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Tuesday, February 1, 2011

When the Saint comes beboppin' in...

John Coltrane
Image courtesy of www.flickr.com

"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
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."

John Coltrane

John William Coltrane (1926-1967) was arguably the greatest tenor saxophone player in jazz history.  "Trane" was at the helm of bebop and hard bop, and helped pioneer the use of modes in jazz.  He was a prolific composer, and explored and developed a harmonic progression variation known as the Coltrane changes, among other names.  A jazz musician's improvising ability is measured by how well s/he can solo over the Giant Steps/Coltrane cycle from Coltrane's 1960 Giant Steps album.  (For a detailed explanation of this, click here.)

Seeing Charlie Parker play, in 1945, was a momentous occasion for Coltrane.  He told DownBeat in 1960, "the first time I heard Bird play, it hit me right between the eyes."  They played together in the late 1940s.  In the early and mid 1950s Coltrane played with Dizzy Gillespie, among others.  But he had a longer association with Miles Davis.

From the summer of 1955 until April of 1957, Coltrane was in Davis's band the "First Great Quartet" which showed Coltrane's increasing ability.  They disbanded because of Davis's heroin addiction.  Coltrane then played with Thelonious Monk, and went on to make what is widely considered his best album from this time, Blue Train.  He and Davis played together again from 1958 to 1960.  It was at the end of this period that Coltrane composed Giant Steps.  Not long afterward he began playing the soprano saxophone, an instrument that had not been used much in jazz before.

From 1960 - 1962, Coltrane took a new direction, playing the most experimental music ever, influenced by modal jazz, free jazz, and even Indian ragas.  However, he did not receive much critical acclaim for this.  This new kind of jazz was perplexing to audiences, and Coltrane was even booed off the stage playing with Davis in France.  DownBeat in 1961 pronounced Coltrane as one of the players of "Anti-Jazz".

Coltrane in 1960, photographed by Francis Wolff.

It was in his "classic quartet" period from 1962 - 1965 that Coltrane's spiritual concerns came front and center.  From this time forth, he became more and more involved with experimental jazz, pushing the limits and often becoming incomprehensible to much of his audience.  It is suggested that he might have been experimenting with LSD in 1965, which may have influenced his music.  He died of liver cancer at the age of 40.  His death was unexpected, as few knew of his illness.

Coltrane's maternal and paternal grandfathers were both ministers of an AME (African Methodist Episcopal) Zion Church.  His first wife was Muslim and it was from her that he came in contact with Islam.  He was very interested in religion, studied Hinduism, the Kabbalah, Buddhism, and the philosophers Plato and Aristotle.  He had problems with heroin addiction and alcoholism, but claimed a religious experience caused him to overcome his addictions.  In the liner notes of his 1965 album A Love Supreme he stated, "During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life.  At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music."  In 1966, Coltrane was asked by a journalist what he would like to be in five years.  His answer:  "A saint."

St. John Coltrane
Photo by Heidi Schumann for the NY Times.

Well, he got his wish.  Archbishop Franzo King and Reverend Mother Marina King began a church, inspired from hearing Coltrane perform in San Francisco in 1965.  They say they knew the presence of the Lord when they heard his music. They make it clear that they are "not dealing with St. John the man, but St. John the sound and St. John the Evangelist and Sound Baptist, who attained union with God through sound".  They call their church the St. John Will-I-Am Coltrane African Orthodox Church.

Members of the church include jazz musicians who play for the
congregation each Sunday.  (Archbishop King is on the right.)
Photo by Heidi Schumann for the NY Times.
Sunday services, which begin at 11:45 A.M. and last until 2:30 P.M., are part revival meeting and part jam session.  Besides the unusual hagiography and music, the church's activities include personal "witnessing" and various social activities. Each week the church features "sound baptism" using St. John Coltrane's later albums, after he saw the light and quit drugs, referred to as the "Risen Trane". Although Coltrane's music is the focus, all types of music are played, including funk, reggae, and gospel.  Members are encouraged to bring their own instruments.

The highlight of each week's sound baptism is the choir reciting Psalm 23 over the track "Acknowledgment" from the A Love Supreme album.  There is a call-and-response participation as the audience calls out "a love supreme" during selected moments.  The musical ministry is delivered through the "Ministers of Sound" aka Ohnedaruth (Sanskrit for "compassion"), a group that has played internationally, and can be booked for events.

Sunday service at the St. John Coltrane church.
Photo by Heidi Schumann for the NY Times.

And if you are not in San Francisco but like the concept, just listen to Coltrane. Not many people who aspire to sainthood make it.  It must be the music.


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