John Coltrane (September 23, 1926 – July 17, 1967) was moved to affirm and reaffirm his faith in God through music. The picture below is of this handwritten notes for A Love Supreme, the stellar studio album the saxophonist and bandleader recorded with pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones on December 9, 1964, at Van Gelder Studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. Released in 1965, the work is divided into four movements, in the classical symphonic style, with sections named Acknowledgement, Resolution, Pursuance and Psalm.
Psalm is the sound of Coltrane’s poem addressing God, a “musical recitation of prayer by horn” – “an attempt to reach transcendent level with orchestra rising harmonies to a level of blissful stability at the end.”
“No road is an easy one,” writes Coltrane in the album notes, “but they all go back to God.” The words “All paths lead to God” appear on these outline notes.
In the spring of 1957, his dependence on heroin and alcohol lost him one of the best jobs in jazz. He was playing sax and touring with Miles Davis’ popular group when he became unreliable and strung out. Alternately catatonic and brilliant, Coltrane’s behavior and playing became increasingly erratic. Davis fired him after a live show that April.
Soon after, Coltrane resolved to clean up his act. He would later write, in the 1964 liner notes to A Love Supreme, “In the year of 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening, which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life.”
But Coltrane didn’t always stay the clean course. As he also wrote in the album’s notes, “As time and events moved on, I entered into a phase which is contradictory to the pledge and away from the esteemed path. But thankfully now, through the merciful hand of God, I do perceive and have been fully reinformed of his omnipotence. It is truly a love supreme.”
Davis would re-hire Coltrane, working together on a 22-city European tour in the spring of 1960. He recalled his part in creating A Love Supreme in Miles: The Autobiography:
Trane didn’t want to make the European trip and was ready to move out before we left. One night I got a telephone call from this new tenor on the scene named Wayne Shorter, telling me that Trane told him that I needed a tenor saxophonist and that Trane was recommending him. I was shocked. I started to hang up and then I said, “If I need a saxophone player I’ll get one!” And then I hung up. BLAM! So when I saw Trane I told him, “Don’t be telling nobody to call me like that, and if you want to quit then just quit, but why don’t you do it after we get back from Europe?”
If he had quit right then he would have really hung me up because nobody else knew the songs, and this tour was real important. He decided to go with us, but he grumbled and complained and sat by himself all the time we were over there. He gave me notice that he would be leaving the group when we got home. But before he quit, I gave him [a] soprano saxophone…and he started playing it. I could already hear the effect it would have on his tenor saxophone playing, how it would revolutionize it. I always joked with him that if he had stayed home and not come with us on this trip, he wouldn’t have gotten that soprano saxophone, so he was in debt to me for as long as he lived. Man, he used to laugh until he cried about that, and then I would say, ‘Trane, I’m serious.’ And he’d hug me real hard and just keep saying, “Miles, you’re right about that.” But this was later, when he had his own group and they was killing everybody with their shit.
Davis told the NME in 1985:
“Coltrane could do it. He started with a style imitating Eddie Lockjaw Davis. But he was something else. People don’t know it but it took him a long time. I was going with a girl who was an antique dealer in France. She gave this soprano sax to me and I gave it to Coltrane. I gave that thing to Trane, man, and it’s probably still in his hand. He probably died with it in his mouth! He never did take that thing out of his mouth.
“Then I gave him some progressions. I said, Sonny – I mean, Trane. I had them both in the band but I have no tapes of that band, shit. We had this thing by Khatchaturian – you know Rachmaninoff’s modulations and stuff like that, three or four keys? I gave him a tone centre of E natural and said, you can play F, G minor, E minor triad, C triad, all these chords … and he’d play all of them. In two bars. In that order, and then in a different order.
“I gave him all these little things, like – play this for me, Trane. And it’d sound like – blablablablublurp…. that’s the way it sounds, if you play without stopping you sound like Coltrane. But you have to be doing something. It has to fit the chord, the day, the weather and everything.”
Countering Davis is Ashley Kahn, who writes in A Love Supreme: The Creation of John Coltrane’s Classic Album that Coltrane first played around with the soprano saxophone in 1959, after a fellow musician had left it in his care. Coltrane told a magazine: “I opened the case and found a soprano sax. I started fooling around with it, and was fascinated. You can play lighter things with it – things that have a more subtle pulse.”
Whatever the trigger, the result was sublime. Lewis Porter explains the sound we hear on A Love Supreme:
Coltrane more or less finished his improvisation, and he just starts playing the Love Supreme motif, but he changes the key another time, another time, another time. This is something very unusual. It’s not the way he usually improvises. It’s not really improvised. It’s something that he’s doing. And if you actually follow it through, he ends up playing this little Love Supreme theme in all 12 possible keys. To me, he’s giving you a message here.
The music came to us by the grace of God, as Coltrane notes:
“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 humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music.”