I guess I was on my way in ’57, when I started to get myself together musically, although at the time I was working academically and technically. It’s just recently that I’ve tried to become even more aware of this other side—the life side of music.
—John Coltrane, Down Beat
On September 1, 1962, journalist Louise Davis Stone reviewed John Coltrane’s Coltrane Plays the Blues album for the Black newspaper the Baltimore Afro-American. A glowing review, Stone especially praises the album’s opening song “Blues to Elvin.” Stone notes that the song’s “stretched tonality extensions, blues roots and Eastern minor shades” make it “an excellent expression of himself [i.e., Coltrane].”1 This wasn’t first time that Stone read “Eastern” music as a particular expression of Coltrane’s artistry. A few months prior to her review of Coltrane Plays the Blues, Stone reviewed his My Favorite Things album, and noted that the “Eastern sound” of the titular song was “most compelling.”2 Stone’s use of “Eastern” was most likely code for “Indian.” By the time he recorded My Favorite Things, it was already widely known that Coltrane was deeply invested in studying Indian culture, especially the work of shenai player Bismillah Khan.3 Coltrane would even later assert that “My Favorite Things” contained Indian elements that were “more or less subconscious, unconscious.”4 Coincidentally, “My Favorite Things” appears in Stone’s review of Coltrane Plays the Blues, as she compares “My Favorite Things” to the fourth song on the album, “Mr. Day,” and underscores, in an Orientalist manner, their shared “hypnotic texture.” For Stone, such a blending of Black musical traditions like the blues with “Eastern” sounds of India is part of what makes Coltrane Plays the Blues an album that uniquely and most aptly provides a “tour of the Coltrane terrain,” a “rarely frantic or obtuse” journey of the masterful saxophonist John Coltrane, or, as Stone lauds in her review, “the James Baldwin of horn sound.”5
Stone’s analogization of Coltrane to Baldwin is quite striking. Baldwin’s love for and literary indebtedness to jazz in his life and work are well-known, and by the time of Stone’s review in 1962, he used jazz as one of the central organizing thematics in some of his most famous works like Go Tell It on the Mountain, The Amen Corner, “Sonny’s Blues,” and Another Country.6 And yet, scholars, journalists, artists, and activists generally read Coltrane’s music (during his life and especially after his death) in relation to two other African American political leaders (both of whom were Baldwin’s personal and political friends and contemporaries): Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Coltrane’s southern Black Christian church upbringing, affinity for gospel, and recordings like “Reverend King” draw obvious connections to King; and his songs like “Liberia” and punctuated horn screams in the altissimo register presented a militancy that, particularly for the Black Arts Movement, align with Malcolm X.7 These comparisons of Coltrane to King or Malcolm X make use of the two most prominent political leaders of the 1960s in ways that give political meaning and urgency to an artist who generally shied away from formal political participation.8 Moreover, and perhaps most important, such a likening of Coltrane with Malcolm X and King place Coltrane within what Erica Edwards calls the “black charisma” of the 1960s Black freedom struggles, a “cultural–political ideal that rests on a particular and persistent marking of normative masculinity as the most proper site of political expression.”9
James Baldwin transgressed this normative masculinity of 1960s Black leadership. The James Baldwin referenced in Stone’s review was the James Baldwin prior to the publication of The Fire Next Time (or the previously published articles that composed this monograph), which established him as one of the leading voices of the civil rights movement. This was instead a James Baldwin who had, by February 1961, made it a point to publicly write in Harper’s Magazine that Martin Luther King Jr. “lost much moral credit” with young civil rights activists for giving into the homophobia of Adam Clayton Powell and forcing “the resignation of his [i.e., King’s] extremely able organizer and lieutenant,” the queer Black activist Bayard Rustin.10 This was a James Baldwin who in April 1961, two months after the Harper’s article, debated Malcolm X, critiqued his equation of effective anti-racist activism with violent masculinity, and concluded that the standards of masculinity “need to be revised.”11 This was a queer Black James Baldwin whom some civil rights activists privately and homophobically called “Martin Luther Queen.” And this was a queer Black James Baldwin whose most famous literary works at the time of Stone’s review sat at the intersection of race and dissident sexualities.12 In essence, as Edwards articulates, Stone’s Baldwin was someone “positioned as outside of, if not dangerous to, the images of Black leadership that circulated in mass culture,” and whose “performance of leadership did not conform to the performative demands of Black charismatic leadership that had solidified in U.S. culture by the 1960s.”13 It is against this backdrop that I want to approach Stone’s reference to Coltrane as the “James Baldwin of horn sound.” I want to question its racialized gender and sexual stakes for Black queer masculinity, contend with its Black political significance, and think through how, if at all, Coltrane’s blending of Afro-diasporic blues structure with an Indian-inflected “Eastern” sound, a music that was central to Stone’s review, was also part of such superlative appellation.
This is to say that this chapter uses Stone’s comparison of John Coltrane to James Baldwin as an opening into what I’m calling the other side of things, an alternative reading and meaning-making practice of African American musicians’ engagements with South Asian sounds and artists in and across Black popular musics. Rather than trace the similarities between Coltrane and Baldwin, I am more interested in using their overlaps as a point of departure and provide new insight into Coltrane’s music. Routing Coltrane’s well-known interests in and embrace of Indian music and spirituality through Baldwin produces new ways of imagining and grappling with Coltrane’s Afro–South Asian musical and extramusical crossings. Far too often, scholarly approaches to Coltrane songs like “India,” albums like Om, and even his naming of his son after sitarist Ravi Shankar treat such acts solely as examples of Coltrane’s personal investments in Indian music and spirituality that neither articulate with his interests in African American musical traditions nor carry Black political import. That is, this literature, when it concerns Coltrane’s engagements with Indian expressive culture, disaggregates the Indian from the African American as well as the personal and the spiritual from the social and the political. This chapter resists such a disarticulation and argues instead that we cannot adequately address the relations between the political possibilities of Coltrane’s Afro-diasporic-inflected music during the 1960s without concomitantly investigating their constitutive interactions with Indian music and spirituality. If we take seriously Coltrane as the “James Baldwin of horn sound,” and if, as Lawrie Balfour contends, Baldwin’s political impulse centers on his “unwillingness to disentangle political matters from discussion of spiritual or cultural or personal subjects,” then we must demand interpretive channels—like the other sides of things—that necessitate the mutually constitutive and that illuminate the ways in which the political, the spiritual, the cultural, and their attendant Afro-diasporic and Indian manifestations as necessarily intertwined in the work and life of John Coltrane.14
The focus of this chapter is on a perhaps unlikely recording: Coltrane’s 1965 four-part suite A Love Supreme. A deeply spiritual album, for sure, A Love Supreme is also a record that scholars generally do not read as tied to Indian spirituality and musical traditions—or certainly not in the way that one might read Ascension, Meditations, or Om. But this is precisely why I’m interested in A Love Supreme. If we solely examine Coltrane’s engagements with Indian expressive culture as occurring on recordings that explicitly gesture toward Indian musical and spiritual traditions, then we undertheorize and subsequently overlook how deeply committed Coltrane was to Indian music and spirituality, how such a commitment is at the heart of much of his discography, and how such a commitment involves bridging Afro-diasporic and Indian expressive culture. This is the importance of the other side of things. It’s an insistence to look beyond the evident in order to perceive what’s obscured. And so to that end, just as analyses of A Love Supreme frequently elide Indian spirituality, the same is true for its political implications, a remainder of a far too frequent, but in no way unreasonable, reticence to tie Coltrane to political protest. As Lewis Porter and Ingrid Monson point out, unlike fellow jazz musicians like Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln, Coltrane seemed to lack participation in explicit engagements with domestic and international political actions.15 While I agree that Coltrane was not overwhelmingly involved in formal politics, I posit that investigating Coltrane’s music like A Love Supreme and placing it within its larger sociohistorical and political contexts actually allows us to glean the ways in which Coltrane engaged in politics in a different way, a politics that sits outside the realm of formal and conventional understandings of political engagement and that resonates with and expands James Scott’s framework of “infrapolitics.”16 If, as Gerald Horne, Nico Slate, Vijay Prashad, Sudarshan Kapur, and others have illustrated, Indian and African American activists during the long twentieth century forged collective bonds to combat anti-racist and anti-colonial practices in India and the United States as well as the “darker nations” around the world, then Coltrane’s music—here, A Love Supreme—not only speaks to the larger Afro-Asian political actions taking place, but also the ways in which these new cultural expressions held the potential to extend these transnational, cross-cultural, and anti-imperial modes of political, spatial, and racial solidarity.17
Further, using Baldwin as a lens through which to listen to Coltrane sheds light on how Coltrane’s expressions of the political and spiritual collectivity of Afro–South Asian sound must also contend with how such cross-cultural, political, and spiritual linkages articulate with Black queer masculinities. To be clear, Coltrane never identified as queer and I’m not attempting to impose such an identity on him. Rather, my aim is in part to take seriously Stone’s analogization of Coltrane and Baldwin, and to treat it as an opening into Coltrane’s sonic modalities of nonnormativity. As Gerald Early suggests, Coltrane was a different kind of jazzman:
Coltrane was not, after all, an especially flamboyant jazz musician as Dizzy Gillespie or Illinois Jacquet or Art Blakey each was in his own way; Coltrane did not embody any sense of masculine cool or Hemingway bravado like Miles Davis; he was not mysterious and enigmatic like Thelonious Monk or Sun Ra; he was not as openly Afrocentric or Pan-Africanist in his religious inclination as Rashaan Roland Kirk or Yusef Lateef or Sun Ra; nor was he as overtly political with his music as Max Roach or Archie Shepp or Charles Mingus; he was not popular with the masses of working-class blacks as were “Cannonball” Adderley, Jimmy Smith, Les McCann, Horace Silver, or Bobby Timmons . . . and he was certainly not as accomplished in the range of what he could do musically or in the way he could exploit the talents of the musicians around him as Duke Ellington.18
Early is not simply comparing Coltrane to his jazz forbearers and contemporaries at the level of artistic creativity; he is also assessing Coltrane’s relation to archetypes of Black jazzmen—the political jazzman, the masculine cool jazzman, the Afrocentric jazzman, the working-class jazzman. Coltrane fails to fit into these established scripts that render Black jazzmen legible and proper. Much like Baldwin’s transgressions of normative Black male leadership, Coltrane sits outside the set aesthetic patterns that define Black jazzmen. Coltrane thus performs a “radical rescripting of the accepted performances of a heteronormative black masculinity” that is indicative of what Mark Anthony Neal calls “illegible masculinities.”19
Indeed, the “James Baldwin of horn sound” moniker works as a nod to Coltrane’s affinity for the soprano saxophone, the smaller and sonically lighter instrument that most jazz male musicians did not play, opting instead for the larger, sonically deeper, and thus coded as more masculine tenor iteration. Stone’s title for Coltrane perhaps also signals Coltrane’s acknowledgment of and collaborations with women who shaped his life and sound, disrupting the normative narratives of patrilineality that inform jazz male influences, collaborations, and historiography. Coltrane’s second wife, Alice McLeod, who joined and played a pivotal role in Coltrane’s mid to late 1960s band, is the more well-known example here. But his first wife Naima, to whom Coltrane was married at the time of Stone’s review, is also noteworthy. She helped Coltrane get and stay sober, expanded his mind about other spiritual traditions, came up with the titles to some of his songs like “Equinox,” and, along with her daughter Sayeeda, had other songs of Coltrane’s named after her. But Stone’s nickname for Coltrane potentially also speaks to his complicated relationship with religion and spirituality. Baldwin famously did not believe in, and at times critiqued, Christianity and Islam, but still centered religion in his work. Coltrane was similarly critical of religions. In 1958 he expressed to August Blume that he was “disappointed” with the multitude of, and in particular the apparent antagonisms between, various religions: “When I saw there were so many religions and kind of opposed somewhere to the next and so forth, you know, it screwed with my head. . . . I just couldn’t believe that one guy could be right. ’Cause if he’s right, somebody else got to be wrong, you know?”20 Coltrane subsequently began to study multiple religions from across the world in the hopes of “bring[ing] them all together,” and was most drawn to Indian spirituality, which failed to map on to—to return to Early—the “Afrocentric or Pan-Africanist . . . inclination as Rashaan Roland Kirk or Yusef Lateef or Sun Ra.” In fact, it is Coltrane’s embrace of Indian spirituality that is partly tied to his love of the soprano saxophone and his relationship with Naima. The soprano saxophone, as Peter Lavezzoli articulates, is “crisp and dry” and has “a bright nasal tone” that is reminiscent of the shenai; and Naima and Coltrane studied Indian spirituality together, and his song named after her, “Naima,” uses rhythmic bass accompaniment common in North Indian classical music.21 This is all to say that Coltrane’s Baldwin sound, his queer sound of illegible masculinities, articulates with his use of Indian expressive culture. It is part and parcel of his nonnormative aesthetics that violate the sonic schema of Black jazzmen at the time.
We, thus, might call Coltrane “eccentric” in Francesca Royster’s framing of the term. Royster defines an eccentric performer as “not only out of the ordinary or unconventional . . . but also those that are ambiguous, uncanny, or difficult to read . . . through acts of spectacular creativity, the eccentric joins forces with the ‘queer,’ ‘freak,’ and ‘pervert’ to see around corners, push the edges of the present to create a language not yet recognized: new sounds, new dances, new configurations of self—the makings of a black utopia.”22 The queer Black utopic space that Coltrane’s eccentricity engenders, especially on a record like A Love Supreme, is one of political immediacy that articulates with Indian spirituality and sound. It is a Black utopia that sounds the other side of things. It purses and produces an imaginative space that challenges Early’s jazzmen archetype through its formation of a political, spiritual, and Afro–South Asian collectivity.
I locate Coltrane’s queer Afro–South Asian sound, his Baldwin sound, in 1957. It is in 1957 that Coltrane had what he would later describe as a “spiritual awakening.” This spiritual awakening led Coltrane, with the help of his wife (Naima) and others, to quit drugs and alcohol, an addiction that had led to Coltrane’s firing from Miles Davis’s quintet in April of that year. Newly sober and looking to live a different life, Coltrane started to study and incorporate non-Western religious, philosophical, and musical traditions in his life and artistry. Admittedly, Coltrane started to stray from and question Black Christianity as a teenager, and he was “introduced to” Islam in his early twenties, which “shook” him because he “had never thought about” another religion outside of Christianity.23 But it wasn’t until the spiritual shift in his life in 1957 that Coltrane desired to “see what other people are [spiritually] thinking,” and delve deep into African, Chinese, and especially Indian philosophies and spiritualities.24
It is also in 1957 that Coltrane’s interest in Indian spirituality and philosophy dovetailed with his studies of Indian classical music. Ethnomusicologist Carl Clements, for example, argues that Coltrane started studying and using the concept of vikriti, an exploration of “the various permutations of limited sets of notes,” in his work in 1957.25 Vikriti shares much with Coltrane’s famous “sheets of sounds” aesthetic that he popularized while recording and working with Thelonious Monk a year later, and thus might have served as a model for Coltrane’s new sound. Moreover, and more broadly, Coltrane developed an interest in North Indian or Hindustani classical music in 1957, especially its melodic and rhythmic structure. Rather than a highly harmonic musical tradition, Hindustani music centers on a rag or raga, a collection of pitches and their attendant musical characteristics (the predominant pitch, its implied mood, the number of pitches, etc.), which a soloist explores through improvisation. Key to such performances is the use of a sustained drone (usually on a tamboura or harmonium), which allows the soloist to improvise for an unspecified duration. Coltrane’s interest in Hindustani music converged with the emergence of modal jazz. Ingrid Monson outlines how modal jazz, much like Hindustani music, often includes, among other things, “(1) a lower density of chords . . . or whose harmonic frame is specified in scales; (2) extended horizontally conceived solos that use scales and their segments to connect harmonies; (3) the use of vamps and pedal points to create open-ended frameworks for improvisation.”26 And so when Coltrane rejoined Miles Davis’s band in 1958, the trumpeter’s sound had moved more toward modal jazz (exemplified in Davis’s 1959 track “So What?”), which allowed Coltrane to bridge modal jazz with Hindustani music. As Coltrane would later remark in a 1963 interview, he was initially drawn to Ravi Shankar’s music because of the “modal aspect of his [Shankar’s] art.”27
The year 1957 is also important for the purposes of this chapter and Coltrane’s Baldwin horn sound—his queer Afro–South Asian sound—because it is in 1957 that James Baldwin returned to the United States from his self-imposed exile in France, and did so in order to more directly participate in the civil rights movement. Oddly enough, John Coltrane’s hometown Charlotte, North Carolina, was Baldwin’s first stop back in the United States. It was then and there that Baldwin interviewed and wrote about the fight for school integration. While the overlaps between Baldwin and Coltrane in year (1957) and location (Charlotte) are certainly coincidences, my aim here is to follow Melani McAlister’s call to “explain the coincidence that brings specific cultural products into conversation with specific political discourses.”28 It is thus at the 1957 convergences of Baldwin’s political return home and Coltrane’s sonic and spiritual trek abroad that we might locate and imagine the sociocultural and sociopolitical implications of Coltrane’s expression of the other side of things. Thinking through the coincidences of Baldwin and Coltrane illuminates how Coltrane’s Baldwin sound is domestic and transnational, spiritual and political, Black and South Asian.
It is because of 1957’s centrality to Baldwin and Coltrane, and most fundamentally to Coltrane, that this chapter focuses on Coltrane’s 1965 album A Love Supreme, and especially the “Acknowledgement” and “Psalm” movements. In his self-written liner notes, Coltrane begins with a reference to his 1957 spiritual awakening, and lauds it for bringing him closer to God (I will speak more about which kind of God below) as well as leading him to “a richer, fuller, more productive life.”29 Coltrane continues that A Love Supreme is his “humble offering” of thanks to God for his post–spiritual awakening life, and as such, I want to read the album as a commemoration of 1957 and the spiritual, musical, personal, and political events and stakes that are attached to and surround Coltrane at that time and the recording of A Love Supreme. The liner notes are again instructive here. Coltrane remarks that at the time of his spiritual awakening, he asked God to provide him with the “means and privilege to make others happy through music,” an appeal that Coltrane believes God granted and a feeling that he believes his music now expresses. This request to “make others happy through music” is not individual but rather institutional, social instead of personal, transformative instead of reparative. It identified a deep desire for what Coltrane notes in his and Eric Dolphy’s well-known 1962 Down Beat interview as the “other side—the life side of music.”30 Coltrane’s iteration of the other side of things involves addressing life events of the present (e.g., sadness) and transforming them for a better future world (e.g., happiness). The transformative effect of music comes up again a year later in a 1963 French interview. As Coltrane explains, “I wish I could bring people something that looks like happiness. . . . If one of my friends were sick, I would play a certain tune and he would be healed; when he was broke, I would play another tune and he would immediately receive all the money he needed.”31 In highlighting health care (emotional and otherwise) and poverty as issues of the life side of music, Coltrane underscores the sociocultural and sociopolitical stakes of the other side of things, and the import of the music on A Love Supreme. As I show below, A Love Supreme, in particular “Acknowledgement” and “Psalm,” evoke Coltrane’s life side of music. It musically articulates the Black utopian longing or utopian ideal of Coltrane’s queer sonic eccentricity. The sound that emits from Coltrane’s saxophone, from Coltrane’s Baldwinian bend of the horn, announces and binds the personal and the political, the spiritual and the social, and Afro-diasporic and Indian aesthetic formations.
A Desi Love Supreme
“Acknowledgement,” the first movement of A Love Supreme, opens with John Coltrane on tenor saxophone playing an unmetered fanfare in E major, pianist McCoy Tyner supporting with a left-hand tremolo and right-hand group of triads, and drummer Elvin Jones striking a gong before moving to a cymbal roll. Once the fanfare subsides, bassist Jimmy Garrison starts to play a four-note ostinato, a repeated melodic/rhythmic phrasing, in F minor (with the first note being a pickup note). After four measures, Jones joins Garrison’s four-note cell groove with a full drum kit in tow. Jones keeps the 4/4 meter with the cymbal, but helps establish a somewhat offbeat groove with accents on the one and three on the tom-tom, and an eighth note rim shot before the two and four. Following another four measures of Garrison and Jones, Tyner reappears playing “chords built of superimposed fourths, using notes from within the pentatonic scale.”32 The trio plays together for eight measures before Coltrane begins his 149-measure solo. During Coltrane’s solo, Tyner maintains his quartal harmonies, Garrison drops the ostinato pattern to explore other melodic avenues, and Jones develops an Afro-Cuban rhythm while simultaneously retaining the rhythmic pulse of the vamp and keeping the quartet in a “loose interlocking groove.”33 Lewis Porter divides Coltrane’s solo into three parts: “First, he intensifies the rhythm. . . . Secondly, he utilizes the range of his instrument, building up to the altissimo register for climaxes. . . . Third, Coltrane transposes the motive outside the scale.”34 Picking up from this final part, Coltrane musically states the “rhythm and shape of the bass ostinato” on all twelve keys, and eventually ends the solo by joining Garrison for eight measures in the cell’s original key in F minor. As the solo concludes, Coltrane removes his saxophone from his mouth and begins to repeat, with his own overdubbed voice, the words “a love supreme” in unison with the bass ostinato. It appears that Coltrane is using the opening four-note riff on bass as a stringed reproduction of the vocal recitation—it alludes to both a harking back to and continuation of the bass-line riff. After twenty measures of repeating the vocal phrase in unison with Garrison, Coltrane exits the recording completely. Jones and Tyner soon follow suit, and Garrison closes the song alone. Garrison ends the performance with a bass line that “maintains the rhythmic pulse yet works toward a new melodic area” and that seamlessly flows into and anticipates the next song, “Resolution.”35
Taken as a whole, “Acknowledgement” alludes to certain music making tendencies in sub-Saharan Africa and the African diaspora. Perhaps most explicitly, and it is an aspect of the composition that I will expound on later, Jimmy Garrison’s bass ostinato underscores the influence of African music on Coltrane and the quartet in particular and Afro-diasporic genres like jazz in general. Olly Wilson famously explains that cyclical patterns in sub-Saharan Africa can produce spiritual effects, and that their central role within musical performances sustain a composition through its repetition as well as invite “communal activity.”36 We witness this call to collectivity as the motif starts in near silence, and then, one by one, Jones, Tyner, and Coltrane join the performance. As the open-ended organizing rubric of the composition, the ostinato sets up an interlocking collective engagement between Coltrane, Tyner, and Jones (and even Garrison) that create space for each artist’s playing, but it does so while still remaining in dialogue with one another, what Wilson refers to as the “heterogenous sound ideal.”37 Ashley Kahn supports this point as he argues that while Tyner and Garrison imply a 4/4 rhythm with the bass-line and left-hand comps, Jones is “playing double-time, even triple-time patterns on the cymbals; fills on the snare rim and tom-toms simultaneously define a 6/8 meter with a slight Latin lilt.”38 Jones’s Afro-Latin playing alone does not produce a polyrhythmic effect, but his interactions with Tyner and Garrison create a tense and intricate cross-rhythm that push and pull the listener, and accent and inform Coltrane’s soloing.
And yet, just as Coltrane alludes to African and Afro-diasporic rhythms on “Acknowledgment,” he also signals Indian spiritual and musical traditions. In particular, Coltrane’s use of the ostinato figure gestures toward a musical overlap between North Indian classical and sub-Saharan African musical practices. Near the end of the piece, Coltrane reveals that the four-note cell anchoring “Acknowledgement” is a bass-line rendition of the phrase “a love supreme”: Coltrane repeatedly sings in the same intonation as the bass line. Yet, the verb “sing” fails to accurately capture the meaning and power of Coltrane’s vocal display. In a 1965 interview with Michiel de Ruyter about A Love Supreme, Coltrane remarks, “I had one part that I was singing on—not singing, chanting.”39 I want to sit with Coltrane’s self-correction here. His reversal, his replacement of “singing” with “chanting,” reorients our analyses of and listening to the phrasing of “a love supreme.” It shifts our attention away from dominant understandings that treat the vocalized phrase on “Acknowledgement” as a simple recitation, and moves it more toward an approximation of what I believe qualifies as a Vedic chant. The Vedas are a collection of scriptures in Hinduism that contain, among other items, hymns and devotional poetry. I am not suggesting that Coltrane’s use of the word “chant” to describe his vocal approach on “Acknowledgement” as solely signifying a connection to Indian spirituality and music; the fact that chants are used in many spiritual traditions, including those in sub-Saharan Africa, speaks to the multiple and collective spiritual frameworks with which Coltrane engages. Instead, I want to point out the ways in which Coltrane’s chant taps into various thematic structures organizing Vedic chants. Vedic chanting is a syllabic recitation that engenders a harmonically limited vocal style and creates a rhythmic pulse in a performance.40 Coltrane’s chant performance of “a love supreme” dovetails with the structure of Vedic chants. The phrase comprises four syllables based on an equal four-note ostinato that harmonically suspends while also rhythmically animating “Acknowledgment.”
Cultural studies scholar Moustafa Bayoumi uses Islam to further theorize the spiritual and South Asian connections to the “a love supreme” chant. Bayoumi compares the “a love supreme” chant to a Sufi dhikr, a devotional recitation, and notes that the chant sounds similar to and possibly slips into a rhythmic phrasing of “Allah supreme.”41 While there isn’t any archival or oral history evidence to substantiate Bayoumi’s claim, the microphone levels on Coltrane’s voice, in addition to Coltrane’s vocal overdubs, make it difficult for listeners to clearly discern Coltrane’s enunciation of “a love supreme.” The mixing of “Acknowledgment” opens up differing perceptions of the chant, like Bayoumi hearing “Allah supreme,” and thus allow for a layered understanding of the chant that gestures toward multiplicity and collectivity. Bayoumi’s alternative listening practice marks the elasticity of the chant, its ability to speak to and connect listeners from spiritual beliefs that include and sit outside of Christian-derived or Christian-centered notions of a Higher Power. In so doing, Bayoumi’s reading complicates Lewis Porter and Scott Saul’s approaches to Coltrane’s saxophone and vocal sounding of the chant, which interpret Coltrane’s twelve key transpositions of the four-note cell figure as signaling God’s omnipresence—“telling us that God is everywhere”—and omnibenevolence—God “can bless even the most dissonant notes with the ability to sound as though they have their place”—respectively.42 And so, I read the importance of Bayoumi’s hearing of “Allah supreme” as (re)orienting the focus to a community-based approach that pushes us to consider the chant, and by extension “Acknowledgment,” as centering and creating relationality, resonance, and forms of kinship. Its open-ended framework refuses the singular and personal to allow for the multiple and the social.43
On this point of the chant’s performance of relationality and resonance, it’s important to note that Bayoumi contextualizes his Islamic reading of the chant within the history of African American interests in and conversions to “Ahmadi-type Islam.”44 The Ahmadiyya movement began in India during the late nineteenth century, but eventually spread to the United States during the early to mid-twentieth century with the help of one of its more prominent followers, Mufti Muhammad Sadiq, who spoke to and converted many African American men and women, including two of Coltrane’s closest friends and interlocutors, his mentor Yusef Lateef and his sideman McCoy Tyner (both of whom are credited with getting Coltrane more deeply interested in Indian music and spirituality).45 For Bayoumi, African Americans gravitated toward the Ahmadiyya movement partly out of a shared experience of institutional oppression via the British Raj and U.S. nation-state, respectively. Ahmadi Islam offered African Americans a minoritarian structure of belonging forged out of the political, social, cultural, psychic, and affective weight of colonization that could help them navigate the strictures of U.S. forms of white supremacy as well as create and imagine Afro–South Asian cross-cultural and transnational bonds. Through Islam within the Ahmadiyya community, Bayoumi argues, “African Americans could metaphorically travel beyond the confines of national identities. They could become ‘Asiatics’ and remain Black, could be proud of their African heritage and feel a sense of belonging to and participation with Asia.”46 In other words, for African American converts, Ahmadi-type Islam animates a coalitional ideal that refuses a masking of difference in order to proffer an Afro–South Asian collective. As such, in framing “Acknowledgment” and the “a love supreme” chant within the Ahmadiyya movement, Bayoumi lays the groundwork for us to consider the political import of the recording. The slippage between “a love supreme” and “Allah supreme,” then, is one that indexes the Afro–South Asian history of Ahmadi Islam in the United States as well as sonically expresses the future Black utopic possibilities of such coalitional formations. What “Acknowledgement” does, then, through linking Afro-diasporic and Indian spiritual traditions, musical structures, and political histories, is introduce listeners to a world of A Love Supreme, an imaginative space where the spiritual and the political, and the Afro-diasporic and the Indian, necessarily co-articulate and intertwine. It is an entanglement that exists throughout the entire album, but is especially apparent in “Psalm,” the final movement of the A Love Supreme suite.
A Love Psalm
“Psalm,” the final movement of A Love Supreme, structurally seems to be somewhat of an outlier on the album. Tony Whyton notes that “Psalm” is dramatically different from the opening three movements, which “feed off active nouns, in that they relate to verb forms (‘Acknowledgement,’ ‘Resolution,’ ‘Pursuance’), and are multilayered in meaning and also suggestive of forms of religious observance.” Whyton continues that “Psalm” also lacks the “blues, Afro-Cuban, and swing feel of earlier sections.”47 But I want to argue here that “Psalm” isn’t exactly an outlier, especially when compared to “Acknowledgement.” I believe that there exists commonalities between “Psalm” and “Acknowledgement,” and that their overlaps further the constellation of spiritual, political, and Afro–South Asian utopic imaginations that I refer to as the other side of things.
“Psalm” shares the unmetered opening of “Acknowledgement,” with Tyner again playing triads and tremolos, Jones on the timpani, and Coltrane playing a transposed four-note bass line from “Acknowledgement.” The act of transposing and gesturing back to the ostinato in the first section of A Love Supreme functions to mark “Psalm” as a continuation of “Acknowledgment.” And yet, what appears to be simply the introduction of “Psalm” is actually the structure of the entire recording. “Psalm,” as a recording, is a seven-minute, harmonically static, and unmetered improvisation. For the majority of the song, Coltrane solos at various tempos over Tyner’s left-handed drone in C minor (and right-hand quartal harmonies), Jones’s vacillations between timpani rolls and cymbal clashes, and Garrison’s barely audible walking bass. Near the end of the solo, Coltrane quickly reaches intense altissimo registers, but soon descends into a slow-paced middle-register melodic wander. Coltrane concludes his solo with a tenor saxophone overdub, an “upper-register vibrato mix with his own low-end phrasing,” (similar to the overdub in “Acknowledgment”) and a recapitulation of the opening saxophone fanfare in E major from “Acknowledgement” (again, the conflation of the beginning and the end, but this time in terms of the sections of the suite). Following Coltrane’s exit, “Psalm” closes with “Garrison’s bow bouncing on the bass strings,” Jones delicately hitting the cymbal, and Tyner quietly replaying the ostinato theme of “Acknowledgement.”
The lack of structure for “Psalm” is directly tied to a poem in the liner notes of A Love Supreme. Coltrane alludes to this relationship between the poem and “Psalm” in the notes’ track outline: “The fourth and last part is a musical narration of the theme, ‘A Love Supreme,’ which is written in the context; it is entitled ‘PSALM.’”48 The “A Love Supreme” that Coltrane references here is the title of a poem that Coltrane wrote exclusively for, and features in, the album’s liner notes. In “A Love Supreme” (the poem) Coltrane uses phrases like “God is. God Loves” and “ELATION—ELEGANCE—EXALTATION—All from God” to articulate his unyielding devotion, love, and gratitude to a Higher Power. In a compelling study, Lewis Porter argues that “a comparison of the poem with Coltrane’s improvisation reveals that his saxophone solo is a wordless ‘recitation,’ if you will, of the words of the poem, beginning with the title, ‘A Love Supreme.’”49 Coltrane not only narrates the phrases of the poem via his saxophone, but also each syllable. He also provides various accents to certain words that produce an emotional effect on the recording and for its listeners. Put simply, and in the words of former Coltrane sideman Reggie Workman, “Psalm is a psalm”; it is a poetic song of praise.50
Using Coltrane’s religious upbringing in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the rubato—ascending/descending play style—and solitary feel of “Psalm” (the entire track is an improvisation), Porter and Saul argue that Coltrane’s playing mirrors the vocal performance of an African American male pastor preaching a sermon.51 Coltrane’s ascending phrases that build to intensity and descending phrases that effect an added stillness (remember, the improvisation is held harmonically together by Tyner’s left-hand drone in C minor) mimic similar male-centered oratory devices within dominant African American Christian churches. Moreover, Kahn and Porter contend that Coltrane uses the phrase “Thank you, God,” which appears several times in the poem, in an increasingly punctuated way that suggests a Black preacher’s emphatic “Oh, Lord” expression.52
These comparisons of Coltrane’s playing on “Psalm” to African American male ministers’ sermon deliveries seemingly ring true. In 1964, Coltrane released a song titled “Alabama,” which is based on a 1963 Martin Luther King Jr. speech, and marks the only other known example (previous, of course, to the recording of “Psalm”) of Coltrane employing the wordless recitation musical device.53 King’s speech was a eulogy at the funeral for three of the four young African American girls (Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, and Addie Mae Collins) killed in the anti-Black bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.54 According to McCoy Tyner, Coltrane was familiar with the bombing, read a transcript of the eulogy in a local newspaper, and “took the rhythmic patterns of his [King’s] speech and came up with ‘Alabama.’”55
“Alabama” shares many similarities with “Psalm.” “Alabama” is predominantly an unmetered and harmonically static improvisation. There is a middle section where the performance moves into a more metered nature—there’s a 4/4 swing—but the composition quickly moves back to its unmetered opening. During this unmetered opening and closing, Jones alternates between timpani rolls and cymbal clashes, Tyner vacillates between a low-register tremolo and a left-hand drone, and Garrison quietly plays around the tonal center. Coltrane in “Alabama,” like his playing in “Psalm,” plays an array of ascending and descending notes, with short and long phrases that seemingly mimic human speech. Lastly, the final piece of evidence that seems to suggest the connection between “Psalm” and “Alabama,” and by extension Coltrane’s approximation of an African American Christian minister, is that “Alabama” appears in Coltrane’s preliminary notes for A Love Supreme. In 2005, Guernsey’s Auctions in New York auctioned a few of Coltrane’s personal and professional items. The outline for A Love Supreme was among the auction materials, and in it, Coltrane notes that he wants the last chord of “Acknowledgement,” the suite’s first movement, to “sound like the final chord of Alabama.”56 This note is important because if, as I am arguing, the cyclical—via Indian and African musical structures—opens up and frames new possibilities of imagining A Love Supreme and its embrace of multiplicity, and if “Acknowledgement” and “Psalm” are connected through their mutually constitutive allusions to each other, then the fact that Coltrane ends “Acknowledgement” with the final chord of “Alabama” suggests that “Psalm” is a new iteration of “Alabama.” Put another way, Coltrane creates a sonically transitive and triangulated framework and experience that draws a cyclical and mutually constitutive relationship between “Alabama” and “Psalm,” through “Acknowledgement.” As such, “Psalm” and “Alabama,” through its narration of King’s eulogy, carry traces of African American Christian spiritualism and Black political ideological narratives—“Psalm” is tied to Black spirituality, but because of its link to “Alabama,” it also shares a similar tone of political urgency. “Psalm,” then, as an ultimate exaltation of spirituality, gestures toward spirituality as the path leading to and a necessary site of Black liberation.
And yet, this use of Black male preachers’ oratory devices as a way to analyze “Psalm” is complicated by “Psalm” being a poem rather than a sermon/eulogy (vis-à-vis Martin Luther King Jr.). “Psalm,” as a poem that is translated into and performed as a song, indexes the long history of the relationship between the literary and the musical in Black politics and culture.57 I want to consider this relationship between music and literature in light of Coltrane’s nickname as the “James Baldwin of horn sound.” Although Baldwin is, of course, known more for his prose, he did write poetry, especially poetry that held a musical bent. It’s where, according to Nikky Finney, Baldwin saw himself as “more poet than anything else.”58 Regardless of Baldwin’s identification as a poet, I am more drawn to what Fred Moten sees as part of the power of Baldwin’s writing within the Black radical tradition. For Moten, the political meaning of Baldwin’s connection to Black music and sound lies in how “the nonexclusion of sound, the nonreduction of nonmeaning, is tied to another understanding of literary resistance, one that moves within and without the black tradition, activating the sound in a way that opens the possibility of a nonexclusion of sexual difference whose exclusion has otherwise marked that tradition and that has been an inescapable part of that tradition’s own scopophilia. His writing is pierced with screams and songs and prayers and cries and groans, their materiality, their maternity, and that’s important.”59 Coltrane’s play with higher and lower registers on “Psalm,” his performance of Black minister–punctuated cadence, seems to mirror the characteristics that Moten describes concerning Baldwin’s writing. It makes room for Black queerness within Coltrane’s performance. Indeed, how might Coltrane’s overlap with Baldwin, through Coltrane’s musical narration of a poem, produce a Black queerness that is rendered illegible and ineligible from the scene of the pulpit? That is to say, if the pulpit (but not the church) has been a site of Black queer antagonism, then Coltrane’s Baldwinian refusal to disentangle the literary from the musical on “Psalm” (via poetry) coupled with a mimicking of Black male preacher performance operates as a disidentifcatory practice (in José Muñoz’s framing of the term) that opens up “Psalm” to Black queerness, an “otherwise possibility” in the words of Ashon Crawley.60 Coltrane’s blending of poetry, music, and Black male Christian oration disarticulates “Psalm” from being solely tied to the potential queerphobia of Black male preacher performances. It instead positions and proffers “Psalm” as an alternative space, one that can account for Black queerness as well as other social formations, sonic modalities, and political possibilities.
And it’s this opening up to other possibilities that also connects “Psalm” to Indian music and spirituality. “Psalm” mirrors the alap portion of a Hindustani raga performance. An alap is the opening unmetered and harmonically static section of a raga. The featured improviser abstractly develops the various features of a raga (its mood, scale type, etc.), and primarily utilizes a drone as the tonal center from which to explore the melodic phrases and high and low registers of a particular raga.61 Thus, these rhythmic/metric and melodic characteristics of an alap converge with the structural markers of “Psalm.” Moreover, the resonances between the two also reside within the way they produce the feel of a solo performance. While a tamboura and tabla player might perform alongside a sitarist or sarodist, the alap section is meant to highlight the sitar/sarod. Likewise, as stated above, despite the contributions from the rest of the quartet, “Psalm” feels isolating. Ashley Kahn describes Coltrane’s performance on “Psalm” as a “one-to-one conversation.”62 His use of the term “conversation” to depict “Psalm” is especially fascinating, as it points to another North Indian overlap with “Psalm”: alap literally translates into English as “conversation.”63 These convergences inform and illustrate the kinds of collectivities that this chapter aims to explicate and that Coltrane’s music assembles.
Indeed, the place of the drone in an alap is central to “Psalm” as well as Coltrane’s 1957 spiritual awakening that engendered A Love Supreme. In an interview with Coltrane biographer Cuthbert Simpkins, Coltrane’s first wife, Naima Grubbs, recounts a night in 1957 where Coltrane had a musical vision. Coltrane excitedly informed Grubbs that “I had a dream. . . . It was this beautiful droning sound, it was so beautiful.”64 Unable to describe to Naima the sound of this presumed powerful and inspiring drone, Coltrane attempted to re-create it on the piano. I emphasize the fact that Coltrane reproduced the drone on the piano as a way to signal its relation to Tyner’s droning on “Psalm.” And as such, I want to proffer a much larger claim that McCoy Tyner’s drone in “Psalm” was an allusion to the drone in Coltrane’s 1957 musical (and, quite frankly, spiritual) revelation. This is to say, the drone in “Psalm” indexes the 1957 dream and enacts a spiritual belief system that does not reside within one religious tradition. Instead, the spiritual awakening points to a belief in a Higher Power that allows for an abstract exploration of and connection to spirituality. Placing Hindustani music within the narrative of “Psalm” produces a collectivity joined through a continued, multiple, and communal relationship with and infinite adoration of a Higher Power, a true Love Supreme.
I do not highlight the place and influence of North Indian classical music and spirituality in “Psalm” as a way to disregard readings of the track as an exercise in African American spirituality and politics. Rather, my aim is to trouble either/or arguments that analyze songs like “Psalm” through only one framework (African American male gospel and politics, or Indian classical music and spirituality). I argue that these African American and Indian spiritual and musical allusions work in tandem. We cannot view “Psalm” as solely a reproduction of an Indian alap or exclusively as an African American male Christian preacher’s sermon. We must instead see them as mutually constitutive interests and formations (“Psalm” looks back to 1963 / “Alabama” and his 1957 dream), and we must think about the cultural and sociopolitical possibilities that arise out of these overlapping and coterminous relations. Taking such concomitant analyses seriously allows us to underscore the ways “Psalm” dovetails with and expands on the place of, for example, Gandhian principles of nonviolence in King’s spiritually informed political ideology during the early to mid-1960s. It aligns with the well-known influence of Gandhi’s tenets of nonviolent activism on King and the larger nonviolent civil rights struggle in the United States. “Psalm” expounds on this commonly known history by complicating how, as Ingrid Monson explains, African American newspapers and activists underscored the resonances between Gandhi’s teachings and biblical scriptures concerning passive resistance, and consequently positioned Gandhi within the Christian terrain and even, at times, compared him to Jesus Christ, thereby detaching him from Hinduism.65 Recasting such a reading, “Psalm” highlights the overlap between African American and Indian spiritual and political engagements without making one cultural formation the center from which the other emanates. “Psalm” musically articulates collectivity through difference—jazz with a difference.
Placing “Psalm” in conversation with “Acknowledgment,” a performance that, because of the cyclicality of A Love Supreme, always already informs and shapes “Psalm,” opens up a way for us to broaden the parameters of the attachment of “Psalm” to African American and Indian musical, spiritual, and political overlaps. As “Acknowledgement” centers on the phrase “a love supreme,” which is the name of the poem that “Psalm” narrates, it reorients the focus of “Psalm” on African American / Indian relations to include Afro-Latinidad (via Tyner’s Afro-Latin rhythm), sub-Saharan Africa (via the composition’s allusion to Olly Wilson’s principles of African and Afro-diasporic music making), the transnational and political meanings of Ahmadiyya Islam, and Black queerness (via the entanglement of the literary and the musical). In so doing, A Love Supreme gestures toward an Afro–South Asian utopic space. This is a utopic political future that cultivates connections without eschewing differences between regions, ethnoracial backgrounds, spiritualities, and sexualities. It is a way of thinking about the interlocking systems of Black freedom and third world liberation; black religiosity and transnational spirituality; African and Afro-diasporic music and Indian music; and Black queer futures. It critiques (without transcending) national, ethnoracial, spiritual, and sexual borders. It enacts political possibilities and structures of belonging that demand and critically engage the promise of difference. It imagines and announces the other side of things.
Love on the Life Side of Things
In his 1962 article “Letter from a Region in my Mind,” which would later form half of his classic The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin writes, “Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word ‘love’ here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace—not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.”66 If Baldwin sees love as that which resists the personal and the limits of the nation-state to pursue something more transformative, then this chapter has attempted to theorize the kind of love that John Coltrane, as the “James Baldwin of horn sound,” imagines with A Love Supreme. For Coltrane, this is a love that informs and is informed by his pursuit of the life side of things. It is a love that sets the groundwork for a Black queer utopian musical vision that is personal and political, spiritual and social, Afro-diasporic and South Asian; and thus, that challenges previous dominant framings of Coltrane that treat such formations as disparate. It is a love that engenders new possibilities of music making and world making. A love that is never satisfied with the present but constantly looks toward and beyond the future—and hence the power of modal jazz in general, and its working in A Love Supreme in particular, in allowing Coltrane to endlessly improvise. It is a love that, much like Muñoz’s conception of queerness, is always on the horizon.67 This is perhaps why Coltrane’s later albums are titled Ascension, Sun Ship, Cosmic Music, Stellar Regions, and Interstellar Space—he was searching for a love whose social and political transformative reach knew no bounds. And it’s Coltrane’s tireless transgression of boundaries that potentially marks his work as queer, or at least queer in relation to Baldwin. His collaborative work with his wife, Alice Coltrane, his enlisting of her to work as his pianist in his band, broke gendered norms within jazz, a legacy that Alice Coltrane continued after her husband’s death.68 For both Alice and John Coltrane, the love they practiced and played, the love that we hear on A Love Supreme, is a love that is multiple and collective. It is a love that engaged Afro–South Asian music in such a way that it became a cultural site of political struggles and possibilities. And it was a political struggle that Coltrane’s friend and mentor Miles Davis would continue seven years later.