The Story of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, Released 50 Years Ago This Month

What can I add to the cho­rus of voic­es in praise of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme? Record­ed in Decem­ber of 1964 and released fifty years ago this month, the album has gone on to achieve cult status—literally inspir­ing a church found­ed in Coltrane’s name—as one of the finest works of jazz or any oth­er form of music. It cement­ed Coltrane’s name in the pan­theon of great com­posers, and re-invent­ed reli­gious music for a sec­u­lar age. Com­posed as a hymn of praise and grat­i­tude, “the bizarre suite of four move­ments,” wrote NPR’s Arun Rath last year, “com­mu­ni­cat­ed a pro­found spir­i­tu­al and philo­soph­i­cal mes­sage.” That mes­sage is artic­u­lat­ed explic­it­ly by Coltrane in the album’s lin­er notes as “a hum­ble offer­ing to Him,” the deity he expe­ri­enced in a 1957 “spir­i­tu­al awak­en­ing” that “lead me to a rich­er, fuller, more pro­duc­tive life.”

These phras­es speak the lan­guage of recov­ery, and Coltrane found God through a pro­gram of recov­ery from hero­in addic­tion. Like so many who have embraced faith after addic­tion, Coltrane’s devo­tion was ardent, but nei­ther dog­mat­ic nor judg­men­tal. He “refused to com­mit to a sin­gle reli­gion,” writes Rath, “His idea of God couldn’t be con­tained by any doc­trine. But with his sax­o­phone, and with his band, he could preach.” That he did, reli­gious­ly, no pun intend­ed. Before the record­ing of A Love Supreme, Coltrane’s clas­sic quartet—including drum­mer Elvin Jones, pianist McCoy Tyn­er, and bassist Jim­my Garrison—toured the U.S. for four years. As the BBC doc­u­men­tary above informs us, “The group’s appetite for per­for­mance was fero­cious.” They played “two gigs a day, six nights a week, tak­ing only short breaks in the stu­dio to record mate­r­i­al for more than fif­teen increas­ing­ly crit­i­cal­ly acclaimed albums.”

By the time the group record­ed A Love Supreme, they had devel­oped “an amaz­ing unspo­ken com­mu­ni­ca­tion.” Tyn­er recalled the album as “a cul­mi­na­tion and nat­ur­al exten­sion of chem­istry honed through years of play­ing togeth­er live.” (Despite all that, they would only per­form the suite of songs live once, in Antibes, France, result­ing in a live album and some frag­men­tary film of the event.) Nar­rat­ed by Jez Nel­son, the 2004 radio doc­u­men­tary (up top) presents inter­views with Tyn­er, Jones, mod­ernist com­pos­er Steve Reich, Coltrane’s wife Alice, and oth­ers, in-between pas­sages of Coltrane’s music, includ­ing his major break­out hit record­ing of “My Favorite Things.”

Among the many trib­utes to the album’s inspir­ing, tran­scen­dent genius, Coltrane schol­ar Ash­ley Kahn offers a very down-to-earth assess­ment of A Love Supreme’s impor­tance: “[Coltrane] was not a prodi­gy. He was some­one who worked very, very, very hard at his craft, and he showed us, and he shows musi­cians still, that it is pos­si­ble.” Whether we attribute Coltrane’s achieve­ments to divine inspi­ra­tion, incred­i­bly hard work, or some com­bi­na­tion of the two, the proof of his devo­tion stands the test of fifty years, and fifty years from now, I sus­pect we’ll say much the same.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

John Coltrane Per­forms A Love Supreme and Oth­er Clas­sics in Antibes (July 1965)

Dis­cov­er the Church of St. John Coltrane, Found­ed on the Divine Music of A Love Supreme

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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