During my senior year at Penn, I stumbled across a listing for a memorial concert sponsored by some members of the Coltrane family operating out of the West Philadelphia row house that had belonged to the legendary saxophonist.
As an eager Jazz enthusiast intent on connecting with the legacy of a fellow North Carolina homie (Coltrane had grown up in High Point before settling in Philly at the start of his career as a sideman), I trekked to the house and immediately suspected a scam. Rather than the lovingly restored, museum-quality treatment I expected, the abode seemed barely habitable. The distant cousin who led me on a brief "tour" seemed folksy and certainly knowledgeable about Coltrane, but my fairly naive bullshit detector was registering a low-level warning.
I purchased tickets for two and a week later found the club hosting the event. Philly, at that point, was witnessing the dawn of another wave of Jazz appreciation. Downtown clubs were emerging with the requisite cool vibe factor, but this place was, in deeper West Philly, removed beyond the attention to the cool cognizant. I don't remember the names of any of the players, but the music offered a supreme tribute. Before I left the city, I had the great opportunity to catch bigger names like Joshua Redman, Leon Parker, Chic Corea and Bobby McFerrin, but the names had no more love than I felt that night.
Coltrane looms large over the Jazz canon as much for his religious devotion to music as for the music itself. Like so many of the players during his era, he struggled mightily against addiction and quite possibly it was music that saved him. Coltrane captured the attention of the Jazz world (and to some degree, a larger listening audience that didn't quite comprehend what on earth he was doing) with his transformation of "My Favorite Things" and then his signature album A Love Supreme.
These factoids are more important now, not simply because this year marks the 40th anniversary of his death, but because of the passing of his wife Alice on Jan. 12. The quiet response to her death belies the deep grace notes she played during their life together and in the years she survived him.
Alice Coltrane was an accomplished musician. Prior to meeting John, she had studied Classical music and was a bebop piano player with Yusef Lateef and Kenny Burrell. When she met and married Coltrane in 1965, he tapped her to replace celebrated pianist McCoy Tyner in his group. After his death, Alice continued pursuing music, but she also began to link the spiritual exploration found in John's work to what became a lifelong journey of her own.
In 1975 she founded the Eastern Spiritual Study Center, while fronting her own group on a series of albums. But for most of the two decades she had occupied a space out of the musical spotlight except for appearances at tributes to her husband, sometimes in conjunction with their sons Ravi and Oran.
In my mind, Alice Coltrane holds an exalted seat next to Betty Shabazz, Coretta Scott King and Yoko Ono. I can hear the questions regarding my inclusion of Ono in this mix, but Alice's kinship with Ono might be even more relevant. While each of these women raised children and came to symbolize the dreams and aspirations of their husbands, Coltrane, to a greater extent than Ono even, fostered an independent identity beyond the men in their lives. Coltrane's passion for spiritual understanding and connectedness seeks to embrace not just love but all of life. Her quiet example stands in contrast to the changing times when celebrities seek out the Dalai Lama. To live not in the shadow of greatness but in the peaceful shade is hard for us to fathom.
I have only one recording of Alice Coltrane, an interpretation of "A Love Supreme" from 1971 with Strings World Galaxy included on a bonus disc from Stolen Moments: Red Hot & Cool. Her arrangement wanders into a world fusion, early electronic vibe with cascades of shimmering strings. But the narrative discourse on love by Swami Satchidananda, which replaces the original chant, speaks to the spiritual intention more than any faithful rendition, such as the 18-minute version by Branford Marsalis that opens the bonus disc.
The sentiment is perfectly attuned to the message of the Red Hot & Cool series of albums dedicated to raising awareness and funds for AIDS research. In television interview clips transcribed in the liner notes for the project, author and professor Cornel West preached that "the spirit of Jazz can help teach us the self-awareness and social consciousness that we need to survive in a world where random violence, drug abuse, economic apartheid and AIDS have become a part of everyday life."
He went on to say, "We must wake up and reform ourselves into kind, compassionate and caring people before it's too late."
Alice Coltrane remained awake and alive to the spirit of Jazz beyond musical expression. She was a spiritual leader the world hasn't even begun to recognize that it needed. Her example of a life supreme plays on endlessly.
CONTACT TT STERN-ENZI: letters(at)citybeat.com. His column appears here in the third issue of each month.