Sometimes we ourselves are the greatest obstacle to the realization of our gifts. Such was the case with John Coltrane in 1957. He was at the peak of the jazz world, playing in Miles Davis’s first great quintet in addition to some historic gigs with Thelonious Monk, but his alcohol and heroin addictions were hindering his ability to participate, and he had to leave Davis’s group for a time. Enter God’s power of redemption: Coltrane later wrote, in the liner notes to A Love Supreme (1964), that in 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 humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music.” Like Alma the Younger, Coltrane went from being “racked with eternal torment” to singing the song of redeeming love. He spent the next ten years of his life trying to make good on God’s gift to him.
People since the Psalmist have desired to sing a new song to the Lord; Coltrane’s could only come after the Lord brought him “out of the roaring pit / out of the mire and clay.” His new song was “Giant Steps,” an extremely difficult sequence of chord changes written as a practice exercise to challenge his improvisation skills. Coltrane understood what the Lord told Oliver Cowdery: revelation doesn’t come for the mere asking, but requires practice. In time, Coltrane mastered his own étude, and the result hit the jazz world like a fireball:
Several years later, Coltrane offered thanks for God’s gifts in an album of praise, the first of his overtly spiritual works, A Love Supreme:
Coltrane’s religious experience, like Paul’s, engendered a sense of spiritual freedom. Drawing inspiration from musicians like Ornette Coleman, Coltrane became no longer a slave to the old letter of jazz, but alive and free in the new life of the spirit. As the 1965 track “Love” attests, this new law was one written on the heart.
Coltrane spent the rest of his all-too-brief life (he died of liver cancer at 40) abiding in God’s love and exploring his spiritual freedom. Perhaps the apotheosis of his spiritual freedom came in the epic free jazz piece “Ascension”:
“Ascension” can be a difficult listen, unaccustomed as most of us are to the wild vagaries of collective improvisation. Perhaps free jazz, though, comes nearest to approximating what the music of the church must sound like to God: all of us using our gifts with gusto, listening to the music of others around us at some times better than others, together aspiring to the colossal discipline (only made possible by grace) that true freedom requires. (Sam explores this idea at greater length in his recent celebration of Ornette Coleman.) May our collective music someday become as good as Coletrane’s.
John Coltrane, Musician, 1967
The Collect: Father of our liberty, who set your servant John Coltrane free to praise you with song: teach us the art of listening, that in the improvisations comprising our life together we might attune our gifts to the ensemble in which we play, until our music becomes the service that is perfect freedom, dedicated to the One God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, worlds without end. Amen.
To bring us gently back to earth after the wild ride of “Ascension,” here’s a live version of “Naima”:[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R416VHIL514]