A Love Supreme and all that jazz

A Love Supreme and all that jazz

By Steve Beard

“I’m never sure of what I’m looking for,” John Coltrane once told noted jazz critic Nat Hentoff, “except that it’ll be something that hasn’t ever been played before; I know I’ll have that feeling when I get it.”

Within jazz, Coltrane was Ponce de Leon with a saxophone tirelessly searching for a mystical fountain of rhythms and harmonies. He practiced relentlessly, stretching every conceivable note to conform to his will.

Throughout his illustrative life (1926-1967), Coltrane shared the stage with jazz masters such as Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Theolonious Monk, and Dizzy Gillespie. In 1997, Coltrane received a posthumous Special Citation from the Pulitzer Prize Board for his “masterful improvisation, supreme musicianship, and iconic centrality to the history of jazz.”

Those packed into the gritty jazz clubs such as Birdland, the Village Vanguard, or the Half Note would all testify that Coltrane could light the joint ablaze—sometimes logging 45 minute solos. Saxophonist Dave Liebman described one scene: “En masse, cats started to put their hands up to the ceiling and the whole place stood up. It was like those holy-roller meetings. It was unbelievable.”

Liebman’s comparison is fascinating. Of course, a notable difference between a church service and a Coltrane gig would be the use of words. For most mortals, worship is solely expressed through prayers, creeds, and hymns. For Coltrane, it was expressed through sweat, overlapping chord progression, bulging neck veins, blasts, and wails. For him, to play was to pray.

The potency of his musical genius was not always so easy to recognize. Miles Davis had to kick Coltrane out of his band in 1957—for the second time—because of intense addiction to alcohol and heroin. Coltrane was nodding off on the bandstand, appearing disheveled, always running late or never showing up at all.

Coltrane retreated for a two-week stay at his mother’s house in Philadelphia where he locked himself in a room to kick the addiction. Trane is said to have heard the voice of heaven during his withdrawls.

“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,” Coltrane wrote many years later in the liner note of his masterpiece, A Love Supreme. “At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music.” His recovery was jaw-dropping.

Even those around him who were uncertain about the existence of God knew Coltrane had met Him. He began playing in Thelonious Monk’s band and recorded Blue Train. Shortly thereafter, Miles Davis asked him to rejoin his group.

Seven years after his battle with heroin, Coltrane recorded A Love Supreme. He had been sequestered to a section of his Long Island home for four or five days. “It was like Moses coming down from the mountain, it was so beautiful,” Alice Coltrane recalls. “He walked down and there was the joy, that peace in his face, tranquility.” She asked him to tell her what he was experiencing. “This is the first time that I have received all of the music for what I want to record, in a suite,” he told her. “This is the first time I have everything, everything ready.”

A Love Supreme is introduced with a Chinese gong and then the listener is ushered into a mosaic of sound and energy. This is not elevator jazz; this is jazz as an exclamation point—tortured souls finding liberation, exorcism, and deliverance. Within the confines and liberties of jazz, it is Jacob wrestling with an angel, the parting of the Red Sea, the kiss of betrayal from Judas, and the empty tomb.

In the liner notes, Coltrane writes: “God breathes through us so completely … so gently we hardly feel it … yet it is our everything. Thank you God. Elation—Elegance—Exaltation—All from God.”

A few years ago, Rolling Stone ranked A Love Supreme #47 of the 500 greatest albums of all time. “For all its thunder you can hear yourself think when you listen to it,” commented The Village Voice, “primarily because Trane achieved the unthinkable: creating a secular form of God-loving music for the godless universe of Western modernity.”

You often hear about the blind having a stronger awareness of their other senses, particularly hearing and smell. Coltrane had the accentuated senses of a blind man who had been healed—eyes wide open and soaking up a dazzling vision from a heavenly realm.

“My goal is to live the truly religious life, and express it in my music,” said Coltrane. “If you live it, when you play there’s no problem because the music is part of the whole thing. To be a musician is really something. It goes very, very deep. My music is the spiritual expression of what I am—my faith, my knowledge, my being.”

A love supreme, indeed.

Steve Beard is the editor of Good News.

A Love Supreme and all that jazz

Poverty at my doorstep

By B.J. Funk

As a girl, my mother thought nothing about bringing people off the street to her kitchen for a hot meal. I remember the rancid odor from their bodies, the dirty clothes, and the toothless smiles of gratitude. There was no reason to be afraid. My sister and I ran around barefooted on the dirt, catching lightning bugs way into the night, without ever a care. Andy Griffith and Barney Fife were characters we could understand. Mayberry could have been my hometown, and everybody had a church group with an Aunt Bea. Safety was not a concern.

If there was poverty “on the other side of the tracks,” then Mama saw it as if it were right at her doorstep. She lived in a comfortable home, but she made no distinction between people in nice, clean homes and people in run-down, insect-infected houses.

I never knew how my mother met the sad lady with her four even sadder children, but I learned quickly that Mother took her for keeps. Her family lived in a one-bedroom apartment. I had never seen so many beds crammed into one room. The apartment had a strong smell of Clorox. Maybe she was trying to cover the dirt, the hurts, or the unbearable pain. Maybe she could pretend it wasn’t actually so bad, at least during our visits. As a child, many times I sat in the backseat of Mother’s car as she drove this woman around for errands, stopping to buy her ice cream at the Dairy Queen. She was always crying.

“Mama, why does she hurt so much?” “Shhh. You don’t need to ask those kind of questions.” Mama didn’t dwell on the questions, just on answers.

Mother lived to be 94. It’s better that she’s in heaven now. She would not know how to deal with today’s doorstep poverty. Her tender nature would become victim to another’s addiction. How do I take her lessons and incorporate wisdom and discernment into my decisions? Where do I draw the line? What would my mother have me do in this world of crime and drugs? Do I simply ignore the poverty at my doorstep because of fear? Do I wrap my grandchildren in a cocoon of safety, never teaching them about compassion? Gone forever are the days of Mayberry.

In Matthew 10:16, Jesus warned us that there are wolves out in this world. He said we were to be as wise as a serpent. Therefore, we are not to be gullible pawns, but rather sensible and prudent. There must be a balance between wisdom and compassion. How do we find it?

Last week, a loud knock came to our church’s front door. A victim of the clutches of crack cocaine, this young man wanted food from our kitchen. He would likely barter it on the street, for the drug need was more important to him than his stomach need. We gave him something to eat anyway.

The next day, his mother came to see me. “I want to apologize for my son. I’m so sorry he came begging. He was hungry. He has been on crack for two years. He steals from me. He takes all of my food and sells it.” Her scant clothing attested to the fact that she was in need. My heart broke. The problem was so large. What could be done to help this family?

Jesus claimed to be the Anointed One who had come to preach to the poor, free the prisoners, recover sight for the blind, and cancel debts. At the synagogue, he stood and boldly declared that Isaiah’s words were at this very moment being fulfilled.

So, what do we do with this national problem that has robbed our young men and women and thrust itself at our church’s door? What would Jesus do with this broken world of 2010? How would Jesus deal with poverty at the church’s doorstep? I imagine he would do the very same thing he did with the broken world he found at the temple doorsteps. He loved them and did something about their pain.

When Jesus spoke of welcoming the blessed into their inheritance, he spoke in terms of their entrance being determined by their hearts. He spoke in first person. “I was hungry; you fed me. I was thirsty; you gave me a drink. I needed clothes; you gave them to me.”

Excuse me, Jesus, but we have never seen you in any of those difficult places.

“Oh yes you have. That was me. I was the hungry beggar. I was the outcast cocaine addict. I was the crying mother whose son stole her food. I was poverty at your doorstep.”

“Mama, why do they all hurt so much?”

“Shhh. You don’t need to dwell on the questions. Just on the answers.”
The church has to figure it out. We have got to figure this one out. God help us.

B.J. Funk (bjfunk@bellsouth.net) is associate pastor of Central United Methodist Church in Fitzgerald, Georgia. She is the author of The Dance of Life: Invitation to a Father Daughter Dance, a regular contributor to the South Georgia Advocate, and a frequent speaker at women’s retreats.