It is not easy to come up with examples of this sort of ‘double voicing’ in the Western art-music repertoire. The ghostly appearance of tonal waltz strains in Berg’s dodecaphonic Violin Concerto is a possible case, though the ‘metalevel voice’ seems to express more a melancholy attitude of loss than one of mockery.” (The Musical Representation, 121-122)
Coltrane’s performance (one of the few in which he performed Acknowledgement) at a former convent may relate to his decision to record My Favorite Things, the original version of which is sung by a nun named Maria and a Mother Abbess. Monson notes that “both characters” repeat “the B section, modulating a full step upward to gm/Bb major. The key changes underscore the theme of the lyric: triumphing over hard times by remembering one’s favorite things (minor to major).” (108) In contrast Monson notes that “the Coltrane quartet plays only the A sections of the melody. The B section is not heard until the reprise of the tune at the very end of the performance, when Coltrane abbreviates the thematic statement to a major A section followed by the B section and the minor vamp. Coltrane’s B section does not modulate to the relative major.” (109)
Also, recalling Monson’s contrast between the “optimistic lyric” of the original and Coltrane’s “more brooding improvisational exploration,” music theorist Jean-Philippe Rameau’s representation of the major chord challenges Monson’s notion that Coltrane’s version is superior to the original. “That first burst of nature is so powerful, so brilliant, so virile – if I may call it thus – that it surpasses minor and shows itself to be the master of harmony.” Trane struggled to free himself from the dark minor and identify with the bright major sonority.
In a Downbeat interview in 1984, Marsalis said: “Jazz is about elevation and improvement. Jazz music always improves pop music.” Compare with Baraka: “[Coltrane] showed us how to murder the popular song. To do away with weak Western forms. He is a beautiful philosopher.” And with Dizzy Gillespie: “In 1944 the pop guys were writing mostly fundamentals at that time. They didn’t write any hip flatted fifths, and we considered our changes improvements on the sound of popular music. It added new sounds to pop music, and the arrangers now use it. I can hear a lotta the music that we created during those years now, in motion pictures and television.” (208) Is jazz about the cadential 2-5-1 or the blues? In The Jazz Theory Book Mark Levine describes the extended cadence of 2, 5, 1 as “the basic chord progression in jazz” and “the most common chord progression played in jazz” (14, 19).
Marsalis alludes to these ‘cells.’ “With Coltrane….I noticed that the most meaningful phrases were almost never technically challenging. They were succinct phrases that would run right through you, the way profound nuggets from Shakespeare’s plays can both cut through you and linger; all those words in Hamlet, but you remember ‘To be or not to be’ or ‘to sleep perchance to dream.’ Something in those types of phrases reveals universal truth.” (Moving to Higher Ground, 7)
Marsalis may have had Coltrane in mind when writing: “I have learned that the biggest mistake a musician can make is to run from the blues….when you embrace the blues, no matter who you are, you’re embracing your own heritage as a human being.” (61) Marsalis: “It reminds me of people in search of their ancestry, except this common artistic heritage is in plain sight for us all. We just don’t recognize it. Run far enough from yourself and you’re liable to end up in a foreign country trying to find your identity in a music you have little chance of understanding – fun to do but unlikely to succeed.
America is a melting pot, but swing is our rhythm and the blues is our song. Know who you are.
Misconceptions about his true identity has kept many a musician from really playing. He’s allowed someone or something to convince  him that he can’t play. And, of course, there are always millions of reasons you can’t do something. It could be your lack of education or the color of your skin – white or brown. It could be because of religious beliefs or peer pressure or your parents.” (70-71)
Paul Berliner describes “blues scales mixing harmonically ambiguous chord tones and altered tones. Such theoretical abstractions for melodic patterns, inherited from the earliest days of jazz, utilize the tonic, third, fifth, and sixth degrees of the major scale in variable combinations, as well as such blue notes as the flatted-third, flatted-seventh, and flatted-fifth degrees. ‘Listening to different cats’ taught Wynton Marsalis that the ‘blues is the key to playing jazz.’” (Thinking in Jazz, 162) Marsalis: “Jazz is a series of blues-based melodies.” Berliner: “Marsalis rehearsed the blues for an hour each day when he was in school: ‘Sometimes, I’d skip lunch and I’d just be playing up and down that blues scale in the stairwell every day.’” (164)
Marsalis: “Until the civil rights movement you could actually get expelled from some schools, even Afro-American ones, just for playing jazz in a practice room.” (Higher Ground, 91) Marsalis: “The whole of jazz, black and white, was a refutation of segregation and racism.” (95) Marsalis: “In 1969, when I was eight years old, my mother sent me to an ‘integrated’ Catholic school in Kenner to honor the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.” (96) Marsalis: “The curriculum in our integrated school never included anything about black people. It was as if we didn’t exist.” (100)
Griffin and Washington: “By the late 1960s, the old forms of civil disobedience were no longer satisfactory for a younger generation – a generation that came to possess a new sense of urgency and militancy. Like the younger activists, Coltrane would chafe at the limitations of the Davis band and repertoire, finally leaving to become a bandleader: His group would be instrumental in upsetting the established harmonic and rhythmic paradigms of Western music. His music would become a touchstone, inspiring generations of musicians to leave behind the status quo of Europe’s diatonic system.” (Clawing at the Limits of Cool, 189) Griffin and Washington: “the blues remained his forte and spiritual source of his innovations.” (199)
Griffin and Washington: “John Tynan of Down Beat wrote ….increasingly caustic reviews of Coltrane, until in an uncontrolled flourish he cites ‘evidence’ that the brains of human beings were biologically determined to accept the Western diatonic scale! Tynan and other critics looked on Coltrane’s line of development as a kind of apostasy.” (Clawing at the Limits of Cool, 213-14) Griffin and Washington comment on Coltrane circa 1960: “As ever Coltrane was practicing nonstop. He practiced in the hotels; he practiced on the bus; he practiced at the gigs in between stets. He was eating bananas by the bagful and practicing. Miles asked him why he practiced so much and was told, ‘I’m trying to get it all out.’ So Miles asked him, ‘Why the bananas?’ Trane replied, ‘Gorillas eat bananas, and they’re strong as a motherfucker!’” (217)
Elvin Jones looked to sardines for energy. “You have to learn how to eat the right food so you have enough energy to play a two-hour concert at peak efficiency. Music requires a great deal of energy, so if you eat a lot of garbage, you’ll burn yourself out. You’ll also ruin your teeth! So I know that if I’m on the road and I miss my meal at the restaurant, I can go in a grocery store and buy a can of sardines, a box of crackers, an apple, and a pint of milk, and I can get just as much energy as if I’d had a steak dinner. I don’t say I want to do that every day, but in a pinch it works. So somebody might think that’s useless information, but somebody else can gain something from that. Maybe you’ve only got enough money for a can of sardines. Okay, don’t worry. You can get enough energy to do the gig, and after you get paid, you can buy a steak for tomorrow.” (The Drummer’s Time, 29)
Griffin and Washington comment on the version of So What from the Live in Stockholm album recorded in 1960: “The content of his phrases is full of information that chafes at the restrictions of diatonic thinking….In a year’s time, Coltrane will reinterpret ‘So What’ as ‘Impressions.’ In ‘Impressions’ he will fully realized the screams and yelps, the assault upon the diatonic system, implied in the Stockholm version of ‘So What.’” (Clawing at the Limits of Cool, 219) Griffin and Washington: “His music would become the sound track for a growing political and spiritual consciousness that came to characterize some of the more radical sections of both the black power and the anti-war struggles of the late sixties and early seventies.” (221)
Griffin and Washington: “In Western music, the final cadence of each song – and indeed of each section of a song – reinforces the hierarchical thinking that is inherent in functional harmony, one of the hallmarks of diatonic music. Think of the famous ending of the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, for instance. Certain tones, used in specific harmonic progressions, lead toward a consonant resolution in an expected and seemingly inevitable way. The introduction of a pedal point, a repeated tone over a long duration, suspends the sense of progression that is necessary for functional harmony. Constructing the pedal point as the oscillation between two notes, rather than the customary single tone, interrupts the harmonic expectations even further. Like the innovative mixture of court cases and civil disobedience that built the civil right movement, the [Miles Davis] band’s rendition of ‘Airegin’ subverts the expectations of the prevailing tonal system without violating it in spirit.” (Clawing at the Limits of Cool, (130)
The verse melody of Naima begins on the major third and descends to the fifth. The bridge begins on the second interval of the major scale and descends to the fifth. The ending is a final verse in which the low fifth rises step by step up the major scale to the fifth and octave higher. Naima doesn’t really serve my argument because its subject is not God, but Coltrane’s first wife, a Muslim.
Giant Steps is the classic example of Coltrane changes. These harmonic changes provide the saxophonist with an excuse to avoid the key note, as it changes so frequently. The key note is played in the third measure, but over the secondary key center of Eb, a major third above the key of B. The key note is played in the tenth measure for two beats over a harmonic cadence resolving to the third key center of G, a major third below the key of B. In Giant Steps the Coltrane changes offer a means of the melodic key center, B, to avoid contact with the harmonic center, B major. The two times that the key center is played in the melody it is played over the other two harmonic centers of the Coltrane changes, Eb and G. Coltrane: “The harmonies have become for me a kind of obsession, which gives me the feeling of looking at music from the wrong end of a telescope.” (Ratliff, 65)
Whyton incorrectly states: “The ‘Stellar Regions’ theme – which is colored by a slow, accelerating trill on the 5th and 6th degree of a major mode – is also the theme for Coltrane’s ‘Venus’ on Interstellar Space.” (Beyond A Love Supreme, 98) Whyton confuses the fifth for the root, perhaps because the root is hardly ever played and the fifth is played often. The trill is on the third and second scale degrees. Stellar Regions sees Coltrane beginning on the major third as a trill down to the second, which continues as the main motif to the end, when the expected drop to the root finally arrives at 3:01, only to be followed by an abrupt drop further to the major seventh a second later, until the final sustained fifth at 3:12. On Venus the opening trill is preceded by a lower fifth and then a fifth an octave higher. The drop to the root occurs at 8:09 and the drop to the major seventh a fraction of a second later, with the final fifth played a fraction of a second after that. Dude has serious major keynote issues. Definitely a case for the jazz police.
The melody and harmony of Welcome. The first several phrases begin and end on the fifth note, followed by a phrase hitting the highest note, the sixth (as a root this is the relative minor). This section is followed by a bridge section consisting of a deceptive cadence resolving to the relative minor followed by a cadence to the major key, but the melody stays on the harmonic tones of the fifth. It seems to me that Coltrane is comfortable with the fifth (blues) and minor modes, but not the major, and this has metaphysical connotations. There are two times when the melody moves to a low octave of the key note, but Coltrane, as usual, quickly leaves it for other tones in an improsived excursion away from the tonal center. It is really sad to hear his aversion to the key center of his major key songs. He conveys to my ears that he does not feel welcome in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ, and that’s very sad.
Kulu Se Mama Liner Notes, Nat Hentoff 1966 Coltrane: “’Welcome is that feeling you have when you finally do reach an awareness, and understanding which you have earned through struggle. It is a feeling of peace. A welcome feeling of peace.’ And accordingly, the performance is serene. Temporarily serene, for in Coltrane’s view of man in the world, there are always further stages to work your way toward. The striving is ceaseless.” (C on C, 330)
Gary Giddins and Scott DeVeaux: “the first degree – C (do) in the C major scale – is more important than the others. Melodies may not necessarily begin on do, but they are very likely to end on it. If you sing the first phrase of ‘Happy Brithday’ (‘Hap-py birth-day to you’), you end up floating in mid-air. That’s because the last note, ‘you,’ falls on a note just short of do. The next phrase releases the tension, bringing the melody to its inexorable goal of do (on the second ‘you’). We call do the tonic and music that insists on returning to the tonic (most of the music we listen to)  is know as tonal music.” (Jazz, 16-17)
Giddins and DeVeaux: “The first line (‘Hap-py birth-day to you’) ends on an inconclusive note (ti), which would be harmonized with a V chord. Although it marks the end of the phrase, it sounds incomplete. The music couldn’t end at this point, on what is known as a half cadence. Just as commas and semicolons indicate intermediate stopping points in a sentence, the half cadence serves as a temporary resting place. Not surprisingly, the next phrase ends with the melody resting on do and the harmony on the tonic triad. This is a full stop – a full cadence.” (20)
Giddins thinks that Coltrane’s Welcome “will be recognized by most as the third phrase of ‘Happy Birthday’. For that matter, ‘Pop Goes the Weasel’ plays a significant role in Meditations.” (Visions, 488) Giddins seems to have the melody of the opening track, The Father the Son and the Holy Ghost, in mind, where Coltrane seems to do melodically what he does harmonically in Giant Steps – avoid the fundamental by shifting. I take the melodic fragment of 5, 1, 2, 3, 1 as a tonal manifestation of the Trinity. It could be seen as a cruciform melody. For me Father, Son, and Spirit are analogous to 1, 5, and 3, respectively; I’m not sure if Coltrane had the same understanding, but it seems to me that something similar was going on in his musical consciousness. Coltrane plays this melodic fragment over constantly shifting key centers, as if to say God is everywhere. America, Africa, Asia? Christianity, Hinduism, Nigerian and / or Afro-Brazilian deities such as Ogunde and Shango?
The third track of Meditations, Love, represents a move away from Coltrane’s major key compositions with a traditional melody and chord structure, and towards a free jazz approach. Love, however, remains in the major key tonality, whereas later free jazz pieces are inclusive of all twelve notes of the chromatic scale. The melodic fragment at 4:46 recalls that of The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, and is the same as the melody associated with the extraterrestials in Close Encounters of a Third Kind. Based on my knowledge, Love, and Selflessness, are exceptions to Coltrane’s aversion to the major keynote, probably because they are unstructured. Father, Son, and Spirit are traditionally associated with power, wisdom, and love, respectively. Coltrane’s unique affinity for the major keynote in Love suggests to me that he related mostly to the Spirit. He would have made a good Pentecostal. Frantz Fanon comments on the black man’s “need for uninhibitedness.” (Black Skin, White Masks, 106) Other exceptions are The Reverend King and To Be. I haven’t figured out where Syeeda’s Song Flute fits in yet; it seems to move between major and minor, like Davis’ Nardis.
Dear Lord. Every time Coltrane plays the keynote it is over a chord other than the major key center. The first time it is over the minor sixth. The melody ends with a false cadence as Coltrane plays the keynote and the harmonic accompaniment plays a flat sixth (F in the key of A). Every single time he plays the melodic key note he improvises a phrase that leads to a tone other than the keynote. As with After the Rain, the final note is a low fifth.
After the Rain is a bit of an exception. The first two phrases begin and end with the fifith, following the pattern of Welcome. The third phrase descends to the root note in a low octave. Alice Coltrane told Ebony magazine: ‘He liked to draw an analogy between mankind and his horn, explaining that one group might represent the upper register, another the mid-range and yet another the deeper notes, but that it took all to make the whole.'” (Kahn, 234) I wonder if his seeming antipathy towards high octaves of the fundamental have racial and / or metaphysical significance. The second section of the melody begins and ends with the fifth tone.
Having just listened to After the Rain I absolutely hear a discomfort with the fundamental tone. In the first verse he precedes the tonic with a low fifth and mixes the tonic with a trill from major seventh to tonic. In the second verse he again precedes the tonic with a low fifth, but after briefly playing the tonic, he plays a high fifth followed by a major seventh and then a major sixth. In the third verse he yet again precedes the tonic with a low fifth and a high third, but after briefly playing the tonic he slurs down to a major seventh. The final melodic note is a low fifth. I think that Coltrane’s phrase, “Through the storm and after the rain,” may have been inspired by the line, “Through cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me,” from the hymn, Abide with Me, which Coltrane recorded with Monk in 1957.
Coltrane ends the melody of all of his major key songs, above, on the fifth tone. What I hear in his music is that the blues and minor keys are compassionate; they can relate to pain and suffering, and darkness. The major key is bright and clear, perhaps analogous to a symbolically white deity; I sense that Coltrane was uncomfortable with this tonal center of his songs in major keys for metaphysical reasons. I can hear the pain in his tone suggesting that he felt unworthy in the presence of the fundamental tone of his major key songs, as though he were a child before an unapproachable father. He plays his major key songs in a way that suggests that he doesn’t believe that the keynote loves him, or that he doesn’t love the keynote.
Coltrane: “I admit I don’t love the beat, in the strict sense. At this phase I feel I need the beat somewhere, but I don’t really care about the straight 4/4 at all – though this is just a personal feeling. In a rhythm section I like propulsion and a feeling of buoyancy, which fits under and around the horn, and has a lift to it. A sense of the pulse, rather than the beat, can take you out of a stodgy approach.” (Kitty Grime, 1961, C on C, 120) Gil Scott-Heron states, “the rhythms of heaven absorbed him.” Coltrane distinguishes his natural feeling for the minor with new and purified feelings and a welcome feeling of peace that is the consequence of struggle; welcome is in a major key. How does this contrast between a natural feeling for the minor and purified feeling for major correspond with his personal feeling of aversion to the straight 4/4?
“There was once a word used—swing. Swing went in one direction, it was linear, and everything had to be played with an obvious pulse and that’s very restrictive. But I use the term ‘rotary perception.’ If you get a mental picture of the beat existing within a circle, you’re more free to improvise. People used to think the notes had to fall on the center of the beats in the bar at intervals like a metronome, with three or four men in the rhythm section accenting the same pulse. That’s like parade music or dance music. But imagine a circle surrounding each beat – each guy can play his notes anywhere in that circle, and it gives him a feeling he has more space. The notes fall anywhere inside the circle, but the original feeling for the beat isn’t changed. If one in the group loses confidence, somebody hits the beat again. The pulse is inside you. When you’re playing with musicians who think this way you can do anything. Anybody can stop and let the others go on. It’s called strolling….” Charles Mingus, Beneath the Underdog
Compare with Yehudi Menuhin: “I believe that improvisation is an integral part of music making. When you improvise you do not improvise to a metronome and yet you observe a distinct pulse. There are musicians who mistake metronomic meter for pulse. Pulse is a living measure which, though fairly even, is not a military exactitude. Anyone can march to a rigid rhythm, but that is not true rhythm, that is metronome time, and keeping metronome time has nothing to do with live rhythm. In fact, people who are very strict and very superior and play music to the metronome have generally a very poor sense of rhythm. Perhaps what I mean can best be exemplified if one listens to Schubert’s music. Schubert requires perhaps the most strict and the most undeviating pace of any music yet it is always richly expressive for within the rhythm there is life, there is no rigid beat but rather a sense of strolling in the woods while the mind and the heart are free to dream.” (Compleat Vilolinist, 59)
Minor Key Songs
This aversion to the one is reversed, to my ears, in all but one of Coltrane’s minor key songs. The first two choruses of Wise One end on the keynote and Coltrane does not wander from it. Only in the final chorus does he moves from the fundamental to the fifth. Impressions begins with the fundamental and there in no melodic deviation. Mr P.C. begins and ends with the fundamental melodic note, sans deviation. Blue Train has no aversion to the one, and ends on it. Cousin Mary is similar, as is Tunji, dedicated to Nigerian percussion master Babatunde Olatunji. Giddins: “Ascension is based on a minor triad and a couple of ground chords for the ensemble passages – that’s it. The format consists of alternating solos and ensemble passages, the latter mandated to climx as crescendos in which the wind instruments freely bellow.” (Visions, 487) “It is the single most vexatious work in jazz history.” (487)
Equinox is all nox to my ears. Where is the equi? I don’t hear it. It is a minor blues that ends with a sustained key note. Coltrane was born on the autumn equinox, September 23, 1926. Compassion is a modal minor key peice that never departs from the harmonic root. Seraphic Light is similar to Compassion, as is Spiritual.
Whyton: “several late recordings either appear to be reworkings of the same musical ideas or present material that directly references Coltrane’s previous work….The track ‘Offering,’ which appears on the recordings Expression – the last album sanctioned for release by Coltrane – and Stellar Regions, provides a useful example of intertextuality in Coltrane’s late style. ‘Offering’ begins with a direct quotation of the opening fanfare motif of A Love Supreme, and the material is used as both an explicit reference to the past and as a new point of departure. By taking one fragment of a previous composition and developing a new piece from the material, Coltrane encourages listeners to relate to the past in the present. With the meanings that A Love Supreme had accrued, even at this time, the use of the ‘Acknowledgement’ fanfare moves immediately beyond straightforward quotation toward an explicit link to Coltrane’s seminal work in both musical and spiritual terms. As an ‘Offering,‘ the refer-ence to A Love Supreme places current listening in relation to other recording experiences and musical influence becomes a two-way phenomenon: the present experience informs the past as much as the past inform the present. This intertextual reference is echoed in different tracks on the Stellar Regions album, as several compositions blend A Love Supreme-inflected thematic material with free-flowing structures that stem from post-Ascension works. For example, the opening track on Stellar Regions, ‘Seraphic Light,’ opens with a simple repetitive minor pentatonic theme, the use of which can be heard as a stripped down version of both the A Love Supreme and Ascension themes.” (Beyond A Love Supreme, 97-98)
Paul Berliner: “George Coleman once concluded his improvisation on ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is’ by quoting the musical chant from John Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme.’” (Thinking Jazz, 195) Was this quotation ironic?
Pete Welding described the Live! at Village Vanguard version of Chasin’ the Trane as “a torrential and anguished outpouring, delivered with unmistakable power, conviction, and near-demonic ferocity.” On the other hand, the man who had coined the phrase ‘sheets of sound,’ Ira Gitler, stated that “Coltrane may be searching for new avenues of expression, but if it is going to take this form of yawps, squawks, and countless repetitive runs, then it should be confined to the woodshed.” These songs suggest to me that the minor key for Coltrane is analogous to night, and perhaps also to Afro-American people. I think that this musical vision influenced that of Lenny Breau.
One exception to the composer’s comfort with the minor key note may be Ogunde, written, presumably, to honor or worship the Nigerian deity of the same name. In this song I hear the same indecision or ambivalence about resting on the tonal center as in Coltrane’s major key songs. It is as though the composer is uncertain which deity to identify himself with. The subject of the title could be Hubert Ogunde, “whose work combined music, dance, and theater with a message of African nationalism.” (Freedom Sounds, 227)
In the song, Ogunde, from Coltrane’s last concert, he sounds to me like a musical priest of Baal. “They cried aloud, and cut themselves after their manner with knives and lancets, till the blood gushed out upon them. And it came to pass, when midday was past, and they prophesied until the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice, that there was neither voice, nor any to answer, nor any that regarded.” (1Kings 18:28-29) Elijah went before the people and said, “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.” (1Kings 18:21)
“‘I told him that he impressed me like somebody that was afraid,’ said Jimmy Oliver, the tenor player who was Coltrane’s contemporary and one of this early collegues on the late-1940s Philadelphia scene, about the music of this phase. ‘As if he was running scared…I picture him running through alleys, knocking over cans, falling down.. If you’ve ever seen anybody run scared, this is the picture he gave me, musically.'” (Kahn, 110)
The melody of Coltrane’s song India avoids the third scale tone, which indicates whether a song is in a major or minor key. The improvisation uses a mixolydian scale. In Coltrane’s musical world white America may have been in a major key, black Africa in a minor key, and India somewhere in between. Judging from the improvisation, Coltrane’s India is a very free place.
What do the exceptions of Ogunde in the minor key and Love in the major key tell one about Coltrane’s musical vision? They tell me that Coltrane was not comfortable worshipping an African tribal deity, such as Ogunde, and that he was comfortable worshipping a God of light whose love was unconditional. This conclusion is consistent with Coltrane’s penultimate resting place at St. Peter’s Church in Manhattan.
Northrop Frye: “Every good lyrical poet has a certain structure of imagery as typical of him as his handwriting, held together by certain recurring metaphors, and sooner or later he will produce one or more poems that seem to be at the core of that structure. These poems are in the formal sense his mythical poems, and they are for the critic the imaginative keys to his work. The poet himself often recognizes such a poem by making it the title poem of a collection. They are not necessarily his best poems, but they often are, and in a Canadian poet they display those distinctive themes we have been looking for which reveal his reaction to his natural and social environment. Nobody but a genuine poet ever produces such a poem, and they cannot be faked or imitated or voluntarily constructed…Such poems enrich not only our poetic experience but our cultural knowledge as well.” (Bush Garden, 179) The same could be said for a musician.
The songs analyzed above reveal Coltrane’s reaction to his social environment. My intuition is that Frye had Coltrane in mind when describing jazz in the 1960’s as sounding “like a demon trying to get born but not succeeding.” This intuition is confirmed by lines of Amiri Baraka: “But Trane clawed at the limits of cool / slandered sanity / with his tryin’ to be born / raging / shit.” (AM/TRAK) Jazz from hell or purgatorial jazz? Coltrane’s songs suggest to me that he wanted to transition from playing dark and discordant jazz music in nightclubs packed with Afro-Americans to playing bright and concordant classical music in churches packed with spiritual people of various ethnicities. Kahn describes “small bars in black neighborhoods Coltrane frequented in the early sixties.” (68) Shepps elaborates: “‘There were nights that I would hear him at the Half Note, and ohhhh, he’d make any Black Panther proud. The law says they close at three….they played until four o’clock in the morning.'” (69) Gunther Schuller mentions Coltrane’s “agonizing need to struggle through his musical problems in public – expressing the anguish of the artist as a serious quiet man in a violent, crude, and unquiet world.” (Musings, 16)
To Frank Kofsky in 1966: “I was quite impressed [by Malcolm X’s speech]” (C on C, 282) “This music is an expression of highest, to me, higher ideals.” (287) “At this stage…I don’t care too much for playing clubs….the situation involving the clubs is not an ideal one for me, now.” (288) “I think the music is rising…into something else, and so we’ll have to find this kind of place, you know, to be played in.” (289) “Most of the songs I even write now, or have been written, the ones that I really consider songs, are ballads.” (304) “I want to be a force for real good. In other words, I know that there are bad forces. You know, I know that there are forces out here that bring suffering to others and misery to the world, but I want to be the opposite force. I want to be the force which is truly for good.” (311)
“On Thursday, August 18, 1966, Frank Kofsky took the train to Deer Park in Long Island, New York, a few miles from John Coltrane’s Dix Hills home. Coltrane met Kofsky at the train station and drove them to a nearby shopping center. Kofsky then interviewed Coltrane for about an hour as they sat in Coltrane’s car.” (281) Coltrane: “There’s Ascension Lutheran. [laughs] Kofsky: “Yeah. Oh yeah, how about that! They named it after the record, huh? [both laugh] Coltrane: “A beautiful church.” Kofsky: “It looks nice from the outside.” Coltrane: “Yeah, man.” (313) “Coltrane is referring to Ascension Lutheran Church, which is located…across the street from the parking lot where the interview was held (see www.ascensionlutheran.org).” (318)
“One of the causes of this arrogance – the idea of power. But then you lose your true power, which is to be part of all, you see, and the only way you can be part of all is to understand it.” (314) “All we need is sincerity, you know? And empathy.” (316) “There’s a room over the garage that I’m getting fixed now to – I think it’s going to be my practice room. You know sometimes you build a room and it ends up you still go in the toilet, so I don’t know. [both laugh]” (317) “It’s only when something is, is trying to come through, you know, that I, that I really practice….There’s nothing that’s coming out, now. It’s just, I’m kind of taking in….I want something to practice, and I’m trying to stick around and find out what it is that I want to – area, you know, that I want to get into.” (318)
Leonard Steinhorn and Barbara Diggs-Brown: “It seems that everyone is for integration except in their own neighborhoods. None other than radio personality Howard Stern, not know for his racial sensitivity, summed it up best when talking bout the transformation the Long Island neighborhood of his youth: all the adults ‘preached brotherhood,’ he said, ‘and overnight there was an exodus, as soon as there was black skin in the community. That community didn’t have to become all black at once. It could have become a fully integrated community. But people were phonies and left.’” (The Integration Illusion, The Color of Our Skin, 12) “on suburban Long Island, home of approximately 200,000 blacks…the chance of white people encountering a black living in their neighborhood is less than  three percent.” (13-14)
Heroin and LSD
Whyton notes a “binary that fuels the A Love Supreme story is the contrast between Coltrane’s drug use and his spiritual awakening. Indeed, the A Love Supreme narrative draws both on explicit and implicit references to the drugs-divine binary. The album itself is presented as a divine offering and is widely recognized as Coltrane’s most personal work, born out of the artist’s faith in God and the celebration of his triumph over adversity. In his liner notes to the album, Coltrane describes his epiphany where, in order to overcome his alcohol and heroin addiction, he reconnected with God and found the path to a spiritual life: A Love Supreme is presented as a celebration of this significant event and an affirmation of faith.
More implicitly, there is a clear narrative symmetry between the events of 1957 and the creation of A Love Supreme in 1964. Coltrane  spent five days in self-imposed isolation in order to withdraw from drugs, going cold turkey. It was during this period that Coltrane made his connection with God and asked ‘to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music.’ He emerged from this period a changed person with a renewed sense of purpose and determination, and A Love Supreme is an offering designed to acknowledge this life-altering moment. Furthermore, the process of composing A Love Supreme echoes the previous period of cold turkey isolation, with Coltrane withdrawing to his room for five days in order to ‘receive’ the work. A narrative symmetry is conveyed where Coltrane embarks on a solitary period of self-discovery and conversance with God; the first period of isolation results in Coltrane’s renewal or spiritual rebirth and the second period results in the creation of A Love Supreme. Both stories tie together in taking Coltrane away from the everyday world, and both experiences result in an epiphany. As part of this narrative, drugs and spirituality emerge as a dualism that punctuates the Coltrane biography and helps to explain the conception of A Love Supreme: Coltrane rids himself of social evils and finds inspiration from God. The artist’s influences are transported away from the physical world, with its vices and corruption, to the metaphysical world, and ultimately, the ground is prepared for Coltrane’s spiritual journey and eventual deification. A Love Supreme is therefore perceived as a final stage in a process, a celebration of rebirth and renewal and his previous spiritual awakening.
The deeply autobiographical nature of A Love Supreme invites the listener to directly relate the musical narrative to Coltrane’s life experiences….From the supporting liner notes to the A Love Supreme poem or ‘Psalm’ – a personal celebration of Coltrane’s devotion to God – which are both written by Coltrane, personalized interpretations of the work are encouraged, especially when considering how unusual these writings are in the context of Coltrane’s broader output. Indeed, Coltrane was often cited as being against the idea of liner notes, either encouraging his music to speak for itself or for the listener to approach each musical experience from his or her own perspective. As stated earlier, Coltrane’s poem also forms the structure of the final movement of A Love Supreme, where the musical line mirrors the phraseology of his written text. As such, the movement  is a musical manifestation of Coltrane’s poem ‘spoken’ through his saxophone.
The ‘drugs to divinity’ binary in this context provides a very powerful motivation for the artist and a strong narrative for fans to latch on to. And yet, from 1965 to his death in 1967, Coltrane was certainly performing under the influence of LSD. Although we cannot determine the exact influence – either positive or negative – of heroin or LSD on artists and their music, the mere fact that Coltrane was experimenting with LSD at this stage is something that should warrant further discussion, considering both the problems and widespread documentation of his drug use in the 1950s. The majority of Coltrane writings fail to elaborate on this point or serve to play down the use of LSD: in other words, the move from heroin to LSD is not regarded as problematic – instead, there is a desire to portray Coltrane as clean and pure, regardless of the realities of the situation. Pausing on this for a second, the playing down of Coltrane’s drug use in later life is a clear illustration of the way in which the Coltrane biography is controlled and manipulated to avoid criticism and contestation. Although we could argue that there is a significant difference between heroin as a depressant/opiate with highly addictive qualities and LSD as a hallucinogenic with mind-altering potential, there is no denying the significance of drug taking of any kind within a musical context – it does not seem appropriate to discuss heroin addiction in relation to music and then to ignore his use of LSD.
Medically, Lewis Porter stresses that Coltrane’s use of LSD would not have contributed toward his decline in health; however, his use of LSD is still largely treated as a taboo when considering the grand narrative of the Coltrane life and legacy: consider, for example, why Porter’s four reliable sources who inform him of Coltrane’s use of LSD choose to remain off the record. To understand Coltrane as a drug user at the end of his life – regardless of type of substance – is perhaps a reality that musicians, cultish fans, and mythmakers alike would rather ignore because it rides against the grain of the heroic and spiritual jazz narrative. This is perhaps another reason why the release of A Love Supreme in 1965 represents Coltrane’s magnum opus, arguably, with all releases following (and possibly including) Ascension relegated to Coltrane’s problematic period and, potentially, influenced by LSD. And yet, the use of LSD is not only in line with the experimental spirit of the 1960s, it is also seen as a useful means of exploring alternate psychological states.” (Beyond A Love Supreme, 28-30)
How does the drugs to divinity binary relate to the Afro-American opposition between blues people and churchgoers, or to that between minor and blues tonality and ‘white’ western diatonic/cadential tonality?
Olatunji’s Drums of Passion
Olatunji: “’Trane was a quiet storm. He was so deep and vast, like the River Nile. He was a deep thinker but a man of few words. When you looked at him, you could see the pain seeping out of him. You could tell something terrible was bothering him. He looked ready to burst from it. You need to be able to talk things through and let them out. I don’t know if he had any close friends he could reveal himself to.” (The Beat of My Drum, 155) Olatunji: “one of the reasons he stopped playing….was he felt there was nothing more he could learn about jazz from his Western orientation and training. He wanted to go back to his roots. He wanted to come to the center to learn the language. He wanted to learn about the music. He wanted to learn about the culture and how all of it tied together with the family and the music of the people. He thought he might be able to do a lot of creative things with the music, with his experience in the Western tradition. So he didn’t perform for two years. Instead, he came to me to listen.” (156) “He was really a giant of a man. Very intense, very serious.” (157)
According to Ingrid Monson, Coltrane’s “last public appearance was at a benefit concert for Olatunji’s Center of African Culture, an organization that was intended to awaken the interest of the Harlem community in learning about Africa. Indeed, at the very end of his life Coltrane had planned to do several self-produced concerts with Olatunji and intended to travel to Africa for further musical explorations. Olatunji had a long-standing interest in black nationalism and the Nation of Islam.” (Freedom Sounds, 303)
Africans told Olatunji: “’Stop playing those jungle drums. You’re perpetuating Hollywood stereotypes about Africans, playing those big drums.’ Africans who were students were telling me, ‘Don’t try to present these kinds of dances.’” (The Beat of My Drum, 214)
Olatunji: “The spirit of the drum itself, when it is played well, creates not only captivating rhythm, but also the kind of passion that will heal you. The rhythm gives you that passion. It is the kind of passion that will help you forget your suffering, that will give you confidence to continue and to rely on your inner strength.
Interestingly enough, this recording [Drums of Passion] got its name through the contributions of two other people, my agent and a friend.
They asked me, ‘How do you play the drums so well that everybody wants to listen to them?’
I said, ‘When I play, I play with passion, I am completely involved in it.’
He said, ‘Well, okay then, that’s what the album will be called – “Drums of Passion.”’
At first the executives at Columbia really did not like the name. ‘This is 1959. You can’t be using the word ‘passion’ so freely. What do you want young people to think about when you say “Drums of Passion”? Do you know what passion means?’
They disliked the title so much that when the PR department recommended spending money for us to go to schools, they would not approve it. They told me that if I wanted to go to schools, I shouldn’t call my record Drums of Passion. I shouldn’t talk about passion. That was very interesting. But as time went on, people began to grasp the true meaning of passion. They were able to distinguish what we meant by passion with regard to the drums as compared to other meanings that could be attached to it. But passion was so natural to me.” (147)
Olatunji: “the most important Yoruba rhythms are the ones that communicate with the Orisas, the spirits of the ancestors….as we chant and dance, the master drummers play an ancient trance rhythm that calls the Orisas down into the bodies of the dancers, and some of the people become possessed by the spirit of maybe Ogun or Shango, and are raised to a higher spiritual level.” (11)
Olatunji: “If people follow the feeling of the moment, they can get themselves into a state where they lose their whole ego, and lose control over themselves. Before they know it, they just don’t know when – or how – to stop. They’ll be dancing, they’ll be kicking, and all of a sudden the music stops, and it’s time to stop dancing. But it will take a few minutes to get them to stop doing movements. They are already entranced.
In the African Pavilion at the 1965 World’s Fair, many of my dancers found themselves in the pool in front of the stage, but they didn’t know how they got there. They were falling into the pool during the performance, without hurting one another. They would get possessed several times a week.
It happened one time to a whole dance company from Jamaica that came to perform with us. This was at the theater in Woodstock – the entire dance company got possessed on me, right on stage, one right after the other. We had to stop the show. While we tried to get one off the stage, one who was  trying to help us was getting into the spirit. We had to take them backstage to revive them. They were possessed, rolling on the floor, shouting. Some of them were just laughing, some were clapping, just out of it. The whole dance company. It was quite an experience. I had to stop my drumming and call for an intermission. That was around 1986. When this happens I stop playing and give the dancers a wet towel to wipe their faces. I sprinkle water on them, read some incantations.
In Richmond, Virginia, last year when we performed there, one of the dancers from another dance company that performed with us got possessed in the middle of her solo. They had to carry her out and it took an hour to revive her. She just wanted to continue dancing, didn’t want to stop. She had so much energy we actually had to hold her down. It took about four to six men. She became very powerful. No matter how strong you are, you cannot handle a person who gets possessed like that by yourself. You have to have at least two people if you don’t want to hurt them, or yourself, because if you hold them by the hands they will kick. They will shout, ‘Get away from me!’ You need more than one person, two or three, to hold them. That strength comes from somewhere. We are trying to find out more about that.
In the village, it is a different situation. The dancers are surrounded, and people have prepared native medicines, some herbs shredded in cold water, and sprinkle the water over them. It is like when you give melting salts to somebody who faints, something to get their breath back. Something cool go get them out of that state.” (34-35) Scott Peck describes a possessed person who “had close to superhuman strength and fought against us with amazing violence.“ (Glimpses, 173)
Olatunji: “the drum was a forbidden fruit among the first Africans who came to the New World, forbidden by their so-called masters. For hundreds of years the drum was relegated to the background in early recordings in the U.S. Sifting through the diaries of early missionaries, playing the drum was described as ‘making discordant notes and loud noises.’ Today, we have discovered that with the beat of the drum and the syncopative rhythms that correspond to our heartbeat, it can and will propel us to high aesthetic realms, transform and stimulate, as well as soothe the mind. Rhythm is the soul of life. The whole universe revolves in rhythm. Everything and every human action revolves in rhythm.” (liner notes to Drums of Passion: the Beat)
The Beat of My Drum lyrics: “When the world hears the beat of my drum – bun-bun-bun-bun-bun-bun-bun-bun then the spirit of the gods’ ancestors will descend. When you can tell it in your soul, feel it in your heart, see it in your eyes as well as feel it in your feet, you cannot help but dance to the beat of the drum.”
Coltrane: “I’ll continue to look for truth in music as I see it, and I’ll draw on all the sources I can.” (from John Coltrane and Black America’s Quest for Freedom, 33)
Tammy L. Kernodle: “Christopher Smalls….asserts that the African often constructed self-definitions from a variety of sources. That way the African profited ‘from the potential richness of a number of perspectives simultaneously.’
This can be seen in the way in which Africans seem to be able at one and the same time, and without visible strain, to hold, for example, both polytheistic “pagan” beliefs and practices and those of either Christianity or Islam, to be at the same time “traditional” and “Europeanized” in their daily lives, in ways which often puzzle and even infuriate Europeans; the latter can deal with contraction only by denying or eliminating one side of it – hence the rejection and even persecution of deviants, both sacred and secular…while African [sic] seem to be able to live happily with both sides. One might say that while the Europeans lives [sic] in a world of “either/or,” the African’s is a world of “both/and.”’” (Freedom as a Constant Struggle: Alice Coltrane and the Redefining of the Jazz Avant-Garde; from John Coltrane and Black America’s Quest for Freedom, 97)
Tommy L. Lott: “To show the influence of Ornette Coleman’s folk orientation on Coltrane’s project I will cite a passage from Hurston’s The Sanctified Church, in which she outlines the defining elements of the spirituals….’The jagged harmony is what makes it, and it ceases to be what it was when this is absent. Neither can any group be trained to reproduce it. Its truth dies under training like flowers under hot water. The harmony of the true spiritual is not regular. The dissonances are important and not to be ironed out by the trained musician.’…Hurston’s observation of the singing of spirituals in southern black churches led her to conclude that ‘the real Negro singer cares nothing about pitch. The first notes just burst out and the rest of the church join in – fired by the same inner urge.’” (When Bar Walkers Preach, from John Coltrane, 107) “By the end of 1965, when he began to experiment with rhythm and time, Coltrane had embraced many of these alternatives and had incorporated them into his performances.” (When Bar Walkers Preach: John Coltrane and the Crisis of the Black Intellectuals; from John Coltrane and Black America’s Quest for Freedom, 108)
Malcolm X in 1965: “We didn’t think a black man could do anything except play some horns – you know, make some sound and make you happy with some songs and in that way. But in serious things, where our food, clothing, shelter and education were concerned, we turned to the man. We never thought in terms of bringing these things into existence for ourselves. Because we felt helpless. What made us feel helpless was our hatred for ourselves. And our hatred for ourselves stemmed from our hatred for things African….” (After the Bombing, Malcolm X Speaks, 169)
“One of the things that made the Black Muslim movement grow was its emphasis upon things African. This was the secret to the growth of the Black Muslim move-  ment. African blood, African origin, African culture, African ties. And you’d be surprised – we discovered that deep within the subconscious of the black man in this country, he is still more African than he is American. He thinks that he’s more American than African, because the man is jiving him, the man is brainwashing him every day. He’s telling him, ‘You’re an American, you’re an American.’” (171-72)
1957: A Promise to God
Kahn notes that in 1957, “With religious conviction he worked on musical exercises and scales in various practice books, as keyboardist Joe Zawinul remembers. ‘A lot of the scalar material Coltrane was playing was Nicolas Slonimsky’s Thesaurus of (28) Scales and Patterns. Most of the reed and trumpet players played out of different violin books, and also scale books like [Carl] Czerny.'” (29)
Jeff Bair: “In an article written for the journal Keyboard Classics and Piano Stylist, Slonimsky discusses the circumstances around the writing and publication of the Thesaurus:
‘Back in 1948, it was almost impossible to find a publisher for the Thesaurus; my regular publisher was not at all receptive. I finally met an old German who was interested, and we found an engraver…the engraver charged me only $250, which is ridiculous for working all summer long. When we finally published it, everybody told me that I was wasting my time. I did get a letter from Arnold Schoenberg commending me for including all those 12 – tone scales, but my publisher regarded his letter as negative and refused to use it…It was published in the summertime. Before long, I received a note from my publisher: “We made it for August: one copy sold.” Years later, something happened. I went into the Schirmer music store in New York, and there were a lot of copies of the Thesaurus, and I asked, “What are you doing with those?” “Selling them,” was the reply. “Who is buying them?” “Jazz musicians.” It turned out that John Coltrane was practicing out of the Thesaurus, and all the jazz musicians wanted their own copies. Now it is a best seller!” (CYCLIC PATTERNS IN JOHN COLTRANE’S MELODIC VOCABULARY AS INFLUENCED BY NICOLAS SLONIMSKY’S THESAURUS OF SCALES AND MELODIC PATTERNS: AN ANALYSIS OF SELECTED IMPROVISATIONS, 12)
“In his definitive biography John Coltrane: His Life and Music, Lewis Porter provides and early example of the melodic applicaton of major thirds cycle by way of David Demsey….Demsey also acknowledges the theory that Coltrane’s thirds cycles carry a religious significance, correlating the three equal key areas to the holy trinity.“ (3, 8)
“John Coltrane’s total preoccupation with the Thesaurus can be gauged by an interview that David Demsey held in 1989 with Coltrane’s pianist, McCoy Tyner. Tyner told Demsey that “Coltrane would leave for a road trip with the Quartet carrying nothing but his horn case and the Slonimsky book.” (13) David Ake: “I have heard (though can find no hard evidence to substantiate) that word of Coltrane’s famous Thesaurus studies amused Slonimsky, who reputedly dashed off his compendium merely as a kind of nerdy musical joke.” (note 7, Crossing the Street: Rethinking Jazz Education, from Jazz/Not Jazz, 260)
In 1957 Coltrane recorded a song called Chronic Blues. “He was really at a low point [in 1957] and he speaks quite candidly. He says, ‘I thought the Lord had taken the gift of music away from me. And he said, ‘I promised the Lord if he would give me back the gift I would become a preacher on my horn.'” (from a documentary) His grandfather was a preacher.
In 1957 Coltrane recorded the hymn, Abide with Me, with Thelonius Monk. The phrase, “Through cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me,” may have been the inspiration for the line, “through the storm and after the rain,” in Coltrane’s poem.
Coltrane’s African Classical Music
Coltrane’s goal was to create an African classical music that represented African spirituality, just as East Indian and European classical music represented their respective spiritual traditions. In the early 1960’s “Coltrane was being associated with a feeling much greater than jazz.” (Ratliff, 148) Africa / Brass was his first recording for the Impulse label in 1961.
“The term ‘classical music’, in my opinion, means the music of a country that’s played by the composers and musicians of the country, more or less, as opposed to the music that people dance or sing by, the popular music. If you would ask me what we are playing, I feel it is the music of the individual contributor. And if you want to name it anything, you can name it classical music.” (Ratliff, 62)
“The disposition [Coltrane] had grown into represented a subversion of artist-to audience relations in jazz up to that point. Primarily, jazz had been a music for working people, in cities, people who had limited time and money. A musician on a bandstand had a responsibility to get hot quickly. But given Coltranes’ interest in spirituals, we can infer that he may have been importing an idea from church – not only the musical rhetoric of gospel music, but the actual worship. A religious performance could go on much longer than the typical secular entertainment. And the assumption, too, was that your interest went beyond just entertaining yourself. Otherwise, you hadn’t earned the right to be there.” (Ratliff, 60)
Archie Shepp on hearing Coltrane in 1962: “‘It was like being in church. Within that quartet, he created what became for me a new music. Like Bach and Mozart, Coltrane actually raised this music from the secular to an area of serious, religious world music.’ In Coltrane’s choice of venue, Shepp marked a strong link to the black community that would hold sway over many purveyors of [his new music]…’he never went to the big joints. He’d be right in the community.'” (Kahn, 68) Kahn describes the venues as “small bars in black neighborhoods Coltrane frequented in the early sixties.” (68) Shepps elaborates: “‘There were nights that I would hear him at the Half Note, and ohhhh, he’d make any Black Panther proud. The law says they close at three….they played until four o’clock in the morning.'” (69) Shepp: “’The club owners are only the lower echelon of a higher power structure which has never tolerated from Negroes the belief we have in ourselves that we are people, that we are men, that we are women, that we are human beings.’” (Freedom Sounds, 267) Kofsky laments the “working conditions for musicians in the dingy toilets known as jazz clubs.” (Coltrane, 153)
Kahn notes: “In 1962 and ’63, Coltrane agreed to Thiele’s plan to intersperse albums with accessible material among his more adventurous, abstract recordings,” which he describes as “stark melodies with dronelike accompaniment (‘Tunji,’ ‘Up ‘Gainst the Wall’).” (71) His records were bought by college students, but Kahn notes that “Coltrane spoke with particular force to black America, where politics and culture – the civil rights movement, R&B music, and jazz – were tightly enmeshed in a rising wave of racial pride.” (73)
Jimmy Heath recalls how he and Coltrane would visit the “‘Philadelphia Library together [to] listen to Stravinsky and Western classical music…We weren’t trying to play the scores per se. We were extracting the cadenzas and turning them around to fit our own groove.'” (Kahn, 11)
Recording engineer Tom Dowd on Coltrane in the studio: “‘He was serious, just like it was a classical recital.'” (Kahn, 43)
Coltrane to Don Demicheal, 1962: “I was reading a book on the life of Van Gogh today, and I had to pause and think of that wonderful and persistent force – the creative urge. The creative urge was in this man who found himself so much at odds with the world he lived in, and in spite of all the adversity, frustrations, rejections and so forth – beautiful and living art came forth abundantly…if only he could be here today. Truth is indestructible. It seems history shows (and it’s the same way today) that the innovator is more often than not met with some degree of condemnation; usually according to the degree of his departure from the prevailing modes of expression or what have you. Change is always so hard to accept. We also see that these innovators always seek to revitalize, extend and reconstruct the status quo in their given fields, wherever it is needed. Quite often they are the rejects, outcasts, sub-citizens, etc. of the very societies to which they bring so much sustenance. Often they are people  who endure great personal tragedy in their lives. Whatever the case, whether accepted or rejected, rich or poor, they are forever guided by that great and eternal constant – the creative urge. Let us cherish it and give all praise to God.” (C on C, 161)
Strickland concludes: “Those who criticize Coltrane’s virtuosic profusion are of the same party as those who found Van Gogh’s canvases ‘too full of paint.’… In Coltrane, sound—often discordant, chaotic, almost unbearable—became the spiritual form of the man, an identification perhaps possible only with a wind instrument, with which the player is of necessity fused more intimately than with strings or percussion…. The whole spectrum of Coltrane’s music—the world-weary melancholy and transcendental yearning that ultimately recall Bach more than Parker, the jungle calls and glossolalie shrieks, the whirlwind runs and spare elegies for murdered children and a murderous planet—is at root merely a suffering man’s breath. The quality of that music reminds us that the root of the word inspiration is ‘breathing upon.’ This country has not produced a greater musician.”
Coltrane in the early 1960’s: “‘Every time I talk about jazz, I think of prizefighters. One year it’s your year, like it’s mine now, and the next year everybody’s forgotten you. You only have a few years, and you have to stay up there as long as you can…and be graceful about it when it’s somebody else’s turn.'” (Kahn, 175)
“In workbooks, he made (60) correlations betweeen times of day, sunrises and sunsets, and musical notes….Among the books he owned was the extended edition of Music: Its Secret Influence Through the Ages, by the English composer Cyril Scott, published in 1958. Scott was influenced by Theosophy, the late-nineteenth century occult pursuit, which borrowed concepts from Hinduism. It held, among other things, that nature is infinite, and that all beings and things in nature are interconnected, made from the same essence….he argued that human behavior is affected not only by the emotional content but by its form….He did talk about jazz, though, with priggish, racialized scorn. (He felt that it ‘closely resembled the music of primitive savages.’) It seems quite possible, according to various sources, that Coltrane also read The Mysticism of Sound and Music, a collection fo lectures written in the 1920’s by Hazrat Inayat Khan, a Sufi master and former musician.” (61) “One of the chapters in the book is titled ‘Impressions’ – is it a coincidence that this became the title of a Coltrane song and album?” (62) Khan believed that “jazz music is destroying people’s delicacy of sense. Thousands every day are dancing to jazz music, and they forget the effect it has upon their spirit, upon their mind, upon their delicate senses….If that sense is spoiled, instead of going forward one goes backward, and if music, which is the central theme of the whole human culture, is not helping people to go forward, it is a great pity.”
Cyril Scott: “‘It is regrettable that a type of “music” which is so popular as Jazz should exercise an evil influence, but such is the occult truth. Jazz has been definitely “put through” by the Black Brotherhood, known in Christian tradition as the Powers of Evil or Darkness, and put through with the intention of inflaming the sexual nature and so diverting mankind from spiritual progress.'” (The Influence of Music on History and Morals, A Vindication of Plato, from Sacred Music of the Secular City, 143)
Robert Lowell on “the need for the American artist [of the early 1960’s] to create his own language” (138): “‘We have some impatience with the sort of prosaic, everyday things of life, that sort of whimsical patience that other countries may have. That’s really painful to endure: to be minor and so forth. We leap for the sublime. You might almost say that American literature and culture begin with Paradise Lost. I always think there are two great symbolic figures that stand behind American ambition and idealism and culture. One is Milton’s Lucifer and the other is Captain Ahab. These two sublime ambitions that are doomed. I suppose this is too apocalyptic to put it this way, but it’s the Ahab story of having to murder evil, and you may murder all the good with it if it gets desperate enough to struggle…What one finds wrong with American culture is the monotony of the sublime.'” (139)
“Coltrane’s quest for a big, unified, transcendent group sound could (139) seem Ahab-like….Coltrane may have been reading about Sufism and Eastern religion, but he also seemed to be getting at the Native American and the African underneath the American character, qualities that have long separated the American from the European.” (140) Trombonist Bob Brookmeyer saw Coltrane in Ahabian terms, as “‘a study of defeating demons, and progressing toward an end.'” (142)
Both Coltrane and Breau became drug addicts and seemed frustrated with their musical / spiritual visions. They both altered the laws of tonality as a manifestation of their desire for an altered view of the deity, perhaps they were after a universalist conception of deity. Compared to Coltrane, Breau seems very abstract in his musical prayers. I don’t know if Breau was talking to God in his music as much as assembling elements from diverse ethnic and spiritual traditions and insisting that they all be acceptable in God’s sight. He said he is “playing for God,” not to God. Was he trying to impose his visionary will on God with his music? The notion of sacrifice, tonal or personal, does not seem a concern in Breau’s musical world; it may have been his concern to avoid it. He never said that he loved God, just that he loved music, with altered harmonies, melodies, and rhythms. He made God in his image through his music.
On second thought Breau’s musical prayers may be intercessory, if he is interceding for diverse cultures, or humanity in general, through his music. Perhaps he assumes the role of a musical high priest, interceding on behalf his musical subjects people, petitioning the deity with their concerns by means of his visionary improvisations. Coltrane’s musical prayers express adoration and thanksgiving. Coltrane seems to speak directly to the deity in A Love Supreme, although there are sections where he plays notes that correspond to a sacred text – prayer as recitation. It is interesting to see how Coltrane’s legacy of improvisation as prayer seems to get diluted, as the sense of musicians speaking directly to God in the music is increasingly muted. For example, the guitar pyrotechnics of Carlos Santana and John McLaughlin in Love Supreme and The Life Divine.
Yehudi Menuhin believed the deity to be a trinity for the simple reason that nature reveals so many examples of beautiful triads. The simplicity of the harmonic triad, C, E, and G, in the key of C, derives from the natural harmonic series. Coltrane’s composition, After the Rain, features traditional cadential tonality. The introduction with the altered dominant chord, Eb7b9, seems to represent rain, and the move to the tonic, Ab, seems to represent the ensuing sunshine. The aesthetic of After the Rain is traditional, as the beauty of the harmonic cadence expresses the beauty of a soul finding a home in the sunshine of the love of the heavenly Father.
Santana: “’In his vision of God he (Coltrane) saw a unity of all people and all things. All paths that led to the Absolute, ultimate reality, were equally valid. He believed that humanity, his music, the material world and God were all one and that feeling of unity governed his life. He believed that discovering this unity was man’s best hope.’” (Soul Sacrifice, 69)
Music/Solo by John Coltrane Lyric by Kurt Elling From John Coltrane 1965 recording A Love Supreme
God – king above all other gods – lead us now, so we can walk wherein the
prophets said that we would trod. Buddha – tell a sutra like a spell – teach us well to answer silence with the calling of bells. Allah – bring us to a good alarm – subjugate our wills to answer you like a mighty arm. Elohim is a pillar of light in the dark and leading all his people to light (for He’s the king of the fire). He brings the fire into everything that’s living on earth, in the sun, in the stars. Take a spark of it – deep within you – put it to the test – it will do the rest – I confess – It will be like climbing up Mount Everest – I can’t express the view from there – but it’s for you to follow through. Lama – show the Power’s bright array – bless the climb, and settle peace upon the universe’s dark display. And Jesus – remember every promise made – Present yourself in the middle of the prayers that we say. Vishnu – preserve us all along the way – Keep us clear of the final thunderbolt of the judgement day. Hear me – Hear what I – what I ask for today – Fathers. Way off at the far leftern shelf of the world – up in a house right on the edge of everything – where the time is tumbling in a vortex – the nexus of timetable tides – in the final lighthouse at shining earth’s ending – at the spinning of the finishing of sweeping time – driving silence like a stampeding careening wash in charging advance digging the sound of passing everything away into the secret of eternity’s pivot dance breaking down crashing doorways – bashing through dreamplace – smash, unlash, efface – everything goes to the open mouth of Kali-ma – where the vault of heaven opens a witness as lonely as forgotten tears keeps up a vigil watching all – even light – go out one witness – one child digging the slaving wheel of meat spitting out – taking up – everything – by the roots pulling out – the lot of what has passed into the past, like a dream. she knows what is gone – gone over – everyone that is done – and unbegun and starting from the super-microcosmic no bug all the way to super-huge galactic suns – and she knows the beginning – is coming in the sweep at the end of all. Even gods have passed over, away. Then, one day the shadow of a priest on the horizon appeared. He wasn’t taken up into the swirling. He walked with purpose, all the while digging his heels into the bedrock like a man. But as he came into view the witness saw his eyes were crying. Tears like blood fell to earth – as he watched heaven disappear in the void – up the drain into the paraboloid – realizing it all – everything -everywhere -into his eyes – seeing that all – he had beloved – went out of itself and away – here in this last ever surge of a day tearing all meaning away – and to the witness’s indifference he had this to say: “I know about birth. I know about death, and how the light goes out of men – the life departing – powerless giving it up – but in the vast indifference I invent a deeper meaning. I’m the one who will say ‘use the will every day or go mad trying – go to war against the impotent side of living. Use every power you’re given to stand and act like a man. And pray — every day to every god – strike the bowl of heaven and the ringing will become a law. Build – bridges where you need to go – bring the fire of enlightenment here to life below. Speak – mercy to the things you meet – listen up to hear the whispering of the blood you bleed. Stay awake – no mistake – dance the dream awake – and awake.”
Coltrane Changes: 1959-1961
Coltrane conceived the Coltrane changes in 1959 with his song Giant Steps and he abandoned the harmonic concept two years later. November 1961: “When [Ornette (Coleman)] came along, I was so far into this thing [meaning the ‘Giant Steps’ harmonic movement], I didn’t know where I was going to go next. And I don’t know if I would have thought about just abandoning the chord system or not. I probably wouldn’t have thought about that at all. And he came along doing it, and I heard it, and I said, ‘Well, that must be the answer.'” (Ratliff, 64) “The harmonies have become for me a kind of obsession, which gives me the feeling of looking at music from the wrong end of a telescope.” (65)
David Ake: “In a 1963 interview with a French journalist, Coltrane remarked of Coleman: ‘I love him. I’m following his lead. He’s done a lot to open my eyes to what can be done….I feel indebted to him, myself. Because, actually, when he came along…’” (Jazz Cultures, 136) Ake: “Coltrane dropped ‘Giant Steps’ from his performance repertoire almost immediately after recording it, in favor of more flexible forms. But jazz-education manuals present the tune and others like it as the cornerstone of Coltrane’s music.” (133)
Ratliff states that Coltrane talked about getting away from his obsession with chords in “philosphical-religious terms. Coltrane was not explicitly saying that the best music comes from a higher power – perhaps in 1961 this would have sounded grandiose – but that is the subtext of his comments. He was aware that fixating on chords and the ‘Giant Steps’ changes was a matter of habit, the patterns of his conscious mind, the condition of not seeing the forest for the trees. Whether he felt that the catalyst would the subconscious or God, he wanted to be led to something new.” (65) The way that Coltrane changes constantly shift key centers was analogous to the way Coltrane constantly shifted religious conceptions, from Jesus to Allah to Brahma to the Yoruba god of iron and metal. The Yoruba traditionally believe that daily life depends on proper alignment and knowledge of one’s Ori. Ori literally means the head. Orisha devotees strive to obtain gentle and good character, and in turn they experience alignment with the Ori, or what others might call inner peace or satisfaction with life.
Charles Tolliver mentions Coltrane’s “‘explorations of Western harmonies with ii-V-I resolutions.'” (149) My Favorite Things has been called Coltrane’s signature song. I think one of the reason that he was obsessed with it is that the opening medley is just three notes – the first, second, and fifth notes of the scale – which was his leitmotif for the cadence, I think.
Coltrane, however, became fixated on the augmented intervals of C, E, and Ab as representations of deity, and used these tones as harmonic centers. They feature in what is know as Coltrane changes. There seems a consensus that the results, in his last recordings, are less than pleasing. A good example is Coltrane’s evocation of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, where musical decorum seemingly gives way to improvisation impropriety. The augmented intervals form a perfect geometrical triangle in the cycle of fifths but there is no need for tonal sacrifice in an augmented chord, and, like the diminished chord or the tritone, each tonal member is equidistant, and any tonal member can claim to be the center. The Coltrane changes seem to me to be a red herring in the harmonic vocabulary of jazz, diverting attention away from the potency of the tonic triad.
Here are some comments on the Coltrane changes. “I percieve it as an exercise and that is about it. Frankly, other than Coltrane, I have not heard anyone use it or play the tunes JC featured them that sounds convincing. Usually comes across contrived to me, and not very musical.” “It sounded so bizarre, forced and artificial and just plain WRONG to me ears, that I stopped doing it and generally gave up on the idea of using Coltrane changes on standard tunes, except by Coltrane.” An ironic comment: “The main purpose of the Coltrane changes is to pad out jazz course so that Universities can turn them into full-paying degree courses. This then provides employment for music academic who immediately invent even more nebulous over-analyses of the Coltrane changes so that the Universities can offer advanced degrees in jazz studies and employ more academics…….The Coltrane changes also have enormous potential for the Music publishers. The simplest way to obscure a simple fact is to publish multiple opinions about the fact.”
The quest is for a musical language of the spirit that integrates various cultures. It is an interesting and valid project to analyze and critique the efforts. The focus of our culture is primarily verbal and literary theory is an enormous enterprise. Our culture relegates music to the irrational, and yet the word ratio derives from the ratios of musical intervals, in fact. There seems a need for a contemporary musical theory to parallel contemporary literary theory. Then again logocentricism has been discarded by contemporary literary theorists, whereas music is inherently logocentric, for tones obviously have a key center.
A fundamental flaw in the musical legacies of Breau and Coltrane may be the absence of sacrifice. Indian classical music theory recognises the keynote as sovereign and the need for derivative melodic tones to recoginize that tonal status. Western classical music theory, most lucidly, the theory of Heinrich Schenker, recognizes that tones have a will, and derivative harmonic tones, for examples the E (3rd) and G (5th) of C (fundamental), must sacrifice their independent wills to preserve a tonal system and to produce harmony. Is the deity impressed when musicians improvise complex melodies over the Coltrane harmonic changes? Does the deity delight in Breau’s musical vision of reconciling various cultures? Perhaps, and yet classical music theory, East Indian and European, identifies humanity with derivative tones which must sacrifice for the preservation of harmony.
Harold Bloom to Charlie Rose: “We have an American Jesus and an American, pentecostal, Holy Spirit which has not much to do with European Christians and their view of Jesus…American Christianity, I repeat, has very little in common with European or traditional Christianity. In the last few centuries it has exfoliated. Hamlet, Kirkegaard and Kafka are all deeply influenced by the Jesus of the gospel of Mark.” The American Jesus does not have to be sacrificed, for God the Father is seemingly absent. Bloom: “There is no Yahweh in the United States. I mean God the Father is just about gone.”
Writer Allaudin Mathieu: “‘His jazz solo doesn’t have to tell the story chorus by chorus, which is what everybody was doing….Modality was best suited for it, because you didn’t want to be tied into a bunch of changes. You wanted kind of pan-harmonic changes….In that respect, I think Coltrane is closer to blues shouters, who after all had the same modal strategy – five notes.'” (146)
Trumpeter John McNeil: “‘The pentatonic scale is harmonically ambiguous. It doesn’t have the harmonic direction that we use in Western music. [At first Coltrane] was a (149) guy who wanted to add more changes, more changes, more changes – he wanted to put changes in between changes. Then, finally, he said, ‘What if we have static harmony, and I superimpose these changes on it?’ When Coltrane started using pentatonic scales, it became much easier to superimpose things on top of it, as opposed to the way it was with bebop.'” (Ratliff, 150)
A Love Supreme: 1964
“At this time I would like to tell you that NO MATTER WHAT … IT IS WITH GOD. HE IS GRACIOUS AND MERCIFUL. HIS WAY IS IN LOVE, THROUGH WHICH WE ALL ARE. IT IS TRULY – A LOVE SUPREME – . This album is a humble offering to Him. An attempt to say “THANK YOU GOD” through our work, even as we do in our hearts and with our tongues…May we never forget that in the sunshine of our lives, through the storm and after the rain – it is all with God – in all ways and forever. ALL PRAISE TO GOD. With love to all, I thank you, John Coltrane” (Original liner notes from A Love Supreme AS-77)
“This was the first time, and for me this was really significant, that the spiritual dimension had been integrated in the world of jazz music, and this for me is a phenomenal contribution.” John McLaughlin
“Coltrane had such an impact on me when A Love Supreme came out in 1965, because with one single record he integrated the spiritual dimension into jazz music…for the first time.” John McLaughlin In the same interview McLaughlin states that “following the discipline…and being with” Trappist monks “was probably the initiative that made me leave that particular Sri Chimnoy cult…We’re all spiritual beings…The music is the message.”
Kahn: “The words reveal Coltrane drawing guidance from, and a familiar ease with, various schools of belief: American preacher-speak (‘Keep your eye on God’), Eastern principles (‘all related…all made from one…all made in one’), sixties mysticism (‘One thought can produce millions of vibrations…’), and biblical terminology: ‘He is gracious and merciful’ – divine attributes repeated often in the Old Testament. Coltrane even quotes Scripture directly: ‘May I be acceptable in Thy sight’ (Psalm 19:14).” (145) I think that the phrase, “Through the storm and after the rain,” may have been inspired by the line, “Through cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me,” from the hymn, Abide with Me, which Coltrane recorded with Monk in 1957.
Ratliff: “Coltrane ran as far as he could in one direction, then started running quickly in another.” (89)
Ratliff notes that Coltrane’s Amen “uses only a I-II-V cell – that basic harmonic relationship from the ‘Acknowledgement’ section of A Love Supreme.” (97) This section is in the key of E major, and features bassist Jimmy Garrison’s E drone and drummer Elvin Jones’ introductory gong and consequent cymbals. This tonal cell and orchestration seem to be a leitmotif of Coltrane’s paradisal world, and recalls Coltrane pieces, such as Welcome.
McCoy Tyner recalls: “‘I remember something very unique about that recording session – Rudy [van Gelder] turned the lights down.'” (Kahn, 86) Kahn notes: “the evening hour, dim lighting, and the engineer’s readiness all replicated the environment of a well-run nightclub gig.” (87) Ravi Coltrane on the gong: “It’s the signal of something different. You don’t hear that instrument anywhere else on any other John Coltrane recording. He never had one on a gig before. Those guys were influenced by classical music, and brought in elements that sounded of grandeur – orchestral instruments like the gong and tympani.” (Kahn, 97)
“In the context of A Love Supreme, Coltrane’s warmly stated opening figure – in E major, which, though briefly played, was an unusual key for Coltrane – serves as a benediction, a spiritual welcome. He repeats it with a fading effect, as Tyner, Garrison, and Jones join in and softly add to the earnest tone of the opening. ‘If you say A Love Supreme, that’s what I hear first, every time,’ says Alice Coltrane: It’s like a beautiful city, but we don’t enter, because we have to go through the portals, the corridor, and then we reach the entranceway. When that chord hits, that E major, the doors start to open. That’s what it’s like for me – the very first invitation to this beautiful place that’s here, that’s in our heart and spirit.’
The invocation lasts no more than half a minute but leaves a longer, levitating impression. Before the feeling of suspension dissipates, Garrison enters, anchoring ‘Acknowledgement’ with a four-note motif that literally sounds out the cadences of the album’s title. This famous ‘a love supreme’ riff is a phrase that is, essentially, a blues building block. A more common element of jazz – of African-American expression in general – does not exist. Because such phrases are an integral part of the music’s grammar, it is not surprising to find at least one antecedent to the ‘love supreme’ figure in the jazz annals.
‘Mau Mau,’ a 1953 recording by trumpeter Art Farmer (co-written by Quincy Jones), falls into a Latin jazz category, and features a section with the same melodic and rhythmic stamp as ‘Acknowledgement.’ Given the eleven-year gap, it’s a safe bet that Coltrane, Farmer, and Jones were simply drawing inspiration from the same deep, blues-filled well many others have visited. Bradford Marsalis: You know Led Zeppelin’s ‘Whole Lotta Love’? [Sings, shifting rhythm so it sounds like ‘a love supreme’ riff] or Willie Dixon’s song ‘The Seventh Son’? [Sings, does same] That’s the bass line in the first section of A Love Supreme – it’s just a blues lick.’ It’s a paradox at the heart of Coltrane’s mid-sixties flight: the apparent simplicity yeilding the deep and timeless.” (Kahn, 99)
The most common element of jazz is actually the II-V-I figure of the invocation in the key of E, a flat fifth away from the Bb blues riff. I admit that I was horrified to discover that these two motifs were a flat fifth apart. The same relation appears at the beginning of Hendrix’s Purple Haze; the bassist plays an E and Hendrix comes in with a Bb. It is as though Coltrane were suggesting that European tonality, suggested by the II-V-I pattern, and Afro-American tonality, suggested by the blues lick of A Love Supreme, are as distantly related as a flat-fifth, the most distant tonal interval possible. Rob Kapilow: “The more notes two keys have in common, the more closely related they are said to be….The fewer notes two keys have in common,  the more remote they are said to be – C major and F# major (F#-G#-A#-B-C#-D#-E#) are remote keys as they have only one note in common.” (All You Have To Do Is Listen, 132-33)
Coltrane is trying to reconcile the European and African notions of God, perhaps. God is love and the adjective supreme suggests that Coltrane is struggling with notions of black supremacy espoused by Malcolm X. Which is supreme, America or Africa, light or darkness, major or blues tonality, hierarchy or equality? Can equality be supreme? Is love supreme or egalitarian? Which is supreme, the symbolically white deity of the E major introduction to Acknowledgement or the symbolically black deity of the F-/Bb7 main section? If the opening section is an invocation, the fact that the remainder is in such a distant key center implies that Coltrane is far from the deity invoked and perhaps his shifting key centers in the second section is an attempt to rediscover the primary One, or keynote.
Yusef Lateef offers a didactic explanation: “When he was with Miles Davis, he came to Detroit, and I was in Detroit then, where I grew up and I would listen to him play all night, you know. He took most of the solos, you know. And after he got off at 2 A.M., we went to breakfast, and he asked me, ‘What two keys give you twelve different tones, and what two keys will give you elven tones?’ and subsequently, on down the ladder. And we stayed up maybe two or three hours figuring that out. And that was the kind of eclectic attitude – he was searching.” (Conversation with Yusef Lateef; from John Coltrane and Black America’s Quest for Freedom, 193) Lateef: “he explored tonality and like the song, A Love Supreme….which made me think of the night we sat up to find out which two keys give you twelve tones…[chuckles]…and give you eleven too. So I have one analogy. I had a student from Russia, and I asked him just about the same question you just asked me about John, and he said, ‘Oh, I know what John did.’ He said what John did was collect many things and put them in a bottle, and then when he poured them out, they would come out connected.” (Conversations With Yusef Lateef; from John Coltrane and Black America’s Quest for Freedom, 196)
Donald Maggin: “The flatted fifth divides the octave exactly in half; for example, a G-flat is equidistant from the two Cs that frame its octave. It is three whole tones away from both the C below and the C above, and is commonly referred to as a tritone. Slotting a chord from the scale of the flatted fifth into a tune’s sequence is called a tritone substitution. The beboppers discovered that any major scale built on a note a flatted fifth away from another contains all five of the chromatic notes missing from the first scale and vice versa, and using the scales in partnership makes fully harmonic the five notes that were nonharmonic in the diatonic system. In other words, using the flatted fifth to find two scalar routes to the same resolution enables the improviser to build chords on all twelve notes of the octave instead of just seven. The improviser now had a full rainbow of musical colors to work with instead of just the basic hues.” (The Life and Times of John Birks Gillespie, 95) So Coltrane is trying to reconcile the white aesthetics of diatonic cadential tonality with the black aesthetics of blues chromatic tonality. Rob Kapilow: “The more notes two keys have in common, the more closely related they are said to be….The fewer notes two keys have in common,  the more remote they are said to be – C major and F# major (F#-G#-A#-B-C#-D#-E#) are remote keys as they have only one note in common.” (All You Have To Do Is Listen, 132-33)
I admit I was also horrified to discover that the brief invocation is the only bright, major key passage in the whole suite. The rest of Acknowledgement and the other three sections are all in a minor key. The darkness of minor tonality is supreme in Coltrane’s suite. The invocation is in the key of E, with three sharps. The rest of Acknowledgement is mainly in the key of F-, with four flats. Resolution is in the key of Eb-, with six flats. Pursuance is in Bb-, with five flats. The Psalm is in the key of C-, with three flats. Is he running away from the God of light? Has anybody had the perception to notice this or the audacity to mention it? Kahn applies Gary Giddins’ comment on Coltrane’s ‘Chasin’ the Trane’, from 1961, to the F- section of Acknowledgement: “‘He pushes himself and the blues to the limits of endurance, drawing light from dark, pleasure from pain, liberation from constraint.'” (100) Kahn: “‘Pursuance’ is stark, simple, and yet another blues set in a minor key. (‘Perhaps my main fault at the moment is that I have a natural feeling for the minor,’ Coltrane apologized in 1965. ‘I’d like to do more things in the major…)'” (116)
“‘Like the rest of the suite, it’s blues in flavor,'” states Kahn about Psalm. (122) Elvin Jones: “‘I was always taught that I would be the percussionist in the New York Philharmonic or something like that. I started studying with that in mind and then I got interested in jazz…and [began] thinking in terms of putting that kind of [classical] knowledge and training into ahhh [laughs], the blues.'” (122)
At one point Coltrane plays the four note riff thirty seven times, in different keys. Kahn notes Lewis Porter’s interpretation: “‘he’s telling us God is everywhere – in every register, in every key.'” (102) Kahn states: “To Dave Liebman, the key-hopping section portends the final, experimental extreme of Coltrane’s career: ‘It’s really looking towards what he’s about to go into, which is very, very free and non-key-centered improvisation. The way he takes that ‘a love supreme’ motif, and transposes it through all the keys over the ostinatto pattern that Jimmy is playing, is a real study.'” (103)
Bill Cole (John Coltrane): “His recording of the piece [Alabama] is in one of the most melancholy moods I have ever heard him play – low in the horn, then moving into tempo but quickly resolving back into the down mood.” (150) “Trane’s lines began to contain more five-note scales. (‘Two Bass Bit,’ from 1958, was in Db, moving in the black keys. The blues always seem to be more authentically articulated low in the tone.) Trane always had strong feeling for minor keys.” (161) “He draws a line low in the tenor and then answers it high in the harmonic. By the time they get to the end, his solo is so free that he signals the end to the trio by recalling parts of the melodic line of the piece. This was a method that I saw him use on numerous occasions. In fact, he used this method to bring the band back home more often than he used any other. He uses the middle of the horn for circular patterns, ever reaching for the high notes and burrowing for the low ones. Albert Ayler’s comment about the evolving nature of the music that night was: ‘It’s not about notes anymore. It’s about feelings!'” (167)
“Alice Coltrane has said that on one day in the late summer of 1964 [John] came downstairs in his new house ‘like Moses coming down from the mountain,’ holding the complete outline for a new suite….At the bottom of the page he writes: ‘last chord to sound like final chord of Alabama.'” (90) As Moses never entered the promised land, but only viewed it from afar, so Coltrane never enters the presence of divine love in his suite. The church has been burnt to the ground. Alice Coltrane: “It’s like a beautiful city, but we don’t enter.” McCoy Tyner states: “‘The song ‘Alabama’ came from a speech. John said there was a Martin Luther King speech about the four girls getting killed in Alabama. It was in the newspaper – a printed medium. And so John took the rhythmic patterns of his speech and came up with ‘Alabama.'” (79)
A Love Supreme seems to me a Kafka-esque suite of music, like Kafka’s The Trial. Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. “BEFORE THE LAW stands a doorkeeper. To this doorkeeper there comes a man from the country and prays for admittance to the Law. But the doorkeeper says that he cannot grant admittance at the moment.” The law of tonality decrees the pre-eminence of the major chord and the sovereignty of the ruling tonic, the tonal center. All tones must bow down before the tonal center.
Alice Coltrane imagines her husband’s thoughts concerning A Love Supreme: “‘I don’t really wish that you consider that this is going to serve the full purpose of your spiritual goal’…We require something that we can hold on to, that serves to build strengthup for the next step in our journey. That is A Love Supreme.” (xix-xx) As Joshua led people to the promiseld land, so Coltrane’s composition Welcome takes one to that next step. Kahn on A Love Supreme: “It constructed, broke down, and re-erected a series of deceptively simple, minor-key blues structures.” (xvii)
Ravi Shankar commented on Coltrane’s music in late 1964: “‘Why is it that I hear this terrible inner turmoil in those shrieks? It really disturbed me.'” (xxiii) After hearing A Love Supreme for the first time Shankar stated: “‘Reading the liner notes, I was so surprised by his total surrendering and believing and his love for God.'” (xxiii) Like me, Shankar evidently heard no musical representation of divine love. Apart from the opening invocation it’s nothing but the blues to my ears. Shankar: “‘We have this piece ‘Alap’: it’s without drums, very slow and serene, and is meant to be like an invocation or prayer – very, very spiritual. But if the listener listens without being told that this is the theme, it may give him a feeling of tranquility perhaps, but he would not necessarily be thinking in a Godly manner. What Coltrane felt in making A Love Supreme may not be exactly the same as what the listener gets. He might feel romantic or very sad. Or very spiritual, feeling God.'” (Kahn, 213)
Blacks and whites had been at war in Kenya. The Mau Mau Uprising was a military conflict that took place in Kenya between 1952 and 1960. It involved a Kikuyu-dominated anti-colonial group called Mau Mauand elements of the British Army, auxiliaries and anti-Mau Mau Kikuyu. The movement was unable to capture widespread public support. The capture of rebel leader Dedan Kimathi on 21 October 1956 signalled the ultimate defeat of the Mau Mau uprising, and essentially ended the British military campaign.
The conflict arguably set the stage for Kenyan independence in December 1963. It created a rift between the European colonial community in Kenya and the Home Office in London, but also resulted in violent divisions within the Kikuyu community.
The contemporary view saw Mau Mau as a savage, violent, and depraved tribal cult, an expression of unrestrained emotion rather than reason. Mau Mau allegedly sought to turn the Kikuyu people back to “the bad old days” before British rule. By the mid-1960s, this view was being challenged by memoirs of former Mau Mau members and leaders that portrayed Mau Mau as an essential, if radical, component of African nationalism in Kenya, and by academic studies that analysed Mau Mau as a modern and nationalist response to the unfairness and oppression of colonial domination (though such studies downplayed the specifically Kikuyu nature of the movement).”
“A manuscript showing this preliminary musical arrangement for A Love Supreme….demonstrate his thoughts toward the end of part one, he noted, a saxophone solo with quartet accompaniment should lead into ‘all drums multiple meters and voices changing motif in Ebmi ‘A Love Supreme.’ Later, toward the ending: ‘Make ending attempt to reach transcendent level with orchestra…rising harmonies to a level of blissful stability.’ At the bottom of the page he writes: ‘last chord to sound like final chord of Alabama.'” (Ratliff, 90)
In jazz musician Sun Ra’s opinion, Coltrane had made a very serious “spiritual blunder” by recording and releasing “A Love Supreme”. It had “opened the wrong doors” into the spiritual world, and Coltrane had inadvertently “insulted God”. He claimed that this, in part, led to Coltrane’s early death. The liner notes to A Love Supreme state: “This performance is a humble offering to Him. An attempt to say ‘THANK YOU GOD.'” Perhaps the angry and shreiking elements are due to Coltrane’s difficulty in thanking a God who oversees incidents such as the Mau Mau uprising and the Alabama church burning.
I will do all I can to be worthy of Thee O Lord. It ALL has to do with it. Thank you God. Peace. There is none other. God is. It is so beautiful. Thank you God. God IS all. Help us to resolve our fears and weaknesses. Thank you God. In You ALL things are possible. We know. God made us so. Keep your eye on God. God is. he always was. he always will be. No Matter what . . . it is God. He is gracious and merciful. It is most important that I know Thee.
Words, sounds, speech, men, memory, thoughts, fears and emotions, time, all related. All made from one . . . all made in one. Blessed be His name. Thought waves—heat waves—all vibrations—all paths lead to God. Thank you God. His way . . . it is so lovely . . . it is gracious. It is merciful. Thank you God. One thought can produce millions of vibrations and they all go back to God . . . everything does. Thank you God. Have no fear . . . believe . . . Thank you God. The universe has many wonders. God is all. His way . . . it is so wonderful. Thoughts—deeds—vibrations, etc. They all go back to God and He cleanses all. He is gracious and merciful . . . Than you God. Glory to God . . . God is so alive. God is.
God loves. May I be acceptable in thy sight. We are all one in His grace. The fact that we are is acknowledgement of Thee O Lord. Thank you Lord. God will wash away all our tears. He always has. He always will. Seek Him everyday. In all ways seek God everyday. Let us sing all songs to God to whom all praise is due. Praise God.
No road is an easy one, but they all go back to God. With all we share God. It is all with God. It is all with Thee. Obey the Lord. Blessed is He. We are all from one thing – the will of God. Thank you God. I have seen God—I have seen ungodly—none can be greater—none can compare to God. Thank you God. He will remake us. He always has and he always will. Thank you God. God breathes through us so completely, so gently we hardly feel it, yet it is our everything. Thank you God. Elation—Elegance—Exaltation—All from God. Thank you God. Amen.
A Love Supreme “includes a word-based recitation, probably his best, in ‘Psalm,’ taking off from Coltrane’s poem, which was printed on the LP sleeve. (‘Thank you, God’ is the refrain in between lines; in that phrase, the word ‘God’ always signals a return to the tonic.)” (Ratliff, 91)
Elvin Jones: “If you want to know who John Coltrane was, you have to know A Love Supreme. It is like a culmination of one man’s life, the whole story of his entire life. When a person wants to become an American citizen, he or she has to say the pledge of allegiance in front of God. A Love Supreme is John’s pledge of allegiance…..In a sense it’s not even jazz. It broadened the concept of what music was. It’s totally spiritual: old people can appreciate it, little kids….even people who are churchgoers and have always thought that popular music or jazz was influenced by the devil. We’re all human beings. Our spirituality can express itself any way and anywhere; you can get religion in a bar or jazz club as much as you can in a church. A Love Supreme is always a spiritual experience, wherever you hear it. The quartet never talked about the spiritual aspect. It wasn’t contrived; things just happened. We had all been brought up in families that were hardworking and churchgoing, and the music was a continuation of our upbringing. When I was a child in Pontiac, my mother and father would take all us kids to church on Sunday and we’d be there all day. We’d start off in Sunday school in the morning and would stay until evening services. All the people who belonged to that church would bring pies and cakes and all kinds of food, it was one big family, and strangers could come off the street if they wanted to. My mother and my sisters all sang in the choir, and I loved to hear those gospel songs. When I listen to A Love Supreme it reminds me of those days. The spirit of God is in all of us, and when we started to play, that’s what came out.” (x)
Deejay Joel Dorn: “‘There was a tremendous response to John Coltrane among the (159) young hipper white kids, but among the young black kids, he was Trane, he had another meaning. There was a response to A Love Supreme like you would have to Malcolm [X], like you would have to the march on Washington, like you would have with the emergance of a black consciousness.'” (160) Amiri Baraka agrees: “‘You hear the struggle against opposite forces, but you hear a kind of transcendental embrace of what is, and what is going to be, in his music’: So much is made of Trane’s link with Malcolm in the sixties, because those periods are when art of that kind does emerge. You have social upsurges, and for every social upsurge, there’s an artistic upsurge that corresponds with that.'” (160) Frank Lowe: “‘It was the sixties and A Love Supreme seemed to express a lot of blackness. At a time when people were talking black, it seemed like Trane was saying more with the music than the cats were saying with the words.'” (Kahn, 186)
Mr. Holland’s Opus: “I HATE teaching, Iris! I HATE it! No one can teach these children, nobody! They just sit there, staring up at me! I’ve been trying to teach them….When I was 15, I hung out at a local record store. And the guy there thought he knew what I liked and one day, handed me this record album and it was John Coltrane. I took it home and played it and I hated it, I mean, I really hated it. So, I played it again. I played it again and I played it again, and I just couldn’t stop playing it. Iris, you tell me that we’re gonna have a baby, and that’s like falling in love with John Coltrane, all over again.”
The title of this film could be interpreted as being racist, for Mister derives from master, Holland is a European country with the original Harlem (were Dutch settlers the ones to name New York’s Harlem?), and Opus is a musical work. Holland’s deaf son Cole is associated with John Coltrane. Coltrane’s master and father were God, the author of Coltrane’s transformation. Coltrane didn’t need a white American father figure, played by Richard Dreyfuss, he needed God. Coltrane wasn’t a baby, he was a precious child of God.
To be fair, maybe, Hollywood reversed the roles in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, in which Richard Dreyfuss plays a man who has heard a melody of extraterrestials. The melodic fragment of Coltrane’s song, Love, at 4:46, is the same as the melody associated with the extraterrestials in Close Encounters of a Third Kind.
Transition was recorded after A Love Supreme and I think it represents Coltrane’s desire to transition from minor keys and blues to major keys. The titile track is a minor key blues, followed by Welcome, in a major key, a suite, and Vigil.
Musical Shepherd and Goatherd
“At the Half Note, during the band’s peak in 1965, Coltrane grew into his shepherd role.” (153) Charles Tolliver: “As I sat in the audience, at the Half Note, I came there to hear him and his group, the four men. And at some point during the night, especially when he moved completely into free playing, a lot of guys who were wanting to be into that, they’d come because they knew he was allowing that to happen. I felt an intrusion, at first. But it didn’t dawn on me until later (153) on that his great man was allowing babies – like, toddlers, crawling – to come onto his stage without feeling any problem about that at all. A lot of us were like, why?
Later it helped me to be more inclusive with everything. Really, bands with a set repertoire, they don’t allow this. But when he allowed that, it was really great. It dawned on me later how inclusive that was. It made me open my ears to the possibility of not having to play ii-V-I all the time. This inclusiveness that he allowed was almost as important as the great execution.'” (154)
The cadential motion of ii-V-I excludes the tension of the V chord as it resolves to I. Rashied Ali “remembers playing at the Village Vanguard with Coltrane in 1966 and being asked by Coltrane, in the club’s back room before the gig, what he thought about Frank Wright, the young free-jazz tenor player. He knew that Ali abd Wright were friends, and Wright, who had come to the club that night, had independently approached Coltrane about the possibility of sitting in with Coltrane’s band at the club. Ali reacted skeptically. ‘I said, “Aw, man, he ain’t playing shit.” He looked at me. I said, “Man, he ain’t playing shit.” We go out on the bandstand, and the first thing he does is say [to Wright], “Hey man, come on up.” (106)
“And what of Frank Wright? Until his death in 1990, he distinguished himself as almost the last of a breed by his devotion to the principles of power, loudness, maximum nonmelodic screaming-through-the-horn. He adapted a small part of Coltrane’s sound fro himself, and that was enough for him. Later, he said: ‘No motherfucker can tell me what I have to play, and I know I’m right because what I do is countersigned by master John Coltrane who accepted me at his side by calling me ‘little brother.'” (107)
Trumpeter Charles Moore: “What he was hearing soundwise was so inclusive that he could have included a goat on stage….African music says, ‘What have you got? Come on and play.’ It’s a philosophy that allows one to think that way – not, ‘Oh, man, you made a mistake – you played a B-flat!'” (156) Ratliff notes: “Within the individual group, the leader-with-sidemen idea seemed old; a freer and more simultaneous notion of group playing was moving in. Jazz had never been less hierarchical….If there is any truth to the rumors that Coltrane was taking acid between ’64 and ’67, it would only amount to more similar evidence. LSD commonly encourages the user to see the ideal of life as cooperative and nonhierarchical.” (155) “Coltrane’s loud and dense late-period music cannot be separated from the path toward racial tolerance and absolute worldwide human equality.” (171)
“Coltrane applied his universalist sensibility to all aspects of his music-making, including the saxophone itself, as Alice Coltrane told Ebony magazine: ‘He liked to draw an analogy between mankind and his horn, explaining that one group might represent the upper register, another the mid-range and yet another the deeper notes, but that it took all to make the whole.'” (Kahn, 234)
Ratliff states that in the 1960’s “it was a loaded gesture for a white man to criticize John Coltrane in public.” (163) When trumpeter Don Ellis did this in 1965 he earned the following response from fellow trumpeter Charles Moore: “‘Don Ellis has finally shown himself for what he really is: a white. His review of The John Coltrane Quartet Plays shows the white’s utter contempt for black creativity….The white man always has to relate the black’s music to the same old tired European standards & modes. I won’t even bother to try to explain the music of the black to Ellis because he quite obviously cannot even understand the fundamental feelings from which this music was created. The white even in his most infinitesimal sexually-fantasized masochistic stages obviously cannot understand & feel pain and suffering…The white’s mind still, even in ’66, seeks to castrate the black’s music and write it off in the form of European-based technical criticism and control – white control…The feeling of this music is more important to me than the technical matters; a feeling that you, Mr. Ellis, have insulted, thereby declaring yourself as another of my many white enemies. And for that, along with your ideals and artifacts from ancient history, you must die.'” (164)
“Ellis responded, invoking what he felt was unimpeachable reason: ‘I hope the rational reader will take the trouble to listen to the (164) record in question then read the review and judge for himself if the review is accurate. In your letter you imply you are mainly interested in ‘feelings.’ Well, there is one large difference between us then – I am interested in ART!'” (165)
Trane would say, “I have all these things running through my head and I don’t know how to end them.” Miles said, “look, just take the horn out your mouth.” Coltrane seems to have taken Davis’s advice literally. “On more than one occasion in 1966 and 1967, during a performance, Coltrane took the saxophone out of his mouth, beat his chest, and sang into the microphone. Rashied Ali has described it as a kind of premature epilogue, the consequence of having played everything there was to play. ‘I’d say, “Trane, man, why are you doing that, beating on your chest and howling in the microphone?”‘ Ali remembered in an interview. ‘He’d say, “Man, I can’t find nothing else to play on the horn.” He exhausted the saxophone. He couldn’t find nothing else to play…he ran out of horn.'” (Ratliff, 109)
“During ‘Leo,’ [Father, Son, and Holy Ghost] on November 11, 1966 at Temple University in Philadelphia – an unreleased recording – the music reduced to a drum-saxophone duet between Ali and Coltrane. Ali solos alone for a while, with drumsticks, beating rapidly on snare and toms. Coltrane enters, first tapping bells, then singing while beating his chest; at first it is the II-V-I pattern, the same melodic cell that you hear at the beginning of the melody of ‘Wise One,’ and the ‘Acknowledgement’ section of A Love Supreme, and then it builds methodically on that. The drumming on his chest mimics Ali’s patterns. He is singing, not screaming. It couldn’t be more logical. After forty-five seconds of this, he picks up his tenor and resumes where he had left off.
But this sort of thing has not passed down through history as an image of control – even to his friends, contemporaries, even learned musicians. ‘I told him that he impressed me like somebody that was afraid,’ said Jimmy Oliver, the tenor player who was Coltrane’s contemporary and one of this early collegues on the late-1940s Philadelphia scene, about the music of this phase. ‘As if he was running scared…I picture him running through alleys, knocking over cans, falling down.. If you’ve ever seen anybody run scared, this is the picture he gave me, musically.'” (Kahn, 110) Stanley Crouch: “by 1966 Coltrane…could also empty an entire park, which, as Rashied Ali recalls, he did in Chicago. During that performance and others witnessed in New York, Coltrane put down the saxophone and started shouting, yodeling and screaming through the microphone while beating on his chest. The saxophonist told Ali that he couldn’t think of anything else to play on his horn so he tried that.” (Coltrane Derailed)
One of Coltrane’s last studio albums, Interstellar Space, “happened on what seemed for Ali (111) to be a routine visit to Rudy Van Gelder’s studio. Ali arrived with his friend Jimmy Vass, expecting to find the other band members, and saw no one else there. ‘Ain’t nobody coming?’ he said to Vass. Soon Coltrane arrived. ‘Ain’t nobody coming?’ he said to Coltrane. ‘No, it’s just you and me.’ ‘What are we playing? Is it fast? Is it slow?’ ‘Whatever you want it to be. Come on. I’m going to ring some bells . You can do an 8-bar intro.’ “Each piece begins and ends with bells, shaken by Coltrane.” (112)
Coltrane’s song, Tunji, was a tribute to Nigerian drummer Olatunji. Tunji is a common Nigerian name meaning joy comes again. In the song, Ogunde, from Coltrane’s last concert, he sounds to me like a musical priest of Baal. “They cried aloud, and cut themselves after their manner with knives and lancets, till the blood gushed out upon them. And it came to pass, when midday was past, and they prophesied until the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice, that there was neither voice, nor any to answer, nor any that regarded.” (1Kings 18:28-29)
Ratliff: “Coltrane has become an ongoing metaphor for different kinds of rebellion, different modes of resistance. Kamau Daaood’s poem ‘Liberator of the Spirit’ says: ‘John Coltrane was a freedom fighter / Liberator of the spirit from the shackles of form.'” The poet, playwright, and activist Kalamu Ya Salaam wrote as recently as 2002 that ‘both Malcolm X and John Coltrane represented the combination of an innovative articulation of a blues-people sensibility with an avowedly anti-western / pro-Africa stance, inherent not only in the meaning of their message / music but in the aesthetics they employed.'” (203)
It was a sound, a droning sound unlike anything he had heard. God met him, revealed Himself to Coltrane through a resonance. “It was so beautiful,” he told his wife as he hopelessly tried to reproduce it on a piano. That is the key to Coltrane.
“With this event, the search for the mysterious sound began. It was a search that would continue throughout his life and would cause him to create some of his most intense and emotional music.” writes Fraim.
After this experience he still played solo’s with amazing speed but they were not frenzied rather they were searches for ultimate meaning. When he picked up his sax and played, he was trying to reproduce the sound of God. Sometimes he would solo for thirty minutes!
The question is what was he doing? He was searching for that sound of God that was playing at his lowest and yet most transformational moment of life. That magnificent murmur, that melody that met him when he was at his weakest and yet somehow was becoming his strongest. He was searching for the sound of God not to play to him, but to have it played by him and through him as a witness to his audiences.
When you listen to his music you either love it or hate it but remember the meaning is not found in what he was playing but in why he was playing the way he was playing.
A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album, Ashley Kahn, New York: Viking Penguin, 2002.
Coltrane on Coltrane, Editor: Chris DeVito, Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2010
Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, Ben Ratliff, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007
Coltrane: Magical Musician
The theory of sympathetic magic was first developed by Sir James George Frazer in The Golden Bough. Frazer proposed a principle of magic whereby like produces like, or that an effect resembles its cause. This principle may be called the Law of Similarity, whereby the magician infers that he can produce any effect he desires merely by imitating it.”
Coltrane in 1966: “‘I want to discover a method so that if I want it to rain, it wil start immediately to rain. If one of my friends is ill, I’d like to play a cer- (192) tain song and he’ll be cured. When he’d be broke, I’d bring out a different song, and immediately he’d get all the money he needed. But what these pieces are, and what is the road to attain the knowledge of them, that I don’t know. The true powers of music are still unknown. To be able to control them must be, I believe, the goal of every musician.'” (Kahn, 193) Many musicians have more mundane goals. Coltrane’s magical concept may have influenced by that of Olatunji: “We’re going to send this energy all over the world. Wherever there is famine everybody is going to be fed.”
In the song, Ogunde, from Coltrane’s last concert, he sounds to me like a musical priest of Baal. “They cried aloud, and cut themselves after their manner with knives and lancets, till the blood gushed out upon them. And it came to pass, when midday was past, and they prophesied until the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice, that there was neither voice, nor any to answer, nor any that regarded.” (1Kings 18:28-29)
Breau on Coltrane: “John Coltrane used to play so much that when he’d come off the bandstand sometimes his lips were bleeding and he’d go into the dressing room and still practice. Practice, practice, practice. He’d come down [and] there’d be blood running down. Now that’s serious. That cat is devoted, you know, to playing music. Right? So, like, there ain’t a whole lot of people like that.” “Trane played for over an hour. They played for so long that there were puddles of sweat. Where they were standing – John, Jimmy, Elvin – there was literally water there on the floor.”
On the other hand, maybe Coltrane played like Jesus on the cross, spilling blood for the life of others.
I will demonstrate correspondences between Thomas’ three types of relation and three cultural phases, uncovered in the writings of Sir James Frazer, Oswald Spengler, Giambattista Vico, and Northrop Frye.
Thomas Aquinas distinguishes three types of relation between God and man, univocal, equivocal and analogical. One might argue that univocal language is sanctioned by the following passage from the Letter to the Hebrews: “By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that the visible came from the invisible” (11:3). Thomas, however, rejects the univocal relation on the basis that God and the universe, of which man is a part, are not truly alike. This unlikeness is true in regard to the category of substance, evident in the following passage from Isaiah: “All humanity is grass and all its beauty like the wild flowers. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of Yahweh blows on them…but the word of our God remains for ever” (40:1-8); John identifies this word with God (Jn. 1:1). Thomas also rejects the equivocal relation on the basis that man, made in the divine image (Gen. 1:27), is not wholly unlike God. This likeness is evident in Jesus’ observation that Scripture “uses the word ‘gods’ of those people to whom the word of God was addressed” (Jn. 10:35).
The analogical relation assumes a middle position between these two extremes. Aquinas accepts the analogical relation, concluding that “man and God are neither totally alike nor totally unlike, that their relationship is analogical…what makes this analogical relation possible is that God’s creatures bear a likeness to God” (Stumpf, 178-9). As this likeness extends to all of creation, Paul states that, ever since the creation, “the invisible existence of God and his everlasting power have been clearly seen by the mind’s understanding of created things” (Rom. 1:20. Thus, “God is light” and “the Sun of justice”, the Son is “the bread of life”, “the real vine” and the “living Stone”, and the Spirit is associated with “wind”, “water” and “fire” (1Jn. 1:5; Mal. 3:20; Jn. 6:35, 15:1; 1Pet. 2:4; Jn. 3:8; Titus 3:5; Lk. 3:16). As with the relation between types and antitypes in Biblical typology, so the analogical relation between Creator and creation involves partial correspondences with significant differences.
The three Thomistic relations between God and man are analogous to three relations between man and nature uncovered by Frazer. In The Golden Bough Frazer describes the impact of the order of nature upon the mind of man: “The spectacle of the great changes which annually pass over the face of the earth has powerfully impressed the minds of men in all ages, and stirred them to meditate on the causes of transformations so vast and wonderful” (376-77). Frazer distinguishes three relationships which man has had with nature: a primitive age of magic, a later age of religion and a modern age of science.
In magic man…believes in a certain established order of nature on which he can surely count, and which he can manipulate for his own ends…magic is gradually superseded by religion, which explains the succession of natural phenomena as regulated by the will, the passion, or the caprice of spiritual beings like man in kind, though vastly superior to him in power…religion, regarded as an explanation of nature, is displaced by science (824-25).
Despite Frazer’s strict distinction of three stages, his chief interest, in The Golden Bough, is in a fusion of the first and second stages: “magic is thus found to fuse and amalgamate with religion in many ages and in many lands” (62). Frazer elaborates on this amalgamation of the magical and religious stages:
the old magical theory of the seasons was displaced, or rather supplemented (emphasis mine), by a religious theory…as [men] now explained the fluctuations of growth and decay, of reproduction and dissolution, by the marriage, the death, and the rebirth or revival of the gods, their religious or rather magical dramas turned in great measure on these themes…Thus a religious theory was blended with a magical practice. The combination is familiar in history (377).
I regard Frazer’s stages of magic, religion, and science as analogous to the Thomist univocal, analogical, and equivocal relations, respectively. Frazer’s stages provide a historical framework for the Thomist relations.
This historical framework is given more detail by considering its correspondence with Spengler’s view of history. Spengler describes the threefold linear view of history, such as is found in Frazer’s stages, as “‘ancient-mediaeval-modern’” (14), and claims that this view “has at last exhausted its usefulness” (18). In search of a fresh method to understand cultural development, Spengler, in The Decline of the West, resorts to “Analogies, insofar as they laid bare the organic structure of history” (4). He brings “analogy to bear on…the world of human Cultures”, specifically, the analogy of “the words ‘youth’, ‘growth’, ‘maturity’, ‘decay’…taken…as objective descriptions of organic states” (21). Spengler replaces the linear view of history with an organic view: “I see, in place of that empty figment of one linear history which can be kept up only by shutting one’s eyes to the overwhelming multitude of the facts, the drama of a number of mighty Cultures…Each Culture has its own new possibilities of self-expression which arise, ripen, decay and never return” (17).
Despite Spengler’s insistence upon the organic, as opposed to the linear, view of history, one can trace three linear phases of history in his three main cultures: Classical, Biblical (or Magian, or Arabian), and Western (or Faustian). I regard Spengler’s Classical, Biblical, and Western cultures as being analogous to Frazer’s ages of magic, religion, and science, respectively. Regarded as such, Spengler’s organic view of history augments the understanding of the historical framework of Thomist relations by incorporating an organic, cyclical, process within linear history.
A key concept in Spengler’s understanding of cultures is that each culture has its “prime symbol…imparting to it its specific style and the historical form in which it progressively actualizes its inward possibilities” (93). Spengler describes the prime symbols of the three main cultures:
for the Classical word-view the near, strictly limited, self-contained Body, for the Western infinitely wide and infinitely profound three-dimensional Space, for the Arabian the world as a Cavern…The plurality of separate bodies which represents Cosmos for the Classical soul, requires a similar pantheon-hence the antique polytheism. The single world-volume, be it conceived as cavern or as space, demands the single god of…Western Christianity” (93, 99).
The Arabian (or Biblical) and Western cultures share the same world-view, that of a “single world-volume” and a “single god”. Their prime symbols differ, however. Whereas the prime symbol of Biblical culture is a “Cavern”, “Western culture’s prime symbol is a dynamic center expanding outwards or upwards into infinity (I, 178)” (Ford, 30). I think that Frye is right to collapse Spengler’s three cultures into two, Classical and Western (combining Spengler’s Biblical and Western cultures), in Anatomy of Criticism, where he traces a decline in both cultures (34-35). In order to accommodate Spengler’s differing prime symbols with Frye’s unification of Biblical and Western cultures, I think that the “Cavern” and the expanding center should be understood to represent the early and late stages, respectively, of one cultural cycle. This reformation of Spenglerian categories preserves three stages, which I will call Classical, early Western, and late Western.
The present subject concerns the linguistic aspect of culture. The linguistic development of Classical, early Western, and late Western cultures corresponds to three phases of language formulated by Giambattista Vico: the hieratic and poetic, the aristocratic and heroic, and the democratic and vulgar, respectively. Vico saw these phases as elements of a recurring cycle of history. Frye, in The Great Code, calls these phases metaphorical, analogical, and descriptive (5); he sees them as elements of a linear history (6-14). The metaphorical phase is analogous to the Thomist univocal relation, the analogical phase to the analogical relation, and extreme forms of the descriptive phase to the equivocal relation. The metaphorical phase is based on the metaphorical relation of identity, the analogical phase is based on the metonymic relation of analogy, and the descriptive phase is based on the relation of difference. The following chart shows the relation of these three phases to the four writers discussed above.
Writer First Phase Second Phase Third Phase
Frazer: Magic Religion Science
Spengler: Classical Biblical (Magian or Arabian) Western (Faustian)
Vico: Hieratic Aristocratic Democratic
Frye: Metaphorical Analogical Descriptive
According to Frye, “In the beginning was the Word” (Jn.1:1) is an example of first phase language (Religion, 30); the following statements of Frye concerning this phrase provide a concrete illustration of the way in which language is used in the second and third phases. “In the Renaissance, Erasmus translated it as in principio erat sermo. That is, in the beginning was not the word but the interconnection of ideas or thoughts out of which words grow and of which they are the expression. That is a typical second-phase attitude to the first” (30). An example of third-phase thinking is Goethe’s Faust, who “begins to fall into the power of Mephistopheles, the spirit of denial…when he mistranslate[s] ‘das Wort’ as ‘die That'” (Code, 18, 61); this mistranslation indicates the perception of creation without reference to the Word, characteristic of the descriptive phase of language.
Frye offers four different views concerning the relation of the three phases of language to the language of the Bible. The first view, which is consistent with the Thomist endorsement of the analogical relation, is that which sees the language of the Bible as a product of the second, analogical, phase. I think that Frye is correct in concurring with this view, when he acknowledges that the analogical phase of language is logocentric, centered on the Christian God and his verbal expression, the Bible, which “is a logocentric document” (Religion, 29). In analogical language “the conception of a transcendent “God” moves into the center of the order of words” (Code, 15). God becomes the reality “that all verbal analogy points to…There is no point in making analogical constructs out of words unless we have something to relate the analogy to” (9-10).
Frye suggests a second view, that the language of the Bible is a form of oratory which fuses the first and second phases of language. His description of this fusion is reminiscent of Frazer’s fusion of the ages of magic and religion. The first phase of language contains “a powerfully magical residue” (Religion, 25), while the second phase “is the language of the post-Biblical Christianity” (27-8). These two phases combine in oratory: “The Bible seems to me fundamentally a product of a metaphorical conception of language. This first phase is closest to its successor, the second phase, in the genre that we call oratory, because oratory is a highly figured form of speech…The bulk of the Bible is really different forms of oratory, or what is sometimes called kerygma” (28).
In The Great Code Frye proposes a third view, that the language of the Bible combines all three phases in a fourth phase. “The linguistic idiom of the Bible…is really a fourth form of expression, for which I adopt the now well-established term kerygma, proclamation” (Code, 29). This view does not seem to me very convincing, and may have been proposed by Frye in order to lend a contemporary quality to his discussion of the language of the Bible.
Elsewhere, Frye states that kerygma consists of the first phase of language, which is mythical and metaphorical: “myth is the linguistic vehicle of kerygma” (Religion, 30). This mythical understanding of kerygma, of the message and language of the Bible, is at the heart of Frye’s critical vision. One would expect that it would assume the characteristics of the first phase – metaphor, magic, and Classical culture – from the above chart. None of these characteristics correspond to the language of the Bible. The relation of identity conveyed by metaphor does not account for the significant differences between Creator and creation which can be expressed by analogy and simile in the second phase of language. It remains to mention the characteristics of Spengler’s Classical culture and Frazer’s stage of magic.
For Spengler, the Classical cosmos consists of a “plurality of separate bodies”, as distinct from the single deity of Western culture. It is therefore unsurprising that Frye’s conception of the cosmos, in keeping with first phase characteristics, is pluralistic. He expresses this conception by the term interpenetration. Assuming the basis of “kerygma on mythical and metaphorical language” (Religion, 179), Frye envisions the possibility of “interpenetration, the free flowing of spiritual life into and out of one another that communicates but never violates”. He describes the consequence of interpenetration:
we may enter the world of proclamation and pass on to others what we have found to be true for ourselves. When we encounter a quite different vision in, say, a Buddhist, a Jew, a Confucian, an atheist, or whatever, there can still be what is called dialogue, and mutual understanding, based on a sense that there is plenty of room in the mind of God for us both. All faith is founded on good faith, and where there is good faith on both sides there is also the presence of God” (179-80).
This decentralized conception of interpenetration is not consistent with the theocentric Biblical worldview. According to Russell, Spengler is the source of Frye’s idea of “interpenetration,” which means that “‘wherever you are is the center of everything’ (NFN 3 [Winter 1990-91], 6).” (165).
In The Great Code Frye attempts to bridge his decentralized vision , consistent with the polytheistic Classical cosmos, and the monotheistic Christian vision; he connects a “decentralizing approach to Christian metaphors with the imagery [or metaphor] and narrative [or myth] of the Bible” (101). He finds a precedent for this connection in the words of Paul: “it is no longer I, but Christ living in me” (Gal. 2:20). Frye sees in this passage a reversal “from a metaphor of integration into a wholly decentralized one, in which the total body [of Christ] is complete within each individual. The individual acquires the internal authority of the unity of the Logos” (100). Frye’s radical shift from Paul’s Christ-centeredness to a state “wholly decentralized” betrays a desire for spiritual autonomy – to become a self-contained god; that this status is something which man “acquires”, suggests that it is stolen by human initiative rather than received as a gift from God (see Rom. 6:23).
Frye’s Promethean approach to Christianity results in a reliance upon magic, rather than religion, as the power of the transformation of creation, and is therefore characteristic of Frazer’s first stage of history. Frye understands that “[T]he chief aim of magic is to control spirits, and this takes the form of controlling their time and space” (Code, 227). His desire to control, or master, the Word reverses the conventional master/servant relation between God and man (see 1 Pet. 2:16). Acknowledging that language “uses man, man being ultimately the servant rather than the master of language”, Frye reverses this relation in his understanding the ground of language , the Word and Spirit of God, not only as persons of the Trinity, but also as “qualities of self-transcendence within man himself, capable of pulling him out of the psychosis” of his fallen state (Religion, 80). By reducing the persons of the Trinity to abstract qualities Frye can more convincingly argue that they can be mastered by man. Frye’s Promethean desire to control the fire of the Word (see Jer. 5:14) parallels that of Blake’s Bard, who “might” use the Word to “control / The starry pole, / And fallen, fallen light renew” (lines 8-10, Introduction to the Songs of Experience), and Tyger, who “dare seize the fire” of revelation (line 8, Tyger, Tyger).