A guru of free jazz and the musical avant-garde: John Coltrane pioneered an approach that fused the spiritually divine with the universally mathematical.
Born in 1926 in North Carolina, John Coltrane was raised in a Christian home by his mother. Picking up his first saxophone in 1943 at 17 years old, he would go on to release 45 studio albums and 10 live albums during the two decades in which he was active before his untimely death in 1967.
In 46, while enlisted in the navy Coltrane would spend much of his time playing with the Melody Masters, a swing band made up of white soldiers stationed in Hawaii. Jazz standards, bebop tunes and hard bop idioms would provide a foundation for his early musical journey. After being discharged from the navy, August '46, Coltrane returned to Philadelphia, ready to be "plunged into the heady excitement of the new music and blossoming bebop scene..."
Coltrane found this to be a time when "a wider area of listening opened up for me. There were many things that people, Hawk [Coleman Hawkins], and Ben [Webster] and Tab Smith were doing in the 40s that I didn't understand, but that I felt emotionally". During the rest of the decade and into next, he would hone his craft and perform with: (amongst many others) Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Duke Elllington.
By the mid 50's Coltrane would be working with Miles Davis, though issues with heroin addiction would quickly cause this group to disband and by ‘57, he was playing alongside Thelonious Monk at the Five Spot Cafe (NYC). Shortly after, he would release Blue Train (1958) featuring an early use of his chord substitution cycles that became known as Coltrane changes...
In 58’ he would rejoin Miles Davis, featuring on the revered album Kind of Blue. Here, Coltrane perfected a style of playing that was compressed - with rapid runs cascading through hundreds of notes per minute.
Critic Ira Gitler would coin the term ‘sheets of sound’ to describe this style of musical composition. The live performance below captures Coltrane as he was touring with Miles Davis' group. With Davis missing, Coltrane steps up and fills the stage, unashamedly ascending to greatness.
The early 60's would see Coltrane explore the Islamic faith, in part due to his marriage to Naima Coltrane who was a Muslim. Coltrane’s own favourite composition of his own is entitled Naima, a love ballad to his first wife and muse. Although they would split in 63', they remained in close contact for the rest of his life, important spiritual influences upon one another. He would also spend time immersing himself in African rhythms with Nigerian percussionist and social activist Michael Babatunde Olatunji.
The final years of Coltrane's career were some of his most spiritually creative, the musical focus in particular shifting toward something divine. In the liner notes of A Love Supreme (1965), Coltrane states that in '57 he 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."
An openness to different religious, mystic and philosophical traditions resonated with Coltrane. He himself studied Christianity, Islam and Hinduism extensively, along with concepts of cosmic astrology, philosophical ideas from Plato, Aristotle and Zen Buddhism teachings and his own African-American heritage, which together form something of the spiritual structure that produced so many subtle and innovative nuances within his music.
The understanding of God presented in A Love Supreme appears to be wholly universalist, taking into account the variety of religious experiences Coltrane had found through musical existence. There is no advocation of a specific religion, rather he declares in the liner notes of Meditations, 1965: ‘I believe in all religions.’ God here for Coltrane was the universal energy of a love supreme. The divine energy that underpins existence, not at all a man in the sky, and often to be found within music - the subjective empathy it allows us a vicarious access to.
'[God's] WAY IS IN LOVE, THROUGH WHICH WE ALL ARE. IT IS TRULY – A LOVE SUPREME ' – (Liner notes, Meditations - 1965)
His collection of books at this time included The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, the Bhagavad Gita, and Autobiography of a Yogi, showcasing an increasingly invested exploration of Hindu mysticism and religious prayer.
Meeting one of the great musicians, Ravi Shankar, drew him toward the music and the spiritual dimension of that culture too.
In October 1965 Coltrane recorded Om, referring to the sacred syllable in Hinduism which symbolizes the infinite sound of creation, or the essence of ultimate reality. Coltrane described Om as the ‘first syllable, the primal word, the word of power...' With vocals expressing a mixture of mantras, the recording is chaotic and experimental - opening with:
'Rites that the Vedas ordain, and the rituals taught by the scriptures
All these am I, and the offering made to the ghosts of the fathers
Herbs of healing and food, the mantram, the clarified butter:
I the oblation and I the flame into which it is offered
I am the sire of the world, and this world's mother and grandsire I am He who awards to each the fruit of his action:
I make all things clean
I am OM...'
- Coltrane, Om (1965)
In ‘66, a year before his untimely death, Coltrane would be performing with a new lineup, including his second wife Alice Coltrane on keys - also a major pioneer of the spiritual jazz movement. On stage with them would be avant-garde jazz legends, Pharoah Sanders (saxophone) and Rashied Ali (drums).
Coltrane would die in 1967, though not before giving an unusual drawing to friend and fellow saxophonist Yusef Lateef, who would publish it in his seminal text Repository of Scales and Melodic Patterns. This diagram was a rare visual representation of Coltrane's theoretical work, he preferred to express his spiritual vision through sound however this drawing in particular offers a glimpse at the powerful link Coltrane felt there was between music and mathematics.
It is known as the 'Coltrane Circle / Coltrane's Circle of Tones' and is based upon the circle of fifths. From the perspective of music theory it is a geometric representation of the relationships between the 12 semitones of the chromatic scale, their notations (flat or sharp), and their relative shades. The outer ring portrays the hexatonic or whole-tone scale of the note Do. The inner ring representing the hexatonic scale of Si. The graphic is an enigma, visually and intuitively explaining some of the relationship between music and mathematics.
Contemporary physicist and saxophonist Stephon Alexander suggests that Coltrane had rather a lot in common with Einstein, jazz composer David Amran also recalls Coltrane having said himself, he 'was trying to do something like that [Einstein] in music.'
John Coltrane’s belief in a universal musical structure that transcended ethnic distinctions and in being able to harness the mystical language of music itself - led him to search for cosmic harmonies that were holistically reflective of the extreme subjectivity and fluidity of human existence.
The study of Indian music in particular led him to believe that certain sounds could produce specific emotional meanings. Coltrane built on this, venturing that the goal of the musician was to understand these forces, control them and make an audience respond to them truthfully, an ethos he lived and breathed. His theoretical and musical legacy has influenced the likes of Frank Zappa, Jimi Hendrix and of course: Alice Coltrane.