Zen trainer Sean Murphy appears to be like again on the jazz icon and the way meditation observe and a deep curiosity in Jap traditions knowledgeable his monumental late-period work.
One predawn morning in 1964, the already-legendary saxophonist John Coltrane was sitting in meditation in his Lengthy Island residence when the construction and themes of his masterpiece, the album A Love Supreme, got here to him in its entirety. “It was the primary time I had all of it,” he stated, as reported by his spouse, pianist and harpist Alice Coltrane, with whom he shared a observe of meditation and a deep curiosity in all issues religious.
This was not the primary time that Coltrane, who got here to contemplate his musical improvisation a type of meditation in itself, skilled what he regarded as divine grace. He’d sweated out dependancy — his first, failed path to transcendence — in 1957 after what he described as a “life-changing religious expertise” that helped him overcome heroin and alcohol and set him on a seek for different technique of transcendence, by means of meditation, prayer, and music. His search would additionally profoundly affect the jazz world, and the cultural panorama of western society itself.
“There are at all times new sounds to think about: new emotions to get at. And at all times, there’s a must preserve purifying these emotions and sounds in order that we will actually see what we’ve found in its pure state.” —John Coltrane
Fifty years after his demise in 1967, Coltrane stays a cultural and religious icon, exerting an affect over jazz that’s unattainable to flee — a lot in order that it has given rise to a wierd phenomenon, absolutely certainly one of a form: the Saint John Coltrane Church. Primarily based in San Francisco, the SJCC is an precise neighborhood of worship that continues to at the present time, utilizing A Love Supreme, Coltrane’s signature work, as scripture and hymnal.
Earlier than Coltrane, jazz had largely been thought to be a sensual, even risqué type of expression, linked as a lot to libation as to liberation. However jazz and spirituality have at all times been linked.
Jazz is an improvisational artwork type — it requires the second. Complete immersion in it, that’s. I’ve lengthy been struck by the bizarre purity of the most effective of this music, although it was so typically developed below probably the most impure of situations: smoky golf equipment, alcohol, medicine, and the inescapable burden of racial prejudice. How might this be doable? As a Zen practitioner/trainer and musician myself, I really feel the reply lies in a model of what we in Zen name working samadhi – an immersion in moment-to-moment exercise so full that it turns into primarily a meditative state. Improvisational music, at the least on the degree of complexity exhibited by jazz, requires a placing apart of the ego — should you begin pondering of fine or unhealthy, attempt to impress, turn out to be distracted by the flubbed observe of the final second, attempt to anticipate the following second, or give your self over to the rest however what’s taking place now, you’re misplaced. To play actually nice improvisational music, it’s important to lose your self.
The most effective musicians, like Coltrane, are capable of summon an immersion within the second that may transcend even the worst environments, private issues, or state of well being. After all, this doesn’t imply that sure gamers don’t inflate themselves after the very fact, constructing themselves up and taking credit score for what in essence, had handed by means of them — by way of, maybe, the larger energy to which Coltrane typically alluded. However Coltrane was not certainly one of these.
Coltrane’s difficult later albums had been supposed to be 100% religious testomony, the communication of an ongoing, infinite religious quest into the nice thriller.
You can say the truest and deepest improvisation is an act of religion, as a result of the participant by no means is aware of what’s going to occur. That is one thing Coltrane knew, particularly within the later years of his work, and expressed consciously by means of each phrases and music. Effectively-known for his deep curiosity in meditation, and the traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism — he made a particular effort to go to Zen temples throughout his 1966 tour of Japan, and quoted from the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Ancestor of Zen in certainly one of his late interviews — his religious tastes remained eclectic, starting from Krishnamurti by means of the Koran, the Bible, and even Edgar Cayce, and he retained a largely theistic view of absolutely the. A Love Supreme is clearly introduced as an providing to God as supreme being.
The religious substance of that album on no account compromised its enchantment — it stays the second best-selling jazz album of all time, after Miles Davis’s Sort of Blue, on which Coltrane additionally seems. Nonetheless, experiencing the supreme love depicted on this music – to not point out within the far harder music in Coltrane albums nonetheless to come back like Meditations, Ascension, and Om — can at occasions be a problem for listeners. A Love Supreme merely pushes the boundaries that the later Coltrane would dispense with as he delved ever additional into free jazz, typically devolving to apparently random, non-harmonic honks and squeals that explored the far edges of musicality, his instrument, and at occasions the persistence of his listeners.
However isn’t that the best way the religious life is? The embrace of life in its fullest includes ache in addition to magnificence — that’s primary Buddhism. And thus it’s in Coltrane’s difficult later albums, which could be described variously as going far past merely meditating upon to pleading, exhorting, crying out to the heavens – or as some have urged, talking to God in a language solely He might perceive. These works had been supposed by Coltrane as 100% religious testomony, the communication of an ongoing, infinite religious quest into the nice thriller, slightly than any type of peaceable and harmonious arrival at solutions. It’s an strategy fairly much like the continued, ever-deepening questioning of Zen koan observe.
That is maybe one thing Coltrane himself nicely understood, as urged by his reference to the Platform Sutra on this description of his evolution: “There may be by no means any finish. There are at all times new sounds to think about: new emotions to get at. And at all times, there’s a must preserve purifying these emotions and sounds in order that we will actually see what we’ve found in its pure state. In order that we will see extra clearly what we’re. In that method, we can provide to those that hear, the essence—the most effective of what we’re. However to try this at every stage, we now have to maintain on cleansing the mirror.”
The divine drive — God, as Coltrane outlined it — breathes by means of us all, stated Coltrane, and the final years of his life could be seen as an try — typically a wrestle — to breathe God by means of his horn.
“When you turn out to be conscious of this drive for unity in life,” wrote Coltrane within the liner notes for 1965’s Meditations, his acknowledged follow-up to A Love Supreme. “You’ll be able to’t overlook it. It turns into a part of every thing you do… my aim in meditating on this by means of music nevertheless stays… to uplift folks as a lot as I can. To encourage them to appreciate increasingly their capacities for dwelling significant lives.”
“I imagine in all religions,” Coltrane stated. “The reality itself doesn’t have any identify on it to me, and every man has to search out it for himself.