Intros to Jazz — John Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme’
Described by Rolling Stone as a legendary album-long hymn of praise, A Love Supreme is one of the most beloved records of all time, and a Great first step into jazz. It’s also the culmination of John Coltrane’s personal journey: a story of rise, fall and ultimate redemption.
[FYI this post was first published on The Great Everything.]
We should all make space in life for a little jazz.
I’ve never encountered another genre that conveys the full spectrum of human emotion, in all its nuances, so sincerely. A lot of that has to do with its improvised nature. What you’re hearing is being created in real-time, free from convention and reserve. There’s no hiding behind revision. Jazz gives you access to an artist’s pure, unfiltered self in the moment of its creation. It’s incredibly intimate.
In that sense, jazz also offers you a rare artistic privilege: when you listen to jazz, you’re not just getting the finished product, you’re also hearing the creative process itself.
Imagine if you could say the same for other artforms.
It would be like watching a fast-forward video of Michelangelo sculpting his Moses. But at the same time, you’re also seeing the final, fully formed statue. All the while, you’re also able to feel what Michelangelo was feeling as he fashioned it! Pretty awesome, right?
Not long ago, I explored Einstein’s concept of spacetime — the notion that in reality, time and space are just different dimensions of a single whole, all existing at once. Jazz’s ability to simultaneously show us both the final product and the journey to creating it is about as close as you can get to experiencing the concept of spacetime in art.
So yeah. Jazz — I dig it.
A Love Supreme
The most rewarding gateways into jazz are those rare albums that combine revolutionary innovation with massive mainstream appeal. It’s the Holy Grail of combos, and one few albums have ever pulled off as beautifully as A Love Supreme.
Make no mistake, despite its enduring popularity, this album is as experimental as it gets: a single composition in four movements, a literal prayer in jazz form and a definitive statement on music as a spiritual pursuit. Yet its universal theme and the purity of its sentiment have made it one of the best-selling jazz records ever, touching fans and novices, atheists and believers alike. It’s even sprouted a religion.
A Love Supreme is also a milestone in Coltrane’s own personal journey. As a youngster, he was prodigiously talented. But like many young jazz musicians at the time, Coltrane struggled with a heroin addiction that made him unreliable and difficult to work with. He would alternate flashes of brilliance with moments of erratic playing and on-stage catatonia. His addiction even ended up costing him his place in Miles Davis’ first legendary quintet, one of the best jobs in jazz. The young Coltrane seemed destined to a career of unfulfilled potential, and perhaps, even an untimely death.
Instead, in 1957 he experienced a profound transformation. In his own words:
“I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music.”
He reemerged on the scene, cleaned up and sober. And for the next ten years until his death, he unleashed a whirlwind of innovation that changed the musical world forever. A Love Supreme is Coltrane’s declaration of eternal love and gratitude to the higher entity that he felt saved him, inspiring him to become one of the Greatest jazz legends of all time.
This is most evident in the album’s closing piece, the spellbinding Psalm. It’s a musical narration of a simple prayer written by Coltrane, which gives the album its name. He’s said to have locked himself in a room in complete isolation for a week in order to find this music.
In Psalm, Coltrane essentially sings his prayer through his sax. With impassioned delivery, he pronounces each word in musical form, using the continued refrain ofThank you God as the piece’s anchor. You can’t help but hear echoes of a preacher’s sermon to his congregation. It’s no wonder the Church of Saint John Coltrane plays the entire album at mass every Sunday. If read in a vacuum, the prayer is simple, naive, and at times, on-the-nose. But translated into music, its impact is overwhelming.
With all of Psalm’s variations, its apocalyptic drumrolls and gentle flourishes, its raw power and aching gratitude, there’s far too much beauty and passion going on here to describe. Have you ever heard a saxophone cry? You will here. And you’ll feel Coltrane’s agony and ecstasy as you do.
A final Thank you God that sounds like a resolution, before his Amen brings the album to a mystical close. You’ll never hear such raw passion, gratitude and devotion expressed in music.
You can hear it by pressing Play on the embed below, which also contains the poem’s words as an accompaniment. It’s an immense experience and essential listening. If you’re going all out, we’d even recommend a sip of Blanton’s bourbon to lubricate this momentary escape to another world.
A Love Supreme is the culmination of a spiritual journey that took Coltrane from rock bottom to Olympus. Thinking about how close he came to being just another cautionary tale about addiction and wasted potential, it’s a testament to what can be achieved through will, determination and devotion to a cause, whatever you feel called to do in your life.