In birth Alice McLeod, in marriage Alice Coltrane and in death Turiyasangitananda. ‘Alice’ did not only transcend boundaries of gender and race, she transcended the boundaries of time and space. The life and work of Alice Coltrane traversed not decades but eternity. Her black skin and female body were but an external habitus for an immutable, divine spirit of creativity that is utterly unique to American culture.
Gender and race were of little consequence for the spiritual journey of Alice Coltrane. So too temporality and geography; Coltrane’s music captured the essence of Ancient India and the spirit of Hinduism, via rats and gas in Detroit, via turtlenecks and existentialism in Paris. After converting to Hinduism in the late 1960s, her music became an expression of a universal consciousness that gave little mind tumult and division, but all of the mind to unity, synthesis and happiness:
As it was in the beginning, let your music forevermore be an expression of My Divinity in a sound incarnation of Myself as nadabrahma. For, eternally, divine music shall always be the sound of peace, the sound of life, and the sound of bliss.– Alice Coltrane, Endless Wisdom I
Ever cast in the long, stark shadow of her husband and Jazz virtuoso-giant John Coltrane, much of what Alice and her spiritual jazz has to teach us has been forgotten. She and John Coltrane had shared a spiritual vision for jazz: that jazz might become a universal, transcendental music that speaks to the soul. But Alice Coltrane should not be remembered as a mere shadow of her husband, more the torch-holder of their shared vision. Her music casts light; it captures the fleeting phenomena of the Earth’s elements and the fugitive feelings and emotions of the inner self.
Whilst John Coltrane’s forays into avant-garde jazz — termed ‘anti-jazz’ by one Downbeat writer — helped to concoct a new vocabulary for musical composition and aesthetic appreciation, Alice Coltrane’s spiritual sounds took jazz to a whole other cosmology. Her music is best appreciated as a meditative experience. On her best known ‘Journey in Satchidananda’ lush harp strings and soprano saxophone work in synthesis with the Indian tambura and the middle-eastern oud to create a complex and vibrant world-music that is wonderfully accessible.
Alice Coltrane’s fingers, with each pluck of harp string and press of piano key, are ever striving for the shared Coltrane vision of a universal, human music. East interacts with West to create a touchstone of cultural hybridity that, without the music, might otherwise be imperceptible. Spiritual jazz worked as a medium through which the sounds of Alice Coltrane’s childhood—gospel singing and rhythm and blues—were able to merge with the sounds of her adulthood—bebop and the avant-garde—to create her eternity: an endlessly creative spirit that saw a black-American woman become so much more than a black-American woman.
Through her music Alice Coltrane became an omnipresent vessel of cultural and spiritual expression, her life acting as an exhibit of the way in which classes, categories and genres can be dissolved by the will of an internal and universal consciousness. Black-American female contemporaries offer no-such spirit nor claims to universality. Beyoncé et al, whilst remarkable in their message of independence and strength, might to do more to recapture universal expression in the manner of Alice Coltrane. For music can help to disintegrate the barriers between art and life, serving as a powerful tool of cultural, spiritual and emotional unification.
One does not hear the healing of divides in the politicised ‘Formation’ but the precipitation of them. Alice Coltrane, growing up in Jim-Crow America, performing in the male-dominated industry of Jazz-music and arrested by the immense legacy of her husband might have greater claim to such divides. But instead her music subverts those divides and pertains to a universal human experience. Alice Coltrane might be better remembered in today’s bitter and fractured America, striving as she was for something beyond: something as infinite and transcendental as a musical note, resonating with its listener.
‘Most people don’t have the kind of patience, or the kind of belief, that my mother had. She didn’t toot her own horn. She let the universe handle it.’
– Miki Coltrane