For the Heart and Humanity – John Coltrane

By Serafina Harris.

I need thy sense of the Future
Teach me to know that life is ever
On the side of the future.
Keep alive in me the forward look, the high hope,
The onward surge. Let me not be frozen
Either by the past or the present.
Grant me, O patient Father, Thy sense of the future
Without which all life would sicken and die.

Howard Thurman, O God I Need Thee, 1951

Civilization develops when there is courage enough to evolve life, that “We must make an effort to try and make our lives, any situation, better” as John Coltrane said in a 1958 interview. Coltrane would be one of those black folk who were thrust from North Carolina up north, following industry, seeking freedom from poverty, and the music.

John Williams Coltrane’s grandfather was a straightforward Methodist Episcopal Zion minister. His daughter Alice played piano in church and wished to sing in the city. While at Livingston College, Alice met, and married the Reverend John Coltrane from Sanford North Carolina where both would move to Hamlet Street in High Point, NC. John William Coltrane was born in 1926.

Alongside his cousin Mary, who would be more like a sister than a cousin, the children of the Coltrane family enjoyed roller skating in the driveway of the Reverend Blair’s house. This house was filled by eight proud family members. High Point had about 6,000 blacks and 24,000 whites. Its land was made up of red clay-like soil that stuck to your shoes after a rainstorm. This family, and the black community at large, would be a small religious group that strove to send their children to college. Both Alice and John were quiet and friendly people who didn’t socialize much, and lived a life filled with work and prayer. Their family time consisted of long car rides through the country or to the local Fair, followed with John Sr. sitting at the side of his bed to play the violin and sing to his children. The only thing they lacked was snobbishness.  

With “tisk a tasket.. She took my yellow basket” hummed by most children, John and his friend Frank, would enjoy sports with boyish strength. Not being too competitive, John was also attracted to logic games. John’s strong mental capacity would show when he did well in school. With an unoffending personality and neat appearance, John was well-liked by his teachers. John was also interested in trying to understand God, about whom he asked perceptive questions of his teachers and mentors. He also worked on constructing model airplanes, which took concentration for long hours —  instead of putting the same effort into learning how to dance for social etiquette. This concentration would prove valuable when his teacher Mr.Steele would form a community band just for boys. Here is where Coltrane first learned chords from the clarinet. He practiced all day and night, annoying the neighbors and resulting in John having to finger the instrument to practice and not make any sound at all. Coltrane’s life turned to music for the endless discovery of beauty. 

As a teenager, Coltrane would lose his grandfather and grandmother Reverend Blair, Mrs. Blair, and soon his aunt’s husband. Through this experience the family drew closer with love at its core. At 13, Coltrane had never gotten into a fight, and was a part of his school’s band. He would greet everyone he would meet with warmth and kindness inspiring others to do the same for him. They knew how he could play, and the music would be a pleasant contribution to the community, the church, and the high school band. He was surrounded by the blues of Harry James, Charlie Barnet or the Dorse Brothers, the jazz of Duke Ellington, and the gospel from groups like “Golden Gates” who didn’t need instruments. Coltrane kept his eyes glued to the Downbeat magazine, keeping him up to date with engagements and musicians. Coltrane also wanted a tenor saxophone, inspired by Lester Young. Young’s personality would come out of his horn, and he could break out with exciting phrases sounding like the human voice and carrying its emotion. 

Coltrane was sent to live in Philadelphia on June 11th, 1943 with his cousin Mary and with his usual bunch of raisins in his pockets. He would learn saxophone in Philadelphia at the Ornstein School of music, then the Granoff studios. He became known for his brilliance, receptiveness, promptness and sensitivity. Coltrane became a “tenant” of the school, being at the institution between 10-12 hours a day. After graduation, he would take post-graduate courses over a period of eight years. After the eight years were over, the instructors agreed that they had nothing else to offer Coltrane.

But there was always more to learn, and for Coltrane, he would take from his early inspirations of Lester Young and Count Basie, by way of Jimmy Oliver and Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins and Coleman Hawkins. At 18, John had stopped wearing underwear and socks, disliking anything restricting, and rarely went out to sports engagements. Coltrane would say that he thrived on people and his Aunt would prove, through the many dishes she would make to feed him, how much Coltrane loved to eat. After returning from the Navy where he played on the seas, he began playing swing and Charlie Parker. Coltrane continued seeking out the truth in life through religious and moral teachings amongst other musicians like Art Blakey, Talib Daoud and his wife Aliyah Rabia, Yusef Lateef, Ahmad Jamal, Sahib Shihab. These musicians would be a part of rising awareness for the Ahmadiyya movement which traced its roots from Pakistan to Philadelphia, where Islam was a positive force for black people to know themselves. Coltrane’s close relationships to people in the Black Freedom Movement would lead to him later synthesizing the values of the Black Freedom Movement with liberation struggles throughout Africa and Asia in his music.

Back and forth between New York and Philadelphia, Coltrane grew acquainted with the “Philly Sound”. These musicians include Bill Baron, Jimmy Oliver, Clifford Brown, Red Garland, Richie Powell, James Golden, and Jymie Merritt. A young musician’s raw talent had to be matched to the highest standard in clubs where they played alongside the greats, and where people went with the intent to listen to the music. These clubs stretched along Colombia Avenue, and included Spider Kelly’s Zanzibar, the Web, Downbeat, Cafe Society, and the Crystal Bar. Around 52nd Street and Market there were clubs such as the Red Rooster or 421. 

In the early 1950s, Coltrane fell into a depression because of criticisms he heard from audiences.  He spent hours of intense study in the library with Calvin Massey of Bartok or Stravinsky’s double diminished scale, worked with Jimmy Heath, and practiced for hours so that he could play with sincerity. But there were nights when audience members snarled that Coltrane was “way out”. This time was one of inner turmoil because Coltrane “was playing cliches and trying to learn turns that were hip” so he could fit in. Coltrane thus continued to “just take gigs… Not having to play anything” of substance and in fact, the “less you played [of value], the better it was”.

A Love Supreme 

Both Dizzy Gillespie and Bird pushed John Coltrane to question the structure of music and experiment more. Coltrane strove through his 3-on-1 chordal mode and “scribbling”  fast notations. Throughout his days and into his sleepless nights, he would meet George Russell with Ornette Coleman in 1959.  Music then would break away from western formal convention and time because “The jazz musician, to some degree, has had to learn traditional music theory only to break many of its rules in practice”.

What also led to this break of convention and time was the development of Coltrane’s synthesis of ideas. For instance, Coltrane played with a conga player Bill Carney around 1954. Similarly,  Coltrane advised 16- year old saxophonist Odean Pope that his playing should duplicate the human voice as masters of African music would do.

 The year 1955 was marked by the death of Charlie Parker, and drummer Philly Joe Jones recommended John Coltrane to work with the new Miles Davis quintet. The quintet was on its way to being the most influential group of its time. John Coltrane also had, while working with this band, opportunities to develop his ideas without any constraint, because Davis would rather the musician explore. There was also a time where he shared a “battle of the tenors” with Sonny Rollins and more of Coltrane’s original compositions appeared on recordings. 

Coltrane soon realized that he could only play so much of another’s voice, and began to evolve from the influence of Bird. Yet even as he was developing his own style, Coltrane battled with alcoholism and drug abuse. McCoy Tyner noted that although there was a high expressive tone and profound manner of the way he approached the chords, the music would be caged in Coltrane’s habits.  

After relapsing back into his drug habit in 1956, Coltrane had a moment of break where he resolved to quit music entirely and get a job at the Post Office. Fellow jazz musician Reggie Workman advised Coltrane that his music would be clear only if his body was. Coltrane stopped drinking, and through his withdrawal, he couldn’t make it through one set. For 3 days Coltrane was drowning in troubled thoughts and jumbled words. Coltrane’s mother suggested that Coltrane sweat it out. By maintaining a daily routine, Coltrane found strength through prayer and tears. Friends would come and talk about music, but it took two weeks before he “got it licked!”, and Coltrane didn’t desire for alcohol or drugs anymore.

Coltrane then became a vessel. He was able to be clear in mind and body, so much so that his thoughts and actions were redirected to the highest goal of progressing the music. Coltrane soon dreamed of a beautiful drone sound that he continued searching through the next decade. He searched for this sound by way of the harp, the piano, and guitar — and closer he got to it, on the theoretical basis of rhythm. The rhythms were soon to become chants, found in his 1961 Africa album deeply influenced by the African Liberation struggles of the 50s and 60s.  

Coltrane heard the faint call of Africa through the blues which was founded upon the mixture of the rhythms of Africa and folk traditions amongst the world. The influence of the gospels, blues, and religion were so deep as to be synonymous. McCoy Tyner stated that Coltrane’s classic quintet played from the African harmonic scale in their later years.

Yet, after he broke from the habits sapping his soul, Coltrane decided that he didn’t “want to play the way I had been playing anymore. I wanted to unlimit myself in some way. I had been playing straight along the chord — I wanted to play on the outside of the chord”– inspired by some musician back in 1957, the same year he worked with Theolonius Monk. Coltrane’s daily routine now consisted of getting up early for breakfast of fruit and vegetable juices, exercise, thinking, and practicing his horn. By the time he finished his practice, he had to go to work at a club. It was even there, during intermission, that he would go in the backroom and practice, or sit with a worried look on his face in thought. Coltrane’s studies included Eastern religion, Islam, alongside physics, history, biology. Appearing in the album cover of the Love Supreme, Coltrane would attest that music is linked to the search for knowledge and God, where “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 was humbled to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music”.

Coltrane heard the sounds of Donald Garret’s East Indian water drum, and became inspired to relay the world in his music. He would interact with drummers Michael Olatunji and Chief Bey and developed a Middle Eastern sound that synthesised Spanish, Gypsy, Russian and English folk music. Coltrane wished that his music could bring joy to people of the world, and he would state that “… music is to me – it’s just another way of saying this big, beautiful universe we live in, thats been given to use, and here’s another example of just how magnificent and encompassing it is.” 

Coltrane absorbed the truth of the world that he saw, and opened up his heart to all who would come in. He lived for no other purpose than to advance music and reach the hearts and souls of people with the intent of transforming the ethic of the Western Hemisphere. Coltrane thus belonged to the world, learning from India, China, Egypt, Persia, Namibia, and the peoples of Arabia. Coltrane grappled with India alongside Alice Coltrane and Eric Dolphy. He loved Ravi Shankar, and restated India’s influence on him in a 1962 Live at the Village Vanguard interview, “In India…particular sounds and scales are intended to produce specific emotional meanings…I like Ravi Shankar very much. When I hear his music, I want to copy it – not note-for-note of course, but in his spirit…”. The Five-part Meditations of The Father, And the Son, And the Holy Ghost; Compassion; Love; Consequences, and Serenity were a part of this seemingly infinite pursuit of the truth. When Nat Hentoff asked whether Meditations was a continuation of  a Love Supreme, Coltrane responded: 

Once you become aware of this force for unity in life. You can’t ever forget it. It becomes part of everything you do. In that respect, Meditations is an extension of A Love Supreme since my conception of that force keeps changing shape. My goal in meditating on this through music however remains the same… And that is to uplift people, as much as I can. To inspire them to realize more and more of their capacities for living meaningful lives… Because there is certainly meaning to life.” 

Selflessness (Featuring My Favorite things)

By the 1960s, the freedom movement was at its height, spreading from the South to the entire nation, and striking at poverty and apartheid. Coltrane too strove for human betterment. Practicing day in and day out, Jimmy Garrison would soon restate Naima’s sentiment that Coltrane was 90% saxophone. He would practice off of stage in between sets and practice himself to sleep. In an interview entitled “John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy answer the Jazz critics” Coltrane answered the question “What are they doing?”. From deep thought, Coltrane responded:

 “It’s more than beauty that I feel in music — That I think musicians feel in music. What we know we feel we’d like to convey to the listener. We hope that this can be shared by all. I think, basically, that’s about what we are trying to do. If you ask me that question, I might say this today and tomorrow say something different, because there are many things to do in music. But overall, I think the main thing a musician would like to do is to give a picture to the listener of the many wonderful things he knows of and senses in the universe. That’s what music is to me — it’s just another way of saying this is a big beautiful universe we live in, that’s been given to us, and here’s an example of just how magnificent and encompassing it is. I think that’s one of the greatest things you can do in life, and we all try to do it in some way.”

The inspiration Coltrane received is due to the world he belonged to. A great deal of who he became was the result of conversations with Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor and Albert Ayler, Theolonus Monk and prior work with Duke Ellington himself. The people he was around convinced him that humanity can evolve beyond its current stage. For instance, musically and emotionally, McCoy Tyner grounded Coltrane and Elvin Jones would bring physical power and strength.

Coltrane learned from his experiences working with his band and travelling the world that human beings need each other. These needs are met by deep and honest moral commitment created out of the great well of human connection. Coltrane reached out his heart to the world, and after the band left Japan, they played in Philadelphia at the Church of the Advocate in 1966 to benefit community groups. Downbeat Magazine reported on this concert, and how after playing Afro Blue, Coltrane put down his horn and walked to the mike, shocking the audience as he moved to speak. He “commented on the many fine musicians who came from Philadelphia, and that Philadelphia’s music was represented all over the world. In his world travels, he said, this music was favorably received. Then he went on to say that was, in gist, that it was time for Black people to get themselves together and unite”.

Through the effort to be a force for a positive good, Coltrane saw God and advanced spiritually, and reflected in his music was a message of the capacity to evolve. It was because of this that Coltrane’s mother became afraid that Coltrane would soon die. Coltrane urged the world that time must continue instead of wait. His next wife Alice Coltrane would say that “Manifestation is God manifesting as strength and force throughout the Universe: cosmic energy – atmonic the primary substances composing matter and spirit”. This energy guided his music pieces Reverend King, Lord Help Me To Be and The Sun. Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp, Freddie Hubbard, Marion Brown, John Tchai, Dewey Johnson, Art Davis, joined the journey towards this freedom. Coltrane endeavored to show the world a higher notion of mankind; he made music for a beloved community to reign supreme. 

It read on the album cover of a Love Supreme : 

“No Matter what, it is with God. He is gracious and merciful . His way is through love, in which we all are. It is truly a love supreme. This album is a humble offering to Him, as an attempt to say “THANK YOU GOD ” through our work, even as we do in our hearts and with our tongues. May he help and strengthen all men in every good endeavor.. Our appreciation and thanks to all people of good will and good works the world over, for in the bank of life is not good that investment which surely pays the highest and most cherished dividendes? 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.” 

John Williams Coltrane is still one with the rhythms of the human heart because this man loved.

In memory of those who recently passed : McCoy Tyner, Henry Grimes, Bootsie Barnes, Giuseppi Logan, Bill Withers, Philly Joe Jones, Muhaul Abrams, Joseph Jarman, Malachai Favors, Jimmy Cobb

Further readings

  • Coltrane A Biography, CO Simpkins
  • John Coltrane and Black America’s Quest for Freedom, Edited by Leonard L Brown
  • Strength to Love, Martin Luther King


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