Today I am thinkin' about Trane - John Coltrane - mostly because I'm reading a book by Ashley Kahn entitled, A Love Supreme: the story of John Coltrane's Signature Album. But also because Trane is a man who met his demons and emptiness and found a way to weave them back into his art and life so that everyone became stronger. We all know this isn't the way it usually works with artists. For too many creative souls the darkness overpowers the light until it is literally and figuratively snuffed out.
Not that there isn't wisdom and blessings from the darkness - clearly there is great insight and compassion that can be born in our individual and collective seasons of obscurity - but only if we are able to come up for air. Otherwise the light goes out forever... Think of Jesus weeping in the garden and then pleading from the Cross, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" Think of Thomas Keating - of Centering Prayer fame - observing that in the dark night there can be a blessing in disguise as the individual is stripped of any of the spiritual joy associated with prayer or acts of service. Without "consolation" we find a way to live into virtue without the traditional rewards and encouragements. Think of Mother Theresa who after receiving her call to minister to the poorest of the poor in India, never again felt the intimate reassurance of God's presence yet persevered beyond her feelings. Both Thomas More and Gerald May have written insightful explorations of what the dark night might offer for those who are patient and faithful.
I rather like Loreena McKennit's reworked poetry from the writings of St. John of the Cross; she gave birth to a song that captures the potential of the dark night:
O, night thou was my guide!
O, night more loving than the rising sun!
O, night that joined the Lover to the beloved one!
Transforming each of them into the other.
Coltrane learned the songs of the Christian South growing up in a home where both mother and father were pastors' kids; he went to church often, too, and listened to his father make music in their home. By the mid 1940s, Trane was listening to both the hard bop of Dizzy Gillespie's music as well as the smoother sounds of Johnny Hodges in Duke Ellington's band. And then he heard Charlie "Bird" Parker and everything changed.
In time he worked with both Miles Davis and Thelonius Monk - two VERY different jazz cats - who taught him very different lessons. With Miles, Coltrane played in one of the most important jazz quintets and gave shape and form to his wild side that was always in tension with the cool Miles Davis. Kahn puts it like this:
The Miles Davis Quintet was unlike anything Coltrane had experienced. It was neither a jazz outfit offering standard repertoire not an R&B revue with stock arrangements, it was more a traveling workshop, perfecting and developing a group sound. Miles used to say, "Trane, here are some chords but don't play them like they are all the time, you know? Start in the middle sometimes and don't forget you can play them up in thirds. So that means you got 18, 19 different things to play in two bars." And Coltrane would sit there, eyes wide open and soak everything up. (Kahn. pp. 20-21)
But junk took over while playing with Miles - and Davis fired Coltrane because he got tired "of all that junkie shit!" This was not only a fall from grace, but also of employment and social status. As Trane writes in the liner notes to "A Love Supreme," he made a deal with the divine: "junk for jazz."
During 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 humble asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music.
It was the "meet the Devil and the Crossroads" deal in reverse. "I recovered faith," he said. "I had already lost and regained faith... and as I went through this personal crisis - and went cold turkey - I came out of it and all I wanted to do if I could would be to play music that make people happy.
And as Coltrane worked to reclaim his art, in time he hooked up with Monk,. "Monk's hands-on guidance was a far cry from Miles's tight-lipped tutelage. Whereas the trumpeter had been one to feel his way into music in an almost anti-intellectual manner, to hit it and quit it, Coltrane found in Monk 'a musical architect of the highest order,' a fellow theoretician who shared his compulsive, analytical approach. 'Monk is exactly the opposite of Miles... (Monk) talks about music all the time... he'll spend hours if necessary to explain it to you... and showed me how to make two or three notes at one time on the tenor sax... because he just looked at my horn and felt the mechanics of what had to be done. (Kahn, p. 29)
Sure, with Miles the sax man played on some of the most important jazz recordings of all time - Kind of Blue and Milestones - but with Monk he met a soul mate who knew how to help the newly clean player live into his best self. That's a key ingredient for helping someone let go of the darkness when the light has arrived. Call is spiritual friendship, timing, mentoring or God's will, sometimes the right person comes into your life just when you need him/her. And if you have the courage to respond, blessings can grow.
Clearly with Trane, he had to hit bottom before he could rise again - but he also had to tap into a love deeper than himself and be encouraged by others, too. And when that happened, he was able to weave his wounds into the very fabric of his new music in a way that brought happiness and hope to others. His soaring solos are a celebration of freedom. His ability to redefine a standard in new ways changed jazz. And his influence was contagious for people searching for freedom within and beyond themselves.
+ Patti Smith knew that Trane is what the true civil rights movement sounded like.
+ Roger McQuinn ached to make his 12-string Rickenbacker sound like Trane's trumpet.
And countless other musicians and artists find themselves going back to "A Love Supreme" for insights about how to blend spirituality and music in a way that isn't force or phony. Coltrane's fusion is organic and holds great promise for us still mining this vein even 46 years later.
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