a book chapter by Dustin LindenSmith (2048 words)This is a chapter I've submitted for consideration for an anthology-style book on the modern spiritual tradition of nonduality. If the final manuscript is accepted by the publisher (who has requested it to be developed), the book could be published as early as 2006. If I'm lucky, the following chapter will be included in the book.
Before discussing Coltrane's spiritual quest through music, I begin this piece with a sort of prayer that leads to a general statement of terms regarding music in all its forms.
OM, the primal sound
the foundational vibrational energy from which ALL the notes come
all music arises directly from OM
all music is in one form or another an expression of THAT
music is the most fundamental form of communication and connection
between human beings
it precedes words; it is the very first physical vibration of OM that humans can sense
when we share music with each other, we share in a direct experience of THE SELF
the essence of music
music reflects nature back to itself in a sonorous way:
it doesn't use images or colours, it just uses SOUND
sound, vibration -- the original causation of our physical world
when we enjoy and experience music, we are enjoying and experiencing our very aural and physical ESSENCE
when we share music with one another, there arises the opportunity to make meaningful connections with one another
through music, we can share in the experience of enlightenment and of first direct contact with THE SELF or I AM
Most music can be rendered down to its beat: its beat, its rhythm, are how we identify it as music. All good music, in whatever outward form it takes, has a beat that connects with us personally. Something in the rhythm, tone or melody of a piece will reach out to us and make us react. Make us move.
Good music inevitably leads you to move your body or your mind. If the beat really connects with you, you might nod your head in time to it. If it's really kickin', you might get into it a little with your shoulders, too. And then sometimes, when you're really lucky, the groove hits you right in the chest with a low bass KAZAM! and that's when you know that everything's chillin' and you're plugged into the source.
I am a jazz musician, a writer, an artist, and a philosopher. I play the tenor saxophone, and like one of my idols, John Coltrane, music is a mainstay of my spiritual practice. I connect with nature and I understand my self by playing and composing music. Jazz music and the history of jazz music have been important to me since childhood. I grew up in an enlightened household where my first books were on slavery, the civil rights movement and feminist activism. I understood and appreciated early on that jazz music was an authentic art form and a mode of free expression for an oppressed people. I understood and appreciated the trials that black people experienced by immersing myself in jazz music and black literature.
But beyond all that, I've always understood simply that jazz moves me. It grooves me. Jazz is within my soul, within my core, and playing and appreciating jazz music is how I commune with what is eternal within me.
spiritual expansion in jazz music
Certain musicians (or perhaps, all of the greatest ones) have used music as a means for genuine introspection, spiritual growth, or to develop a higher state of consciousness. In the jazz realm, these names spring immediately to mind:
john coltrane | miles davis | duke ellington | louis armstrong | charlie parker | ray charles | thelonious monk | count basie | keith jarrett | wayne shorter | quincy jones | ornette coleman | herbie hancock | prince | stevie wonder
These are genuine artists in the profoundest sense of the term. They were and are concerned with using music to express an essential part of who they are.
They use jazz music to connect with their soul, with their essential self.
Some of them have integrated their own spiritual quests into their music.
And John Coltrane stands alone among jazz musicians as one who completely entrenched his spiritual journey into his music.
The great John Coltrane was a jazz tenor saxophone player who lived from 1926 to 1967. He devoted his whole life to playing jazz music, performing most notably with the bands of Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk before launching his own full-time quartet in 1959. Jazz musicians and fans call him "Coltrane" or just "Trane".
Coltrane was always known as an intense and highly-skilled saxophonist. He worked out hard on his instrument -- there's no doubt about that. No saxophone player had ever before developed such a complete technical command of the instrument as him; not even one of his major influences, the great Charlie "Bird" Parker.
Fellow saxophonist and composer Jimmy Heath first worked with Coltrane in 1947, upon Trane's release from the Navy. Of the intensity of Trane's practice regimen, he said:
he was a person that attacked his problems;
wherein some people would lay back on what they'd
already learned to play,
if there was a specific problem that bothered him,
Coltrane could zoom in on that problem until he solved it.
he wanted to know everything that was possible
Rashied Ali played the drums in Coltrane's later groups. He recalls Trane's boxing-style warmups for their gigs and the endless energy he would put into his performances:
Trane… would ALWAYS be playing. He'd be playing in his dressing room -- just like a fighter would warm up in his dressing room and would come out into the ring and be sweating, warming up…
He would do the same thing in the dressing room, he would just play and play and play. He would break a sweat in the dressing room, and then he'd come out on the bandstand…
I don't know where he got that energy from. He was relentless, he was always pressuring the music, trying to get as much out of it as he could.
Jazz isn't jazz without improvisation, and Coltrane was a master improviser. The solos he recorded early in his career as a sideman with Thelonious Monk are impressive; those he did with Miles Davis in the late '50s are truly exceptional. But Coltrane first set himself apart as a master soloist when he released the seminal jazz recording Giant Steps in 1959. The title track contains a very complex harmonic progression of Trane's invention which is exceedingly difficult to improvise over. Indeed, the tune has become a rite of passage for all jazz musicians to master at some point in their training.
sidebar on the making of Giant Steps
It is said that Coltrane originally invented the Giant Steps progression as a technical exercise to practice improvising over the bridge to the popular jazz standard, Have You Met Miss Jones?. Whatever his inspiration, Coltrane's solos over that progression are literally wonders to behold. The sidemen who accompanied Coltrane on that recording such as Tommy Flanagan on piano have also been immortalized in the jazz community.
a visionary producer
The famous Turkish-born American Ahmet Ertegun produced that record for his label Atlantic around the same time that he introduced protegé Ray Charles to the world (Ertegun's role as one of Charles' early supporters and producers is portrayed by actor Curtis Armstrong in the 2004 film Ray, starring Jamie Foxx).
a music in transition
In the 1960s, jazz got thrown into the cultural blender along with all the other crazy stuff that was happening. In an interview for the 2004 documentary Miles Electric, virtuoso guitar legend Carlos Santana characterized the period like so:
The 60s was probably the most important decade in the 20th century.
Because it gave birth to questioning authority if it's not enlightened by GOD
Coltrane questioned all authority in jazz; in fact, he wrote a new textbook for it. This started in the early 1960s when he moved away from technically complex pieces like Giant Steps to experiment with simpler and more open song structures. He stretched out on modal music in the vein of the famous Miles Davis tune So What (Coltrane's composition Impressions is the gold standard from this era). He went on to deconstruct his compositions even further by working only with simple melodic and rhythmic fragments. Known in the jazz world as "vamps" or "grooves", Trane would play extended improvised solos over these song forms for upwards of 15 minutes.
The most visionary artists were pushing the harmonic and structural boundaries of jazz in the 60s to such extreme limits as to make the music almost unrecognizable. Jimmy Heath:
some of the younger musicians were more daring
and they had no complete ties to the harmonies
and they were freer
...he chose that direction to go in
Trane experimented widely with all forms of music and improvisation. He never stopped expanding his musical horizons, such that by the mid-1960s, he was studying native spiritual music from several sources. After reconnecting with his African roots, he released a record called Africa/Brass. After studying Indian classical music and undertaking a consistent meditation practice, he began recording works of serious spiritual introspection and exploration such as OM, A Love Supreme, and First Meditations. He ultimately abandoned almost all harmonic and structural ties to jazz by late 1965 and his music underwent a profound shift from that point forward.
Thankfully, he was prodigiously recorded from 1960 until his untimely death from liver disease seven years later. Recordings on the Impulse label (easily identified in jazz musicians' collections by their bright orange covers) are generally considered to be his most avant garde, and in his later years these records strayed quite far from his traditional jazz roots. Wife Alice Coltrane:
when he became avant garde
he lost many people, many followers
they didn't like it
they didn't approve of it
they didn't appreciate it
but there was no way he could go back
It's clear that music was always a passion for Coltrane. But beyond that, the practice and study of music -- the process of perfecting yourself through your music was key in his life. Recordings from his later period are remarkable for their intensity, ferocity, and beauty. Late in his career, music would become indistinguishable from his own personal spiritual quest.
The singularity of focus in his quest to discover and conquer all there was about his instrument and his music calls to mind the austerity required of the most serious spiritual aspirant. Even a study of his song titles underlines the progress of his spiritual quest: songs like Acknowledgement, Attaining, Ascension, Cosmos, Evolution, Compassion, Resolutions, Serenity, and Amen.
Alice Coltrane was Trane's wife for the latter part of his life, and she also played piano in many of his last groups until he died in 1967. She intimately understood the spiritual nature of Coltrane's music.
when i heard a record by him
i remember upon listening
that i felt something beyond the music realm somehow
it was like a feeling that was beyond the musical experience
...it was like an inner experience
as he developed himself more spiritually
we were seeing the results of it musically
and if you recall such albums as OM
(which is the beginning of every mantra)
and from A Love Supreme onward,
we were seeing a progression toward:
higher spiritual realization
higher spiritual development
if it's possible through sound
to realize truth...
to me, that is the essence of his search
tributes to trane's legacy
Composer LaMonte Young spoke of the quality of Coltrane's contribution to the oeuvre in this way:
he was one of those types of geniuses
who had the ability to project immediately
and what was interesting about this
was that he was able to project
right out into the world
without any sense of commerciality
This is how I reflect on Coltrane's contribution to jazz, the tenor saxophone, and to using music as a means for profound spiritual awakening:
he had a totally commanding physical presence on the stage
this was so throughout his career, but most utterly at the end of it
when given the privilege of observing footage of
his playing from this late period
(i even know some cats who saw him play live in the mid 60s)
it's immediately apparent that he's striving for
something unknowable through his playing
watching him play is like watching a volcano erupt
the period leading up to his death marks
the most intense, soul-searching time of his life
the quality and character of his playing were simply ferocious
at the very least, audacious
in late life his music became dense:
at times impenetrable and even unlistenable
like the most enlightened sage whose insights are unknowable to the layperson,
his mode of musical expression reached a state that was just beyond