MUSING_: Alice Coltrane
Updated: Mar 29, 2020
Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda (August 27, 1937 – January 12, 2007), was an American jazz pianist, organist, harpist, composer, band leader, singer, spiritual leader and the second wife of jazz composer and saxophonist John Coltrane. In May of this year, a compilation of Alice's devotional music entitled World Spirituality Classics 1: The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda, was released by Luaka Bop (more on this album later). With a career spanning four decades, Alice Coltrane—who later adopted the Sanskrit name Turiyasangitananda, roughly meaning "the bliss of the transcendental Gods highest song"—was a innovative musician who defied categorization and was greatly overlooked in the world of jazz, especially in the shadow of John, who to this day occupies an enormous space in the pantheon of great jazz musicians.
"The world wasn't ready then and it's not ready now, unless you're talking about intergalactic top ten hits."
— Carlos Santana
Alice Coltrane and Carlos Santana collaborated on an experimental, instrumental jazz album, Illuminations released in 1974.
Born in 1937 to a strict Christian family, Alice's musical education was greatly informed by the (Black) church in Detroit, Michigan. Her younger sister Marilyn recounts in the BBC program "Alice Coltrane: Her Sound and Spirit" that the family of six children did not have a piano at home, however their neighbor did. Alice would come home, take piano lessons from their neighbor, do her homework, and while her siblings and friends were outside playing, Alice would sit at their dining table and pretend to play the piano, hearing the notes in her head. Deeply musical, she studied with piano legend Bud Powell in Paris, and in her early 20s began touring and recording with a variety of ensembles in Paris and the United States.
Alice and John met in the early 60s, when John was already a superstar and Alice, a bebop pianist performing with many bands. They were married in 1965 in Juárez, Mexico and the next year Alice joined John's group, replacing McCoy Tyner as pianist. During their courtship and throughout their short but profoundly loving marriage, John and Alice, who had both been raised in strict Christian households began seeking new forms of spirituality, drawing from Zen Buddhism to the Bhagavad Gita, and the Quran. Indeed John's most ambitious and critically acclaimed works A Love Supreme (1965) was born out of this quest for higher calling. Along with the many socio-political movements shaking the U.S. in the 60s, was a "religious upheaval and restructuring" (Pitchfork), one need only recall the iconic TIME cover story of April 8, 1966 entitled "Is God Dead?" As Hua Hsu in the New Yorker tells us about this period of endemic religious and spiritual questioning in the U.S.: "For black artists, especially, pursuing other systems of belief became a way of rethinking one’s relationship with America."
"The key to being an artist is giving abundantly."
— Alice Coltrane
A year after John died of liver cancer, Alice, at the age of 31 with 4 young children, released her first solo album A Monastic Trio (1968). This is the first time the world got to hear what Alice had been hearing in her mind all along; Alice pushes the boundaries of blues, jazz and what could be called "world music fusion." In A Monastic Trio we hear a sublime and subtle melding of blues forms, free-form jazz, and experimental instrumentation which evoke a delicate yet earnest spiritual urgency. Showing her dexterity as composer, harpist (self-taught), pianist and band leader, it is truly a work that was way ahead of her time. Alice's oeuvre was however not only underestimated, and largely overlooked, but also criticized for being derivative of John's work without his loudness and bombast. Franya J. Berkman writes: “Black female musicians have been quintessential others, overlooked because of … gender, race and class" [emphasis mine]. Deeply introspective, gentle, and delicate, critics didn't realize that Alice's music was gravitating towards transcendence. Despite this, Alice would go on to release 13 solo albums wherein the meditative frequency of Indian music (often devotional music forms), string orchestrations from the European classical music lineage, as well as a host of other sounds like the North African oud could be heard, all the while defying categorization, the limits of genre and delivering astonishing, other worldly music.
"Turiya and Ramakrishna"
Ptah, the El Daoud (1970), Alice Coltrane's 3rd solo album.
The Ecstatic Period
In 1983, Alice formed the Sai Anantam Ashram in the Santa Monica Mountains of Agoura, California, where—having left behind commercial music-making—she devoted herself to her spiritual practice. For 24 years, at 1 p.m every Sunday, 40-50 participants would crowd into the ashram's temple and engage in spiritual discussion. After the discourse, Alice would get on her Hammond organ and the singing of bhajans would begin. Bhajans are a Hindu devotional and communal music (call and response), whose lyrics intone the name of God. Between 1982 and 1995 Alice recorded these Sunday sessions and released them as cassette tapes for spiritual use. Long sought by collectors, David Byrne's Luka Bop imprint remastered and released World Spirituality Classics 1: The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda, the first-ever compilation of her recordings from this period. In these recordings we hear the influence of black gospel from her Detroit church upbringing, and the bhajans from her spiritual practice, creating a wholly new and unique sound. From her creaky organ, to the swelling chanting and the deluge of percussion and synthesizers, as well as Alice's own deep and compelling vocals, World Spirituality Classics 1: The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda, is certainly an important contribution to the realms of music and spirituality.
“Chanting is a devotional engagement, one that allows the chanter to soar to higher realms of spiritual consciousness”
— Alice Coltrane
(Insert for "Divine Songs" cassette, 1990).
Ten years after her passing, this album allows us to first and foremost celebrate the life of an incredible musician whose contribution to the world (and music) is greater than we could ever imagine. This album also allows us to experience the "higher realms of spiritual consciousness" that is often lacking in the everyday. Deeply informed by Hinduism, but ultimately universalist, Alice's ethos was the idea that to find god you need to go within yourself. In Christianity, there is the idea of being Christ-like, but in that configuration, there remains a separation between god and human (and a hierarchical one in fact). This ethos is evident in Alice's work which transcends time, space, and culture; she, like her music is distinctive, complex, and spirituality deep. Berkman writes that "Black female musicians rarely transcend difference and obtain the status of artist.” However, by revisiting her discography, and through World Spirituality Classics 1: The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda,” Alice has certainly and rightfully obtained the status of artist. If according to her, the artist's purpose is to give, even in the afterlife Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda gives, and gives abundantly.
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