This week marks the 50th anniversary of the release of John Coltrane’s album, A Love Supreme, ‘easily one of the most important records ever made’, in the estimation of Sam Samuelson at AllMusic. A Love Supreme was recorded by John Coltrane’s quartet on 9 December 1964 and is generally considered to be Coltrane’s greatest work.

The story goes that in the summer of 1964, Alice Coltrane saw her husband walk down their stairs ‘like Moses coming down from the mountain’, in his hand a piece of music, on which he’d written the direction: ‘attempt to reach transcendent blissful stability’.  This was the beginning of the quest that ended on a December day in 1964 at the Van Gelder Studio in New Jersey.

A Love Supreme cover

A Love Supreme: album cover

When Coltrane recorded A Love Supreme with pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and drummer Elvin Jones, it was his attempt, as a reformed addict, to express in music his belief that human transformation is not just something to be wished for, but, more crucially, an attainable goal.  As he writes in the sleeve notes:

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.

A Love Supreme is a suite consisting of four sections: ‘Acknowledgement’ (in which Coltrane chants the mantra that gave the album its name), ‘Resolution’, ‘Pursuance’, and  ‘Psalm’. Each section is a setting of the prayer written by Coltrane that was printed on the record sleeve. Intensely spiritual, the music on the album is intended as a spiritual journey, representing a personal struggle for meditative stillness, purity, and humility, expressing the artist’s acceptance that his instrument  and his talent serve a spiritual higher power.

John Coltrane 2

What was the nature of the religious experience to which Coltrane referred on the record sleeve? In Giants of Jazz, Studs Terkel wrote that, though there was a spirituality about Coltrane and his music, ‘If he could be classified according to some religious belief, it would be easy to define him.  But it wasn’t that simple’.  He goes on:

His ‘religion’ sprang from his music, and the other way around. Perhaps it is best explained by saying that his spirituality was based on a belief in life, a belief that all things in life are united, that all things come from a common essence, and it was that essence, that common unit basic to all things , that he searched for and tried to capture in his music.

Coltrane’s poem on the album sleeve makes repeated references to God – but in a Universalist sense, rather than advocating one religion over another.  When, later in 1965, Coltrane Meditations, he declared in the sleeve notes, ‘I believe in all religions’.  He studied the Qur’an, the Bible, Kabbalah, and explored Zen Buddhism and Hinduism. In October 1965, Coltrane recorded Om, named for the sacred syllable in Hinduism which symbolizes the infinite or the entire Universe. The 29-minute recording (which has exasperated all but the most dedicated fans) contains chants from the Hindu Bhagavad Gita and the Buddhist Tibetan Book of the Dead. In 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die, Tom Moon called A Love Supreme ‘devotional music of the highest order … which aims to brings listeners to a higher state.’ Coltrane simply said his purpose as a musician was ‘to bring to people something like happiness’.

John Coltrane photographed by Chuck Stewart

John Coltrane photographed by Chuck Stewart

Jazz musicians study and revere A Love Supreme for its power and innovative form. Yet the album quickly gained an appreciative audience far beyond jazz fans and those with a spiritual leaning. The recording was named Album of the Year 1965 by DownBeat magazine , while the following year, Newsweek devoted six pages to the new ‘jazz revolution’, identifying Coltrane as its leader. Alongside Kind of Blue (on which Coltrane also performed as side-man), A Love Supreme is one of the few jazz records to go mainstream, going gold (500,000 copies sold) years ago. Personally, I came to it soon after hearing Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew at a friend’s flat in 1970, an experience that led me to embrace jazz alongside the folk, blues and rock that had been my musical staples up to that point.

John Coltrane, photographed in the Van Gelder Studio with wife Alice

John Coltrane, photographed by Chuck Stewart in the Van Gelder Studio with his wife Alice

In A Change Is Gonna Come: Music Race and the Soul of America, Craig Werner explores the way in which Coltrane became a symbol of black pride alongside figures such as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.  The political and social context of A Love Supreme is that of a culture of black rebellion and resistance, expressed politically through the civil rights movement, the Nation of Islam, and (later) the Black Panthers, and culturally through the work of black writers and musicians.

A year before A Love Supreme, the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama by white racists had compelled Coltrane to compose ‘Alabama’, a musical prayer dedicated to the struggle of the oppressed. The bomb had killed four girls, and at the funeral for three of them, Martin Luther King  spoke about life being ‘as hard as crucible steel’. When A Love Supreme was released in the spring of 1965 its music was heard by black Americans shaken by the assassination of Malcolm X in February and inspired by the three Selma to Montgomery marches that represented a key moment in the struggle for civil rights.

Wall of Respect

Residents and artists gather during the creation of the Wall of Respect in Chicago in 1967.

In his book, Craig Werner recalls the creation of a mural – the Wall of Respect – in Chicago, commissioned to decorate a derelict tavern on a site earmarked for redevelopment. The idea was to celebrate black heroes: to feature ‘any black person who honestly reflects the beauty of black life and genius in his or her style’ and who demonstrated originality and social consciousness for other less fortunate black people. Among the figures who appear in the mural are Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Muhammad Ali – and John Coltrane.  Eventually demolished in the early ‘70s, the Wall of Respect triggered a movement in cities across America as African-American neighbourhoods linked murals to community struggles and the idea of black political power.

Muhammed Ali detail Wall of Respect

The Wall of Respect detail: Muhammad Ali

In A Change is Gonna Come, Werner identifies the potential for personal transformation as key to understanding the significance of both Malcolm X and John Coltrane in black American consciousness. Both men went through a series of transformations.

In Malcolm’s case, first growing up as Malcolm Little in Nebraska and Michigan, knowing the frustrations of a black family trying to escape poverty.  After his father’s death, Malcolm watched his mother disintegrate psychologically while the family was torn apart by a demeaning welfare system. Although an excellent student, his teachers discouraged his interest in law school, instead suggesting he train as a carpenter. Moving to New York, Malcolm Little was transformed into Detroit Red, a streetwise hustler. ‘The only thing I considered wrong’, he told Alex Haley, ‘was what I got caught doing wrong.  I had a jungle mind. I was living in a jungle and everything I did was done by instinct to survive.’

Detroit Red was transformed into Malcolm X through his exposure to the teachings of the Nation of Islam, which had a noteworthy track record in reforming black convicts and drug addicts.  Under their influence, he adopted the Nation’s view of whites as ‘devils’ .  But then, on hajj to Mecca, he was profoundly affected by the experience of encountering people of different ethnicities interacting freely. Adopting the orthodox Islamic name of El-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, he re-shaped his vision:

In the past I have made sweeping indictments of all white people. I will never be guilty of that again … The true Islam has shown me that a blanket indictment of all whiter people is a s wrong as when whites make blanket indictments against blacks.

By this stage he was moving closer to the position of Martin Luther King, urging progressive whites to ‘work in conjunction with us … trying to convert other white people who are thinking and acting so racist’. In Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties, the late Mike Marqusee‘s fine analysis of the black politics of the period, he quotes Malcolm X at one of his last press conferences trying to explain his evolving philosophy:

 We are living in an era of revolution, and the revolt of the American Negro is part of the rebellion against the oppression and colonialism which has characterized this era. … It is incorrect to classify the revolt of the Negro as simply a racial conflict of black against white, or as purely an American problem.  Rather, we are seeing a global rebellion of the oppressed against the oppressor, the exploited against the exploiter.

Like Malcolm, Coltrane had passed through many changes before finding the voice that sings in A Love Supreme – and which gave him a place of honour on Chicago’s Wall of Respect. During the fifties and early sixties he was one of a group of emerging saxophonists that included Wayne Shorter, Ornette Coleman and Sonny Rollins. Struggling to break a heroin habit, he served apprenticeships in bands led by Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk.  Then came that ‘spiritual awakening’ of 1957. Finding a particular affinity with the Indian thinker Jiddu Krishnamurti, Coltrane began to express his sense of ‘a divine energy that transcends the narrow understandings of human beings’ in works such as ‘Spiritual’ and ‘Song of the Underground Railroad’, before achieving the fullest realization of his vision with A Love Supreme.  Craig Wenner compares its ‘soaring spiritual power’ to Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’. Admitting that ‘there’s no real point to trying to translate A Love Supreme into words, he nevertheless concludes that:

Like Malcolm in his most eloquent visionary moments, Coltrane testifies to somewhere we’ve never been, somewhere, in our best moments, we can just begin to imagine.  That’s what jazz is all about.

It  was Miles Davis who captured the essence of Coltrane’s appeal for African-Americans in this passage, quoted by Wenner.  Miles wrote that Coltrane:

Represented, for many blacks, the fire and passion and rage and anger and rebellion and love that they felt, especially among the young black intellectuals and revolutionaries of that time. He was expressing through music what H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael and the Black Panthers and Huey Newton were saying with their words, what the Last Poets and Amiri Baraka were saying in poetry. …. He played what they felt inside and were expressing through riots -‘burn, baby, burn’ – that were taking place everywhere. . . . It was all about revolution for a lot of young black people – Afro hairdos, dashikis, black power, fists raised in the air. Coltrane was their symbol, their pride – their beautiful, black revolutionary pride.

John Coltrane waymark in Hamlet, North Carolina

John Coltrane waymark in Hamlet, North Carolina

Perhaps the finest writing to place Coltrane in his cultural and historical context is ‘Dear John, Dear Coltrane’, a poem written in 1966 by Michael Harper (though not published until 1970, after Coltrane’s death). The poem begins with Coltrane singing ‘a love supreme’ before being juxtaposed by Harper with the shocking imagery of the severed genitals, fingers and toes of Sam Hose, lynched in Georgia in 1898 after he had accidentally killed his employer, butchered and then burned alive (a reminder that such brutality occurred in the recent historical past in the ‘land of the free’, too). Harper shifts time and place around, locating the act near to the church in Hamlet, North Carolina where Coltrane was born in 1926.  By merging Coltrane’s story with that of Sam Hose, ‘Harper establishes Hose/Coltrane as a model for black martyrdom, as inspiration for black striving, as a vehicle for black transcendence’, writes Edwin T Arnold in What Virtue There Is In Fire. Arnold continues:

Hose/Coltrane play through their own dismemberment and immolation on the nightclub stage for the white audience, cooked by drugs and as well as fire. They give their body to the crowd for consumption. As their flesh goes down to death, their beauty rises up to ‘a love supreme’.  Here, at last Sam Hose, who is said to have stuttered, who barely spoke before and during his execution, who may have had his tongue cut out, finally finds his voice, sings his death song through Coltrane’s tenor sax … [and] is transformed through Harper’s and Coltrane’s art into sainthood.

Here is Michael Harper’s poem:

a love supreme, a love supreme
a love supreme, a love supreme

Sex fingers toes
in the marketplace
near your father’s church
in Hamlet, North Carolina –
witness to this love
in this calm fallow
of these minds,
there is no substitute for pain:
genitals gone or going,
seed burned out,
you tuck the roots in the earth,
turn back, and move
by river through the swamps,
singing: a love supreme, a love supreme;
what does it all mean?
Loss, so great each black
woman expects your failure
in mute change, the seed gone.
You plod up into the electric city –
your song now crystal and
the blues. You pick up the horn
with some will and blow
into the freezing night:
a love supreme, a love supreme –

Dawn comes and you cook
up the thick sin ‘tween
impotence and death, fuel
the tenor sax cannibal
heart, genitals, and sweat
that makes you clean –
a love supreme, a love supreme –

Why you so black?
cause I am
why you so funky?
cause I am
why you so black?
cause I am
why you so sweet?
cause I am
why you so black?
cause I am
a love supreme, a love supreme:

So sick
you couldn’t play Naima,
so flat we ached
for song you’d concealed
with your own blood,
your diseased liver gave
out its purity,
the inflated heart
pumps out, the tenor kiss,
tenor love:
a love supreme, a love supreme –
a love supreme, a love supreme –

Coltrane only played A Love Supreme once in live concert. This is the only surviving film of the first 14 minutes of that 1965 performance, in which he plays the first section, ‘Acknowledgement’.

There’s not really a lot to add to the conclusion of Sam Samuelson’s review for AllMusic:

A Love Supreme clocks in at just over 30 minutes. As it stands, just enough is conveyed. It is almost impossible to imagine a world without A Love Supreme having been made, and it is equally impossible to imagine any jazz collection without it.

Footnote

Catch it while you can: A Love Supreme 50 years on – Courtney Pine explores what makes A Love Supreme such a unique and important record (BBC Radio 4)

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