Alice Coltrane 8/27/1937 - 1/12/2007


alice_coltrane.jpgAlice Coltrane, second wife of John Coltrane and revered by avant-garde jazz fans as a great artist in her own right, has died of respiratory failure at age 69.

Born Alice McLeod in Detroit, she began classical piano lessons at age 7. Her mother was a singer and pianist in the Baptist church, and bassist Ernie Farrow (best known for his tenure in Yusef Lateef’s influential quartet) was her half brother. Later Alice performed in church and jazz groups, playing with such greats as Lateef, Kenny Burrell, Lucky Thompson, and Terry Gibbs. At that time, her style wasbebop (she took lessons from Powell in France in 1959).

It was while playing with Gibbs in New York that she met John Coltrane in 1962 or ‘63; they were married in 1965. A year later, she replaced McCoy Tyner as the pianist in Coltrane’s group. Some jazz fans spoke of her in the same way that Beatles fans derided Yoko Ono, though a better analogy might be the way Yankees fans initially grumbled about Tino Martinez replacing Don Mattingly: Nobody who replaced Tyner was going to be able to equal him in his style, but Alice Coltrane was masterful on very different terms. Her playing was not overtly virtuosic in the way Tyner’s could seem to be (not that he was a showoff in any sense), but her freer style, influenced by world musics, was the direction in which her husband wanted to move. Tyner respected her enough to include her harp playing on his 1970 album Extensions.

John and Alice did not have much time together; he died in 1967. Nonetheless, there is ample documentation of their musical time together, as he was prolifically recorded due to his stature in the jazz community and thanks to producer Bob Thiele’s wise decision to record him far beyond what the label’s release schedule could handle.

Ms. Coltrane actually came into her own as a performer and composer after John’s death. Her first album as a leader came in 1968 (A Monastic Trio), but she really blossomed in 1970 with Ptah the El Daoud, featuring Pharoah Sanders (her bandmate in John’s groups) and Joe Henderson on saxophones, and the live album Journey in Satchidananda with Sanders, both featuring Coltrane on not only piano but also harp, an instrument not often heard in jazz. In her hands, the blues’ roots in Africa seemed to shine through clearly, and the Far Eastern elements are strong; the horn players, clearly inspired by her settings, their improvisations reaching ecstatic heights without ever suggesting rage (as such intense music sometimes seems to do). There was critical debate over the validity of her music, but if the opinions of musicians count, consider that in the Seventies she played on albums by Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Joe Henderson, Laura Nyro, and Santana.

Her 1978 double live album Transfiguration, another high point in her career, was her last jazz recording (unless one counts her 1981 appearance on Marian McPartland’s radio program Piano Jazz, which was eventually released on album) until a 2004 comeback, Translinear Light, which included the playing of her sons Ravi and Oran. She had traveled to the Far East, especially India, and her spiritual development became a greater priority than jazz. In 1975 she founded the Vedantic Center, a commune for the study of Eastern spirituality. It began as a storefront ashram in San Francisco, but eventually moved to a 48-acre site in the Santa Monica Mountains. She also became the swami of the San Fernando Valley's first Hindu temple, in Chatsworth. Known by her Sanskrit name, Turiyasangitananda, often shortened to Turiya, she wrote a vast amount of devotional music during her hiatus from jazz, with a few examples issued on recordings separate from her jazz work.

Over the past decade, as the old guard of jazz criticism has largely disappeared and younger generations more open to non-traditional developments came to the fore as either writers or performers, Ms. Coltrane moved from being considered the wife of a famous man, and something of a relic from the Seventies’ peace-and-love generation, to being thought of as an icon of adventurous music-making beyond boundaries, her music loved and admired for what it was rather than what it wasn‘t. And that is as it should be, and what she deserved. - Steve Holtje

Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based poet and composer. His personal highlights in 2006 were getting married in Japan and then writing and recording his original soundtrack to Bystander, a documentary film by John Reilly.