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A love Supreme
Words for John Coltrane on his birthday
Happy Autumn Equinox. It enters with a torrent of tears. Watching the rain fall, listening to Coltrane, thankful for the trembling leaves…..
To speak of John Coltrane is to speak of the admission and ascent of the creative soul. God is everywhere, yet there are times when we feel an amplified sense of closeness, often within nature, or an infant’s smile, inspirational works of art and most fluidly within music. Musicians have long sought to give form to the formless, unconstrained yet palatable, inspirational and divine. I imagine the stained lace of Mozart’s cuffs as he penned his Requiem, Beethoven striding through forests transmuting the calls of songbirds as the fifth symphony, and John Coltrane, yielding to an interior need, connecting with the mouthpiece of his saxophone to express a unified force of love.
For the young in the early sixties, the possibility to connect with the Creator outside of an intransigent system was acutely sought, a pursuit that led to Coltrane, embraced as a spiritual leader, a role that in his humility he would never seek.
At sixteen I was introduced to his work at informal jazz gatherings in the basement of a classmate. On Saturday afternoons we would listen to the records we possessed amongst us. It was mostly boys, but in displaying a deep interest a few girls gained entrance as well. The older fellows, some aspiring musicians, would occasionally bring us something new, put on a side and talk about aspects of what we were hearing. Nina Simone both politically and emotionally. Roland Kirk and the sounds of freedom. But listening to John Coltrane drew from us a mystical silence, as we followed where he would go, returning transformed. It was music that demanded much, gave much. Giant Steps. My Favorite Things. Live at the Village Vanguard, Impressions, the venerated reverberations of 1963.
Those formative years, which included an ill-fated excursion to the Showboat on Lombard Street in Philadelphia, were among my happiest teenage memories. When the Quartet played the Showboat that summer, the oldest among us bought tickets. We all dressed up, but we younger ones were unconvincing versions of twenty-one. I have a vague memory of descending half lit-stairs, strains of McCoy Tyner, a glimpse of Coltrane and several minutes of Impressions,before being escorted back into the night. I was not disappointed but ecstatic, for those precious moments were the closest I ever came to seeing Coltrane live.
Only four summers later, wandering New York City, I found myself passing St Peter’s Lutheran Church. It was late morning in July, quite hot and a crowd had gathered across the street. I was a twenty-year-old girl looking for a job and had inadvertently slipped into an organism of grief, another realm, sacredly sad. Within the church, a service was being held for John Coltrane, who had died a few days before. Somewhere in the heated mist hovered the howls of Albert Ayler and the clarion call of his brother Donald’s trumpet and Ornette Coleman, saluting him with joyous cacophony.
Walking downtown, fifty-three years ago to this day, I remember being stunned by the brevity of my own exposure to him. He was here then gone, lost in the summer of love. Less than five years had passed since I was initiated to his ever-evolving body of work, a progression giving rise to the listeners own. Graduating from that South Jersey basement, I upheld my devotional education, an awkward acolyte with a small pile of albums, continually spinning the five parts of Meditations, the threshold of a celestial portal.
When I wed Fred Sonic Smith in 1980, we merged our record collection. Between us we had every available work by Coltrane. Fred had few heroes but revered him like no other, privately mourning his too early passing. Fred had an old thirty-foot wooden Chris-Craft with a broken axle. We didn’t have the resources to make it seaworthy, so it sat in our yard outside Detroit, to the amusement of our neighbors. But Fred and I mystically traveled in that stationary boat, during heavy rains with a few beers and a thermos of coffee, sit inside and play our Coltrane records. We listened to Live at Birdland, Ole, Meditations, against a backdrop of pounding rain; all the elements melding as we soared and sailed in grateful silence. Through the years those many hours absorbing the work of the great master was as close to tracing a spiritual path as we required.
Like Coltrane, my husband died young. Now, listening to our favorite pieces, I remember the uplifting conversations they inspired. We spoke of breaking through levels of consciousness, traveling to uncharted places, the benevolence of safe return, improvisation as prayer. Sitting under the stars, we contemplated his closing passage, a supreme synthesis of the infinitesimal and the immeasurable, a musical phrase propelled by the breath of God.
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