Self-Flagellation in Blue:
John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme
John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme is an album remarkable for its emotional depth and musical daring, but also for its deep spirituality and soul-baring devotion to a God who is as mysterious as He is beautiful. Coltrane’s deep, emotive lines scream a sacrificial joy in their delivery, a selfless offering to a God whom Coltrane could only reach through the vulnerability and nakedness of music
Coltrane was a deeply religious man, a gifted saxophonist and composer who experienced several religious transformations throughout his life. He never bound himself to a particular faith, but instead welcomed the opportunity to reveal the mystery on his own terms, through the intense vulnerability and emotional exhaustion that came from spontaneous creation. Toward the end of his tragically short life, he became interested in Kabbalah and eastern religion, and increasingly felt that he could only adequately praise God through his music. In his recordings, we are given the opportunity to examine his deep religiosity and be moved by the inspirational selflessness of his playing. We can stand in awe of the powerful voice he offers through his horn, often playing past the point of exhaustion, straining his lungs, throat, and lips as he forces air from his frail flesh into the metal mechanics of his instrument, propelling his breath into the invincible creation where it is immortalized as prayer. A self-flagellation in blue.
Most impressive is that this spiritual nakedness is sought and achieved in the company of others, not in the safe environment of a place of worship but in the scientific surroundings of a recording studio. He creates some of his most crushingly emotional music, music of prayerful struggle and religious conviction, among his friends and collaborators, exposed and unembarrassed.
A Love Supreme is a suite, meant to be listened to as a single entity rather than as a collection of isolated ideas. Coltrane chooses a simple four-syllable prayer (the title of the album) as his mantra, chanting it musically, and, ultimately, verbally throughout the course of the first movement “Acknowledgement,” building this simple idea into the delicate devotion and total trust of the final “Psalm.” Coltrane’s playing has been compared to the impassioned shouting of a preacher, the zealous chant of African shamans, the joyful, frenetic song of a congregation possessed and uninhibited in its praising of God. It is powerful and sensitive, prayerful and passionate, and above all, grateful in its intensity and loving in its grace.
The final movement, “Psalm,” is meant to be experienced in conjunction with a poem of Coltrane’s, included in the liner notes. Coltrane recites the poem melodically through his saxophone, beginning with the title and ending with the devout intoning of his final “Amen.” Using the syllables of the written word as a loose, elastic guide, he plays the poem, adopting the oft repeated “Thank you God” as a kind of mantra, a unifying theme. The bond between poem and melody is strong; the emotional colors and syllabic accents, as precisely articulated musically as they are verbally, create a virtuosic fusion of language and sound. At the end of the tune, after his final quivering Amen, Coltrane adds a tag to his melody. In one of the first and only instances of overdubbing in traditional jazz, he adds two contrasting saxophone lines on two different channels. On the right can be heard a joyful line of rapid, upwardly moving notes—a victorious ascension resolving triumphantly in a burst of grateful sound—while on the left is heard a low rumble, a slow descent to a final, definitive end: the laying down to rest. For me, this still stands as one of the most moving moments of all recorded music.
John Coltrane is celebrated by many people for many things. A complex performer and multifaceted figure, he is simultaneously an icon of Black political unity and a symbol of the monastic, self-sacrificial discipline that has come to characterize the stoic jazz musician. His image adorns countless “woodsheds”—the confined practice spaces of self-quarantined musicians—but it also hangs in the halls of many Black cultural institutions and assembly halls. Somehow the symbolism of his memory goes in both directions: it reflects inward as much as it thrusts outward. It invites us to contemplate the Self as much as it compels us to examine Society.
The unflinching religiosity of A Love Supreme forces us to identify a third orientation. Coltrane, as much as he represents an intervention in our understanding of Self and Society, also represents an intervention in our understanding of God. Or, perhaps more precisely: our understanding of holiness.
Certainly there are others who also take this lesson from Coltrane’s life and music. The African Orthodox Church—a majority-Black Episcopal denomination founded in the United States in 1921—canonized John Coltrane as a saint in the 1980’s. In 1971, about ten years prior to this canonization, the John William Coltrane Church was founded in San Francisco as an organized expression of Coltrane’s religiosity. This church routinely deployed Coltrane’s music in place of traditional praise songs, and discovered in Coltrane’s example a version of Protestant spirituality that spoke to both the collective experience of Black American Christianity and the inward dimensions of faith, suffering, and redemption.
It is a mistake to dismiss these expressions of faith as marginal or unworthy of open-minded attention. Rather, we should take seriously their admiration of Coltrane’s spiritual accomplishment. By openly recognizing the importance of Coltrane’s contribution to our understanding of the Christian faith, they powerfully assert the currency of spiritual innovation. Coltrane’s example demonstrates that the invention of spirituality is not a project finished long ago and squirrelled away. Religion is not something that is excavated. Religion is not disinterred from ancient soil and approximated for modern congregations through the mysterious power of obscure symbologies. Faith emerges from a tradition, certainly, even an ancient tradition, but it is not antique. Its validity isn’t derived from its obscurity or its sequestration behind the swirling mists of time. Faith is reproduced daily. This reproduction is an ordeal—a task performed regularly and tenaciously by the faithful. And new expressions of faith are innovated with similar regularity and tenacity by faithful people working within the artistic and cultural paradigms of their own epochs. The sung spirituals of Black slaves, the collective sighs of tent revival congregations, even the meditative improvisations of Coltrane’s quartet—these are all products of this task of constant reproduction, and all represent spontaneous, social expressions of faith.
They also, in a sense, represent a democratization of ritual. These are religious expressions unmediated by church hierarchies. They are not dependent upon infallible cosmic languages for their spiritual weight. They earn their power by virtue of their collectivity. They represent the unanimous consent of all those who participate in their creation to exercise their faith humbly and empathically, and to revise this expression according to the demands of the congregation or the guidance of their spiritual examples. This is a reinvention of ritual, a reinvention of communion. This is a Christianity that defines its parameters according to the spontaneous, improvisatory innovations of the assembled faithful, not the ancient mandates of the ordained. This is a truly modern holiness. A holiness not derived from lineage or bureaucracy but from consent.
This is a radical and liberating spirituality. It is also a spirituality unmoored, perhaps even fatally disconnected from the tradition that inspires it and the God it seeks to revere. But it represents a powerful re-imagination of the social task of worship. And it situates faith on the perhaps transcendent intersection of the collective experience of Society and the inward-looking profundity of Self.
It is significant that Coltrane entitles his suite A Love Supreme. With this title he gestures towards a beautiful mystery, available to us only in the feelings it provokes. We experience God, he seems to suggest, only so far as we experience His baffling, disorienting love. Coltrane merely dramatizes the mystery. He doesn’t posit a solution, or a theory, or a doctrine.
He simply intones a mantra and he invites us all to intone it with him, And in so doing, he invites us to participate in the tradition of reverent, mindful innovation that defined his life, his music, and his faith.
A Love Supreme.