John Coltrane’s Handwritten Outline for His Masterpiece A Love Supreme

The great jazz sax­o­phone play­er John Coltrane was born 87 years ago today. To mark the occa­sion we present this rare doc­u­ment from the Smith­so­ni­an’s Nation­al Muse­um of Amer­i­can His­to­ry: Coltrane’s hand­writ­ten out­line of his ground­break­ing jazz com­po­si­tion A Love Supreme.

Record­ed in Decem­ber of 1964 and released in 1965, A Love Supreme is Coltrane’s per­son­al dec­la­ra­tion of his faith in God and his aware­ness of being on a spir­i­tu­al path. “No road is an easy one,” writes Coltrane in a prayer at the bot­tom of his own lin­er notes for the album, “but they all go back to God.”

If you click the image above and exam­ine a larg­er copy of the man­u­script, you will notice that Coltrane has writ­ten the same sen­ti­ment at the bot­tom of the page. “All paths lead to God.” The piece is made up of a pro­gres­sion of four suites. The names for each sec­tion are not on the man­u­script, but Coltrane even­tu­al­ly called them “Acknowl­edge­ment,” “Res­o­lu­tion,” “Pur­suance” and “Psalm.”

In the man­u­script, Coltrane writes that the “A Love Supreme” motif should be “played in all keys togeth­er.” In the record­ing of “Acknowl­edge­ment,” Coltrane indeed repeats the basic theme near the end in all keys, as if he were con­scious­ly exhaust­ing every path. As jazz his­to­ri­an Lewis Porter, author of John Coltrane: His Life and Music, tells NPR in the piece below:

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.

In sec­tion IV of the man­u­script, for the part lat­er named “Psalm,” Coltrane writes that the piece is a “musi­cal recita­tion of prayer by horn,” and is an “attempt to reach tran­scen­dent lev­el with orches­tra ris­ing har­monies to a lev­el of bliss­ful sta­bil­i­ty at the end.” Indeed, in the same NPR piece which you can lis­ten to below, Rev. Fran­zo Wayne King of the Saint John Coltrane African Ortho­dox Church in San Fran­cis­co describes how his con­gre­ga­tion one day dis­cov­ered that Coltrane’s play­ing cor­re­sponds direct­ly to his prayer at the bot­tom of the lin­er notes.

In addi­tion to Porter and King, NPR’s Eric West­er­velt inter­views pianist McCoy Tyn­er, the last sur­viv­ing mem­ber of Coltrane’s quar­tet. The 13-minute piece, “The Sto­ry of ‘A Love Supreme,’ ” is a fas­ci­nat­ing overview of one of the great mon­u­ments of jazz.

Relat­ed con­tent:

John Coltrane’s ‘Giant Steps’ Ani­mat­ed

Watch John Coltrane and His Great Quin­tet Play ‘My Favorite Things’ (1961)

‘The Sound of Miles Davis’: Clas­sic 1959 Per­for­mance with John Coltrane

John Coltrane’s Naval Reserve Enlist­ment Mugshot (1945)

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Comments (18)
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  • AWG says:

    McCoy Tyn­er was not the drum­mer, he was the pianist.

    • Mike Springer says:

      Thanks AWG. I cer­tain­ly knew that, but my typ­ing fin­gers some­times seem to have a mind of their own. I’ve made the cor­rec­tion.

    • shermlin says:

      Hard to believe a mis­take like that. Elvin Jones was the defin­ing drum­mer for McCoy Tyn­er.

  • kyledecoste says:

    Coltrane would have been 87 today, not 88.

  • Brian says:

    Genius, dis­tilled.

  • Adam G says:

    I real­ly appre­ci­ate the post­ing of this key doc­u­ment about an artist and an album which is so cen­tral to many of us. May I ask though, if you could post a high res­o­lu­tion ver­sion? It is real­ly frus­trat­ing not to be able to make out any of nthe details on the score

  • FredLaMotte says:

    This is sacred. Thank you.

  • John Kaplan says:

    Thanks for shar­ing — one of my all time favorite albums. It would be great to see an enlarge­ment of the score to read all the details.nnn..And speak­ing of details — you are right Trane plays the “love supreme” motif in all keys at the end of the first sec­tion. But sig­nif­i­cant­ly, he plays them in a cycle so he ends up in the same key he start­ed in, using the cycle as a spir­i­tu­al-musi­cal metaphor. The three-tone motif ascends in the musi­cal inter­val of a fourth, allow­ing Trane to start each rep­e­ti­tion on the same tone as the last one end­ed, and move the motif around what musi­cians call the “cycle of fourths.“nnn..And the last sec­tion is titled “Psalm,” not “Psalms.” ;-)

    • Mike Springer says:

      Thanks, John, for the insight and for the cor­rec­tion. As for an enlarge­ment of the man­u­script, it should appear large enough to read if you click the image above.

  • Jeremy Brown says:

    Inter­est­ing look­ing at the list of rhythm instru­ments at top. 2 bass, and is that 2 con­gas and 1 tim­pano? Or 1 tim­bal? Did he have a fuller rhythm sec­tion in mind?

  • Jazz in my Soul says:

    what a great lit­tle arti­cle. thanks. and thanks for the media con­tent as well.

  • zams says:

    Thank you for this arti­cle, I would’ve been inter­est­ed what Tyn­er says in more depths.

  • Paul Thomson says:

    Thanks for this, fan­tas­tic!

  • RODELL says:


  • David Dawdy says:

    For a year John Coltrane car­ried with him on the road Vol­ume Two “The mys­ti­cism of Sound and Music” a com­pi­la­tion of the lec­tures of the bril­liant musi­cian and mys­tic Sufi Inay­at Khan who delves deeply on this sub­ject. I met Ham­sa el-Din, the Sudanese Oud play­er, whose “Water­wheel” album is cap­ti­vat­ing, at a Sufi Gath­er­ing in 1975 in Marin Coun­ty.

  • Enz says:

    Thank you for the arti­cle and the media, I didn’t know any­thing about this con­nec­tion of music math­e­mat­ics spir­i­tu­al­i­ty and modal­i­ty in Coltrane‘s work. Pure igno­rant…

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