Born Alice McLeod on August 27, 1937, in Detroit, MI; daughter of Anna (a pianist and singer); married John Coltrane (died, 1967). Addresses: Record company--Impulse! Records, website: http://www.impulserecords.com.
Best known for her collaborations with her late husband, legendary jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, Alice Coltrane is an accomplished performer, composer, and recording artist in her own right. One of the few female instrumentalists in the field of jazz, Coltrane was already a successful bebop pianist and organist when she met John Coltrane in the mid 1960s and joined his band. Inspired by her husband's work, Alice Coltrane adopted many of his harmonic innovations within her own more blues-oriented piano and organ playing, achieving a flowing style that transcended typical chordic patterns. After John Coltrane's death in 1967, Alice Coltrane continued to devote herself to his idea of music as a spiritual and unifying experience. Eschewing more commercial styles, she went on to create compositions admired for their unique fusion of eastern and western musical traditions. In the 1970s, Coltrane founded the Vedanta Center in California, and since that time has concentrated on making and recording devotional music.
Coltrane was born Alice McLeod on August 27, 1937, in Detroit, Michigan, to a family with deep musical roots. Her mother, Anna, was a pianist and sang in the church choir, and her brother, Ernie Farrow, became a professional bassist. Surrounded by musical peers as well, her classmates at Detroit's Cass Technical High School included musicians Hugh Lawson, a pianist, and Earl Williams, a drummer. Coltrane began classical piano lessons at age seven, and later studied organ and music theory. Early in her career, Coltrane performed in church groups as well as with various jazz ensembles, including those led by Lucky Thompson, Kenny Burrell, Johnny Griffin, and Yusef Lateef. In 1959, she went to Paris to study jazz piano with Bud Powell, and she credits Powell and Thelonious Monk as important influences in her work. Coltrane began her professional career in 1960, when she joined the Terry Gibbs Quartet. While playing an engagement with Gibbs at Birdland in New York City in 1963, she met John Coltrane. The couple soon married, and Alice joined John Coltrane's band two years later, replacing McCoy Tyner on piano and also playing organ and harp.
In the early 1960s, John Coltrane was at the height of a brilliant career as a jazz innovator. He had begun playing professionally in 1946 with a cocktail lounge trio in Philadelphia, where he also played backup for various blues artists. In 1948, he joined Dizzy Gillespie's band as an alto saxophonist, later moving on to stints with ensembles led by Earl Bostic and Johnny Hodges. In 1955, John Coltrane joined the influential Miles Davis Quintet, where he began to draw critical attention for his arpeggiated style and his focus on the sixteenth note as his rhythmic foundation--an innovation that some considered jarring at the time. Through the late 1950s, John Coltrane continued to incorporate new elements into his music. As a writer for Dictionary of American Biography explained, "Davis' decision to incorporate modal scales rather than chordal structures... as the basis for improvising" was to become "the foundation for most of [John] Coltrane's playing and composing, freeing him from the intricate complexities inherent in the chordal progressions he had set for himself in such pieces as 'Giant Steps.'... [He] was also able to give free rein to his harmonic ideas without the confinement of running the chords." The resulting freedom of his improvisations created a style often described as "sheets of sound" and hailed for its structural complexity and emotional depth.
During this period, John Coltrane also brought elements from his study of eastern spirituality into his music. He was deeply influenced by the musical traditions of Africa, India, and East Asia, and incorporated symphonic elements--such as those espoused by Igor Stravinsky--into his work as well. This creative synthesis made him one of the earliest proponents of world music, and established him as a musician with expansive spiritual roots. By the time Alice Coltrane joined her husband's band, his work was clearly communicating his stated purpose of enabling listeners to experience a sense of the divine through his music.
Joined John Coltrane's Band
The Coltranes' partnership proved to be a rich and satisfying creative union. "John showed me how to play fully," Alice Coltrane told interviewer Pauline Rivelli in a 1968 interview published in The Black Giants. "In other words, he'd teach me not to stay in one spot and play in one chord pattern. 'Branch out, open up... play your instrument entirely.'... John not only taught me to explore, but to play thoroughly and completely." Learning from her husband's complex compositions and highly original sound, Coltrane began to experiment with ways of playing that freed her from reliance on basic chord patterns or a strictly defined beat. She soon developed a style noted for its expressive power and freedom. She toured with her husband's band in 1966, playing engagements in San Francisco, at the Village Vanguard in New York City, and in Tokyo, Japan. As BBC critic Peter Marsh noted in a review of the recording The Olatunji Concert, the last made before John Coltrane's death from liver disease in 1967, Alice Coltrane's "rippling, bluesy runs" on piano indicate that she "had found a route into the music that long time pianist McCoy Tyner couldn't." Rather than feeling overpowered by the force of Rashid Ali's drumming on the recording, Coltrane responded with acceptance of the various voices of the instruments in the ensemble, "calmly peeling off [Thelonious] Monkish chords over the ecstatic maelstrom created by the other players."
After John Coltrane's death, Alice Coltrane focused on raising her four children, daughter Michelle and sons Ravi, Oranyan, and John Jr. (who died in an automobile accident in 1982). At the same time, she devoted herself to furthering the musical vision of her husband. "I would like to play music according to the ideals set forth by John," she told Rivelli, "and let the cosmic principle, or the aspect of spirituality, be the underlying reality behind the music as he had." During the late 1960s and early 1970s, she led groups that included such musicians as saxophone players Pharaoh Sanders, Archie Shepp, Joe Henderson, Frank Lowe, and Carlos Ward; bass players Jimmy Garrison and Cecil McBee; and drummers Rashid Ali, Roy Haynes, and Ben Riley. "I don't think I have the talent of my husband," she told Rivelli. "I don't have the genius of John, but I will try to elevate the music as much as I possibly can."
Found New Spirit in New Work
Increasingly drawn to eastern mysticism during this period, Coltrane also began to focus on composing. During the 1970s, she produced and recorded several albums of her own compositions, often working in the studio at her home in Dix Hills, New York. Her first album after the death of her husband was Monastic Trio, on which she plays harp and piano with accompaniment by Pharaoh Sanders, Ben Riley, Rashid Ali, and Jimmy Garrison. In an All Music Guide review of a reissue of this recording, Thom Jurek labeled it a "watershed" work in which eastern influences and blues phrasing are intriguingly juxtaposed. This creative fusion continued throughout Coltrane's subsequent recordings. Among the more notable of these is Journey to Satchidananda, a work sometimes hailed as a precursor to New Age music. One of the notable innovations on this album is Coltrane's use of the harp--an instrument rarely used in jazz or blues--to explore eastern and mystical sounds. Critics particularly admired her ethereal yet rich use of this instrument on the album's title track, as well as her distinctive bluesy piano work on "Something about John Coltrane."
More lavish praise greeted the release of Ptah the El Daoud. The album's title immediately announces its spiritual theme: Ptah is the name of an Egyptian god, and "El Daoud" means "the beloved." The recording contains four of Coltrane's own compositions: the title track, "Turiya and Ramakrishna," "Blue Nile," and "Mantra," and features Pharoah Sanders, Joe Henderson, Ron Carter, and Ben Riley as well as Coltrane on piano, organ, and harp. Once again, critics noted the imaginative approach of Coltrane's harp playing, and admired her ability to forge a creative synthesis from eastern and western traditions. Her sweeping harp flourishes on "Blue Nile" and her hauntingly bluesy piano solo on "Turiya and Ramakrishna" prompted special praise. Coda writer Robert Rouda, in a piece reprinted in All Music Guide to Jazz, called the recording a glimpse into the spiritual nature of the composer and musician, and commented that Coltrane's playing, with its blend of "fullness" and "bop-blues roots," is "especially fulfilling."
As her career progressed, Coltrane continued to play with a wide array of musicians from various traditions, and to incorporate diverse instruments and sounds into her compositions. In 1971, she performed at Carnegie Hall with pop stars the Rascals and Laura Nyro to celebrate the birthday of her spiritual teacher, Swami Satchidananda. During this period, she also wrote and recorded several devotional works. Her album Universal Consciousness contains such tracks as "Hare Krishna" and "Sita Ram," both renditions of traditional Indian sacred chants; Lord of Lords similarly features devotional music but also contains excerpts from Stravinsky's The Firebird, an orchestral work. In a review of a reissue of Transfiguration, a live recording from a concert at UCLA in 1978, Guardian contributor John Fordham noted that Coltrane's distinctive sound on organ sometimes suggested the wail of Northumbrian pipes, "with added sitar-like whirrs and pitch bends." In other albums, such as World Galaxy and Transcendence, Coltrane added tamboura, tambourines, wind chimes, organ harp, tympani, and percussion to her repertoire.
In addition to leading various ensembles in recordings of her own work, Coltrane also occasionally appeared as a guest artist with other musicians. Particularly notable is her collaboration with Carlos Santana on Illuminations, which features Coltrane on harp and keyboard. Though most of the compositions were written by Santana, Coltrane contributed "Bliss: The Eternal Now," a work that critics admired as one of the most important on the album. Coltrane has also performed with her sons. In 1987, she led a quartet that included Ravi and Oranyan Coltrane in a tribute to her husband at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. In 1993, President Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton invited Coltrane to the White House as a guest of honor at a ceremony to commemorate John Coltrane's appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival.
Coltrane moved to Woodland Hills, California, in 1972. Three years later, she traveled to India to further her religious studies. There she became a devotee of spiritual teacher Swami Satchidananda, eventually adopting the Sanskrit name Turiyasangitananda; later she became a follower of the "living Hindu saint" Satya Sai Baba. In 1975, she opened the Vedantic Center in California, a retreat center focusing on the study of eastern religions. Since then, she has focused on composing and recording devotional music such as chants, hymns, and music for meditation and other spiritual practice.
Since the late 1970s, Coltrane has given few public performances of secular music, but she has made occasional appearances at benefit concerts in Japan, Netherlands, Poland, England, and New York City. She also continues to work on devotional music. In July 2000 she played piano at a Los Angeles club as a guest of her son, saxophonist Ravi Coltrane. Ravi would return the favor and accompany Coltrane on her September 2004 release of her first recording in 26 years, Translinear Light. The album reached the Top Ten Jazz Albums Billboard chart and has provoked ecstatic reviews. A reviewer for All Music Guide remarked, "Translinear Light is a major entry in Coltrane's catalog. It is a defining, aesthetically brilliant statement from a master composer, improviser, and player. If ever there were a candidate for jazz album of 2004, Translinear Light is it."
To protect the John Coltrane archive and to promote his musical vision, Alice Coltrane has established Jowcol Music, a publishing company devoted to keeping her husband's compositions in print. What she respects most about musicians from any tradition, Coltrane has stated, is the conviction they bring to whatever type of music they play. If the work truly comes from the heart, she believes, it is worthy of respect and admiration, whether it be folk, pop, jazz, classical, or mystical.
"Everything I do is an offering to God," Coltrane explained to Rivelli. "The work I am trying to do is a sort of sharing with my sisters and brothers of the world, my all; the results I leave to God. I am not really concerned with results, my only concern is the work, the effort put forth."
by Elizabeth Shostak
Alice Coltrane's Career
Began playing music in the Terry Gibbs Quartet, 1960; joined husband John Coltrane's band, c. 1965; founded Vedantic Center, 1975; released numerous solo albums throughout the 1970s; released first album of new material in 26 years, Translinear Light, 2004.
- Selected discography
- A Monastic Trio Impulse!, 1968.
- Reflection on Creation and Space Impulse!, 1968.
- Huntington Ashram Monastery Impulse!, 1969,
- Ptah the El Daoud Impulse!, 1970.
- Journey in Satchidananda (live), Impulse!, 1970.
- Universal Consciousness Impulse!, 1971.
- World Galaxy Impulse!, 1971.
- Lord of Lords Impulse!, 1973.
- Eternity Warner Bros., 1975; rereleased, Sepia Tone, 2002.
- Radha-Krsna Nama Sankirtana Warner Bros., 1976.
- Transcendence Sepia Tone, 1977.
- Transfiguration (live), Sepia Tone, 1978.
- Priceless Jazz GRP, 1998.
- The Music of Alice Coltrane: Astral Meditations Impulse!, 1999.
- Translinear Light Impulse!, 2004.
- Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement 8: 1966-1970, American Council of Learned Societies, 1988.
- Hine, Darlene Clark, editor, Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, Carlson, 1993.
- Kernfeld, Barry, editor, New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, Macmillan, 1988.
- Rivelli, Pauline, and Nat Hentoff, editors, The Black Giants, World Publishing, 1970; reprinted as Giants of Black Music, Da Capo Press, 1979.
- Wynn, Ron, editor, All Music Guide to Jazz, Miller Freeman, 1994.
- "Alice Coltrane," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (November 11, 2004).
- "John Coltrane: The Olatunji Concert," BBC Music, http://www.bbc.co.uk/ (April 4, 2002).