Alice Coltrane fueled by a supreme love of her music, late husband and
Daniel King, Chronicle Staff Writer
Friday, November 3, 2006
(11-03) 04:00 PST Woodland Hills (Los Angeles County) -- Perhaps the
first thing she'll make clear, in any conversation about the music, is
her identity: Alice Coltrane would rather not be known chiefly as a
pianist, or as the widow of one of the greatest figures in the history
of improvised music. At 69, Coltrane considers those ideas
inseparable. To draw a line between them, she says, is to misread
John's influence in her life.
"He hasn't left," she says. "Not at all."
In the 39 years since John Coltrane's death, he has remained the
driving force in Alice Coltrane's activities. She is the proud
director of his estate, a student of his music who's an unwavering
supporter of his legacy. She's also built an enviable resume as a
harpist, organist, pianist and a key figure in the development of the
avant-garde's religious and philosophical underpinnings.
After a run of albums on Impulse! records, Coltrane withdrew from
performance in 1978 for a quarter-century, focusing on prayer,
meditation and Eastern religious study, paths she took with John.
"We used to meditate together," she says. "When he passed, I wanted to
go further. I wanted to go deeper into the knowledge and the wisdom of
the East. ... Once that's there, you want to stand in that light."
But music, she says, "has always been with me. It never left."
Now, after a 26-year hiatus, she has agreed to three concerts this
year to support her comeback album, "Translinear Light," released in
2004 by Verve Records. Her only West Coast appearance will be Saturday
at the Masonic Center.
Coltrane pulled away in the late '70s to focus on the Vedanta Center,
the religious group she founded in San Francisco. After some time she
moved it to Agoura Hills, west of Burbank and a short drive from the
strip mall, in Woodland Hills, where she runs Jowcol Music, the family
business centered on a licensing company and an educational
Her ashram -- the religious center -- runs on 48 acres surrounded by
oak trees, a stream and the Santa Monica Mountains. About 30 people
live here, reading from sacred Hindu texts and referring to Alice
Coltrane as Swamini A.C. Turiyasangitananda, a Sanskrit name that
means the musical bliss of God.
Tall, lean, with a gentle staccato voice, Coltrane carries herself
with a kind of serenity. At a rare performance she gave in New York in
2002, in tribute to John, she hunched over the piano and closed her
eyes. She seemed prayerful, fascinated by the group's harmonic
The event on Saturday, part of the San Francisco Jazz Festival, will
feature her son, saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, and the crisp rhythm team
of drummer Roy Haynes and bassist Charlie Haden.
"Being on the stage with your mother," Ravi says from New York, "it's
very wild, man. There's moments where you feel, 'Wow, we're making
music together,' and the very next moment I'm 14 years old again. ...
No matter how deep the music part of it is, it's always still a parent
and their child onstage."
Coltrane became a widow at age 30; her husband was 41 when he died in
1967. Getting her bearings after his liver cancer spread was almost
impossible, but she threw herself into meditation, taking pilgrimages
to India and moving, in 1975, from New York to California, following a
mandate from God, she says.
She raised the kids without pressuring them into music, even though
each now plays an instrument. "I encouraged them to be what they
wished," she says. "They chose music, not I choosing music for them.
Not 'This is a musical family! This is the legacy of your father!' No
Her youngest son, Oran, plays the saxophone, and her firstborn son,
John Jr., played the bass before he was killed, in 1982, in a car
Alice Coltrane grew up around music. One of six children, she was
raised in a Detroit household full of musicians, including a brother,
Ernie Farrow, who played bass in the outstanding groups of Yusef
Lateef and Terry Gibbs. At age 7, she learned piano from a neighbor
and taught herself to play organ in a church.
For Alice Coltrane, 1963 couldn't have come soon enough. After
studying with Bud Powell, she shared a bill with John in New York. She
remembers falling easily for the shy, mild-mannered bandleader.
John's quartet was already the most explosive lineup in jazz, one year
before "A Love Supreme." With McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones and Jimmy
Garrison, Coltrane had a team built on audacity, skill and, above all,
a level of cohesion so high, you'd have a hard time finding one
negative review that wasn't quickly deflated by letters to the editor.
Alice and John got married in 1965, and that year, his band took a
major turn: With a second drummer onstage, he left behind the modalism
of the Miles Davis band and called even fewer shots musically.
Uneasy with the change, Tyner and Jones made for the exit.
No sooner did they quit, without replacements, than Coltrane invited
his wife to step in. Many listeners were stunned, even infuriated by
the breakup, and in search of explanations to the fallout, some people
aimed their frustrations naively at Alice Coltrane, as if she'd pushed
She hadn't. In fact, she hesitated to join. "I really didn't believe,
I didn't want to believe," she says, "that the band would walk out at
that time. John didn't want anyone to leave." She told John there were
"many others more qualified" than her, she says, but he answered
emphatically, "I want you there because you can do it."
Speaking from New York, Tyner, 67, remembers enjoying Alice Coltrane's
playing: "I think she was doing a great job after I left," he says.
"She provided him with that kind of direction, too."
Tyner decided to leave on his own, he says: "One reason why I left is
because John moved to a certain position that he thought was good for
him, and I felt as though I needed to continue to grow in a direction
that was good for me."
John's direction is often called the New Thing, New Black Music, the
avant-garde, free jazz or any number of other imprecise names,
" 'That's not what my music is,' " she remembers John saying. "He
didn't say what it was -- 'New Music,' 'avant-garde,' whatever. For me
it was the Coltrane sound; it was (his) sound that has captured the
hearts of people for over 40 years now, with a legacy that is so
strong. ... Once they hear him, it's a sound they won't forget. It has
to be that."
In those years, debates over John's late-period music -- the ringing,
avalanche solos, the free-form improvisations of epic length -- have
intensified, sparking more general debates over form and philosophy
that continue to roil parts of the jazz world.
"I like all of his music," Coltrane says. "I like it all because it's
him, and it's his sound. There are people who spent a lot of time
asking, 'What is it, what is it?' Just look within your own heart.
It's sound. ... It's his sound that was so special and so different."
Ravi, just 2 when his father died, agrees that all the fuming over
John's late period is misguided.
"People get caught up with saying that late-period Trane, 'he was just
crazy, he lost his mind,' " Ravi says. " 'It was just emotional music
or it was spiritual music or it was his reaction to the civil rights
movement of the time.' Blah blah blah blah. It's easy to take a
surface-level approach to trying to understand that (musical)
Many Coltrane supporters tried to pin him to the civil rights
movement. One of the most famous wishful thinkers was Frank Kofsky,
the Marxist theorist, jazz critic and professor of history at Cal
State Sacramento. In his rare interview with Coltrane, in 1966, he
asked if Coltrane, after hearing Malcolm X once, was making "a
conscious attempt to express" in music some of Malcolm's ideas.
Coltrane wouldn't draw that line.
The musician said gently that, in all areas of life, "when there is
something that we feel should be better, we must exert effort to try
to make it better."
So Kofsky pressed harder: "Some of the (musicians) have said that jazz
is opposed to poverty, to suffering and to oppression; and therefore,
that jazz is opposed to what the United States is doing in Vietnam. Do
you have any comments on that subject?"
Coltrane spoke of "higher ideals" and "brotherhood," but he wouldn't
use Kofsky's words.
"Let them speak what they wish," Alice Coltrane says of critical
theories on John's politics and character. "I know the truth."
The truth, she says, "is here in his music." She is convinced that
John's thoughts are distilled in sound, and that level of spirituality
drives her own playing. As pointed out recently by musicians Butch
Morris and Greg Tate, she is one of the few people to have an original
voice on four instruments: piano, organ, harp and orchestra.
As a soloist, Coltrane is most effective when she uses tight, up-tempo
arpeggios, sweeping Indian scales and pitch-bending scoops. She is
least effective when she starts running in place, without spreading
When she's at the piano, we can hear traces of Hugh Lawson, the
haunting Detroit pianist who uses raga-influenced ideas. Consider
Coltrane's blues "Turiya and Ramakrishna," which, at moments, has the
shock of Lawson's solo on "Like It Is" from the 1968 album "The Blue
But in general, what we can hear in Coltrane, in part, is a believer,
someone curious about storytelling, divinity and introspection.
As a businesswoman, Coltrane manages John's estate. In 1981, she sued
a San Francisco church for $7.5 million on charges that it violated
publicity rights by selling clothes, incense and bread with John's
name without permission. The lawsuit was unsuccessful.
In 1990 she acted similarly, withdrawing permission she had given
Spike Lee to use "A Love Supreme" as the title of a movie, later named
"Mo' Better Blues," because Coltrane objected to profanity in the
Coltrane is a quiet, radiant woman. She has not remarried -- she
couldn't, she says. She took a vow of celibacy years ago because, as
she told Ebony magazine, she wouldn't dream of being with "less a
And this year, she told Essence magazine, "There is no one who can
stand in his place, not even in his shadow."
Some listeners have suggested that Coltrane's reverence of John
overshadows her confidence as a singular voice in the music. To those
listeners, she says, "I think it's both of us. ... Our marriage, our
life together was sufficient, but here in addition, there was this
strong rendering of his music pouring into my spirit. You don't have
to think him, be him, to render it. You can be yourself, as you are,
and yet give it."