Thursday, July 26, 2007

Saint Coltrane

In San Francisco, there is a church that has dedicated itself to promoting the spiritual teachings of jazz master John Coltrane: St. John Coltrane Church. Their Sunday worship service culminates in a long jam session. I remember seeing a documentary some years ago about this church, and was impressed. The whole time I lived in the Bay Area, though, I never did get there; I'll remedy that on a future visit back to San Francisco.

Do you think it odd to call a musical master a saint? I don't. In A Love Supreme, Coltrane speaks of the unity and necessity of God. Near the end of his life, I remember reading years ago in a biography of Trane, he was asked what he wanted to do next. He replied, I want to become a saint. That's a good ambition for any artist.

Don't get it wrong: Trane wasn't speaking from ego or spiritual ambition; he was speaking from humility, and the desire to transcend ego. His late musical works, including A Love Supreme and Ascension, among others, all speak of that yearning, and that straining towards the Divine. This is what artists who are also mystics do: strain towards Union.

Yes, I think the music is rising, in my estimation, it's rising into something else, and so will have to find this kind of place to be played in. —John Coltrane

One of the interesting points of this is that the Church regards the post-1957 Coltrane as the Risen Trane: post-drug addiction, cleaned up, starting afresh, and beginning to openly seek spiritual experiences through music. (This music from the last part of Trane's life is much of my favorite of his recordings, too.) It was a path of spiritual awakening. He talked about it openly, and statements about it appear in the liner notes to his recordings, in interviews, and in the spoken and sung words on some of the recordings themselves.

What's interesting about the post-addiction, spiritually awakened Trane is that his experience so closely follows the patterns familiar from myths and stories of shamanism, psychology, and the literature on entheogens, which traditionally are defined as natural plants with psychoactive properties used in sacred ceremonial contexts by indigenous peoples throughout history.

My own feeling on entheogens is that they're wholly unnecessary: nothing is more available, and nothing is more of a fundamental human birthright, than unmediated transcendant experience. The argument is often made for the use of entheogens, as mind-altering drugs, that they help the sings of the soul take flight, by opening the doors of perception.

If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is: Infinite. —William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Maybe so. But if so, then entheogens are only meant to open those doors, and after that, you don't need to use them any more, any more than you need to use the training wheels on a bicycle after you've learned to ride. I don't promote the use of entheogens; rather, as I said, I think they're unnecessary. Shamanic practice in many cultures has definitively shown that ecstatic states are attainable without any chemical means, through meditation, trance practices, dance, and music.

So, even in those ceremonial contexts in which entheogens are used, the ultimate goal is to transcend their eusage and access those ecstatic states directly. The psychedelic breakthrough can happen, but then we're intended to move on. Continuing use entheogens after this stage, especially outside of indigenous ceremonial contexts, constitutes nothing other than recreational use, addiction, abuse, and ultimately, misuse of the entheogen itself. I can see no good reason for such recreational usages of sacred plants.

I think the majority of musicians are interested in truth. —John Coltrane

Ecstatic states are obtainable purely through the practice of music.

Coltrane's late works are all about this, and, I believe, prove the point.

Ascension is one of the most ecstatic pieces of music ever recorded. It's a tremendously powerful and uplifting recording. It is often misunderstood by more traditiona-bound jazz players and critics, though. I only came to understand the piece, structurally, after studying African-American sacred music traditions intensively. Ascension's structure is based, I believe, on call-and-response choral singing as in church revival meetings, and in African traditional religions, which were the ancestral musical sources of tent-revival meetings and similar spirit-driven pentecostal practices in the USA since the African slaves were brought here. Ascension contains single phrases of song that are echoed by each of the lead instruments, heterophonically rather than harmonically, in call-and-response simultaneity. This gives us several lead instruments playing the same theme at the same time, but not in unison; slightly out of synchronization, slightly out of form with each other. Several times during the course of the music, such phrases emerge, usually indicating changes in the music, often the mext soloist's section to jam, and the beginnings and endings of long sections. In African music, a lead instrument often gives audible cues within the music. This is a completely internal way of directing the music, and completely different from the way cues are traditionally given in classical European music, where such cues are given by the leader, but are not typically audible cues. (This is why the role of the conductor was solidified, as the orchestra grew larger in size during the nineteenth century.)

This understanding came to me from ethnomusicological and folklore studies. I never got it from music school. This might account for why some jazz musicians, who still don't get it, think that Ascension sounds like an orchestra tuning up. Well, it does: but the same way that a gospel choir in the throes of passion can cross that line into speaking in tongues. And it sounds even more like a group of spiritual seekers all traveling together on the same pilgrimage towards Union.

There is never any end. There are always new sounds to imagine; new feelings to get at. And always, there is the need to keep purifying these feelings and sounds so that we can really see what we've discovered in its pure state. So that we can see more and more clearly what we are. In that way, we can give to those who listen the essence, the best of what we are. But to do that at each stage, we have to keep on cleaning the mirror. —John Coltrane

Creativity is a spiritual practice, even a religious one. Mystics such as Meister Eckhart say that when we create, we are participating in the Creation, both the original Creation, and its continuous, ongoing process of growth and change. Music is one of the most authentic forms of worship, I believe.

My goal is to live the truly religious life, and express it in my music. 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. —John Coltrane

Labels: , , ,


Anonymous Elisa said...

Thanks for this post. I've been thinking about A Love Supreme lately, and you managed to articulate what I couldn't. I've written about and linked to this on my own blog.

And, I love reading all of your work, so thank you for that as well!

5:07 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Hi and thanks!

I appreciate both the thoughts, and the link.

Best wishes—

12:38 AM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home