The English poet Philip Larkin called it a “willful and hideous distortion of tone that offered squeals, squeaks, Bronx cheers and throttled slate-pencil noises for serious consideration,” while the jazz critic Joel Goldberg claimed that it felt as if he was “being wildly assaulted, and must defend myself by not listening.” Hardly the response you’d expect for music intended to be a way of prayer—music explicitly described by its creator as being, “a way of giving thanks to God.”
Through much of the 1950s, John Coltrane lived a life not atypical of the jazz culture of the times, and along the way cultivated twin addictions to heroin and alcohol. Increasingly erratic and unpredictable, in 1957 he was fired from Miles Davis’ band, which turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to him. Accompanied by his wife Naima, Coltrane returned to his mother’s home in Philadelphia and over the course of a week faced down his addictions “cold turkey,” something he would later identify as his first spiritual awakening. Within months he was back on the jazz scene, playing first with Thelonius Monk, and then eventually returning to work with Miles Davis, playing a key role in the recording of Davis’ classic record, Kind of Blue.
Yet that experience of a gracious delivery from addictions was not the end of his spiritual pilgrimage. Though he remained free of drugs and alcohol, his life became increasingly unmoored, his already fragile marriage badly compromised by a series of affairs. Sometime in 1963 Coltrane experienced a second spiritual awakening, which he later described as an experience of being “duly re-informed of His OMNIPOTENCE.” Coltrane’s prayerful response to this second awakening was the 1965 record A Love Supreme. Philip Larkin notwithstanding, the album was generally well received at the time, and has since been recognized as a landmark jazz recording. Conceived as a four-part suite, much of A Love Supreme even sounds like prayer, particularly on the contemplative closing track, “Part 4 – Psalm.”
I came to jazz relatively late, but once I’d discovered records like Kind of Blue I was hooked. A Love Supreme eluded me at first, but as my listening ear developed I found it to be food for the soul. Increasingly interested in music as a source of theological wisdom and insight, I knew I had to delve more deeply into the music Coltrane recorded after A Love Supreme; music he characterized as being both an expression of prayer to God and a way of expressing or even “sounding” God. Like the great Christian mystics, he was aware of the limits of human language to speak of the divine—“I don’t like to try to define God,” he once said to an interviewer, “because I think He’s beyond any definition I could give”—and so it was with his saxophone that John Coltrane voiced that which was beyond words. And he was quite clear that everything he recorded from 1965 through to his untimely death in 1967 was prayer.
I went out and purchased the 1966 Meditations record, and settled in to listen to what I assumed would be a kind of extension of A Love Supreme. As the first track, “The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost,” exploded through my stereo speakers, I actually thought for a moment that I’d managed to purchase a defective disc. But no… this was what Coltrane had recorded, and so I tried again. Truthfully, that first listening left me feeling a bit like Joel Goldberg in being “wildly assaulted” by what seemed only shapeless, cacophonous noise.
But I persevered. Coltrane had earned my trust with his earlier work, and so I was prepared to listen again. And again. It was probably on my third or fourth focused listening that I began to hear it; an aural icon of the Holy Trinity, expressing the power and the glory of an ultimately inscrutable God. This was an expression of the divine not unlike Job’s “voice from the whirlwind,” or the psalmist’s image of God in which, “Clouds and thick darkness are all around him.” (Ps 97:2) Just as John Donne could pray, “Batter my heart, three-person’d God… break, blow, burn, and make me new” (Holy Sonnet XIV), Coltrane is here prepared to stand before that triune power and glory, open to being pushed to his knees and wounded by grace. By repeated listenings, I had learned to hear through the cacophony to something exquisite and true.