The Brilliance of the Legendary Jazz Musician’s Magnum Opus
What does it mean to hold a love supreme in your heart, mind, and soul, with your significant other, with family, with community, with society, and with the world? What would this look like?
This is what I want to explore with this essay. I’ll begin with A Love Supreme.
It’s not everyday that a brilliant, creative genius can release a work onto the world that immediately is hailed a true masterpiece, but this was the case in January 1965, when legendary jazz saxophonist John Coltrane’s album, A Love Supreme, dropped.
The album, recorded in one session on December 9, 1964, featured Coltrane and his quartet, which besides Coltrane as bandleader and saxophonist featured pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and percussionist Elvin Jones.
A Love Supreme is a transcendent work, sublime in its majestic and awe-inspiring rapturousness. Divided into four sections—Acknowledgement, Resolution, Pursuance, and Psalm—it resonates deeply, sounding sonorous chords that vibrate and reverberate deep into the heart, mind, and soul.
This was no accident, as Coltrane was a deeply spiritual man. As Coltrane wrote on the liner notes for the album, “All Praise be to God to whom all praise is due. During the year 1957, 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.”
Coltrane’s message was ultimately one of peace and harmony. “I think music can make the world better and, if I’m qualified, I want to do it,” he once said.
This is what others have said of A Love Supreme. “I thought I was going to die from the emotion,” the musician Joe McPhee said on witnessing a live performance. The record producer George Avakian once said that Coltrane “seemed to grow taller in height and larger in size with each note that he played,” and that he “seemed to be pushing each chord to its outer limits, out into space.”
The poet and playwright Amiri Baraka said, “The only other thing that compares is, curiously, religion itself. If you allow yourself to hear Coltrane—really hear him—his music, like God or Buddha or Dharma or Allah, can make you think a lot of weird and wonderful things.”
And a commenter on YouTube said of A Love Supreme, “I am 40 years old and I just discovered this masterpiece last year. I listen to this every day. This album has changed my life and my outlook on life.”
Listening to A Love Supreme is truly a religious experience, so it makes sense that there’s a church in Coltrane’s honor, The Saint John Coltrane Church in San Francisco—it’s a branch of the African Orthodox Church. At this church, Coltrane is the patron saint. On the website of the church it quotes Coltrane: “I think music is an instrument. It can create the initial thought patterns that can change the thinking of the people.”
And the mission of the church is, as they state on their website, “Once you become aware of this force for unity in life, you can’t ever forget it.”
The church was founded in 1969, two years after Coltrane’s death, and the ministers who founded it, now in their late 70s, still run it. In the years since, in their weekly services, they preach what they call “Coltrane Consciousness.” People have made pilgrimages from across the world to attend these services, the same way other devotees might travel to Rishikesh, India, or Jerusalem.
What can the vision of Saint John Coltrane teach us, especially in these trying times, one in which we truly need to find our way to A Love Supreme?
We are not going to solve the world’s wicked problems unless love comes into the equation. Love is the highest expression of the human experience.
When I say love, I’m talking not about eros, the love between intimate partners; platonic, the love between friends; storge, the love and affection of parents and children; or philautia, self-love. All of these, defined by the ancient Greek philosophers, are important.
What I’m referring to instead as the love that can help us to achieve A Love Supreme is agape, unconditional love, which is considered the highest form of love, charity. It embraces a universal, unconditional love that transcends and persists, regardless of circumstance, and comes out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience. It goes beyond just the emotions to the extent of seeking the best for others.
Seeking the best for others. If we lived like that, we would live in a caring society, where what we would want for others and ourselves is to seek the greatest good.
Instead, nowadays most people are jaded and cynical, look for the worst in others, carry their grievances wherever they go, and aim to tear one another apart.
We can’t keep living that way. This is not the teachings of Saint John Coltrane. Nor is it the path to A Love Supreme.
Another brilliant mystic, the Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, once said, “Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.”
That’s the fire of A Love Supreme, of agape.
And another great mystic/musician, Jimi Hendrix, once said, “When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.”
Can we get there? And what holds us back from getting there?
What holds us back from getting there is that which separates and tears us apart.
Fear and greed separate us. Fear causes us to not accept those different from us; greed, which stems from fear, pushes those with blind ambition to hoard wealth. The wealth is generally gained from a philosophy of extraction— extraction shows up in the exploitation of people in the name of profit, and the plundering of the earth for its natural resources—all to amass wealth and power.
In 1949, the musical theater writing team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein debuted a Broadway musical that was an immediate sensation. South Pacific ran for 1,925 performances on Broadway, has twice been made into a film, and continues to be produced on stages all over the world.
South Pacific is one of the greatest Broadway musicals ever written, and also one of the most important and influential works of American theater. In its brilliant artistry, the masterpiece of Rodgers and Hammerstein turned a spotlight on the hypocritical, hateful nature of racism.
One of the songs in the play, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” was written to explain the fear that separates us, and is precise in its exposition. These are the words:
You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!
“You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” was subject to widespread criticism, especially with the song preceded by a line saying racism is “not born in you! It happens after you’re born…”
The play led Rodgers and Hammerstein to be accused of Communist sympathies, and legislators in Georgia introduced a bill to outlaw entertainment containing “an underlying philosophy inspired by Moscow.” One Georgia legislator said that “a song justifying interracial marriage was implicitly a threat to the American way of life.”
By being accused of Communist sympathies and having their play being called a threat to the American way of life, the point Rodgers and Hammerstein made with “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” played out in real life—people have to be taught to hate and fear.
Imagine if people were instead taught to love and embrace others. It would be a far different world, a world of A Love Supreme.
If that were the case, we’d be living in a caring society, one that had a strong social safety net that didn’t cause people to anxiously live on the edge.
People wouldn’t have to worry if they had trouble paying their bills that they might end up homeless; or people wouldn’t have to worry that they might go bankrupt over medical bills; or students wouldn’t have to worry about their high level of college debt; or people wouldn’t have to worry if they could afford the high cost of housing; or people wouldn’t have to worry if climate change was going to change the entire nature of the planet; or people wouldn’t have to worry about having to work themselves to the bone and still barely make ends meet; or people wouldn’t have to worry if the entire food system was guaranteed to make and keep them sick; or people wouldn’t have to worry if medications like OxyContin were deliberately designed to make them drug addicts.
The list goes on and on.
When eight billionaires have more wealth than 50 percent of the world’s population, you know something is wrong. Saint John Coltrane would be rolling in his grave to know this, wondering if he failed in making the world better through his music.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Eight people may have most of the world’s wealth, but they’re up against four billion people—half the world’s population. For that matter, they are up against the entire world’s population, because everyone knows this is morally, ethically, politically, economically, and spiritually wrong—the wealth needs to be shared, not hoarded.
What causes the richest among us to hoard their wealth? As I said above, it’s fear and greed. Sadly, they know nothing of love—A Love Supreme was never taught to them. Feel sorry for them, pity them, but whatever you do, do not emulate them.
There is a way out of this, and A Love Supreme is the answer. Now I’m not saying you’ll need to listen to A Love Supreme everyday, as the YouTube commenter who does so stated, or even listen to it at all; nor will you have to start going to services at the Saint John Coltrane Church (although services are streamed live on Facebook every Sunday).
You just have to remember, as the Saint John Coltrane Church’s mission statement says, “Once you become aware of this force for unity in life, you can’t ever forget it.”
To realize that force for unity in life, Coltrane believed music was the means of expression, but in reality it can be anything that, as Coltrane said, “can create the initial thought patterns that can change the thinking of the people.”
The poet William Blake also knew this, and in his poem Auguries of Innocence, he wrote,
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
In other words, the opportunity to achieve “Coltrane Consciousness,” the ability to have your thought patterns transformed, is readily available in all walks of life, from the mundane, to the delightful, to the sacred.
Now, perhaps you think I’m too much a starry-eyed optimist and dreamer, with what I have said. If that’s the case, I ask you to remember the words of another John, John Lennon. In his song “Imagine”:
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one.
May A Love Supreme live inside your heart, mind, and soul for all eternity.