John and Alice Coltrane’s jazz perennial philosophy

I was in a bad mood. It had been raining for a week solidly, my love life was on the rocks, and ecological anxiety was sitting in the pit of my stomach like a bad kebab.

I slumped back in my seat and closed my eyes, letting the music play in the background.

It was a John Coltrane song, Lush Life.

Now I am not a jazz fan. I think I’d put on a playlist called ‘soothing jazz’ or something, to try and relax me.

But this wasn’t relaxing. It was uplifting. It picked me up and held me in the air and I looked around, astonished.

The song didn’t take the problems of life away. It didn’t conjure away suffering and death. They were still there. But the song pointed to a greater horizon that could contain all those things. And the strange thing is, it’s quite a downbeat song. It is a weathered song of mid-life (although I learn the writer, Billy Stranghorn, wrote it when he was 16!) The lyrics to the original song go :

Romance is mush stifling those who strive
I’ll live a lush life in some small dive
And there I’ll be while I rot with the rest
Of those whose lives are lonely too

Yet amid its weary resignation there is transcendence and joy.

It reminded me of what the novelist Francis Spufford wrote in his book on faith, Unapologetic, where he describes a moment of quiet epiphany, listening to Mozart’s clarinet concerto in a café:

it is not music that denies anything. It offers a strong, absolutely calm rejoicing, but it does not pretend there is no sorrow. On the contrary, it sounds as if it comes from a world where sorrow is perfectly ordinary , but still there is more to be said…It said: everything you fear is true. And yet. And yet. Everything you have done wrong, you have really done wrong. And yet. And yet. The world is wider than you fear it is, wider than the repeating rigmaroles in your mind, and it has this in it, as truly as it contains your unhappiness.

John Coltrane said something similar, about how he thinks of music:

I think the main thing a musician would like to do is give a picture to the listener of the many wonderful things he knows and senses in the universe. That’s what music is to me. It’s just another way of saying ‘this is a big beautiful universe we live in, that’s been given to us, and here’s an example of just how magnificent and encompassing it is.

Coltrane wasn’t a great sax player at the start of his career. If you listen to his early songs, there is no indication he would grow to the maestro he became. But he worked at his craft, with a monastic dedication. Even between sets in nightclubs, he would go to a backroom and keep on practicing. He played for Dizzy Gillespie, and toned his craft there, and then for Miles Davis, and kept on learning.

At the same time, however, he got into heroin, and at a certain point stopped growing, musically and spiritually. The drugs could easily have claimed him, as they claimed Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker.

In 1957, he locked himself into his bedroom in Philadelphia, and went cold turkey. There was a battle for his soul. And he — or God — won. He wrote, in the sleevenotes for his magnum opus, A Love Supreme:

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 humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music. I feel this has been granted through His grace. ALL PRAISE TO GOD.

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After that awakening, his music acquired a spiritual intensity. He said: ‘I know that there are bad forces, forces that bring suffering to others and misery to the world, but I want to be the opposite force. I want to be the force which is truly for good…I’d like to point out to people the divine in a musical language that transcends words. I want to speak to their souls.’

He used his saxophone to preach — both his grandfathers had been Christian pastors, but Coltrane preached a jazz version of the Perennial Philosophy. He said: ‘I believe in all religions…

After my late teens I questioned a lot of what I found in religion but I never did anything about it. Recently I started looking into what people were thinking. I saw there were so many religions and each one kind of opposed to the next and so forth, it screwed up my head. I just couldn’t get my head round one guy is right, cos if hes right, somebody else is wrong.

Amid the babble, he felt he discerned common truths, a universal core. His step-daughter says that growing up ‘we had Bibles, we had the Koran, eastern teachings’, as well as books by Plato, Aristotle, Krishnamurti, Yogananda, Zen Buddhism and African history. His son, Ravi Coltrane, says: ‘He studied all of these religions and understood there is something higher than that, that there’s something all these religions are saying which is universal’.

This Jazz Perennialism comes out in his music. After A Love Supreme, many of the titles of his songs and albums had spiritual connotations: Ascension, Meditations, Om, Selflessness, Amen, Ascent, Attaining, Dear Lord, Prayer and Meditation Suite, and The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost. These compositions would bring together different traditions — the 29-minute recording ‘Om’ contains chants from the Hindu Bhagavad Gita and the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

He was also something of a follower of Pythagoras, the Greek philosopher who believed the universe followed sacred mathematical laws that could be discovered in music chord structures. Here is a diagram Coltrane drew to illustrate this Pythagorean idea.

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Pythagoreans also believed music had a magical power to soothe the soul — as Orpheus’ harp could soothe wild beasts. Maybe that’s why, in his final tour, Coltrane went to play ‘peace on Earth’ at Nagasaki, where the US dropped one of the atomic bombs on Japan. Maybe he wanted to cleanse the bad spirits.

He said he searched for a magical shamanic power in music:

I would like to bring to people something like happiness. I would like to discover a method so that if I want it to rain, it will start right away to rain. If one of my friends is ill, I’d like to play a certain song and he will be cured; when he’d be broke, I’d bring out a different song and immediately he’d receive all the money he needed.

Near the end of his life, he bought a harp. It took months to build and wasn’t delivered until after he’d tragically died, aged 40, of liver cancer. The New Yorker writes:

It sat in the house in Dix Hills, Long Island, where he and his wife, Alice, were bringing up their young children. If the windows were open, Alice later recalled, a strong breeze would make the strings hum, as though some invisible force were strumming them.

Perhaps his music still has that spiritual power to cleanse, soothe and inspire. In a documentary about him, Chasing Trane, Carlos Santana says that whenever he goes to stay in a hotel room, he plays Coltrane’s album, A Love Supreme, to cleanse the room of bad spirits.

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John and Alice Coltrane, two spiritual masters hanging out in a diner

When he died in 1967, far too young, his second wife, Alice Coltrane, had a breakdown. She suffered sleeplessness and hallucinations. But then she too had a spiritual rebirth. She started to follow an Indian guru, Swami Satchitananda. Then she had a revelation herself, and become a swami. She set up and ran a Hindu Vedanta ashram in Malibu California — not very far from where Aldous Huxley, Gerald Heard and Christopher Isherwood also joined a Vedanta ashram, 30 years before.

Alice wrote books of her conversations with Ram and Krishna, much like Blake spoke of his conversations with angels and prophets. And Alice composed and performed devotional music with her congregation. This music was finally received in 2017, as The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda.

I happened to hear a song from that album, the same evening I was electrified by Lush Life. What was this remarkable music? I picked up my phone and saw the name…Alice Coltrane. I’d never heard of her but it was wonderful.

In The Art of Losing Control, I wrote about spirituality as being like jazz improvisation. You inherit a set of standards from your culture, and from other cultures. And it helps if you really familiarize yourself with one particular tradition, otherwise you’re flailing in the dark. As Charlie Mingus said: ‘You can’t improvise from nuthin’, man, you got to improvise from something.’

But from there, you can improvise, you can bring different elements into contact with each other, you can find your song, your unique expression of Universal Consciousness, just as John Coltrane found a unique expression of the Sound of Music song, My Favourite Things.

That’s what you hear in Alice Coltrane’s ecstatic music. She also sings a version of the Perennial Philosophy — she sings songs to Jesus, to Allah, to Ram, to Universal Consciousness.

Now sometimes the idea of the ‘Perennial Philosophy’ — or the unity of all religions — has been criticized as a form of cultural appropriation, or a dive to such a low common denominator that it ends up ‘vacuous banal fluff’ (in the words of Julian Baggini).

But the Coltranes’ version of the Perennial Philosophy is not bland, it’s not samey, the different traditions don’t lose their flavour. What they cooked up is unique. No one has ever sung a song to Ram like Alice does — it mixes Indian chanting with jazz, soul, negro spirituals, sci-fi synthesizers, and even house music.

It’s both universal…and unique. It’s the transcendent One….and it’s Alice.

What I mean to say is, you can believe in the transcendent unity of all religions, and still find your own riff. Every version of the Perennial Philosophy is different. The problem is if you insist your version is the only version, rather than just your riff on the ancient standards.

No one philosophy can capture the divine…we will never stop debating it and searching for it. And it’s OK to think your way to the divine is the best — that’s natural — but we can discuss and compare our paths with love, humour and humility. We can riff off each other.

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John Coltrane, meanwhile, is revered as a prophet in a kooky San Francisco church, ‘The church of John Coltrane’ — which Alice sued for copyright infringement in 1981. This is always the risk of art as a means to ecstatic experience — the audience end up worshipping the artist instead of what their music points to. Same thing happened to Orpheus!

Written by

Fellow @ Centre for the History of the Emotions. Author of Philosophy for Life, Art of Losing Control, and new book Breaking Open

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