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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,212

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This is the grave of John and Alice Coltrane.

Born in 1926 in Hamlet, North Carolina, a poor town that was much later home to one of the worst industrial disasters in modern American history, Coltrane grew up in the slightly larger town of High Point. Most of his family died in the early 40s and so he and his mother moved to Philadelphia in 1943. He started playing saxophone shortly after, which makes it amazing that he became what he became, not touching the instrument until he was 17 or 18. Anyway, he got into jazz big time, saw Charlie Parker, and realized what he wanted to do. He had military service to do and joined the Navy right at the end of World War II. Already good, the white soldiers in the camp band secretly got him to play with them. Anyway, that lasted only a year and he was out by the summer of 1946.

Coltrane returned to Philadelphia and used his GI Bill benefits to study music theory and composition. He kept taking classes and learning and become a mainstay in the local jazz scene. Eventually Miles Davis found out about him and asked him to join his band in 1955. This was just at the time that Miles, for whom the early 50s were not good due to his smack addiction, was on his comeback and putting together his legendary quintet. Coltrane was part of that and provided the saxophone on many of the great albums of jazz history that they did. Unfortunately, Coltrane himself started using heroin in these years and that helped kill that quintet. But that work–the Steamin’, Relaxin’, Workin’, etc. albums, I mean it doesn’t really get better, at least not in that era. He also very briefly worked with Monk in 1957, leading to the great Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall album. He came back to Davis for a bit as well, played on Kind of Blue and Milestones.

If this was all of Coltrane’s career, he would be seen as perhaps the greatest sideman in jazz history. But then there is his solo career. Starting with the excellent Blue Train in 1958 and then with Giant Steps in 1960, Coltrane established himself as a huge voice of his own. He was already moving toward experimentation at this time. It’s not as if Giant Steps is that noisy really, but the chord changes are insanely hard. Coltrane was a man to push himself and he pushed himself hard. Particularly working with the pianist McCoy Tyner and the drummer Elvin Jones (and a variety of bassists), he put out great album after great album. The astounding Africa/Brass albums used two bassist, which filled out the sound wonderfully.

Then there’s A Love Supreme, which is probably the most important album in jazz history. It simply took the music in a radically new direction. Coltrane wasn’t the first jazz musician to move in a more experimental direction. Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor were already hard at work. But Coltrane, he was a mainstream popular guy. A lot of the jazz establishment hated Coleman and Taylor. But they couldn’t ignore Coltrane, especially because the music is a spiritual experience. Even now, nearly sixty years after its 1964 release, it still amazes upon every listen.

By this time, Coltrane was dating Alice McLeod. Born in Detroit in 1937, she grew with church music but also studied jazz in Paris with Bud Powell at a time when women weren’t so accepted in jazz. Even today, outside of vocalists, it remains an overwhelmingly male music, though that has changed more in the last two decades. She was Terry Gibbs’ pianist beginning in 1962 and they met in the jazz clubs. As they became a couple, her interest in spirituality began to influence him and was a huge part of A Love Supreme, even though she didn’t play on it.

Alice would remain a huge influence on Coltrane for the rest of his short life, even though they had three children in short order and she didn’t play with him all the time. Coltrane moved into pure blowing and noise jazz, which drove Tyner out of the quartet. Instead, Coltrane began surrounding himself with other super experimental players such as the saxophonist Pharoah Sanders and the drummer Rashied Ali. Alice played with them when she could, often touring with the band that also included Jimmy Garrison on bass. He was also doing a good bit of LSD during these years. You can really hear it in some of the late music, where he sounds like he is tripping through his saxophone. While he was a total genius, some of his very last albums leave me a bit sterile, I have to admit. The drugs maybe weren’t always a good idea.

Alas, Coltrane’s liver gave out, probably due to the heroin use earlier in his life, though he had stopped by then. He died of liver cancer in 1967. He was 40 years old. What a huge tragedy. He, along with Monk and Ellington, remain the most important musicians among jazz musicians today, if covers and tributes say that. Miles is probably the only one as popular as he and of course he’s a major figure too, but I don’t hear as much from other jazz musicians about Miles as about Trane, Monk, or Duke.

Alice Coltrane however was not done. She may have become known due to her husband, but her influence on his was very real and she had her own vision of spiritual jazz that made her a legend too. Moreover, her reputation is presently on the rise, with more and more attention paid by current musicians, both inside and outside jazz, to her music. She kept working with Sanders and Garrison and made the harp her instrument more than the piano, making her the most important harpist in jazz history. Albums such as A Monastic Trio, Universal Consciousness, and World Galaxy are awesome. By this time, she was moving into a full orchestral arrangement type of thing, though very much still in the jazz tradition, but also one increasingly influenced by eastern spiritualism.

Fundamentally, Alice Coltrane was a hippie and a seeker and it’s not real surprising she ended up in an ashram in California in the 70s. She started the Vedantic Center in 1975 and changed her name Turiyasangitananda. Music was still central to her life and religion, now with chanting as her main medium. Some of this stuff is actually pretty interesting and I’d recommend Turiya Sings more or less if you want to go down this road. She gave up public performances around 1980 and didn’t do another one until 2005 in a tribute for her husband. By this time, now older and considered a living legend, she released a comeback album in 2004 that I haven’t heard.

Alice Coltrane died of respiratory failure in 2007. She was 69 years old.

John and Alice Coltrane are buried in Pinelawn Memorial Park, Farmingdale, New York. Total legends, I was so excited to pay my respects to them.

There is so much more to say about the Coltranes, but we can leave it to comments.

If you would like this series to visit other musicians who played with John and Alice Coltrane, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Jimmy Garrison is in Queens and Johnny Hartman is in Calverton, New York. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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