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The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul. If heed is not paid to this, it is not true music but a diabolical bawling and twanging.
    -J. S. Bach (1685-1750)

There may be no post-Big Band jazz piece that is more recognizable to the casual listener that John Coltrane's A Love Supreme, a four-part suite featuring McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, drummer Elvin Jones, and Coltrane himself on tenor saxophone and the famous vocals. Even those of us who are not too literate musically can probably recognize Coltrane's sax, can certainly recognize the four note riff (Ba-dee-da-da), and just in case there's still some doubt, Coltrane blows it away when he starts chanting along with the music and we realize that the four note signature is a continuous repetition of the title phrase: A Love Supreme...A Love Supreme...A Love Supreme.... Coltrane called the suite his "gift to God" and--what with the chant-like structure, the yearning quality of the music, the title, Coltrane's own verbal invocation, and what Ashley Kahn reveals is a final section where Coltrane's solo is modeled line-for-line on the self-penned poem below, which appeared in the original liner notes--it resembles nothing so much as an act of worship.

In this book, Mr. Kahn examines the creation of A Love Supreme in minute detail. There's a fairly complete biography of Coltrane and sketches of his bandmates and many others. There's a great deal about the music, which will go over the head of most non-musicians, while details on the recording process will appeal to technophiles, but won't do much for others. For my money though, the most interesting aspect of the book is the exploration of Coltrane's faith and the purpose of the music.

John Coltrane was born in 1926 in Hamlet, NC. Both his parents were the children of Methodist ministers and his youth was imbued with, though not inundated with, religion, church, and hymns. But right around the time a young John Coltrane took up the saxophone, his father, maternal grandparents and uncle all died. His mother had to take on boarders and work extra jobs, and thirteen year old John withdrew into music and began to question all of the things he'd been told, beginning with religious teachings. Out of the process, his own search for the truth, he reconstructed a more personal and individualistic, even idiosyncratic, worldview. Central to this process was his development of a belief that God, that truth, could be found in music:
I think that the majority of musicians are interested in truth. They've got to be, because saying a musical thing is a truth. If you play a musical statement and if it's a valid statement, that's a truth right there in itself, you know. If you play something phony, well, you know that's something phony [laughs]. All musicians are striving for as near certain perfection they can get, and that's truth there, you know. So, in order to play those kinds of things, to play truths, you've got to live as much truth as you possibly can...and if a guy is religious and if he's searching for good and he wants to live a good life--[he] might call himself religious or he might not.
Coltrane couldn't always live up to this standard himself, especially when he--like so many other jazzmen of the day--got hooked on drugs. But he kicked his habit cold turkey in 1957 with the help of his faith, as he details in the liner notes to Love Supreme:
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.
Perhaps God granted that request in 1965, when Coltrane, following the birth of his son, locked himself away for five days in an upstairs room in his Dix Hills, Long Island home to work on a musical idea. On his reappearance:
"It was like Moses coming down from the mountain," according to his wife, Alice, "it was so beautiful. He walked down and there was that joy, that peace in his face, tranquility. He said, 'This is the first time that I have received the music for all that I want to record, in a suite. This is the first time I have everything, everything ready.'"
The music he received was, of course, A Love Supreme and it is surely no coincidence that it is one of the most moving of modern hymns, a music in which every note seems to express love of and thanks to God. That's always been what we heard in the piece, but Mr. Kahn gives us an inside peek at what was going on in the artist's life when he created it and Coltrane's own poem, mentioned above, speaks to us still from deep in his soul:
A Love Supreme
I will do all I can to be worthy of Thee, O Lord.
It all has to do with it.
Thank You God.
There is none other.
God is. It is so beautiful.
Thank You God. God is all.
Help us to resolve our fears and weaknesses.
In you all things are possible.
Thank you God.
We know. God made us so.
Keep your eye on God.
God is. He always was. He always will be.
No matter what... it is God.
He is gracious and merciful.
It is most important that I know Thee.
Words, sounds, speech, men, memory, throughts,
fears and emotions--time--all related...
all made from one... all made in one.
Blessed be his name.
Thought waves--heat waves--all vibrations--
all paths lead to God. Thank you God.
His way... it is so lovely... it is gracious.
It is merciful--Thank you God.
One thought can produce millions of vibrations
and they all go back to God... everything does.
Thank you God.
Have no fear... believe... Thank you God.
The universe has many wonders. God is all.
His way... it is so wonderful.
all go back to God and He cleanses all.
He is gracious and merciful... Thank you God.
Glory to God... God is so alive.
God is.
God loves.
May I be acceptable in Thy sight.
We are all one in His grace.
The fact that we do exist is acknowledgement
of Thee, O Lord.
Thank you God.
God will wash away all our tears...
He always has...
He always will.
Seek him everyday. In all ways seek God everyday.
Let us sing all songs to God.
To whom all praise is due... praise God.
No road is an easy one, but they all
go back to God.
With all we share God.
It is all with God.
It is all with Thee.
Obey the Lord.
Blessed is He.
We were all from one thing... the will of God...
Thank you God.
--I have seen ungodly--
none can be greater--none can compare
Thank you God.
He will remake... He always has and He
always will.
It's true--blessed be His name--Thank you God.
God breathes through us so completely...
so gently we hardly feel it... yet,
it is our everything.
Thank you God.
All from God.
Thank you God. Amen.
-John Coltrane (December, 1964)
The book is a bit over-stuffed--with the feeling sometimes of a magazine essay that grew too big. But the compensation is that it has something for everyone and is so richly illustrated as to almost be coffee-table worthy. Most of all, it gives us the fullest record we'll ever have of one of the great musical recordings ever and of one of the most spiritual and spirit-touching works of the modern age. Bach would approve.


Grade: (B+)


See also:

Music Literature
Ashley Kahn Links:

    -AUTHOR SITE: Ashley Kahn
    -BOOK SITE: A Love Supreme
    -BOOK SITE: Kind of Blue by Ashley Kahn (DaCapo Press)
    -EXCERPT: from A Love Supreme: Suite by the Sea
    -AUDIO ESSAY: John Coltrane's Eternal 'A Love Supreme': New Release Includes Rare Live Performance (Ashley Kahn, NPR: Morning Edition)
    -INTERVIEW: The A Love Supreme Interviews at Jerry Jazz Musician
    -INTERVIEW: An Interview With Ashley Kahn (Jazz Spotlight, May 20, 2001)
    -INTERVIEW: Ashley Kahn: Kind of Blue (Jerry Jazz)
    -INTERVIEW: Ashley Kahn: Kind of Blue (Interview by Gavin J. Grant, Book Sense)
    -INTERVIEW: Ashley Kahn Interview (Lazaro Vega, November 2000, All About Jazz)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Ashley Kahn (To The Best of Our Knowledge, Wisconsin Public Radio ) -ARCHIVES: "ashley kahn" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW: of A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane's Signature Album by Ashley Kahn (Ed Driscoll, BlogCritics)
    -REVIEW: of A Love Supreme (John Janowiak, DownBeat)
    -REVIEW: of A Love Supreme (Greg Tate, Village Voice)
    -REVIEW: of A Love Supreme (Lyn Horton, JazzReview)
    -REVIEW: of A Love Supreme (Nate Chinen, City Paper)
    -REVIEW: of A Love Supreme ()
    -REVIEW: of A Love Supreme (John L. Walters, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of A Love Supreme (Michael Senft, Arizona Republic)
    -REVIEW: of A Love Supreme (James D. Dilts, Baltimore City Paper)
    -REVIEW: of A Love Supreme (Ken Wohlrob, Bully Magazine)
    -REVIEW: of A Love Supreme (Noel Murray, Onion AV Club)
    -REVIEW: of A Love Supreme (Kent & Keith Zimmerman, Jazz Week)
    -REVIEW: of A Love Supreme (Christian Kiefer, Sonoma New & Review)
    -REVIEW: of A Love Supreme (Lary Wallace, Pop Matters)
    -REVIEW: of Love Supreme (Regegaines, Tribes)
   -REVIEW: of Kind of Blue by Ashley Kahn (Ed Driscoll, BlogCritics)
    -REVIEW: of Kind of Blue (Lyn Horton, JazzReview)

Book-related and General Links:

    -The official John Coltrane Web site
    -John Coltrane (1926 - 1967) (Ken Burns' Jazz, PBS)
    -ALBUM SITE: A Love Supreme (Impulse! Records)
    -Church of St. John Coltrane
    -ESSAY: Spiritual Vibes - Church of John Coltrane (ck smart)
    -INTERVIEWS: The A Love Supreme Interviews at Jerry Jazz Musician
    -AUDIO INTERVIEWS: with Saxophonist RAVI COLTRANE & Drummer ELVIN JONES (Fresh Air, June 02, 2000)
    -ESSAY: How John Coltrane’s ‘My Favorite Things’ Changed American Music: Looking back at the moment when one of our greatest jazzmen raised the stakes for everyone who came after (Jeff MacGregor, January/February 2024, Smithsonian)
    -ESSAY: The Canonization of Saint John Coltrane (M.H. Miller|Dec. 3rd, 2021, NY Times)
    -ARTICLE: John Coltrane's Masterpiece Breathes New Life With 'A Love Supreme: Live In Seattle' (Nat Chinen, 8/26/21, NPR: Morning edition)
    -PROFILE: In the Spirit: Alice Coltrane (Kurt Gottschalk, All About Jazz)
    -REVIEW: of Ravi and Alice Coltrane at Joe's Pub - New York, N.Y. November 12, 2002 (Daniel King, Jazz Times)
    -ARCHIVES: "john coltrane" (Find Articles)
    -ESSAY: How Malcolm X Inspired John Coltrane to Embrace Islamic Spirituality: Richard Brent Turner on A Love Supreme, Artistic Transformation, and the Black Arts Movement (Richard Brent Turner, May 4, 2021, Lit Hub)
    -ALBUM REVIEW: of A Love Supreme (John Clare, Sydney Morning Herald)
    -REVIEW: of The John Coltrane Anthology: The Last Giant (Kevin Whitehead, Fresh Air)
    -REVIEW: of A Love Supreme (Robert Spencer, All About Jazz)

    -OBIT: ELVIN JONES, 76 (Joshua Cohen, 6/01/04, NY Press)


Thank you for the A Love Supreme poem. I feel is it critical to include the complete work to better try to understand where he was coming from. To comment just on the music, as powerful as it was, would be to diminish Coltrane's achievement as a man, a child of God. The idea that a man can create something so powerful and do so as an offering to God, is an example for all men to look into thier souls and take another step toward living thier lives in his image and likeness. The act of creating something for others and thier enjoyment wonderfully illustrates God's hope that men can give of themselves for others.

Thank You Chris

- Chris

- Sep-10-2003, 01:07