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Journal of Asian American Studies 4.3 (2001) 265-283

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Pundit Coltrane Shows the Way

madhav chari



The year 1982 was one of the most interesting years in my life: I discovered John Coltrane in the summer of 1982 in Calcutta, by way of his recording Afro Blue Impressions. 1 The two tracks on the album that were particularly memorable were My Favorite Things (composed by Rodgers and Hammerstein) 2 and Impressions (composed by Coltrane). 3

Even though I had been exposed to a large amount of music in my childhood, including classical and jazz, nothing prepared me for Coltrane. When I first listened to that record, I remember an intensity that I did not hear before in anyone. This was one of those pivotal moments that ultimately led me to become a career jazz pianist in the mid-1990s (the previous such moment was when I discovered jazz pianist Oscar Peterson in 1980). I was a John Coltrane addict after that, and for a long time my own piano style was largely derivative of McCoy Tyner (Coltrane's pianist).

I later discovered that John Coltrane had an interest in music from different parts of the world, including India and Africa. Some of his most well known recordings of compositions such as My Favorite Things, 4 Impressions, 5 India, 6 and A Love Supreme 7 are examples of "modal improvisation," sharing similarities with Indian classical music.

His own notebooks contained examples of Indian scales. 8 He met the Indian classical sitarist Ravi Shankar for lessons in the early 1960s [End Page 265] (where he was introduced to basic concepts of Indian melodic and rhythmic principles), and in 1967 he planned to take six months free of all music commitments in order to study with Shankar at his school in Los Angeles. 9 Coltrane was also influenced by Indian philosophy, reading the works of Paramahansa Yogananda and Gandhi, 10 and wrote compositions with titles such as Om, 11 Meditations, 12 and Selflessness. 13 Unfortunately, Coltrane died in July 1967 before he had an opportunity to study with Ravi Shankar and investigate Indian classical music in depth.

Musical influences on jazz from different geographical spheres is not new - the music was born out of cultural interchanges in centers such as New Orleans (that included African American, African, European, Latin American, and Caribbean influences). For example, the Latin influence is over a century old, and continues to influence the direction of the music today, contributing techniques and repertoire to jazz: from the work of Scott Joplin, Duke Ellington's collaborations with Puerto Rican valve trombonist Juan Tizol, and Dizzy Gillespie's collaborations with Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo, to many modern musicians, both American and international who play "Latin jazz," amalgamating many musical devices including bebop jazz, Cuban, and Brazilian music.

The involvement of Indian music and jazz is much newer. In the 1950s and 1960s, African American musicians were looking toward "non-Western" cultures for inspiration, including Africa. In this period, Coltrane wrote compositions with titles such as Liberia, 14 Dakar, 15 and Dahomey Dance. 16 Indian music, like African music was a non-Western music, and it was only a short step away from its engagement with jazz.

These currents in jazz music were strongly linked with developments in the political arena with the rise of the black consciousness movement in America, and the independence of many African countries in the 1950s and 1960s. (India obtained independence from the British in 1947.) At this time, Indian political thought had already carried its message across to black America and Africa (seen for example, in the influence of Gandhi on Martin Luther King Jr.).

The important Indian musicians and dancers who visited the West from the turn of the century to the 1950s included Sufi musician Hazrat Inayat Khan (at the turn of the twentieth century), Nobel Prize winning [End Page 266] writer-composer-visionary Rabindranath Tagore (also close to the turn of the twentieth century), dancer Uday Shankar (in the 1920s and 1930s), and his younger brother, the sitarist Ravi Shankar (who first...


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