- John Coltrane's A Love Supreme, Yesterday and Today:Breaking Boundaries, Testing Limits
On Wednesday evening, December 9, 1964, the John Coltrane Quartet entered the studio of Rudy Van Gelder in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey and recorded the tracks for what would become their best-selling and most celebrated album, A Love Supreme. Since the time of the album's release in February 1965, many listeners have experienced more in this suite than the extraordinary artistry and creativity of the John Coltrane Quartet—they have also encountered something transcendent and revelatory in and through the music, even transformative. Transcendent, revelatory, and transformative: these are terms normally reserved to describe religious experiences, but rarely applied to a jazz performance or recording; except, that is, in the case of A Love Supreme. "The spirit of God is in all of us," writes Elvin Jones, the quartet's drummer, "and when we started to play [A Love Supreme], that's what came out."1
In this essay I explore how many listeners, including this listener, have experienced, understood, and interpreted the religious dimensions of A Love Supreme and whether this recording may continue to offer such experiences to others. Although I use analytical tools from the realm of hermeneutics, my primary intention is to offer an appreciative study of Coltrane's music. That being said, even an appreciative essay on A Love Supreme raises significant questions related to spirituality, music, race, racism, aesthetics, and interpretation—only some of which I am able to address in this study. Again, my main concern is to focus as closely as possible on the music itself and its first generation of listeners, allowing issues of race, racism, aesthetics, hermeneutics and spirituality to emerge, as much as possible, from within the process of listening and interpretation.
One issue that should perhaps be addressed at the beginning, however, is my use of "spirituality," itself a contested term. For the purpose of this essay, I use and adapt the approach of David B. Perrin, who defines spirituality as "a fundamental capacity in human beings," more fundamental than any particular religious or spiritual set of beliefs.2 Spirituality is a capacity for self-transcendence through being "meaningfully involved in, and personally committed to, the world beyond an individual's personal boundaries." This "meaningful involvement and commitment" also shapes the way people live, allows them to integrate their lives, and is often given expression in texts, art, music, desires [End Page 187]
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and motivations. As I hope to demonstrate, in A Love Supreme, John Coltrane integrates and expresses through music his own transcendent sense of meaning and commitment to a God beyond all boundaries.
While the spiritual dimensions of other works by John Coltrane and his various ensembles could be fruitfully explored—including works by him or other musicians that express no obvious religious intent or meaning3—I have specifically chosen A Love Supreme for two reasons. As we will see, there is ample evidence to suggest that, with A Love Supreme, Coltrane was purposefully building a musical bridge across which ordinary listeners might pass as pilgrims to experience and celebrate the holy. Furthermore, the spirituality of A Love Supreme has been reflected upon, written about, interpreted and reinterpreted by musicians, critics, musicologists, sociologists, and people on the street more than perhaps any other jazz recording of the 1960s. There is, in other words, an abundance of material from generations of listeners that is interdisciplinary, diverse, and cross-generational.
I listen and write from my perspective as a student and teacher of Christian spirituality, as well as an amateur jazz musician. Within the discipline of Christian spirituality the concept of "spiritual classic" is used to identify texts that demonstrate a capacity to disclose religious wisdom, repeatedly, across boundaries of time and culture, with "texts" understood broadly to include a wide variety of cultural expressions (music, art, architecture, political movements). Although I make no claim for A Love Supreme as a specifically Christian classic—in fact, a great deal of the music's power, as we will see, lies in its appeal across...