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The Canonization of Saint John Coltrane

THAT’S THE STORY of how a postwar 20th-century musician became a saint, but it still leaves the question: Why Coltrane? What is it about him that makes people dedicate their entire lives to his art? So many other musicians have made music with overtly Christian themes and been celebrated for it — Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Bono, Kanye West and Justin Bieber, to name just a few — though many of them (the men, anyway) also seemed to present themselves as self-consciously Christlike in doing so. (West, for instance, preached the dangers of pornography and premarital sex when publicizing his 2019 record “Jesus Is King.”) But what’s always struck me about Coltrane, and “A Love Supreme” in particular, is how welcoming he is in his approach to spirituality, how lacking in judgment. He seemed to know how good he was on a technical level — he certainly thought making people happy with his music was an achievable goal — but he also harbored no delusions of grandeur. Nearly every account that exists of him depicts a quiet and somewhat shy family man. He spent most of his free time practicing. He drove a Chrysler station wagon and lived on Long Island. It’s not that his music filtered out the banality of being human but that he had an uncanny ability to make his human flaws into something useful. The difference between Coltrane the man and Coltrane the performer was a nearly alchemical transfiguration.

It’s no coincidence that, more than any other figure in the history of American music, his admirers tend to experience his work the way others might undergo a religious epiphany. “I thought I was going to die from the emotion,” the musician Joe McPhee once told the critic Ben Ratliff of witnessing a 1965 Coltrane concert at the Village Gate in New York. The record producer George Avakian, as recounted in Davis’s autobiography, once said that Coltrane “seemed to grow taller in height and larger in size with each note that he played,” that he “seemed to be pushing each chord to its outer limits, out into space.” On our Zoom call, Stephens describes a similar experience when “Song of Praise,” a deep cut from the 1965 album “The John Coltrane Quartet Plays,” came on one day when she was vacuuming her living room. As she says, “John Coltrane spoke to me.”

There are enough stories like this to create an entire subgenre, but my personal favorite, and the one that best explains Coltrane’s lasting appeal, comes from the poet and playwright Amiri Baraka’s liner notes for the 1964 album “Live at Birdland,” a concert at the historic club just north of Times Square, sessions for which Baraka, then known as LeRoi Jones, was in attendance. In describing the extreme contrast of Coltrane’s transcendent, highly emotional music — “one of the reasons suicide seems so boring” — and its earthly setting, he writes, “Birdland is a place no man should wander into unarmed.

“After riding a subway through New York’s bowels,” he continues, “and that subway full of all the many things any man should expect to find in something’s bowels, and then coming up stairs to the street and walking slowly, head down, through the traffic and failure that does shape this place, and then entering ‘the Jazz Corner of the World,’ a temple erected in praise of what God (?), and then finally amidst that noise and glare to hear a man destroy all of it, completely, like Sodom, with just the first few notes from his horn, your ‘critical’ sense can be erased completely, and that experience can place you somewhere a long way off from anything ugly.”

Baraka admits that there are people who can’t hear what he calls the “daringly human quality” of Coltrane, as if the notes he played were on a wavelength that simply didn’t register for certain nonbelievers. Even the most beloved music, like all art forms, falls in and out of style. But Coltrane’s work has not only endured, it’s become ever more embraced, inspiring greater fervor the further removed we get from its original recording. The only other thing that compares is, curiously, religion itself. If you allow yourself to hear Coltrane — really hear him — his music, like God or Buddha or Dharma or Allah, can, as Baraka describes it, “make you think a lot of weird and wonderful things.”

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