Alice Coltrane; Musician, Spiritual Guru

Ravi Oran And Alice Contrane

Alice Coltrane; Musician, Spiritual Guru
By Teresa Wiltz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 15, 2007; Page B06

Alice Coltrane, 69, a jazz pianist-harpist-composer who was the widow of saxophonist John Coltrane and retired from the world of secular music to become a spiritual leader and guru in the Vedantic philosophic tradition, has died.

Mrs. Coltrane, who died Jan. 12 at West Hills Hospital in Los Angeles of respiratory failure, was a child prodigy from a working-class Detroit family.

Born Alice McCleod in 1937, she grew up steeped in the rigors of classical music, playing in church choirs, music halls, funerals, weddings, wherever and whenever she could. “Music,” she told The Washington Post in October, “was just in my heart, somehow.”

In time, her older half brother, Ernie Farrow, a respected bassist, introduced her to bebop. She was immediately entranced. As a teenager, she gigged with saxophonists Cannonball Adderley and Sonny Stitt.

After studying briefly in Paris with pianist Bud Powell, who melded jazz and classical sounds, Mrs. Coltrane moved to New York and joined a group led by jazz vibraphonist Terry Gibbs.

Few outside the jazz world knew her for the highly gifted musician and composer she was: An artist in her own right, she was admired for her rumbling arpeggios, for the deep vibrancy of her tone, for her dynamism as an improviser.

She joined John Coltrane’s quintet in 1966, replacing pianist McCoy Tyner, and together they explored the limits of avant-garde jazz, marinating in the mysticism of Eastern music, taking her far from her Baptist upbringing.

Theirs was a brief union but one that brought three children and altered her life’s trajectory. (Her eldest child, Michelle Coltrane, was the product of her first marriage, to jazz vocalist Kenny “Pancho” Hagood.)

Alice and John Coltrane met in 1962 at the Birdland in New York and quickly formed a fast partnership, two introverted souls who were fascinated with religion, architecture and languages. The couple wed in 1965 in Mexico and made a quiet life in Dix Hills, N.Y.

Her husband, 11 years her senior, introduced her to Eastern religion, meditation and philosophy and pushed her to take up the harp, at the time a rare addition to the jazz canon.

That instrument, along with her ecclesiastical explorations and experimentation with North African and Indian instrumentation, formed the musical basis of her solo albums in the late 1960s and early 1970s: “Journey in Satchidananda,” the staple of many a yoga class; “Ptah the El Daoud”; “World Galaxy”; and “Universal Consciousness.”

When John Coltrane died in 1967 of liver cancer at age 40, Mrs. Coltrane took a vow of celibacy and immersed herself further into spiritual life, traveling to India to study with spiritual masters such as her guru, Sri Swami Satchidananda, and the Indian sage Sri Satya Sai Baba.

Gold Old Image Of Sri Sathya Sai Baba

She continued her jazz career for a while, playing the piano, harp and Wurlitzer organ in studio sessions with Jimmy Garrison and Pharoah Sanders, with Rashied Ali and Archie Shepp, and collaborating with Carlos Santana, Laura Nyro, McCoy Tyner and Jack DeJohnette.

In 1978, she decided to commit herself full time to her religious pursuits, though she never abandoned her work managing John Coltrane’s estate. She also started the John Coltrane Foundation, which gives scholarships to young musicians.

She took on the Hindu name Turiyasangitananda and founded the Vedantic Center, paying a reported $1.3 million in 1983 for 50 acres of land nestled in the Santa Monica Mountains, about 40 miles from Los Angeles in Agoura Hills. There, she built the Sai Anantam Ashram, a communal living center where her followers could live and study. (Mrs. Coltrane settled with her family in nearby Woodland Hills.)

She never stopped making music, recording spiritual music with her ashram’s choir, melding Sanskrit chants with organs and drums and a distinct gospel fervor.

In 2004 she returned to her jazz roots, releasing her last album, the critically acclaimed “Translinear Light,” which included the gospel hymns of her Christian childhood, the Hindu hymns of her Vedantic-based beliefs and John Coltrane’s compositions.

At the time of her death, she was working on “Sacred Language of Ascension,” an album that incorporates Hebrew devotional chants, Vedic culture, Coltrane jazz and orchestral and congregational church music.

Last year, at the urging of her second-eldest son, Ravi, a saxophonist, she performed in four concerts across the country. She played with her sons, Ravi and Oran, as well as bassist Charlie Haden and members of her ashram’s choir.

Survivors include her children, Michelle, Ravi and Oran; and five grandchildren. Her eldest son, John Coltrane Jr., died in a car accident in 1982.


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