Go Deeper John Szwed: Notes on John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme

John Szwed: Notes on John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme

Posted September 19th, 2017

This is a guest post written by anthropologist, writer, and jazz scholar John Szwed. He has taught Anthropology, African American Studies, and Film Studies at Yale University as well as Music and Jazz Studies at Columbia University where he served as Director of the Center for Jazz Studies. He has published many books on jazz and American music, including studies of Sun Ra, Miles Davis, Jelly Roll Morton, Alan Lomax and Billie Holiday. On Sept 23, he will interview Salva Sanchis, co-choreographer of A Love Supreme, at the FringeArts Bookstore.

On December 9, 1964, the members of the John Coltrane Quartet crossed the river from New York to Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. It was night, because producer Bob Thiele preferred to work after the ABC-Paramount executives had left for the day; he could then avoid having to explain what he was doing. The quartet arrived at 7 o’clock and left before midnight, completing the entire recording of A Love Supreme with few retakes or edits, something quite extraordinary for a piece that long and complex, and without rehearsal.

Manuscript of A Love Supreme, by John Coltrane, 1964. Photo by The National Museum of American History.

More remarkably, there was no written music prepared for the session, only a chart that Coltrane had made to remind him of the structure. The musicians followed his directions, most of which were not spoken, but came from what they heard him playing. They were collectively composing by improvising together, creating a 33-minute art work, risking everything as the tape continued to roll. Musicians have improvised collectively since the beginning of jazz, but never for such a sustained period with no given harmonic structure and no agreed-upon melodies or rhythm. Bob Thiele was there, but unlike other producers he sat back and listened. His trust in Coltrane was such that he gave John control over what he recorded and when, an arrangement that no one in the music business short of a Frank Sinatra might have had. Thiele did not always understand John’s music, because it changed so rapidly and radically. Still, his belief was so strong that he defended anything Coltrane recorded to the company, both financially and musically. But A Love Supreme would not need defending.

While he was still living in Philadelphia and becoming a member of the Miles Davis Quintet, John Coltrane was controversial. To some his playing was meandering, boring, and harsh, even described as anti-jazz. Once, when French CBS received the master tapes for a Miles Davis Quintet recording, they complained to Columbia Records in the US that there was electronic distortion during Coltrane’s solos. But to others, he was a revolutionary—an intense, yet disciplined master, whose music carried the message of struggle and resistance, and was theme music to the Civil Rights Movement. But Coltrane saw a spiritual dimension to what he was doing, a means to peace. When Impulse Records placed ads in Rolling Stone calling it “fire music,” grouping him with the protests of some other black free jazz musicians, he distanced himself from such claims.

In 1957 Coltrane experienced a spiritual awakening of such force that he ended his addictions, reset his life, and with this recording he sought to signal his conversion musically, to testify to his encounters with God. When A Love Supreme appeared in February of 1965 his harshest critics were silenced, and for the first time he received virtually universal praise (though a few were put off by the confessional spirituality of his poem included in the album’s notes; it was too much for high modernists and hipsters). The album cover was black and white, a stark departure from all other Impulse records that were trimmed in orange and black.

There are four parts to the 33-minute long A Love Supreme: “Acknowledgement,” “Resolution,” “Pursuance,” and “Psalm.”  The first and last are especially interesting for what they contain. “Acknowledgement” (“to recognize the truth; a confession that leads to a change in oneself”) reveals much of what is to come later. You can hear a brief reference to “My Favorite Things” in the shape of the opening saxophone fanfare, a tune he had recorded a few years before and had become something of a hit for him.  Some hear this as the opening call or chanted prayer of a deacon at a black church. Two small musical themes follow in this first section and then reappear throughout the whole work as Coltrane draws on them to create a symphony-like structure: the first is four notes from the string bass that later are heard when Coltrane plays these same notes in 12 different keys, perhaps as a statement of restless universalism. He then vocally chants them as the words “a love supreme.” The second small musical theme is a 3-note sequence, like ba-dwee-dah, or 5-2-1 of the chord. In the last section, “Psalms,” Coltrane‘s tenor saxophone “reads” the words of his poem, translates them from words into instrumental sounds, “quoting” from the poem. As Amiri Baraka would say, the most common feature of jazz is the speech-inflected quality of instrumental solos.

In 1965, a year in which the hits were “Wooly Bully,” “Help!,” “My Girl,” and “Help Me, Rhonda,” A Love Supreme seemed out of place and time.  Jazz had its share of recordings of spiritual and religious materials by Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Sun Ra, but it was a very small share. It was even more puzzling that in a time of such musical ferment and experimentation Coltrane’s recording was beaten out of a jazz Grammy by another sacred work, Lalo Schifrin’s composition Jazz Suite on the Mass Texts, a very different and now forgotten piece written for another saxophonist, Paul Horn.

Too long for radio play, and not easily categorized in jazz terms, A Love Supreme touched many people, some because of what they heard as an authentic autobiographical statement; some because it fit into the fascination with somebody-else’s-spiritual-search of the Sixties, and for others perhaps because they were relieved to hear Coltrane’s seeming maturity, his backing away from what they thought of as his musical excesses. The latter group would soon be disabused, as a few months later Coltrane would record Ascension, one of the most challenging and incendiary works ever to be heard in jazz.

Whatever its appeal, A Love Supreme was one record that might be found both in African American neighborhoods and college campuses, where students could sometimes be heard singing the title on the way to classes. Jazz records, unlike pop music, sell more slowly, and A Love Supreme has since sold several million copies.

This music is now 52 years old, but Carlos Santana and John McLaughlin have recorded this piece, as have Branford and Wynton Marsalis; there are allusions to it in U2’s “Angel of Harlem,” in the work of Joni Mitchell, Gil Scott-Heron, and John Coltrane’s great-nephew, Flying Lotus. And what other music could have inspired the founding of a church? In 1968 Coltrane was canonized by the Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church of San Francisco whose mission is to “paint the globe with the message of A Love Supreme.”

—John Szwed


Artist Talks: Salva Sanchis, Interviewed by John Szwed

Sept 23 at 4pm

United by Blue
144 N. 2nd Street



| | | | | | | | | | | | |

A Love Supreme
Salva Sanchis & Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker / Rosas

Sept 22 + 23 at 8pm
Sept 24 at 2pm

140 North Columbus Boulevard (at Race)
Wheelchair accessible

$35 (general)
$24.50 (member)
$15 (student + 25-and-under)