Despair not, kids. Coltrane is in the house.

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John Coltrane
Released: December 1964
Label: Impulse! Records
Cover photo: Bob Thiele

Told by Diane Rabson

In July, 1967, when I learned from the radio that the great jazz saxophonist and composer, John Coltrane, had died of liver cancer at age 40, I was overcome by grief. I remember sitting on my parents’ front porch in Rochester, New York, and crying. I don’t cry easily; I was reticent even as a young person. But I had tears for John Coltrane.

At the time, I was beginning to turn away from popular music to classical and jazz. That fall of 1967, when I was a junior in college, my roommate played “A Love Supreme” one evening on her portable record player, the kind you could fold up and carry around like a suitcase.

From the very first section (“Acknowledgement”), I was mesmerized by the piece, drawn in initially by his voice in the four-note chant—“A Love Supreme”—reprising the theme already introduced by bassist Jimmy Garrison.

I had discovered jazz just a few years earlier in high school. There was a personal connection. As a young Jewish girl, I had read Anne Frank’s Diary. Like my friends, I not only knew about her ultimate death in a concentration camp, I also believed that the Nazis were back. Only this time they lived in America, and they were white men in the South. The Civil Rights Movement was front and center in my universe then. We watched Martin Luther King on television, saw the hatred and the violence against black people in Alabama and Mississippi. Our family often drove down through the Jim Crow states to visit my grandparents in Florida. While there was also discrimination in the North, the South was a whole different matter.

In the midst of this, I also felt curious about black people and black culture. I believed then that music could be a bridge between cultures, and, I suspected, could shape a worldview. I wanted to know more, so it was natural that I would turn to jazz. By the end of high school in 1965, I was already going out with my friend, Marc, to hear jazz live at the Pythodd Room, a club in the historic black neighborhood in Rochester.

But it took me more than a few years to familiarize myself with the breathtaking span of John Coltrane’s music, and in particular, his Classic Quartet—McCoy Tyner on piano, Elvin Jones on drums, Jimmy Garrison on bass. I heard “A Love Supreme” early on in that journey, so it was fresh and new for me.

I found it to be one of most beautiful pieces of music I’ve ever experienced. It’s a statement of faith, his self-described gift to God. I didn’t read the liner notes at first, or his poem of the same name, from which the music is derived, but it was clear just from the title that he was not putting forth a version of earthly love.

Some critics were turned off, as were some listeners, no doubt. But I was not; for the music, in part, spoke to me through the curiosity I’d first developed in high school about religion and belief.

I have also always loved and been inspired by the photograph on the cover of the album. Producer Bob Thiele took the photo, and Coltrane made the decision to use it. He looks serious, and he is looking forward. What is he thinking? And where is he going with those thoughts? Oddly, the mystery was deepened for me by the fact that impulse! albums open like books. I wanted to go inside and take the record out and discover the clues, if any.

Over the years, I’ve listened to “A Love Supreme” many times. It’s not a record to be enjoyed while washing dishes or straightening the living room. You have to sit, preferably in the “sweet spot,” where you can hear the whole quartet. Like many classical pieces, the emotions it elicits are too strong, and too important to experience with half an ear. This is particularly true as Part 3 (“Pursuance”) moves on into Part 4 (“Psalm”). Psalm is astonishing to me. The tension created by McCoy Tyner’s piano, and Elvin Jones’ powerful drumming, like sea crashing against rocks, in counterpoint with Coltrane’s perfect notes on saxophone, more plaintive as he moves toward conclusion.

This is when I feel tears welling up, every time I listen, right up to that conclusion when the sax fades out, and the drums and bass finish. I wonder if the tears are for the sadness of the African-American experience in America. Or the feeling evoked by the music of the synagogue. Or for the death of this brilliant, gentle musician and composer at such a young age.

In those dark times when it was written, I believe that at the most fundamental level, “A Love Supreme” is a protest against despair.

Diane Rabson is a writer, photographer and archivist. She shared this recollection about “A Love Supreme” from Boulder, Colo. in February 2018. 


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