Coltrane practiced all day, playing scales endlessly in his room, and then played live for hours, attaining a state of ecstasy. With his own quartet he played up to forty-five weeks a year, six nights a week, three to four sets a night, crossing the country in a Chrysler station wagon. He began studying diverse forms of music from across the globe—classical composers such as Stravinsky and Debussy, Indian ragas, African rhythms—and elements from these found their way into his own compositions.
After the birth of his son, Coltrane took a break from touring and meditated in his room for five days. There he wrote A Love Supreme, a suite broken into four movements that symbolized the path of achieving spiritual clarity: “Acknowledgement” (acknowledging the desire for enlightenment), “Resolution” (resolving to attain it), “Pursuance” (striving for it), and “Psalm” (attaining it).
On December 9, with his band (McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on double bass, and Elvin Jones on drums), he recorded the album in one session, from 8:00 p.m. till midnight, in engineer Rudy Van Gelder’s New Jersey studio. The studio looked a bit like a church, with its thirty-nine-foot ceiling comprised of two huge wooden arches and exposed brick walls. The album’s majesty owes much to Gelder’s spatial balance of sound: the musicians played close to one another, the drummer not separated by a baffle, the lights set low for mood.
The band didn’t know what Coltrane planned for them to do, but they all had near-telepathic communication after years of playing together live. When the rare mistake was made, Coltrane would gently say, “Excuse me,” and they’d start again.
“Acknowledgement” opens with the benevolent crash of a gong and the gentle tap of cymbals, and then the bass kicks in with a four-note motif echoing the words “a love supreme.” Five minutes into the track, Coltrane picks up the motif and plays it thirty- seven times with his sax in all twelve keys, and then chants it vocally like a mantra, the first time his voice is heard on record.
For the final piece, “Psalm,” Jones’s tympani and cymbals evoke the grandeur of ocean waves crashing against mountains as Trane’s sax blows out across the cosmos. Coltrane “plays” the words of a sixty-nine-line poem he wrote (and includes in the liner notes), an exhortation to seek God every day and ask God to help “resolve our fears and weaknesses.” (Fan-made videos on YouTube play the music while highlighting the lines of the poem; Coltrane follows the words almost exactly.) He gives thanks and praises the wonders of the universe. “One thought can produce millions of vibrations,” he writes/sings. “Thought waves, heat waves . . . and they all go back to God . . . and He cleanses all.” The movement climaxes with “Elation. Elegance. Exaltation. All from God. Thank you God. Amen.”
As to what sort of God Coltrane believed in, on his liner notes for his album Meditations, he writes, “I believe in all religions.” Both his grandfathers were African Methodist Episcopal Zion ministers, and he studied the Bible. His first wife, Juanita, converted to Islam, and he studied the Koran. He also studied the Hindu Bhagavad Gita, the Buddhist Tibetan Book of Dead, Zen, the Kabbalah, Greek philosophy, and astrology.
Impulse! Records released the thirty-three-minute album in February and it became Coltrane’s most popular work. Usually his albums sold around thirty thousand copies, but this one would go on to sell half a million. Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead remembered that he would hear the album wafting out of windows constantly as he walked around Haight-Ashbury. Coltrane played A Love Supreme live only once, however, at the Festival Mondial du Jazz Antibes in France on July 26. His usual venue was nightclubs, where the audience was drunk and distracted—not the proper atmosphere forhis hymn of devotion.
Kahn, Ashley. A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album. London: Penguin, 2002.
Eric Westervelt, “The Story of ‘A Love Supreme,’” All Things Considered, NPR, March 7, 2012, http://www.npr.org/2000/10/23/148148986/a-love-supreme.
“The Making of ‘A Love Supreme,’” public radio program, Joyride Media, 2002.